More than 2,500 language groups still do not have a single verse of Scripture in their own language. The Balangao people were among the Bible-less until missionary Joanne Shetler and a co-worker went to the mountains of the northern Philippines in 1962 to conduct linguistic research, translate the Scriptures and do medical work for the Balangao tribe, known to be headhunters.
Casually opening an English New Testament to the first page and seeing the genealogy of Jesus, my Balangao “dad,” Ama, suddenly came alive: “You mean this book has a genealogy in it? This book is true, these things really happened?!”
Here in the Gospel of Matthew were the actual names from the beginning of the world–written down. “This proves it’s true!” Ama said. I’d shared the Gospel with Ama and the Balangaos almost daily for the five years I’d been with them, but it didn’t seem to be making an impression. Ama had merely endured me.
Headhunters by tradition, the Balangaos were isolated from the outside world by fear of the spirit world and by the mountains that surrounded their beautiful rice-terraced valley in the northern Philippines. A few were familiar with the local trade language, and their contact with the American GIs during World War II opened the door to Ama’s invitation for us to come and live among them. They wanted someone to come and write down their language. We wanted to translate God’s Word.
I longed for the Balangaos to embrace the translated Scriptures, but none did–until one day I asked Ama to use his new skills of reading Balangao to “correct” my translation of 1 John. As he read it, he was amazed. He said, “This is good. People would believe it if they could hear it!”
He gathered several other Balangaos to come and listen. “Here we are,” Ama said. “Teach us.” They began to learn, and some people even began coming from other villages to listen. Our Sunday meetings grew to 50 or 60 in my tiny house. As their hunger for the Word increased, it seemed that the spiritual battles increased as well.
But the people began to see that the spirit world did not have power over God. And less than a year after Ama’s initial intrigue with Matthew’s genealogy, streams of Balangaos came to ask us, “Who is this God who has more power than the spirits?”
The Balangaos began asking for the Scriptures faster than we could translate them! As they read, they began to understand more about the character of God. At first, they were afraid to talk to the Creator, but when we translated 1 Timothy, they read Paul’s words: “Men everywhere ought to pray. So they began praying at mealtimes. When they read that believers are to care for widows (1 Timothy 5:3-16), one of the men went to a widow’s wee rickety house, gathered her and her possessions–two cooking pots–and installed her as grandmother in his family. The widow, a spirit medium (similar to a witch doctor) who had trusted Christ, lived with the man’s family for 15 years until the Lord called her home.
The power of God’s Word became so strong to the Balangaos that they challenged my own spiritual growth with their obedience to newly translated portions of the Bible. A few days after I’d handed out a dozen or so typed copies of the drafted book of James to the teaching elders, an elder named Fanganan came running to me in a panic. His boys had been to the forest, where they had eaten poison berries, and they were dying. I stood there, paralyzed. I had assisted the tribe medically, but I had no idea what to do for poison! Fanganan’s frustration grew. “Can’t you at least come and pray? That’s what that James says you’re supposed to do!” he spouted. Of course this was true, but fear gripped me and what-ifs flooded my mind. Yet, I knew that if I was going to hand God’s Word to others, I would have to do what it says. Trembling, I followed him to his little house-on-stilts and climbed up the ladder to where his two little boys were writhing, looking near death. I prayed. I don’t know what I said, but when I looked up, they were well! I was amazed but Fanganan wasn’t. “That’s what that James said, isn’t it?” he asked.
“This Word of God is true!” I said. “God does exactly what He says He will do.”
In 1982, with the assistance of Balangao co-translators and other colleagues, the Balangao translation of the New Testament was completed–20 years after we first arrived.
Today, God’s Word is still speaking to Balangaos. And the fullness of God’s Word continues to prevail as a team of Balangaos and I work to translate the Old Testament into their language. Doming, my Balangao brother, tells us, “Having the New Testament without the Old is like having a sword without a handle.”
Today, churches exist in every village in the Balangao valley. Bible conferences, youth camps and training programs are held for church leaders. Young mothers teach the Bible in the public schools. And Balangaos are reaching out beyond their borders to take missionary journeys to neighboring language groups. This year they’ve trained 88 Daily Vacation Bible School teachers for outreach in villages throughout the mountains as well as in some lowland areas. And a ripple effect has begun. One Balangao couple is now translating the Scriptures for a neighboring language group. Two Balangao women have even gone beyond the Philippines to East Asia–one to be involved in Bible translation and the other to teach English in a Bible school behind closed doors.
The Balangaos are just one example of how the power of God’s Word in a people’s heart language can change them forever. But many are still waiting. Bible translation organizations around the world are seeking workers so that people of every language, nation and tongue might know God. Isaiah 55:11 tells us that God’s Word, which goes forth out of His mouth, will not return void but will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent. What role might God have for you in completing the task of bringing the Bible to Bible-less people?