Teresa's remote challenge: Creating alphabets to reach the unreached
Teresa* grew up in Southeast Asia, as her parents were planting churches in extremely rugged terrain in the Himalayan foothills. Her parents began working there when there were 20 churches. Today, largely because of their efforts, there are over 1000.
As a young girl, Teresa didn’t want to be a missionary. A self-proclaimed wimp, she moved back to the United States and enrolled in Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and physics. She felt she needed more education, so she earned a master’s degree in communication from Wheaton College. That’s when she met someone from Wycliffe.
“At the time, I wanted to support missions but I didn’t know how,” Teresa said. “He told me there was a need for Bible translation in remote areas of Southeast Asia and there was no one qualified. He said he could train me. But I had just finished grad school and had no money. He told me, “If God is calling you, and you get accepted into training school, it’s a sign you are called.”
Through her Wycliffe connection, Teresa was accepted into training school in Dallas to learn more about translation and linguistics. The problem was the money. The man from Wycliffe believed in Teresa so strongly that he went to Wycliffe's president and asked him to call her.
“He did and told me, ‘If your calling is from God, I don’t want to be in the way. I’m on my way to meet donors, and I won’t say anything, but if one of them mentions giving toward training, then I’ll mention it,’” Teresa recalls.
The donor gave a check with the exact amount of money Teresa needed to attend training school. She says that was all the confirmation from God she needed. After she finished training, she wrapped up a Ph.D. in Linguistics, specializing in Tibeto-Burman languages. With enough schooling under her belt, it was time to head back to Southeast Asia.
“When you grow up as a missionary kid, you know what it involves,” Teresa said. “You know what you’re getting yourself into, and I didn’t want to be my parents.”
Teresa’s mother did adult literacy work. The area they worked in was populated mainly with non-Christians who wanted to learn to read. A lot of girls didn’t attend school, resulting in many illiterate women. Her mom used the Bible to teach them how to read and write. When they finished the course, they were given the New Testament. The demand was so high, her mother ran out of books, and the women became angry that they couldn’t get one. This left an impression on Teresa.
“I saw how important it was to teach adults how to read,” she said. “But a lot of these remote villages don’t even have a written language.”
Teresa is now a highly respected linguist in academia for her work with undocumented languages. Developing an alphabet is step number one. And that’s what Teresa does. It’s called orthography, the convention of spelling a language. She travels to different villages to listen to sounds and create an alphabet. She relies on technology, her own skills and the five languages she speaks. Figuring out an alphabet typically takes her a week.
“My first project was with two language groups that had Bible translations started but without a proper alphabet,” she said. “I had to fix that for them. Linguistically, we figure out vowels and consonants and how to spell words. These languages have seven vowels, and English only has five, so we had to figure out what to do with the extras.”
The work is difficult, in part due to the training it takes to write languages, but also because of the remote locations she travels to. Teresa splits her time between these remote sites and an office in the main city. There she accomplishes administrative work, amid a larger Christian population she can rely on for help.
“The areas I go to have no public transportation and it’s a two-day drive just to get to the base camp, and another two days from there,” she said. “I usually take my team with me, and we bring everything, including batteries and groceries.”
Local churches ask Teresa to come translate for them. That’s how she finds her work. There always has to be a partner, because even with her skill set she cannot be familiar enough with a language to translate the Bible immediately. Using natives and non-natives, she trains people around her with tasks such as entering the language on the computer. Teresa is also asked to preach in these churches and often teaches Sunday school.
“I am asked to give the Sunday morning message, and I really like that,” she said. “It’s more like a teaching, and since they don’t have Bibles, no one teaches them how to behave like Christians. I try and teach how they should treat each other and encourage them.”
Her work doesn’t come without risk. Many of the villages are non-Christian and it is illegal to change your religion in certain areas. Even if the government doesn’t learn about a conversion, neighbors would persecute and shame the person who accepted Christ. Teresa says part of the reason why the church grew so fast was because of the persecution, which is against the constitution. Her father reported it to the prime minister and it eventually came to an end. The church flourished.
“Even though the government doesn’t want Christians there, the violence was illegal and had to be stopped,” she said. “The government would rather people not change what religion they are born into. They consider Christianity a foreign religion.”
Many of the people Teresa encounters are animistic. They believe every tree, bush or bird has a spirit. They live in fear of these spirits. If someone gets sick, it means a spirit is mad at them. Bringing the gospel has eliminated the fear for those who have heard the Good News.
“These families go to spiritual priests and ask what spirit is mad. Depending on what it is, they must bring things like eggs or a cow, and it gets expensive,” Teresa said. “But once they’ve used up all of their money and come to Christ, they realize the healing power of Jesus.”
Last year Teresa and her team put together hymn books. They taught locals how to sing the hymns, gathered a group of women and recorded There is Not a Friend Like the Lowly Jesus for an MP3 track.
“It wasn’t fancy, but all of a sudden everyone had it on their phone,” Teresa said. “You could hear it all over town–the first Christian song in their language.”
It takes about three years for a language to be developed–before a Bible can even begin to be translated. Teresa’s work is not done. She will need people to follow after her. Teresa has taught at a local university and is reaching to students, praying one will come alongside her to work on projects.
“People may have heard the Word in a foreign language before,” she said. “But they tell me they want to hear God speak to them in their own language. It means a lot to them.”
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Thangi C., Missionary
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