Jess Bee discovers how SGM Lifewords’ publishing legacy still brings life to many, through an archive of a thousand-plus translations of the Bible’s life words, re-imagined for a digital age.
“I know it’s not easy to follow Jesus’ road. People mock believers. But that’s ok because when you follow Jesus you know your sins are forgiven, that you have righteousness and that you’ll go to heaven.”
Pilgrim* lives in Niger. He is Fulani, one of the largest and most widely spread ethnic Muslim groups in West Africa. He meets with others in his community to learn about the Bible and discover more about Jesus. He speaks Fulfulde and he is able to read the Bible in his own language thanks to a copy of SGM Lifewords’ Jesus Saviour of the World given to him by Ruth*, a Canadian missionary. Ruth lives and works with the Fulani people, serving the community and building relationships. She offers the Bible to those she ministers to so that they can read and understand God’s Word in their own language. As well as the booklet she gave to Pilgrim she also has copies of Jesus Christ: Saviour of the World in Ajami, a language that uses the Arabic alphabet. “These booklets are particularly of interest to those who can read the Arabic alphabet because they have studied at the mosque,” she says. “They may or may not have understanding of the Arabic language, but can read it phonetically. They start reading the Jesus Christ: Saviour of the World booklet not expecting to understand it and are surprised to find that it is their own language in letters they can read.” Reading or hearing the Bible in your own heart language (mother tongue) is not a luxury, it is an experience that carries with it the profound message that everyone is included in God’s kingdom. God speaks your language.
MAKING THE BIBLE ACCESSIBLE
Ruth and other on-the-ground missionaries are able to offer the Bible to minority language speakers all over the world thanks to SGM Lifewords’ extensive archive database which allows for reprints of titles in many languages. In the 129 years since the founding of Scripture Gift Mission (now SGM Lifewords), thousands of different titles have been printed in a huge variety of languages. The majority of those booklets are stored in an archive of physical copies. In 2016 – thanks to your generous support – we completed the long and painstaking task of creating an archive database. This makes our language and reprinting data much more accessible, and new possibilities have already emerged – Jesus Christ: Saviour of the World in Fulfulde was published in partnership with Serving in Mission (SIM) and now Ruth is sharing it afresh with the Fulani people in Niger. The archive database holds a vast array of treasures – over 22,000 items. SGM Lifewords printed the first ever Scriptures in over 200 languages, in partnership with organisations such as Wycliffe/SIL. Some of those languages had never been written down until Bible translators did their work, which means that our archive holds examples of the first ever publications in that language – items of historic significance. But the archive and database hold much more than texts of historical importance. They hold the key to people all over the world being able to read and understand the Bible in their own language – and therefore know and experience the love of Jesus for themselves.
“Our archive holds examples of the first
ever publications in that language”
Some of those archived titles are reaching new audiences, including our older titles in Romani languages. There are several dozen Romani languages and dialects spoken across Western Europe, and they are often highly localised. None of them have a translation of the full Bible, but various missionaries and Bible agencies have translated different stories or key passages in the past, SGM Lifewords among them. In partnership with the (British and Foreign) Bible Society, we have been able to scan in our Romani booklets, some of them dating back to the 1910s, and make them available through the YouVersion app – a free Bible app for phones, tablets and computers. The Romani may not have a full translation yet, but everything that has been done in the past is being drawn together in one place and made much more accessible. Another recent enquiry has come from the Albanian Bible Society. Uniquely, Albania declared itself to be an atheist state during the Soviet era. This pushed the church underground, and the country’s Christian heritage was suppressed. Today Albanian Christians are rediscovering the story of the church in Albania, and historians and linguists are filling in the gaps in the history books. SGM Lifewords’ part in that story comes in 1937 when the mission recognised that the door was about to close in Albania and made the country a priority. Tens of thousands of booklets were shipped, including Sunday school materials. A year later, missionaries were forced to leave the country and religious freedom was not officially restored until 1990. We were delighted to be able to locate and scan in some booklets from the time, a small contribution to this reconstruction of the Albanian church’s legacy. Another key partnership is with Wycliffe/SIL with whom we’ve worked – and still work – to make Bible booklets available in minority languages to low literacy communities through our Power to Save series. In 2013 we helped publish 400 copies of Jesus Christ Has Power to Save – which features verses from Mark’s Gospel – in Mpumpong for SIL Cameroon. Charlotte Nanou, working with Wycliffe, took the booklets to Yokadouma in south-east Cameroon to share with Mpumpong communities. SGM Lifewords remains committed to new language partnerships, as translators continue to take forward the task of making the Bible available to every tribe and tongue. As Scripture is translated into “new” languages, our resources can provide people with a way into the Bible for the first time.
The digitalisation and archiving of booklets and translations ready for printing is just part of the treasure we thank God for. The archive that we’re building also looks to the future as we research and produce new projects, and disseminate the Bible through digital formats such as Life Changing Words and VerseFirst. This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, where the arrival of the printing press allowed many more people to read the Bible. Now, in a digital age, we have more and more opportunities to help people access and share the Bible. Last year we were able to partner with translators working in a “closed” country, to make the Life Changing Words app available there, in a local language. In a context where distributing physical copies of the Bible is difficult, this daily Scripture tool gives local believers a new way to encounter life words, and share them safely with others.
LANGUAGE OF THE HEART
For the almost 20,000 young people reading VerseFirst each day in their social media feed, and deepening their experience of the Bible through VerseFirst blogs and web content, experiencing the Bible in their “heart language” is about more than the literal language in which they read. In a post-literate culture, images, words, and cultural form combine to communicate truth and meaning for this new generation. We are excited about what comes next, as we think about how we continue to offer people ways into the life-transforming words of the Bible, and its message of love and salvation through Jesus. Whether in print, via “live” programmes, or through digital resources, our passion is that everyone, everywhere should have the chance to read, hear, and experience the good news of the Bible.