Bible Translation in the Amazon
Editorial Note: Name changed for security reasons and transcript edited for clarity and length.
Written by James Galt | Photos: James Galt and Miles Kanagy
I found myself at a Superbowl party in Brazil when I first met Nick. I discovered that Nick, along with his family, had relocated from the United States and were now embedded as missionaries with an unreached language group deep in the Amazon jungle.
Having only ever heard about missionaries crazy enough to face the life-threatening dangers of the jungle—jaguars, yellowfever, inter-tribal warfare—surely, I thought, missionaries like this would have more than just a few loose screws in their head. But now Nick was sitting right beside me, snacking on chicken nuggets and correcting my misconceptions.
When I referred to Nick as a Bible translator, he gracefully clarified that he isn’t translating yet. Even after four years with this indigenous people group, he is still learning the language. It will be another couple of years before he really understands their worldview and feels confident enough to connect with them at an unhindered level. The meticulous care given to relationship building will one day ensure he is able to communicate the Gospel effectively.
A week later, while quarantining, I hosted a Zoom call with Nick to learn more about his story, work, and perspective. By the end of our discussion, it was clear what most see as a radical and foolhardy life decision, Nick saw as simply living out what he believed. He explained to me, spending your life in the jungle doesn’t require a divine revelation; only a desire to live as though what Jesus said was true.
What first prompted you to become a missionary?
I believe what led me to the mission field was being convinced of the Great Commission; that it’s for our time and not just for the 12 disciples—that really took hold for me when I realized it hadn’t been accomplished.
When I was in high school, at about 17, I visited a people group that was in the process of being evangelized. I found out that next door, about 20 miles away through the jungle, was another unreached people group. There was no missionary presence, no concept of the Gospel. They had never heard the name of Jesus. That was a pretty big shock to me, realizing that “go into all the world” was spoken 2000 years ago and here I am in the 21st century and we haven’t gone into all the world.
There are many indigenous tribes in the Amazon. How did you come to work with this particular community?
I traveled with a fellow who knew the river system and had good relationships all the way up that river. We visited every community on that river as kind of a research trip to look at the possibilities. Without fail, every single community we stopped at invited me and my family to come and live in their community. It’s not because we’re anything great; it’s very much pragmatic. We’re a catalyst to the 21st century for them. They see having a missionary living with them as a way to better their lives.
“They had never heard the name of Jesus. That was a pretty big shock to me, realizing that ‘go into all the world’ was spoken 2000 years ago and here I am in the 21st century and we haven’t gone into all the world.”
We set a date to move in and they were super happy to have us. I’m a builder by trade but they helped in incredible ways with material and raw labor—completely voluntarily. It was kind of shocking coming from a culture where time is money and everybody wants to get paid by the hour. The clan we moved in with actually mocks systems that require payment for everything— they think it’s so mercenary and dirty. Even if you tried to pay them for helping you all day, they’d say, “oh no, we don’t pay here.” It’s almost like a money-free zone. It all kind of evens out in the end because I’m always helping them do stuff. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.
On a day-to-day basis, what does your life look like in the village?
We usually wake up to roosters crowing around 4:00 AM, and the tribal people wake up around then too. We’re right there in the community so we can hear them talking in their bedrooms, which aren’t rooms at all—just kind of open-to-the-wind platforms. I usually go out and do what they’re doing about twice a week—whether that’s spending all day in a canoe fishing with them or trouncing into the jungle to collect some fruit that’s in season or pulling the potatoes from the garden.
Other days, I’ll stay back in the village while most of the men leave. I have a language tutor/helper and we’ll have a specific class together one-on-one. I’ll try to document and observe everything that’s happening: things I hear, new words, the way people say things, why so-and-so got offended, why the fish were split up this way, why someone got more fish than another. I observe their daily lives. I’ll run that through my language helper. He explains the language and the culture. He answers my questions, corrects my speech, and tells me what words mean.
Then, mid-afternoon people are trickling back from wherever they went to forage from. I’ll spend most of the afternoon visiting with them in their huts. This is the time that they’re eating so I’ll eat with them. I’m always trying to be as much a part of their lives as I can.
To finish off the day we bathe in the river. Everyone in the community bathes together. Afterwards, it’s an early night because only a few of them have solar panels and LED batteries. Some will stay up later, but for the most part people are in bed after sunset—in their hammocks I should say, because they don’t have beds. Then the next day we do it all again. The day’s plans get hatched that morning. There is very little future planning.
Do you think it is necessary to physically live amongst the people you are ministering to?
If you’re talking about unreached people groups or even cross-cultural people groups, it would be quite impossible to learn their language, culture, and build a relationship if you’re not there physically. Without a relationship nobody wants to listen to anybody. That’s just human nature. So I would say yes. You do need to be there physically. Aside from becoming one of them first I don’t think there is a way forward at all.
Think of Jesus. Jesus left Heaven’s culture and language and he spent 30 years learning Jewish culture and language. He didn’t just show up on a Wednesday and start teaching in the synagogues on a Thursday. He was inserted with them and learned everything about them. That’s an ideal situation because he was there since birth. I wasn’t in this culture since birth so there’s things that I will miss. But he didn’t skip that step. If he didn’t skip that step for his ministry, how do we think we can? He had relationships built, he had the language and culture down before he started to minister. That is incredibly significant.
I dare say that’s why people groups are still unreached. There is an enormous difference in presenting the Gospel cross-culturally. I could present the Gospel to you in Portuguese, but you can’t speak Portuguese and it would mean absolutely nothing to you. Is that because the Gospel is weak? No. It’s because it wasn’t communicated. It’s not the Gospel’s fault. For me to communicate the Gospel to you, I would need to be speaking American English and understand your American worldview for you to understand. It takes a lot of work to leave one culture, leave one language, and insert yourself into another culture. You need to be a learner and a student way before you become a teacher and communicator of the Gospel.
What difficulties or challenges do you face?
Right now the biggest difficulty is breaking the language code. We spend hours upon hours working at this language. Their language is incredibly complex and so far away from English. It’s a completely new field of first-hand study.
There are a lot of people who are opposed to the Gospel—opposed to foreigners living with indigenous people groups. There are political problems that tend to be pretty significant because while we’re [in the jungle] minding our own business and trying to learn a language, there’s somebody in some law office filing a lawsuit against us that’s full of lies, that we don’t even know about, and can’t defend ourselves against.
There are physical difficulties—we get sick all the time and don’t have a little family care clinic around the corner to drive down to. The Amazon is full of animals large and small. There’s amoebas and viruses. We’re constantly getting sick.
Understanding how to live with a people group is challenging. Our values are X and their values are Y. The list goes on and on.
What is the current socio-political climate regarding indigenous people?
In Brazil there’s a very big array of indigenous people groups. There are people groups who have virtually zero contact with the outside world and are protected on land reservations. The outside world cannot get to them and they cannot get to the outside world. On the other hand, there are tribal groups who are highly integrated into Brazilian society and are graduating university.
You can examine two different tribes, and their socio-political battles are completely different. One is fighting tooth and nail to get every white man off their land and the other is desperate to get a single white man onto their land. And that’s poorly understood by the people making laws and passing legislation on Indian cases.
“Jesus left Heaven’s culture and language and he spent 30 years learning Jewish culture and language.”
There is a generally accepted idea in the developed world that indigenous tribes should be left alone. How do you respond to this mentality and how has this affected your work?
There are huge portions of the Amazon where somebody like me could never step into because of laws. And the indigenous tribes are not able to leave that area. Their legal representative decides what’s best for them—which is that they be left alone. But that doesn’t jive with reality. I have met and lived with many, many different people groups in the Amazon and they all—without exception—want to develop. They want to learn to read, to speak Portuguese, to study, they want to be a part of the 21st century.
The idea that tribal peoples want to be left alone and are choosing to opt out of the 21st century, is not anywhere close to reality. They are living in very difficult circumstances, suffering from very basic things that medical help and basic education would solve. They know that and want to solve those problems. They want to improve their lives. I think that’s a natural human desire.
We take a Biblical and humanitarian approach, which is that they’re adults and they can choose for themselves. If one day the group of people who we live with decides that they don’t want us anymore, they’ll tell us and we’ll leave—it’s no big deal. But that’s not the case at all. What they tell us everyday is that they want us there. What other people groups in villages on our river tell us is that they want us there.
A lot of people would say that you’re insane for bringing your kids into such a dangerous place as the jungle. They would look at your life and call you irresponsible for doing so. What would your response be?
As Christians, I don’t see where we’re called to put safety first. There is nowhere in the Bible that says that the point of the Christian life is to be safe or comfortable. On the contrary, we’re promised hard times, tribulation, and opposition. So if you take that as the norm, being somewhere like where we are is not really that extreme. But I understand where that sentiment comes from. We’ve created a semi-utopia in the U.S. as far as comfort and safety go, and we’re starting to worship that as the American Church.
Secondly, the fact that we’re raising our kids somewhere different isn’t wrong. Are they going to have the same experiences as first graders in the U.S.? No. But that doesn’t make it wrong. They are receiving a completely different upbringing—one that has its own challenges—but it certainly has its benefits as well. Among those are: learning that the world is bigger than themselves, learning that not everybody speaks their language, and learning that the value of a human being is not in the color of their skin or where they live but in the content of their character.
“We’ve created a semi-utopia in the U.S. as far as comfort and safety go, and we’re starting to worship that as the American Church.”
How do you and your family endure the hardships of living in the jungle?
We’ve been promised that it’s going to be hard. But we’ve also been promised that He is going to be with us through it. Clinging to the truth of scripture has been key for us. I don’t say that in the sense that every time we reach a breaking point we read scripture and then we’re all happy again. We have thought about giving up (many times). We’re not very strong people. But we trust that He is going to see us through the difficult times and it is going to be worth it. A life that is honoring to God is one that is lived in service to Him and not to ourselves. It’s not about us, it’s about the maker of the universe and His story and what He wants.
“We can either spend our lives trying to author our own story, which is going to be worthless and forgotten, or we can choose to co-author a part of God’s story which is going to live forever.”
As Christ-followers, what would you say it boils down to?
It’s not about our story. Our stories are going to be lost. Whatever we create in this world is going to be lost. The only story that’s going to last eternally is God’s story. And He’s giving us a chance to write a word, a sentence, a chapter in His story. So we can either spend our lives trying to author our own story, which is going to be worthless and forgotten, or we can choose to co-author a part of God’s story which is going to live forever. So if you’re looking for significance in life, that’s where it’s at: Being a significant part of eternity.