A Christian Liberal Arts University, Est. 1846

A Bible for the Aché

  • By: Meredith Sell
  • Published: Feb 16, 2015 1:15PM
For two-thirds of the world's language groups, the Bible is blank.

Early in the morning on October 26, 2014, a bus loaded with ardent supporters of Bible translation left Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital city. It continued on the main road well beyond the end of the pavement, stirring up red clouds of dust.

The bus was headed for a village of the indigenous Aché people. Its passengers—some fast asleep while others took pictures and soaked up the scenery—weren’t sure what they’d meet when they arrived. 

Violence wasn’t a concern: the Aché were a gentle people who’d given up their most frightening practices years ago. But today’s events were entirely in the Aché’s hands—not even the man who’d invited the passengers knew what to expect.

On a side road, the bus stopped completely. A mass of people, all ages, filled the road leading up the hill to the village.

As passengers climbed out of the bus, women with empty baskets on their backs and men wearing button-downs and polo shirts stepped forward to unload wrapped boxes of Bibles from the car behind the bus.

An assemblage of archers with bows nearly as tall as themselves led those carrying the Bibles up the hill. As they passed, children along the roadside waved the Paraguayan flag and sang, in their native language, the words of Isaiah 40:31:

They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.

About nine years earlier, Cindy (Spencer ’84) Marrelli was a widow with a cause. Missions-minded since second grade, Cindy had financially supported charities her entire adult life. When she lost her first husband in 2002, Cindy decided to make a difference with the inheritance he’d left her.

Bible translation was nowhere on her list of causes to support.

Then a lady approached Cindy at church and asked her to meet with her son’s friend who worked for The Seed Company, a Bible translation organization. Not long after, Cindy found herself at Panera Bread learning the significance of heart language.

A heart language is the language a person knows best, one whose words mean the most to the speaker. When a person hears or reads in their heart language, the meaning isn’t abstract. To the person whose heart language is English, Love doesn’t read as liebe, upendo, or ljubav. It reads as love—the word is its own meaning—and the word carries its meaning straight to the reader’s heart.

When God’s Word isn’t in a person’s heart language, there are degrees of separation between the person’s understanding of the words and the words’ full meaning. With this detachment comes the thought, Does God not speak my language?

The Seed Company representative explained these things to Cindy and went a step further, asking her how much of the Bible she thought a person would need to understand the full Gospel. If only half of John 3:16 was translated, what should be left out? So loved? Only? Eternal? Wouldn’t any part missing significantly change the story?

By the time their meeting at Panera Bread ended, Cindy was convinced: she wanted to support Bible translation. But she also wanted her alma mater involved.

Heart language was no new concept to Taylor University President Gene Habecker. From 1991 to 2005, Habecker was president of the American Bible Society where, under his watch, no funding was used for new English translations. “Why do I need another English Bible when two-thirds of the world’s language groups have nothing—not even a verse?” Habecker says.

When Habecker came to Upland as Taylor’s president, he brought his passion for Bible translation with him—along with a desire to get young people involved. When Cindy reached out to him about The Seed Company’s OneVerse initiative—where donors could fund translation one verse at a time—Habecker was immediately on board.

Before long a decision was made: Taylor World Outreach (TWO) would start a OneVerse project, and Cindy would match every dollar students raised. Taylor students would decide who received the translation.

A small place

August 2006, Director of Student Ministries Mary Rayburn found herself in a conference room in the Student Union with Cindy, a Seed Company representative, and a group of student leaders from TWO and Taylor Student Organization (TSO). The Seed Company representative had three translation projects for the students to choose from, each for a different language and for people groups of significantly different sizes.

The Paraguayan option stood out: Paraguay was a quiet country with little unrest. Taylor could send students there on Lighthouse trips and build relationships while funding the translation. “Fundraisers are great and raising money is a good thing—and college students can get creative and do that—but we didn’t just want to be about raising money,” Mary said. “We wanted to be holistic.”

But the Aché population was only about 1500.

“That’s really not, in the big scheme of things, worth it,” Cindy remembers thinking. She suggested the student leaders get “more bang for their buck.”

“The TWO president looked at me [as if to say], ‘You’re kind of odd,” Cindy remembers. “And he said, ‘We know what it’s like to be small, underestimated.’”

The student leaders chose the Aché and, November 2006 at World Opportunities Week, they shared the project with the rest of the student body.

Current Director of Lighthouse Katie Rousopoulos ’07 was a senior at the time. “That was the first time it was brought to my attention that people did not have the Bible in their own language,” Katie says. “Sitting in that chapel seat, I thought sure, I don’t have a ton of money, but I have twelve dollars . . . I can give that up.”

Donors could choose the verse their money funded, so Katie asked herself, “What’s a verse everyone should know?” She chose John 3:16. Not one half or the other—the whole verse.

A Bible for the Aché

Cindy and Katie were among the bus passengers last October. The sun shone bright overhead as they joined the Aché crowd and headed up the hill to the center of the village where the boxes of Bibles were set at the center of a spread of grass.

As everyone crowded around for the ceremony, children lined up to receive their Bibles and the translators—one Aché man from each of the six Aché villages—circled the Bibles and prayed. Then every Aché child received his or her own copy of the New Testament for the first time.

They held their books for a moment, then handed them back, and went to a booth to buy their copy. “Sometimes, in cultures that don’t have a lot,” Katie says, “something that has even a little bit of monetary value has much more worth and is much more a prized possession.”

Once they had their Bibles to keep, the Aché hugged them tightly to their chests—not just the children, but the adults and elderly as well.

Katie’s Bible in that moment was at the bottom of her bag, piled over with an array of other possessions. “To think that’s where my Bible is and here they are, they want Bible covers to protect it . . . It is the living Word of God, how do I treat it?”

The Aché clung to God’s Word.

Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. James 1:21b

Looking ahead:

The Aché translation was Taylor’s first project with The Seed Company, but not the last. Already, Taylor has helped raise the funds needed to translate parts of the New Testament for the Toba, another indigenous people group in Paraguay. This past January, following a pattern set by five previous teams that ministered to the Aché, a Lighthouse team of 16 Taylor students went to Paraguay, where they helped missionaries with construction projects and met the Toba for the first time.