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  • God Speaks Zapotec

    April 26, 2016

    The kennel of dogs across the street had barely begun their regular early morning barking as we all gathered on the street. The early morning air was unusually crisp, perhaps accentuated by our nervous anticipation of the singularly special Sunday event about to unfold in the hours ahead. With handshakes, hugs, and greetings exchanged, we grabbed hold of our backpacks of contingency food and clothing provisions and our missionary entourage was off.

    Bumps and dust seem to lead the way along the logging road meandering up the mountainside. It seems to have been widened since the last time I traveled here seven years earlier. As I look down the steep embankment on my right, the sudden drop off gives way to the amazing landscape below. I reimagine the trip Grace and Joan, two single young missionary women made so long ago. Coming down the mountain the first time, sitting on the back wheel well of a pick up truck, driven by willing strangers, fear and exhilaration must have been nearly indiscernible. How courageous. How crazy. How committed.


    Grace Thiessen (1948-2014)

    My imaginings are interrupted by the white misty clouds, which seem to rise from the valley below. But in fact, it is we who have ascended above the clouds, winding our way towards the village. It has been hours, but it seems much shorter. Again, to my right, the sky opens up, and the road outlines the ridge leading from where we are to the mountain on the other side, where villagers and celebration await. We make our way along the ridge, now leaving one mountain for the other, and approach the village so dear to Grace’s heart, Santa Ana Yareni.

    The villagers have already begun to assemble in the school courtyard. The women, short, wrinkled from the weather and work, wearing various colored aprons arrive. Men with hats, others with canes, young men, and village police alike also make their way through the cobble streets, between their houses and huts, toward the awaiting festivities. A brass and woodwind band from Pastor Joel’s church in Etla, where Grace went to worship when not in the village had taken the stage. She loved these people too, singing songs in their heart-language, Zapotec, with her guitar. Now, having practiced for months and months, they played with gusto, out of love for her and God.

    Joan Smith, greeting and celebrating with villagers


    The entire village council was in attendance. Remarkable for so many reasons. They began assembling at the head table, when Odilon, Grace’s trusted translation helper from the village, and designated organizer, came to bring me and Ken Zacharias (Foreign Secretary, E.M. Conference) to the head table. I would have preferred a different seat, but I also wanted to respect culture and protocol. As the band behind me began to play and the program underway, I glanced over the small sea of faces in front of me. I felt like I was sitting at the shoreline of emotion, as waves rolled over me. At times I was overcome, seeing these villagers, thinking of Grace, and the Yareni Zapotec New Testament, her life’s work, without exaggeration, which we were about to hand out, person-to-person. But I am a bondservant, sent here for a purpose, so the waves will have to wait.

    It is my turn to speak, offering greetings, representing connection for Grace, Steinbach EMC, the Conference, and Canada too. Marilyn, another of Grace’s translation colleagues stands at my right, translating extemporaneously as I speak, occasionally looking at my notes to ensure we are literally on the same page. Again, the waves roll. It is good to sit down.

    Garry Koop and Ken Zacharias hand out Bibles

    The program now accelerates to the climax, as the chairs empty, giving way to a line up on our left of villagers eager to receive their free Yareni Zapotec New Testament. Free, because, Grace and Joan have paid for them out of their own goodness, generosity, and pocket books. One by one, they file by. We shake hands, smile, extend greetings, a bag of mementos, and of course the New Testament. God speaks Zapotec!  

    With the formal proceedings completed, the courtyard is quickly transformed into a banquet hall, thanks to the village police and the many men and women, filled with joy, now lending a hand to set up tables, and distribute cases of pop to the tables. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, gringo and villager alike, we ate our fill of homemade corn tortillas and mole (pronounced mole-eh), surprisingly, thankfully, really good.

    Zapotec woman receiving a Bible in her mother tongue



    Poses and pictures accented the ending, and somehow extend it ever so slightly, as tables and chairs were now being packed away. Yes, it was time to go, but festivals like this deserve their re

    sonance. Some members of our original entourage were already making their way back home, while we accompanied Joan and her companions to her village house. It was time to say, ‘good bye,’ to the house, the village, this life. Standing by the outhouse Grace and Joan had built, the first of its kind in the village, Joan smiled and reminisced for a moment with her landlord, of 37 years. He reluctantly accepted the keys, after letting Joan know, this was their house, Grace and Joan’s.

    With a shuffle and a step, an awkward glance at the street and neighboring houses, we all climbed back into our vehicles. It was quiet. Poignant. This moment, too, took resonance.

    Winding our way between house and hut, we found our way back to the ridge, over to the mountain on the other side, and the meandering logging road, which would lead us back home. As we began our descent and the clouds lifted, the conversation turned towards the road ahead. What does the future hold for you? What will you do next?

    - Garry Koop, Lead Pastor at Steinbach EMC