It was an ordinary Sunday in 1954 in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. But once Nancy and Bernie May slid into the pews of their Baptist church, an unusual dream began to shimmer before them. Rachel Saint, who worked in jungle villages of South America as a linguist and alphabet-making missionary, sketched a grand vision.
She and a small number of devoted colleagues would translate the Bible into every language in the world.
Saint’s story didn’t end with a plea for money. Instead, she asked for people to join her in the jungle. Specifically, she needed a pilot and a secretary.
With stable middle-wage jobs, plans for a family, and only a recent return to faith, the Mays didn’t consider themselves missionary types. But Bernie was a recreational pilot, and Nancy had training as a secretary. Within weeks, they had decided to take on very different lives. They left the town they had known all their lives, accepted the idea of raising their children in poor foreign lands, and committed their energies to bringing the words of Christ to places they had never been heard.
Like countless other missionaries (the U.S. sends 127,000 mission workers abroad every year—about as many as the next six top-sending countries combined), the Mays had to master many new skills in order to succeed at their work. Nancy learned how to butcher animals for dinner, and rescued her children from all kinds of outdoor scrapes. Bernie became adept at launching and landing planes anywhere, from too-short dirt runways to surging rivers, crashing more than once.
Individual donors and churches in the U.S. provided the funds that kept the Mays in the field. During periodic furloughs back home they would visit supporters to deliver reports on their work, their family life, and their hopes for the future. After 16 years abroad, the Mays went back to the States for good and Bernie entered management, eventually becoming president of the Bible-translating powerhouse Wycliffe USA.
Opening new language doors
A missionary named Cameron Townsend was serving in Guatemala when he discovered that the people he was working with didn’t understand Spanish. They spoke Kaqchikel, in which no Bible or other developed literature was available. In 1942 he founded Wycliffe to solve that problem. The group sends linguists to remote lands where people isolated by language live without communication links to the wider world. The translators are supported by pilots, mechanics, teachers, public-health specialists, nurses, and others, all of whom live as missionaries among the world’s most forgotten individuals. They codify language systems, teach literacy, set down portions of the Scriptures in understandable text, bring water systems and health care, and transform lives both spiritually and physically.
“One of the great Christian events of the century. A turning point symbolizing the movement of Christianity from the northern hemisphere to the southern.” That’s how Notre Dame professor Mark Noll describes the creation of this philanthropic campaign for translating the Bible into minor languages.
Of the 6,900 languages currently in use across the globe, only a few hundred have a complete version of the Scriptures. A few thousand have a partial text, and there are 2,300 languages into which the Bible is currently being translated. That leaves about 1,800 tongues for which no Bible translation exists; these have around 180 million native speakers.
Many of these dialects are spoken only, or lack documented rules. So translators must first create alphabets and grammars, introduce written language, and work through laborious steps. As a result, translations of the Bible into entirely new languages were being launched at a rate of only about two dozen per year as late as 2000—a pace that would take generations to reach all remaining populations. With Christianity’s center of gravity shifting rapidly to the developing world, this wasn’t fast enough.
New rules for a new era
A century ago, the vast majority of Christians lived in the industrialized world. Today that proportion is inverted, with many more of the globe’s Christians living outside of developed nations. Nancy and Bernie witnessed this global shift in person. “During the past half century the critical centers of the Christian world have moved decisively to Africa, to Latin America, and to Asia,” writes historian Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom. “The balance will never shift back.”
Bernie May and the Wycliffe board could see the writing on the wall. They realized the prevailing model of sending missionaries from the U.S. for culture and language acquisition and then having them teach in unreached villages had drawbacks. It was difficult work. There was potential for cultural misunderstanding. And it was slow.
New methods of operating, and new kinds of missionaries, would be needed if there was going to be significant progress in making Christianity and modernity available to all peoples. Wycliffe’s leaders began to think differently. Perhaps instead of sending Western missionaries as linguists, they could find, train, and support indigenous Christians capable of doing better and faster work in language translation.
From that insight sprang a new affiliate of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and a new job for Bernie May. The Seed Company was set up by May and tasked with radically speeding language translation and the sharing of the Bible. They would do this by giving indigenous speakers of small, rare, and isolated languages the tools necessary to bring Christian texts and other previously inaccessible information to fellow members of their societies. Hire fewer professional linguists, more locals.
“Recruiting and training those who already know the language in their heart, and then consulting with and training them to do translation, is the most effective means of bringing the Bible to new people,” says former Wycliffe employee Ron Williams. “Paired with theological consultants and translation helpers, they become very efficient.”
In addition to new methods, Bernie May had to find entirely new ways of financing the work of the Seed Company. The old model of traveling the United States to raise support wasn’t going to work for indigenous farmers and artisans. He reasoned that if he could find ten people willing to give $10,000 per year for two decades, he could launch this new effort and prove the concept for radically truncating the timetable for bringing the Bible to all people. So May approached ten Christian businessmen he knew and asked them to support this new venture. All of them agreed. “The first ten people I asked said yes. That’s when I realized this is a God thing,” May says. “In fundraising you never go ten for ten.”
Ten for ten
The first of these donors to commit was Peter Ochs. He agreed with May that the traditional supporters of overseas mission work—local churches—were less likely to back the Seed Company than individuals who had run businesses. Businesspeople would understand the need for greater efficiency and speed, and for innovation in techniques in order to break down a centurylong backlog of work.
Instead of the traditional method of pairing supporters with specific missionaries, May decided instead to make particular untranslated languages the focus, with clear timelines for finishing them, and use those concrete goals to motivate donations. “He would say to a potential donor, ‘This language is spoken by hundreds of thousands of people in such-and-such a place. I’ve got somebody else who I think might fund it. But if you’d like to take the lead I’ll give it to you,” Ochs remembers.
Ochs himself contributed to the Seed Company’s first Bible in Aramaic (the language whose ancient form Jesus spoke). This was done to help burgeoning Aramaic-speaking communities (including immigrants to Chicago and Detroit). In this case, there was already an Aramaic translation, but it was centuries old and used archaic language that made it hard to bring Christian understanding to new generations. “It had never been updated,” Ochs says. That translation took about five years, and Aramaic Christians celebrated the arrival of a new gospel they could easily understand and take to heart.
New message, new ways of living
Another of the original ten donors was former State Farm Insurance executive Roger Tompkins. He agreed to support a translation project for the Thakara people in central Kenya. Numbering around 112,000, the Thakara grow cotton and herd sheep and cattle. Though Christian churches dotted their communities when the project started, they had heard of Christ only in a neighboring dialect. They had no Bible in their own language.
The translation flourished and was finished in just seven years. The Thakara people received both their first written alphabet and a New Testament. “It was one of the best investments I ever made,” Tompkins says. At a dedication ceremony, indigenous translator Stephen Kindiki held the Scripture aloft and declared: “We are the richest people on earth!”
May, Ochs, and Tompkins emphasize that the Bible brings not just spiritual good, but general societal benefit. The Thakara translation united local denominations that had previously distrusted each other. It spurred local women to study the Bible and acquire education. After the translation was distributed and read, the Seed Company reports, many of the Thakara gave up polygamy and started to follow the national law that bans female circumcision.
The Seed Company is now working on an Old Testament for the Thakara, believing the Thakara will identify with the struggles of the Jewish people—whose faith was deepened by famine, drought, and other calamities familiar to rural communities.
Once the initial donors proved the value of the new methods for accelerating translation, many others, large and small, joined in. The Chattanooga-based Maclellan Foundation, a significant giver to groups like the American Bible Society since the 1940s, has granted nearly $2 million to Wycliffe and the Seed Company in the past two decades. It funded a language training center in Hyderabad, India, that has since dispatched missionary linguists across the subcontinent. The rapid growth of Christianity in India is credited in part to this accomplishment.
One longtime Wycliffe donor was transformed by an encounter with this work in action. Mart Green, of the Oklahoma Hobby Lobby Green family, had been in the Christian bookstore business since he was 19. And as a donor to Wycliffe he had a particular niche: paying for the printing of first-edition Bibles. In 1998, he went to Guatemala to witness the dedication of a translation his family had been supporting since 1958—“40 years!” says Green. “I was born in 1961. I’ve never waited 40 years for anything in my life.” Upon arrival at what Green calls the “ends of the earth,” he heard that the number of believers who could read in that particular language numbered 400. “Being a business guy, three words went right across my head—return on investment.” As the celebration progressed, Green was torn, wondering if the money or time could be better spent elsewhere. Watching a Guatamalan weep over the new translation, a perverse thought crossed his mind: “Why don’t you go tell him he’s not a good return on investment?”
Of course, Green didn’t do that, but retreated to his tin-roof hotel that night. Serenaded by the drunks outside, he was unable to sleep and took to thinking about a person weeping to receive a Bible, while he had shelves and shelves of Bibles in his stores and at home going unread. He asked himself, “What kind of return on investment is Mart Green? I’ve got a huge amount invested in me. What kind of return do I have for my life?”
From that moment forward, “I became passionate about Scripture access,” Green says. And he went to work, lending his financial support and personal energies to the cause of producing a Bible for every language, even in digital form. In 2010 he started gathering the Bible translation bigfoots—Seed Company, Wycliffe, Biblica, the American Bible Society, and others to come together and talk about a collaborative strategy to “eradicate Bible poverty.” Under the alliance name of Every Tribe Every Nation, the group holds annual fundraising and encouragement gatherings called Illuminations. The first, which only had participation from the Seed Company, brought in $21 million. “A nice little event,” says Green. But given the event’s success, Green notes that “the Seed Company miraculously said ‘Let’s not raise money for the Seed Company, let’s raise money for the movement.” Ever since then, the funds have been distributed among the participating organizations, along with speedier techniques and technological prowess.
Pricing out progress with precision
Since its beginnings in 1993, the Seed Company has completed more than 1,000 translations in over 90 countries. More than a billion—that’s right, a billion—people have gained fresh access to the Bible thanks to its work, and it expects to reach hundreds of millions more in the years ahead. On current timetables, it looks like translations for the last unreached people will at least be started within about a decade.
To fuel this progress, the group received $36 million in donations in 2015. Crisp goals and timelines are central to its fundraising success. The Seed Company’s website details exactly which translators need money and for how long. “The genius of the Seed Company idea is that you turn a translation into a project that has a beginning and an end. Progress can be measured and reported. An investor can keep track of where his or her money is going,” Tompkins says.
The nonprofit uses many little devices to keep fresh thinking and innovation alive. For instance, it has a rule (instituted from the beginning by May) that the average age of all board members should be no more than 50. “I call the Seed Company one of the first twenty-first-century charities, because it’s organized differently and thinks differently than most traditional nonprofits,” Ochs says.
With increasing use of technology, the Seed Company can now do translations faster than ever. A linguistic consultant or Biblical scholar will often video chat with a native translator oceans away to offer advice on precise content. “The new approach includes digital technologies, crowdsourcing, using a Wiki approach to translation, anything that allows them to accomplish the task more efficiently and effectively,” reports Williams.
Donor Frank Batten Jr. notes the impact of the Internet: “It used to be that the missionary doing translation in the village would have to go somewhere else to meet with consultants to check it. That might require a week’s trek through the jungle, up a river, down a river. But now if the translator has satellite Internet, he or she can send whatever portion gets done every day to a checker, who can be anywhere in the world: Papua New Guinea, Dallas, Singapore.”
For a project in India, crowdsourcing platforms were used to involve more than 3,000 people in translating the Bible from Hindi to their local dialect. With no formal training, participants went online to choose words they thought were the best equivalents. They voted on the best translations of particular sections.
The resulting translation may not have been academically brilliant, states Seed Company vice president Henry Huang, but it unified and energized the community in surprisingly powerful ways. “The identity and pride in their own language was so great that even some nonbelievers began to participate. Interest in what was going on in the church grew dramatically.”
The beauty of regeneration
There is inspiration for other philanthropic growth and experimentation in this work. The reason May set up the Seed Company as a spinoff outside of Wycliffe two decades ago was to overcome inertia and institutional resistance that had prevented the mother organization, enormously successful as she’d been, from producing necessary fresh solutions to the vexing problem of backlogged languages and centurylong waits for niche translations. Once the Seed Company’s various tricks for trimming the workload and getting new presentations of the Scriptures into circulation turned out to be a smashing success, decisions were made to fold back into the mother organization many of the experimental techniques of the spinoff. Wycliffe itself picked up the pace.
In 2008, Wycliffe made a dramatic commitment to what it called its Last Languages Campaign. It promised to raise $1 billion from donors and launch new translations at an annual rate in the triple digits, so that there would be a version of the Scriptures available or in development in every language under the sun within 17 years of the campaign’s launch. To accomplish this ambitious goal, Wycliffe and the Seed Company are working together cooperatively, sharing resources and techniques.
“The biggest change has been in the much wider involvement of local people in the translation process,” Batten is quick to note. “The workforce is much more local, with expatriates in a supporting role rather than a leading role.”
The leading is being done by people like Uche Aaron. “It was in 1979,” he recounts over Skype, “when I was studying at Lawrence Technical University.” From a poor family in Amadaka, Nigeria, he had arrived in the U.S. on scholarship to train to become a construction engineer. He remembers sitting in an auditorium balcony while a Wycliffe missionary explained that there were thousands of tongues without a Bible. “I heard a voice speaking behind me,” he says. “‘Uche! Your language is one of them, what are you going to do about it?’ I was asking God, ‘Why would you give me a scholarship and bring me to the United States only to make me drop engineering?’” But the next Sunday he heard another missionary—Bernie May. May talked about trusting God, comparing it to following the guidance of air-traffic controllers, and describing events in his own life.
“As soon as he gave that testimony I had a great peace in my heart,” says Aaron. “All of the battles just went away.” Aaron approached May, and went on to become a translator in his own homeland. He produced a New Testament translation in 1992, and finished the entire Obolo Bible in 2014. Since 1999 he has served as a consultant for the Seed Company across Nigeria, and has had a hand in a dozen other translation projects in his country.
The Obolo Bible has had a profound effect on his people, Aaron reports. “They were always looked down upon by the neighboring tribes. The development of their language was felt by nearly everyone to be a big promotion. And the translation project was a very strong uniting factor.” The majority of the project’s cost was covered by donations from the Obolo people themselves, through local churches, community organizations, and individual donors.
When May discusses unreached people reading the Bible in their native languages for the first time, he can still become almost giddy. “I feel like we’re still living in the Book of Acts. It’s a very exciting time to be a Christian,” he says. “Even relatively small-scale donors are able to spark transformations.”
His excitement is even more palpable on the side of the individuals benefiting from the new energy and effort. “People who had no hope suddenly have something to live for. People who didn’t have anybody loving them realize they’re loved by God, and learn to love each other. People lacking purpose now have an anchor, a strong foundation for their life. That’s what it’s all about.”
Liz Essley Whyte is a contributing editor to Philanthropy. Research for this story was provided by Philanthropy managing editor Ashley May—who is Bernie May’s granddaughter.