The Word Reaches the Mountains of the Tepehuan
Scattered throughout the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains of Mexico live the Northern Tepehuan people. Though they live in the rugged canyons and hills of the mountain range, we will focus on one town nestled in the mountains — a place we will call BG.
It is a small, western mountain town. Men wear cowboy hats or baseball caps. Ladies mostly still wear sweaters over their dresses and scarves on their heads.
The road into BG winds through the mountains on a very narrow dirt road with treacherously steep drop-offs among the pines and scrub oak trees. Coming around a curve in the road, you can view the town from above, resting in the valley between the high mountain peaks. Two large hills of sawdust are heaped up beside the two sawmills. There is an old, abandoned gas station on the edge of town.
If you arrive late enough in the afternoon, you will see smoke drifting from the stovepipes as people prepare their evening meal, the smoke hanging in the sky just above the roof line. In earlier years you would have seen small fires beside people’s homes or kerosene lamps lighting windows with a dull golden glow. Now that there is electricity, you will see white lights twinkling from windows and shining from streetlights.
After winding down the mountainside, the road empties onto a plain and heads straight into the heart of town. Upon arrival, the smell of wood smoke with that hint of pine trees and dry grass fills the air, dogs are barking, and the air has a frosty chill to it. As you are welcomed into a house, the warmth from the wood stove draws a sigh of contentment from you.
It is here that the Tepehuan New Testament dedication took place last November. But it is important that we go back and see the “road” that was travelled in order to be able to witness this event.
It’s been a long time coming. The work has been going on for 40 years. I agree, 40 years sounds like a long time until you consider that the Tepehuan people are reclusive and wary of strangers. Past interactions with outsiders made them wary of new people. It’s no wonder that they looked askance at any new people coming into their lands.
But God is faithful.
Initially, the Tepehuans were reticent to share their culture and language with the missionaries, often hiding from missionaries when they went to visit Tepehuan homes. It took time to develop relationships between them and the missionary families. It took time to gain their trust through working with them and helping them with medical needs, literacy, used clothing, seeds for gardens and other physical helps. But as trust developed, so did the ability to begin to learn the Tepehuan language, a language that is grammatically difficult, though phonetically easy.
Back in 1944, after a two-day mule ride, a Summer Institute of Linguistics couple named Burt and Marvel Bascom arrived in a small outpost called BG. BG is one of four religious ceremonial grounds for the Northern Tepehuan. The Bascoms spent the better part of the next 20 years working toward a New Testament and a dictionary for the Tepehuan people.
By 1979, when Kevin and Wendy Case and Don and Judy Johnston and their family opened the work for New Tribes Mission with the Northern Tepehuan, there were already a couple of Pentecostal churches flourishing in the town among the Mexican population, but there was no outreach or church planting efforts being done with the Tepehuan in their language. This team were the pioneers to open the work.
From 1979 to 2003, Kevin and Wendy were the constant on a team that saw nine families come and go. Many of those families had a tremendously positive impact on the Spanish-speaking Mexican community, and a Bible-believing church was planted in the mid-1980s. This is the church with whom the current missionary team partners, recognizing the church as key in the work to reach the Tepehuan.
In 1995 Canadians Irvin and Shirley Bauman joined the Cases, and in 1996 Matt and Starr Arnold joined the team. The team decided that Kevin would continue in translation and rely on the Lord to raise up the team to help with the other parts of the work. This was no small step of faith, as the same hope had come and gone with other families over 20 years.
Yet God is faithful.
In 2009, all the members of the team had to evacuate due to unrest in the area. In 2010, the Arnolds and Cases conversed with the field leadership about returning to BG and about whether or not to assign new families in the area. At the same time, the Lord had put it on the heart of Chris and Rachel Thomas to join the work.
Because the instability continued, the Thomas family decided to move into town and joined the Spanish-speaking church.
The Arnolds continued itinerantly and then in 2014 moved back into town with the Thomas family. The Case family continued to do translation itinerantly. From 2014-2017, the Arnolds and the Thomases led the church with two Mexican men and their families and Marcelo, a maturing Tepehuan believer. In 2017, the Arnolds returned to the USA due to health issues and family concerns. The Thomas family remain key members and leaders in the Spanish-speaking church that seeks to minister to the Tepehuan and others in the community.
A Different Perspective
The Tepehuan team has seen a number of families come and go. As I listened to the present team members discuss the team’s past, I was pleasantly warmed by their comments about those who went before them. They firmly asserted that the relationships that they were able to develop were made possible by those former members of the team who had so effectively broken down the walls of resistance that the Tepehuan people have put up to protect themselves. What a testament to God’s grace and faithfulness!
Joel Potter, my co-worker who did the interview, made a powerful statement: “This work is not by the book.” The team has, over the years, had to adjust their perspective, their ways of doing things, even if it didn’t fit the “right way” of the standard church planting pattern. One of the team members said that none of the team “fit the mold” and couldn’t “put God in a box” in how they ministered. This work has the added complexity of being in a bilingual setting, adding so many twists and turns to the “accepted” ways of attaining their goals.
If you were to talk to the international literacy coordinators for the mission, Jerry and Joyce McDaniels, you would find out very quickly that they feel the primary reason to teach literacy is for the people to be able to read the Word of God for themselves. And this team agrees with them.
Matt Arnold commented, “Starr and Shirley developed and ran the literacy program from 2004-2009. Starr, Shirley and Irv taught small groups of men, women and children. They were able to see about 20 individuals become literate. Most of these were already believers or interested in the chronological teaching.”
Matt said that, due to the lack of tangible value in their daily lives, the Tepehuan haven’t considered literacy a priority. Because of that, he continued, “our teams shifted the strategy as seeing literacy solely as a pre-evangelism tool (and it may function that way at times) to a development/discipleship tool for those who are moving towards Christ in the teaching.
“Most of the Tepehuan believers, numbering around 30, know how to read. Many of them were taught in the school as children and with practice became proficient readers quickly. All Tepehuan age 30 (maybe even 40) and under had an opportunity to learn how to read in both Spanish and Tepehuan. There is literally nothing to read in Tepehuan, [aside from] the Bible lessons, the translation and a few primers. The value of reading in Tepehuan is only seen in those 30 who want to read God’s Word.”
The Translation and the Translator
Beginning in 1995, Kevin and Wendy began the tongue-twisting and brain-wrenching task of translation. I found it amusing and ironic that Kevin had been told years before that he didn’t have the aptitude to be a translator! Yet he was given this task by the translation consultants who came in to visit.
And, yes, God is faithful.
Throughout the years, he has kept at the task, loving the challenge of putting God’s Word into the Tepehuan language, even though, as Kevin said it, “I never considered myself a desk person.” Twenty years is a long time, but he was faithful to the Lord. When it became too risky to stay in BG, the Cases moved to Chihuahua to continue the
translation, pulling helpers out of BG and taking consultants into BG as safety allowed. My heart was blessed to hear Shirley Bauman affirm him in his ministry. From what she shared, it was obvious that Kevin Gutwein, a translator and one of the translation consultants, appreciated working with Kevin on the translation.
Then in 2018, Kevin and Wendy made it to Sanford, Florida, to sit down with Doug Lotz to get the Scriptures formatted for the printer. I had the distinct joy of watching them put God’s Word in the Tepehuan language in book form for the first time in history.
Kevin stated, “The translation is accurate and communicates well.” He acknowledged that there is always room for improvement, but he was encouraged because the Word of God is now in the hands of the Tepehuan believers.
I asked Kevin what he felt were the largest obstacles to getting the translation finished. He gave me two. The first that he mentioned was the lack of a Tepehuan church to support the project and to give input into the process of terminology development and other linguistic helps.
The other demonstrates Kevin’s honesty and humility. He said, “[It] was my own struggle to be diligent and keep after it. It has been quite a battle. It’s only by God’s grace that we are where we are today, with a finished New Testament in the hands of the people. As a young person, I struggled academically. … But by God’s grace, here we are.”
I didn’t get to go to the dedication, but I think Wendy’s words will help you see the joy and delight that participants experienced. She said, “It is very challenging to share with you in a nutshell all that happened during the dedication of the New Testament in BG on November 24. We would love to sit down with you one-on-one and share all the stories. God’s presence was so evident in so many ways, and your prayers were answered above and beyond our expectations.
“It was amazing to have Arnolds, Baumans and us together again in BG along with some of our children. Watching our adult children walk the streets of BG, interacting with people and listening to what God is doing in their lives was so incredible. Each one who attended added something to the mix and was there for a reason in God’s appointed time.
“Chris and Rachel Thomas had paved the way by letting people around town know about the events and activities planned for the weekend. Excitement was high. Though we would not have chosen … the same weekend [as a political event in town], it drew people in who would not [normally] have attended the events, giving more opportunity to pass out New Testaments and to share with people. We were grateful for the Tarahumara friends (left) who came from across the canyon to provide Ranchero-style Christian music during downtime between events. (This was the third time that the neighbouring people group, the Tarahumara, had joined with the Tepehuan.)
God is faithful.
“It really was a celebration. It was wonderful to see Kevin’s six main co-translators honoured for the many hard years of work in the translation process. The church fed over 300 people between events. You would have loved watching the Tepehuan believers handing out New Testaments, talking to people, and a few being asked to sign Bibles for people. Locals came up, asking for copies to take to Tepehuan people they know who live in outlying areas. About 350 New Testaments were distributed over the weekend. That was far beyond what we hoped. Everywhere we went people were interested and asking questions. People were happy with the Word in their hands. We are grateful to the Lord for the overwhelming response.”
Let me say it again: God is faithful.
An Outside Perspective
One of the most important aspects of a missionary’s ministry is that of being sent out by their church. This can be said of the Cases as well as the other missionaries on the team. God allowed two of the pastors from one of the Cases’ supporting churches (Rocky Mountain Calvary in Colorado Springs, Colorado) to attend the dedication.
Rocky Mountain Calvary was introduced to the Cases through one of their missionaries, Sean Rafferty. Sean planted a church (Capilla Calvario) in Chihuahua 11 years ago. Kevin and Wendy attended the church, and a friendship was born. “I personally have known them in the context of church/missionary relationship since 2015,” said Pastor Dan Johnson, the missions pastor. “The Cases took a one-year home assignment in 2015 and spent six months of that year volunteering with the missions department here at church. We quickly saw their dedication to the Lord, [their] humility and joy, and we were compelled to begin supporting them and encouraging them.
“From that point on, we would do field visits with them while they lived in Chihuahua over the next few years. The translation work had clearly been born of God, and [since] we insisted in supporting them in that, we introduced them to the staff and church. As a church we have continued to reach out to them and encourage them as well as spread the word about the ministry and all that God has done in and through them.”
When asked what the most impactful aspect of the translation project was for him or for his congregation, Pastor Dan said, “Truly the most impactful aspect is the ‘full story.’ As I had Thanksgiving dinner with Kevin, Wendy and Debbie (their daughter), I heard all about the trials of decades of little fruit and little impact in the BG community and surrounding areas. They shared [how Satan would tell] them that they were wasting their time; how worship drove [Satan] away; how all they had to offer was a smile and a kind demeanour over many years; how the Lord allowed them to sacrifice and persevere over those years of little to no fruit to show; how donors and churches stayed faithfully with them when reports showed little results; and much more. Perseverance is the story, and now they are seeing the fruit of Bible studies, love, smiles and changed lives.
“The missionary needs to have a true calling or they won’t last. However, if the calling is true, there is no greater calling than to bring God’s Word in the heart language of any people group. I would caution [supporting churches] that the one fruit to look for is perseverance and not to expect a revival before that translation is done, … to stick through the seasons of sowing and watering and to send people from the church to visit and encourage the missionaries in the field [as well as] fasting and praying for them.”
And finally, I wanted to know what stood out most to Pastor Dan as he attended the dedication. He responded, “The honour the community showed to Kevin and Wendy stood out most. Memories of people grabbing their Bible and kissing it will forever bring me to tears. It’s too rich to explain.”
It is the team’s hope and prayer that the Scriptures will not just sit on bookshelves but will be used to spur the believers on to further growth and maturity.
And this is what is already happening. The photographer at the New Testament dedication was delayed in his departure from BG due to bad weather. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Because of that delay, he was given the opportunity to observe something that had never happened among the Tepehuan people.
He and the Cases had to go searching for a key to the house in which they would be staying. It “just so happened” that the key was in the care of one of the believers. As they went to get the key, they needed to follow the cultural norms of the Tepehuan. One does not just go, get the key and leave. Proper etiquette requires a visit, some coffee, maybe a snack.
But here is what thrilled his heart: the believers asked Kevin to do a little Bible study. Wendy observed, “While Kevin was looking for a passage to read, Bibles came out of the woodwork. When he looked up, everyone had a Tepehuan Bible.” That had never happened before in the history of the Tepehuan people group, … and the photographer was there to see it happen.
This is not the end of the team’s ministry. Kevin said it well: “Someone made the comment that the New Testament dedication had to be a good time of ‘closure’ for us. I responded that, for me, what God is doing among the Tepehuan is just getting started. It’s like the airplane is sitting at the end of the runway, and the rpms are spooling up for takeoff.”
When asked about the translation being in the hands of the Tepehuan believers, Matt said, “It is our hope that this would be a key part in the process of seeing the Tepehuan [believers] not only value their own place in the body of Christ, but also [of seeing] the Mexican church, who was more excited than imaginable about [the dedication], adopting the Tepehuan as full members into the Body.”
NTM Mexico has implemented a strategy to assign two new families to a purely Tepehuan community 45 minutes’ drive from town. This is possible due to the relationship of the former missionary team and a Mexican couple, Oscar and Rosa, local believers and leaders in the community and in the church where Chris and Rachel Thomas work. This is the next phase of the work. We anticipate hearing and sharing many more things as the Tepehuan church grows and strengthens itself in the Word.
Praise God for His Word now in the Tepehuan language. Pray for the growth of the Tepehuan believers as they soak up the Word and apply it to their lives.