The Gospel Hand-Off
"We need to cut down another tree!"
Simon and Lynn Caudwell were on the last day of a dusty trek toward Basketo, Ethiopia, in 1994. The road was blocked by yet another thick tree.
Their path had taken them through bogs that stymied their four-wheel drive and sections that narrowed to about the width of their vehicle, with a 3,000-foot drop on one side.
The Caudwells got out of their car, found a way around the tree, and pressed on toward the village. But when they arrived, rain threatened overhead, and they had to leave quickly before the storm made the mountain road impassable. It would not be the last time that circumstances beyond their control would halt their time in Basketo, a remote village southwest of Addis Ababa.
On this visit, their first, Simon was sizing up land for their house and ministry center. Lynn, meanwhile, was convinced she could never live in Basketo.
Lynn cried as they drove away, not because the visit ended abruptly but because she felt God had asked too much of them. "God, I did not know what you were asking of me," she prayed. "I don't think I can bring my children to such an isolated place."
The couple had been preparing for the challenge for years. After college they spent a year in field linguistics before moving with their two young children to Addis Ababa to study Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.
The couple eventually moved to Soddo-Wolaitta, the closest city to Basketo. In this season of waiting to move to Basketo, Lynn was running an errand one day when she felt the Lord speak: "Lynn, I have come to give you fullness of life." Little did she know what that fullness would mean in the years ahead.
While in Soddo-Wolaitta, the Caudwells visited Basketo 20 times. They started building a house and ministry office. Finally they moved to the village in 1999. The uncertainty was over—so they thought.
Working with people in Basketo, the Caudwells finished the initial analysis of the Basketo language. With the linguistic groundwork laid, after six months the couple left on furlough, planning to return soon to begin actually translating Scripture.
Suddenly, their careful planning came apart. One of their children became extremely sick. The family rushed back to their home in Britain. After treating the young child, doctors urged the Caudwells not to return the family to Basketo due to its remoteness.
Simon was shocked and bewildered. Why would God lead them this far and no farther? The Basketo would welcome having the Bible in their mother tongue. Relatively few of them could read existing Bibles, available in key Ethiopian languages for more than 1,000 years.
Biblical texts were available in Ethiopia as early as the 5th century, specifically in the Semitic language of Ge'ez. As Islam spread across North Africa, many Ethiopian Christians resisted the new faith. Some scholars today believe they did so because they had the Bible in their own language.
According to the national census, about 63 percent of Ethiopians are Christians—44 percent Orthodox, 19 percent other denominations. Since the original Ge'ez Bible translation, Ge'ez has been replaced in prominence by Amharic. More than 80 languages exist in Ethiopia. But of those languages, only 19 have New Testament translations, and 8 have the complete Bible.
The Caudwells were not the first missionaries to leave behind unfinished work in Ethiopia. Missionaries of Sudan Interior Mission (now SIM) entered Ethiopia in the 1920s. According to local accounts, when war broke out in 1937, missionaries had to flee the country, leaving behind 150 newly baptized believers. Years later, when the Italian army had left, sim missionaries returned. To their surprise, they found not a straggling few but 10,000 new believers.
Evangelical churches in Ethiopia grew rapidly after World War II. The congregations related to sim grew steadily, forming one of Ethiopia's largest denominations. The Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church now has more than 7 million believers, and they invited the Caudwells to minister in Basketo. Across Ethiopia, Kale Heywet churches are eager to advance the gospel. Tesfaye Yacob, former general secretary of the Kale Heywet Church, said, "Wherever it is, the church can only be alive when it is engaged in the Great Commission."
Many indigenous missionaries live by subsistence agriculture as they have their whole lives. They raise from their local churches only a tiny fraction of what it costs for Western foreigners to serve in places like Ethiopia.
The Caudwells understood the value of local leadership. They had come to Ethiopia eager to nurture disciples as they worked with the Basketo community to translate the Bible. They hoped local Christians could reach other Basketo people and neighboring regions that have few if any Christians. But now, the Caudwells found themselves pushed to make a leap in that direction far sooner than they had imagined.
The Right Person
Three years before the Caudwells arrived in Ethiopia, a Basketo man named Getachew (Geh-tá-cho) Yohannes had given his life to Christ. After finishing high school, Getachew worked as a government agriculturalist for three years, then returned to school for pastoral training.
If Simon and Lynn were to leave their home and ministry in Basketo, they needed a special person to take over the Basketo translation—someone who knew Basketo, Amharic, English, and theology. But waiting for a Western missionary to get trained in Basketo alone could stall the translation project for years.
When the Caudwells heard about Getachew, they thought he could be a clear choice for the job.
When Simon asked Getachew to take over the Basketo translation, Getachew immediately refused. In fact, he repeatedly told Simon that he would not do translation work at all. "I had no idea about Bible translation. I thought God had called me to work with the youth in my local church," he says. "I had no intention to switch to another job, even in the church."
Then Simon made an offer to Getachew—would Getachew undertake the Basketo translation of the Bible if his church approved? This proved to be more effective.
The church agreed, and so did Getachew. In 2003, he took over the Caudwell's research and started the slow work of translation, working alongside another local Christian, Geresu Kassa.
Getachew had known the Caudwells since early in their ministry in the village. He had already grasped God's call on the church—the whole church—to reach people with the Good News of Jesus and thus to provide that Good News in people's most accessible language. For him, that meant Basketo.
Getachew says, "One day we took the Gospel of Mark to a church conference [where] I was the speaker. I read one chapter in Amharic, and I read the same chapter from the Basketo translation. I saw the response of the people. For the first time my heart was greatly touched.
"Then I said to myself, 'These people really need the Bible in their own language. For this has God called me to the work of Bible translation.' I became so convinced and so happy translating the Bible. I was willing to sacrifice everything I had: my time, my energy, and so on, joyfully."
Yet Getachew was not alone. The Caudwells and a support team of Bible translation consultants and trainers helped out. He received what anyone handed a ministry hopes for: a healthy, well-tended ministry already thriving and poised for more growth.
As the translation proceeded, the Caudwells built stronger relationships with the translation team. Getachew and Geresu stayed with the Caudwells many times in Addis Ababa, where Simon had undertaken a different ministry role.
"We were sad not to be able to live in Basketo and not to be actively involved in the project from 2000 onward," Simon says.
"Encouragement and moral support were at least as important as technical project support.
"Through the time spent building our house, by depending on their hospitality and protection, in walking the footpaths in Basketo, we built loving relationships with the Basketo church and community."
Handing off a ministry is rarely simple; a calling is rarely easy to release. Even now, a decade later, as the Caudwells live and work in the United Kingdom, they and their two children miss Getachew, Geresu, and the Basketo church and community.
Whenever a baton of leadership passes to new hands, challenges arise from either holding the baton too tightly or from dropping it altogether. For the hand-off of the Basketo project, finances proved to be a test.
When Getachew accepted the call to serve in translation, a long fundraising season for him did not seem wise. Funds for his project were provided through the member organizations of the Wycliffe Global Alliance. He became a fully funded employee.
This choice demonstrated how the Western church can facilitate key work in the developing world by investing its resources in local leaders who are ready for more responsibilities.
Such arrangements of sharing finances require trust and accountability that come through on-the-ground partners like Getachew and the Caudwells. Getachew will soon become a Wycliffe Africa member, and he will have to raise local financial support. This will bring fresh challenges for his local Christian support network.
Indigenous missionaries face strong social pressure to favor their own community and ethnic heritage, escape poverty, protect their status, and provide for extended family. Serving in remote areas as missionaries may mean their families are disappointed. And of course, finding funding and the time to finish training is a constant struggle. Even today, Getachew still works to complete additional translation training.
Posture of Service
As the Caudwells and Getachew have seen, God may use situations beyond human control to bring missionaries and their agencies to hand off work into indigenous hands.
In a victory the Caudwells could scarcely have imagined 12 years ago, the churches of Basketo now have the Gospels of Mark and Luke in their mother tongue, and the entire Basketo New Testament is currently being reviewed. Throughout the process, the credit for the work was due not to one or two missionaries, but to a wide team of translators, consultants, and supporters both in Ethiopia and worldwide. Today, the Basketo people are more than 90 percent Christian.
Indigenous missionaries like Getachew are increasingly sent out to neighboring people groups. Foreign and local ministries are ministering in greater ways than either could alone. "Foreigners increasingly need to adopt a posture of service to the local and national leaders," says Simon.
The Caudwells consider it among their greatest joys in Ethiopia that "God was overriding our plans—for better ones."
Adam and Christine Jeske, based in Madison, Wisconsin, are coauthors of This Ordinary Adventure: Settling Down Without Settling (InterVarsity Press).