God’s word in the mother tongue

Missionaries Ken and Sue Sawka grateful for local partnerships during their more than three decades as Bible translators

SPREADING THE WORD — As missionaries since 1986, Sue and Ken Sawka, a Jefferson County native, have been involved in Bible translation, working with eight different groups in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo through the years. It is work done in partnership, they emphasized, with individuals and churches from the Ohio Valley. -- Contributed

Out of 7,378 living languages spoken on the Earth, 3,495 of them have either the complete Bible, a New Testament or some portion of it.

Shortening that list by some degree has been the life’s work of locally connected missionaries Ken and Sue Sawka, who’ve been involved in that process to some degree since 1986 when they stepped out in faith that supporting partners would share their vision of getting the Bible to every people group in the language they best understand it.

But the former area residents who first moved to central Africa in 1990 are quick to point out it’s not about them doing the work of Bible translation.

“It takes a team, and every single member of the team is crucial and important,” noted Ken, a 1977 graduate of Wintersville High School and the son of the late Stanley and Leona Sawka.

That team includes local individuals and churches from the Ohio Valley who have partnered financially with the Sawkas through the years and collectively help serve as an evangelistic bridge between God and people hungry for the Word and hearing or reading it for the first time.

For this Easter weekend story, the Sawkas provided an update on being in their 36th year as missionaries, communicating through e-mails and a Messenger conversation on Facebook.

The Sawkas live in Zambia, a country in south central Africa that’s about the size of Texas and has more than 36 languages.

“We (as a team) have worked among eight different people groups located in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — two of the groups in support roles and the other six as project leaders,” Ken explained of their time in the ministry.

“We are presently working among three different language groups — the Kunda, the Senga and the Toko-Leya people,” he added.

A Bible translation is not a speedy process but one involving prayer, planning and commitment. Before missionaries like the Sawkas began work with these groups. they may not have even had an alphabet. The Sawkas spend years with each group, figuring out how the phonetics and grammar of the language works before they begin to do Bible translation.

The first copy of the recently completed Kunda New Testament, for example, took eight years. The final copies will be printed and bound in South Korea, with a hoped-for arrival in Zambia sometime in 2023.

While evangelical Christianity is spreading rapidly across parts of Africa, local church leaders, the Sawkas pointed out, lack the tools they need to disciple their congregants. And that’s where the churches of the Ohio Valley have come in, to give them the Bible in the mother tongue, they added.

To those who might wonder why not just teach English, French or some other major language, instead of spending years and years working on a Bible translation, Ken responded, “Africans love their languages. They are not going to give them up. Wars are fought over such things. Even if they learn another language, the people want to hold onto what we call ‘the mother tongue.’ It’s what you learned at your mother’s knee.”

He explained it further this way: “A church leader in the Congo told me once, ‘I hear French (the national language of the Congo) with my ears, I hear Swahili (a language used for trading) with my mind, but I hear Kibudu (his tribal language) with my heart.'”

In addition to doing a written translation, the Sawkas also are doing much to put the Bible into audio and video formats.

As Sue explained, “Many Africans just don’t spend any leisure time reading, even if they know how to read. Instead, they will readily listen to the radio. And cell phones, which are common across Africa today, can connect to community radio stations or be loaded with a data card that enables them to listen to the Scriptures. They love hearing the Bible in their own languages.”

Even so, the Sawkas want the local people to learn to read and write.

Sue works in women’s literacy, among many of whom have never had a chance to go to school. They are adult women, she explained, but they’ve never held a pencil before. Many are learning to read, and they are so thankful to do so.

“They feel empowered, and it gives them a sense of confidence in what often is a society that is not friendly toward women,” Sue pointed out.

“The Bible is bringing real change,” she said. “We have been blessed to have the support of churches and individuals who pray for this work. Over the years we have worked with six different language groups. Their combined population is well more than 2 million people. That’s something that area churches can be proud of. God has used them to bring the message of love and hope, found in the Bible, to those who have never had it before. God is using them to do the greatest work,” she emphasized.

The Sawkas work with a committee for the translation process.

“Whenever we work in a language group, we have them form a committee. So each committee, our name is Partners in Bible Translation because we honestly partner with people, our partners in the U.S. and with communities here,” Sue said.

“At this point, the Kundra New Testament is done, and it’s going to be sent off to be printed this year. They’ve also done an audio recording of the New Testament. We just finished that last month, which is exciting because we teach people how to read and write, but the truth of the matter is, it’s a very oral society, so we have these devices called Proclaimers, and we put the Bible on these, and people can sit around and listen in groups and listen to the Word. They can ask questions, what does this mean to you, they have different questions that they ask, and so basically audio Bibles are really a way of getting the word out to the people because there are some people who will read, but generally it’s an oral society more than anything else,” Sue explained.

The Kunda people are in discussion about whether to do an Old Testament translation, according to Sue responding to an inquiry about whether translations are done for the Old or New Testament or both.

“I think at this point, they want to see how well the New Testament is received. If they say yes, we want to do it, then we do it; if they say no, we can give our point of view, we can give technical linguistic information, but they are the ones who decide what they want to do, and we give them that responsibility, and that’s their choice.”

The translation process is one that involves linguistic surveys. “It’s one thing Bible translators do,” Sue said. “We survey the languages and see who needs one, or this one understands that one, this language is dying out and doesn’t need a translation, this one is very close to another they can understand,” she said in citing examples.

“The mother tongue is powerful, so if people feel like they want the Bible in their language, we’re willing to do that,” Sue said of a process where the people groups are involve to have ownership in it, “skin in the game.”

“We also have the Jesus film in Senga and in Kunda, which is quite powerful, because then they are as one lady said, ‘I saw Jesus speaking my language, and that just changes everything,” she said of what constitutes a powerful evangelism tool.

Missionary work wasn’t necessarily the first life choice for the Sawkas early on.

“I wanted to be a lawyer when the Lord called me in to missions, and Ken wanted to be a wildlife biologist,” Sue said when asked to speculate what they’d be doing had they not become foreign missionaries. “Ken loves hunting and fishing and just being out in the woods. He could easily do that kind of life, but at the same time I feel like we have lived a rich life, so I am so thankful,” the New Jersey native said, noting she was studying pre-law and political science at the University of Steubenville.

After their marriage in 1985, the Sawkas taught at the East Liverpool Christian School for a year before they started working with Wycliffe Bible translators, a group name after John Wycliffe who, 600 some years ago, was the first person to translate the Bible into English. They began training in Texas at the International Linguistics Center in Dallas, heading after that to Quebec, Canada, to learn French. Off to the Congo they went in 1990.

The Sawkas were last home in Ohio — they have had a home in Richmond since 2007 — from June 2020 to June 2021, during “the intense time of COVID-19. We were so thankful for all the open doors to people’s homes and churches,” they noted.

“One of the most touching things about our dear partners here in the Ohio Valley,” Sue commented, “is that even though we leave them for so many years, when we come back, they welcome us back into their hearts and lives. They have truly given us a ‘home’ in Ohio. Many other missionaries are so amazed at the strength of our team, love and commitment of our team. The truth is only Jesus can do what He has done through all of our lives. We are truly grateful and short of words,” she added.

What will Easter be like for those in Africa?

“The truth is, because of the Ohio Valley partners and churches who have faithfully prayed for us and have sacrificed to send us here in Africa, there will be more than 2 million people who are able to read, hear and even see in video form Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in their own language,” Ken said.

Asked if there was anything she hoped the article would get across to readers, Sue responded, “I don’t know if it’s appropriate or not, but we often take it for granted that we have the Bible in our own language and perhaps we don’t even treasure it.

“Think about it — it’s the very words of God and it’s in our language and people died for the sake of us getting those scriptures in our language, and we flippantly decide whether we’re going to read it or not. I just think we should know the weight of what people did for us and the power of the word,” she added.

“Everything we take for granted — even the fact we read that Jesus died and rose from the grave. For some people, this is the first time they will ever hear that, and the weight of sin, the weight of shame, this was their first Palm Sunday or first Easter to know that Jesus died for their sins. It’s like — what? He died for me? He took my sin? My shame? It’s almost like too much for them to even take in, the first time to ever hear it,” Sue said of the reaction of a new believer processing the message through the translated word.

“We haven’t stayed in the freshness of his presence, of his word,” Sue reflected, noting how she preaches to her “literacy ladies” who would be “sitting on the edge of their chairs, drinking in the information.

“I feel like the nets are huge, the harvest is huge,” she said. “I feel like huge nets are going out, and many are giving their lives to the Lord. It’s humbling to be here — such a privilege,” she said.

“Our hope is that the people of the Ohio Valley are encouraged by what God has done through them,” Ken wrote.

Retirement is far from their thoughts.

“We are both in our most fruitful season of ministry,” Ken observed. “We thank the Lord for strong bodies and minds. It’s like all our previous years have prepared us for ‘such a time as now.’ God is so faithful, and He continues to raise up folks from all generations to join the work of this ministry.

“We are thankful to continue laboring in his harvest field along with all our partners and churches until he tells us otherwise.”


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