A Long Look Back, A Short Look Back

Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic (CAR), was the site of a four-day celebration held November 14-17, 2023, that honored both 100 years of Baptist Mid-Missions' (BMM) ministry in CAR, and the recent completion of the revised Sango Bible. Though not a modern city by any means, Bangui now boasts a shopping mall and large grocery store that closely resemble their American counterparts. How different the city and country are from when pioneer missionaries first arrived in what was then called French Equatorial Africa.

The Centennial

It was William Haas who followed God's call to the center of Africa in December of 1911. He and his wife and their infant son, plus five other missionaries and two children, made the weeks-long voyage across the Atlantic and through the Suez Canal, arriving safely on the east coast of the continent. From there the group spent three long, hard months traveling inland via oxcart, train, foot, occasional lake steamers, and riverboats. A female missionary in the group journaled, "Lord, please don’t let the oxcarts turn over again." Returning to the States to report on the need for continued ministry in CAR as well as the need for financial funding, Haas was able, in 1920, to gather around him a fledgling mission board that would ultimately be called Baptist Mid-Missions.

The 100-year mark for Baptist Mid-Missions' ministry in CAR came in 2020, as did COVID-19, causing one of two reasons for the delay in celebrating. But the 3-year delay did nothing to dampen the spirits of the CAR Christians who came together that first day of celebration. Women dressed in colorful African garb (much of it sewn from fabric specifically designed for the occasion), men dressed in American two- and three-piece suits, pastors, lay people, and 10 Americans representing BMM and BI lined the four sides of a grassy square on the BMM compound. Speeches, songs, prayers, and an opening sermon from BMM president Dr. Patrick Odle entitled, "The Great Gospel Victory," were all part of the centennial celebration. It was noted that from 1920 to 2020, 237 BMM missionaries had served on the CAR field. Generations of people had come to Christ, and on this day, God was receiving the glory due His name.

The second and third days of the celebration were devoted to specific group meetings and events, then the grand finale came on Friday. The stadium in the city had been rented for the occasion, and CAR’s president even made a cameo appearance. Again, choirs sang, pastors spoke, presentations were made, prayers of thanksgiving were offered, and a message was preached on the importance of remaining faithful and going forward from here. But there was more.

The Bible Dedication

Not only did William Haas have the heart of a missionary; he also had the heart of a translator. Upon discovering that Sango was the most widely used language in the area, he set to work learning the language, creating a writing system for it, and then translating God's Word into Sango. After Haas's death in 1924, BMM missionaries continued the task, and in 1966 the complete Sango Bible was printed. What a joyful milestone that was!

Over time it became evident that the Sango Bible needed to be revised, due to changes in the writing system as well as changes in word meanings. Obstacles presented themselves all along the way, the first of them being that Bibles International did not hold the copyright for the Sango Bible. Obtaining that through the right channels was a long, complicated process starting as early as 1997, but in 2006 the training of national translators began, with consultants Susan Hossack and Glenn Kerr making trips to check their work at regular intervals. In 2012 those trips became more challenging, due to civil war in CAR. The work, however, continued unabated; the translators kept on translating. International communication was still possible by internet (at times), email, and phone calls. Despite the roadblocks, the revised Sango Bible was printed, and visions of an upcoming dedication ceremony danced in the heads of people on both sides of the Atlantic. One more delay was in store, however – the second cause for postponing the celebration – as the shipment took about six months to arrive at its destination. But arrive it did, and plans for this “double-header” celebration were finalized.

On the first day of the 4-day celebration (described above), the revised Sango Bible took center stage. A package of several Bibles was carried in by a young woman with all the dignity of a wedding ceremony (including the white dress). She was followed by Yvon Pagonendji, the project facilitator. The package was set on a table and carefully opened, and a prayer of thanksgiving offered for God’s living and powerful Word. Glenn Kerr spoke, acknowledging that this Bible was the work of the Central Africans. Then pastors encircled the table. Some of them offered prayers; some of them read aloud from their new Bible.

The final event of the fourth day was the forming of a parade. As a band played, attendees marched around the stadium behind three people who were carrying a torch and the newly revised Sango Bible. May that be a symbol for the Christians in CAR for the next 100 years – the torch of God's Word leading the way in all that is said and done for the sake of the Gospel.