"I praise God that my mother put me into an orphanage." What a puzzling statement my national co-worker made. Iosif, a Roma (Gypsy) believer and national pastor in Romania, said this as I was asking him about his personal testimony. Iosif was one of our first contacts when we served in Romania as church-planters. His testimony illustrates the transformation of a soul from a prison cell to the pulpit of a church. His mother had several children but could not afford to keep them all, and Iosif was one who she placed in an orphanage. I thought that his plight was horrifying. But he explained that if he had stayed with his mother, he would never have had an education. The orphanage required school attendance – at least long enough to learn to read. If he had not learned to read, he could not have been a pastor to his people.
Most of Pastor Iosif’s church members could not read. When we first came to his village, at least 90% of the (Roma/Gypsy) population was illiterate, though they were surrounded by a literate Romanian culture. This made life challenging. The ability to read empowers God’s people to discover with fresh clarity the words of God in the written Scriptures. As one Bible translator in Papua New Guinea stated, "If you only hear the Word once, it won’t sink in and transform you. You need to be able to go back and expose yourself to it." Each exposure further enlightens the believer to the truths therein and how those truths apply to one's circumstances.
This is not to take away from the richness of orality. The Roma culture tends to be more of an oral society. A literate person has acquired the ability to read and write. But the nature of an oral society involves face-to-face personal communication. This has evolved a bit with new technology, but an oral society communicates its history, culture, values, and beliefs in stories, songs, and other oral methods. Therefore, oral cultures are dependent on memory. We have always been amazed by the memory skills of the Roma people. My words have been quoted time and time again. But a written record reduces the stress of remembering word for word. One can reread the handwritten or printed record many times, which preserves accuracy.
Jesus was literate and read the Scriptures aloud in the synagogues (Luke 4:16). The public reading of Scripture was commanded (1 Timothy 4:13) and practiced (Colossians 4:16). It may have been received by the church orally, but someone had to be literate enough to read it aloud to the people. There appears to be a blessing to the one who reads [Greek: "reads aloud"] the prophetic word, and a blessing to the one who hears (Revelation 1:3). Therefore, both the written record and the spoken word are imperative. Nothing is more encouraging than to hear that a newly translated Bible is being read aloud in public at a dedication service for all the village to hear!
Bibles International currently has 26 literacy projects worldwide: 10 in Africa, 14 in Asia, and 2 in South America. They are all in different stages of the process. However, we only have two full-time literacy consultants and three part-time adjuncts. The need for personnel on our literacy team is critical. Please pray that God would raise up more literacy consultants for His glory. As the Lord spoke to Isaiah the prophet, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?" May there be those who would respond with "Here am I. Send me" (Isaiah 6:8).