In the early 1980’s, Liberia was in a civil war and we were living in Abidjan, surrounded by refugees. Liberians crossed the border into Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The UN set up refugee camps but some refugees made their way to Abidjan. Among them was a class of crooks – confidence men who would tell creative stories to pry some money out of your wallet. Their tactics were the subject of daily conversation.
A new couple arrived and joined us from the US to help. I had to travel up-country with some colleagues, so we left the new guy in charge of the office. When we came back a few days later, he told us that two Liberian men had come to the office. They told him that a Liberian friend of theirs had worked as a national translator for his language. The missionary couple leading the translation had returned to their country for some months. The war broke out shortly after they left and they could not return. The only copy of the translation of most of the New Testament was in Liberia in the hands of their friend. He was trying to bring it across the border into Côte d’Ivoire for safe keeping, when he was detained by the police. The men said that they had traveled with him and were unable to get the manuscript from him. They wanted about $300 to go back to the border, pay the fine, and get their friend released with the manuscript of the NT. They would then return to Abidjan and give us the manuscript for safe keeping.
As our newly arrived colleague told it this story, we were smirking. It sounded like some of the renowned Liberian hucksters knew a little about Bible translation and had crafted the perfect story to soak our colleague. To our chagrin, he had given them the $300. We consoled him. “Three hundred dollars is not that much,” we said. “You meant well,” we had told him. He was embarrassed.
A few days later, three Liberians showed up at our office. The two who had talked $300 out of our friend and colleagues, and another who supposedly had the only copy of the translation of the New Testament into his language. We were braced for a new story and a request for more money. Instead, the third Liberian pulled out the only manuscript of the New Testament in his language! We quickly took the manuscript to the photocopier and made another copy, whicht we put in the safe.The next day, we were able to connect the Liberian translator with the missionaries, by phone, to tears of joy all around.
God had to get us “wise” people out of the office so that he could have a “naive” new missionary give money to Liberians with an improbable story. We would never have given the money, and the manuscript might have been lost. We probably would never have even known of our mistake.
This incident taught me an important ministry lesson – if I am careful with my charitable giving to the extent that I never waste money – never make a mistake – I probably will be making a different mistake; that of not giving money where I should. This principle goes beyond giving. If I screen national translators so well that I never get one who does not work out, I will probably be turning away quite a number who would do very well. Fear of making a mistake is a dangerous thing.
Most importantly, I need to listen to the Lord and the Holy Spirit. Something my wisdom considers foolish might just be what God is doing. This danger increases with experience, so the Lord needed to inject some humiliation into my life to get me back on track, like the day I ate crow in front of our new missionary colleague and three Liberians.