Shortly after we arrived in Ghana, we travel to the Volta Region to participate in the launch of a reprint of the New Testament in the Siwu language, the first printing had sold out. The Siwu are a small, people group in Ghana’s Volta Region. They number about 36,000. In spite of being small, they were a divided community. At some point, a number of them had moved some distance away where they established new Siwu towns and villages. Even though it was not that far, the new and the old Siwu communities did not have that much contact with each other.
Then rivalries developed. Siwu from one community did not go to the yearly festivals in the other, which is rare, Worse, they no longer went to the funerals in the other community. In Ghana, everyone goes to funerals. People go to the funerals of distant relatives and even the family members of people they work with. They even go to the funerals of people they don’t like or get along with. Not going to the funeral is a powerful statement of separation. The Siwu were very divided.
What brought the two Siwu communities back together was the process of translating the Bible – not the teachings of the Bible mind you, but the process of translating it. The two sides collaborated on the translation. People from both Siwu communities started coming to translation events. Both communities sent people to be involved in the translation. The same translation was distributed in both communities. Literacy was organized in both. And then, of course, they started coming to other events in each others’ communities.
I have heard this story over and over with variations. The most usual is Christians and church leaders saying that the effort to translate the Bible into their language caused churches to work together who had not cooperated ever. At dedications of Bible translation, the most often cited impact of the translation program I have heard is the unity the translation program brought between churches.
At first I did not think that much of an impact. It was not one which motivated me personally. Other results, like people coming to faith, church growth, reduced drunkenness, and less domestic violence are big motivators for me. But unity as a motivation kind of fell flat. On the other hand, Africans have a high value for unity. This does not necessarily mean that they are more united. It does mean that they have strong feelings of loss when unity is absent, and they rejoice more when it is regained. The repeated and joyful comments about unity regained at that Siwu event confirmed their value for unity and gratefulness at its return.
Jesus prayed for unity for his followers:
I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me. I also want them to be one with us. Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me. I have honored my followers in the same way that you honored me, in order that they may be one with each other, just as we are one. (John 17:21-22)
Unfortunately, Jesus’ value for unity hadn’t rubbed off on me. I’m too American, valuing individualism more than unity. Also, I’ve been taught to be wary of approaches to unity which negate Jesus’ teaching. But years of hearing the joy of Africans at regained unity among their churches has finally rubbed off on me. Unity is one of the wonderful results of translating the Bible. It is one of the ways Jesus’ prayer for unity among believers is worked out in practice.