Phil and Carolyn began serving in West Africa in 2013. The region was relatively stable at the time, with good inter-communal relationships making it safe for local Christians and Western missionaries to live and work there. Tragically, the security situation has now deteriorated, bringing many changes to life and ministry.
Carolyn: When we first settled in the country we lived on a street with Catholics, Protestants and Muslims – even Jehovah’s Witnesses – and people got on well together. But then terrorism took hold and things got very bad. People we knew were killed, and there were kidnappings. The people group we work with were implicated in the deteriorating security situation since many of them had been recruited into jihadist groups, even though they don’t necessarily agree with the ideology. Often it’s because they see no economic future, or because joining brings protection for their family. Other ethnic groups are fighting as well; churches are being targeted by jihadists, and a number of local pastors we know have been killed.
Phil: The place where we did our language study is effectively out of bounds for foreigners now. Vigilante groups have sprung up who can kill with impunity. There’s real potential for genocide or mass killing. We need to pray for the region.
Tell us about the work you were doing when you first went out.
Carolyn: I was doing medical work, and sometimes in unexpected places! I became particularly involved with prison work. A small team of us worked in two prisons in the capital, including the maximum security prison. When I started going there the prison population was about 250, and only about ten of those were from the people group we worked with. As the security situation collapsed, the maximum security prison started filling up with people arrested for suspected terrorism. So the population swelled to about 700, with about 90 per cent from our people group. We had an amazing opportunity to minister in a place where they were landing on our doorstep! It was a very challenging environment, but we had an opening to share the gospel as well as doing medical work. We’ve been able to distribute Bibles and radios with an audio New Testament. We’ve really seen that God’s Word has got out there – as my colleague says, it’s the easiest place to evangelise because we’ve quite literally got a captive audience!
Phil: I was already involved in Bible translation work, so went to West Africa to help a translation project in a major language. The New Testament had already been completed, but the Old Testament was just beginning. We are now more than halfway through the Old Testament, having finished all the historical books except 2 Chronicles, much of the wisdom literature, and most recently the Pentateuch. We’re now starting to look at prophetic literature. There are other aspects to the project like literacy – because if you’ve got a book which nobody can read it’s no good. There’s also work on audio recordings and a mobile phone app, which has been quite successful. We’re trying all sorts of ways to get the Bible out.
How is the translation work done?
Phil: We normally start off with a draft based on French versions. One of the translators produces that, then I look at it in detail, comparing it with the original Hebrew and other resources to make sure that it’s correctly translated. Then we get other people to check that it reads naturally, and finally we bring in a consultant – somebody who’s trained in the biblical languages and in translation – to do a final detailed check of the book.
Last year you returned to the UK. How did you decide that you ought to come back?
Carolyn: I was on a mission leadership team at the time and was involved in the decision affecting many expatriate missionaries. The local Church in the country felt that having foreign Christians working among them was increasingly dangerous for them. Our presence was raising their profile and making them more vulnerable. It was a very big decision, which meant we all had to either return home and continue our work remotely if we could, or go to another country. Combined with this, on a personal level, we recognised that our parents were aging and it really felt very much of God that we should return to the UK. Phil could carry on working on the translation project, and we could be more available to help our parents at this stage of life.
And, Carolyn, you’ve continued using your medical experience for an international mission organisation.
Carolyn: Yes, I was asked to become their international health coordinator. It was supposed to be 10 to 15 hours a week, but as you can imagine, with coronavirus that’s grown to pretty much a full-time job. It’s a huge challenge and remains a difficult time. I’m making decisions for an organisation which affect many people. Praise God, nothing bad has resulted, but it’s been quite a heavy burden. One of the dynamics of this whole crisis is that people look to medical professionals for advice, but we don’t always have the answers – we have to give the best response we can. It’s been tough.
Phil, you’re still serving full-time on the translation project. How does that work when you’re thousands of kilometres away from the rest of the team?
Phil: As a team we were quite early adopters of Zoom! Before we left the country I trained my colleague how to use it. I would sit in one office and she’d be in another, and we’d try working ‘remotely’ – but in the same location. Thankfully the place where the team are based has good internet, despite the power cuts. On Zoom we can see each other’s screens and talk about the translation. But we do most of the work individually using software that synchronises our changes in the cloud. We also have a board of administration for the translation project, which is entirely made up of local believers, mostly pastors. They get their churches involved in the project, helping us find translators and other contributors. I have made some short trips back, but the current situation doesn’t allow travel. Yet we’re very grateful to God that the work can continue.
We’re within sight of the project’s end – probably a few more years to get everything finished. So I’m now on a programme to train as a translation consultant. This year I did my first check of a whole biblical book – Obadiah, all 21 verses! I’m working on a Masters in Biblical Hebrew, which I need in order to be accredited for that role. It could involve more travel, across francophone Africa or more widely. We’ll see how God leads. Bible translation in the French-speaking world is something that I’d like to contribute to for the long term.
How else could our readers pray for West Africa and the people you are serving?
Phil: There are huge numbers of internally displaced people who’ve had to leave their homes because of violence and threats – not just from jihadists but other ethnic groups. It’s basically ethnic cleansing.
Carolyn: We’d love people to pray for the local believers. They’re very discouraged. For example, Phil’s close colleagues – we’ve tried to encourage them and say, ‘Throughout church history, God works in times of suffering to grow his church.’ But they just look at the situation and find it very easy to get discouraged. After all, they are genuinely facing the possibility of losing their lives. It’s a very new thing for them to wrestle with that whole theology of suffering and what that really means for them. So please pray for these believers to be encouraged. This is a real moment for the church there, regardless of ethnicity, to stand as one and to show what the church should really be.