Bibles for Bolivians, to read or to listen

Low German speakers, some functionally illiterate, welcome access to Scripture

Apr 21, 2014 by and

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WINNIPEG, Man. — Norman Brown’s goal is to distribute the Plautdietsch (Low German) Bible free to every home in Bolivia where the language is spoken. Since Mennonite Brethren publisher Kindred Productions released De Bibel in 2003, the Winnipegger has handed out more than 8,000 copies.

Norman Brown, right, gives a Bible and digital audio player to a Mennonite in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. — Dorothy Brown

Norman Brown, right, gives a Bible and digital audio player to a Mennonite in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. — Dorothy Brown

Brown began ministering to Plautdietsch speakers in 1994 when Power to Change (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) placed him in charge of the newly translated Low German Jesus film. Brown and his wife, Doro­thy — who’d both grown up with the language but hadn’t spoken it for years — sensed God’s call.

The 75,000 Plautdietsch-speaking Mennonites living in 75 colonies in Bolivia are among the most traditional, traveling with horse and buggy and wearing straw hats and bib overalls. Their ancestors left Canada for Mexico in the 1920s. Lacking biblical training and fearing corruption from the world, when evangelical teaching came to Mexico the most conservative Mennonites moved to Paraguay and from there to Bolivia in 1953.

While owning a Bible isn’t prohibited, the colony leaders fear “too much learning just confuses people,” said Brown.

“Most of the Plautdietsch people only comprehend approximately 20 percent of what they read in German,” Brown said. Low German is basically the only way to convey the gospel to them. Children attend six years of school in German; then they are qualified to teach others. Brown compares their proficiency in German to the level of French in most Canadian children.

“The need for Plautdietsch material cannot be overstated,” he said.

In Bolivia, a man who’d received a Bible six years earlier asked Brown to meet him.

“Since then, he’d read it carefully every day, and just recently he had understood that he needed to invite Jesus to be his Savior,” Brown said.

The man brought his questions — for which church leaders had excommunicated him — and the two searched Scripture together.

“Now, he prays daily for the leaders of the colony,” Brown said, “and he takes every opportunity to share the gospel with friends and neighbors.”

One of the first Bolivian Mennonites to whom Brown gave a Plautdietsch Bible was a man who spent most of his time in bars while his wife struggled to provide for their family. When he accepted Jesus, “his thirst switched to the Word of God, and he began to treat his family with love and respect,” he said.

The Low German translation was a joint project between the United Bible Society and Kindred Productions. To date, Kindred has sold 27,118 Low German Bibles and 20,602 New Testaments.

Because about 30 percent of Plautdietsch people in South America are functionally illiterate, Power to Change collaborates with Family Life Network to provide the New Testament on MP3 digital audio players.

“We cannot meet the demand because the cost of producing it is still quite high,” Brown said.
He has made 20 trips to South America to show the Jesus film and distribute Bibles, with Bolivia as his focus. He works through the local churches and missions, particularly Evangelical Free Church, the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference and Trans World Radio.

When someone accepts a Bible, Brown asks if they know whether they’ll spend eternity with God and if they want to be sure. The answer to the latter is almost always “yes.” That opens the door to share scriptures of assurance: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:12-13).

Brown said some say, “That is not the way we have it over here. We all hope to be saved one day.” But the most common responses are “Where does it say that?” and “That is very clear!”


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