By Mark Ellis —
He met the girl of his dreams at Texas A & M and made the wonderful discovery they both wanted to be missionaries and shared the goal of reaching Muslims with the Good News.
“I was getting a civil engineering degree, thinking of being a tentmaker missionary. Rebecca was set on Bible translation — that was the only thing she could see doing. She wanted to serve, not just be the spouse of a missionary,” Greg Pruett told God Reports.
Greg was wild about Rebecca, but she dumped him three or four times – until he cried “uncle” and agreed to become a Bible translator as well.
When he started Fuller Seminary, he planned use his civil engineering degree for community development. “Rebecca was signing me up for classes. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but at the end of the two years I was a Bible translator,” he laughed.
He took one Bible translation course and got hooked. “It became the passion and purpose of my life,” he said. “If I hadn’t listened to my wife and finally paid attention to her, I would have missed the whole reason God created me. I learned from that to always listen to my wife.”
They joined Pioneer Bible Translators in 1976, and in 2007 he became the president of the organization.
Their first assignment was in a village among the Yalunka people group in West Africa, where there was a small existing church of 40-50 people, including children, surrounded by 80,000 Muslims.
“There were no Christians except for this one church among a sea of Muslims,” he recounted. The leader of the existing church gave them a small house to live in with a low tin roof.
“Picture the design of a solar oven. It was toasty in there,” he recalled.
Most of the village was mud huts. “There we were in this village, Rebecca and I. We did what most missionaries would do, cry a lot.”
While they had studied French in preparation for their assignment, none of the women in this village knew French and only a few men. It was “a shock to the system” for them to be in a place where there was so little ability for them to communicate.
They arrived on the first night exhausted from their journey. They went to bed early, but shortly after they fell asleep they were jolted awake by a trumpet blast.
I sure hope that was Gabriel, Greg thought to himself. It was 8:45 at night and the trumpet was a signal calling the church together. A man addressed the small assembly and Greg was straining to understand what he was saying, then suddenly realized he was pointing toward Greg to preach. “The next night the same happened. The next night the same.”
After that first late-night church meeting, Greg and Rebecca woke up early to lots of noise. They opened their front door and discovered their front yard had become a market. There were piles of rice and other goods, with hundreds of people streaming into the area.
A few weeks later, they heard a woman’s cry relatively close to their house. “It was wailing to break your heart, because she believed her son was going to die.”
When Greg and Rebecca rushed to see the boy, about four-years-old, they were alarmed by his condition. “His breathing was labored. He was unconscious, his pupils were dilated, not responding to light.”
He is dying, Greg thought. It could be meningitis or cerebral malaria, he surmised.
There were no cars or trucks in the village to transport the child to a hospital. There were no emergency vehicles they could call. A taxi would take a day to get there. They only had a few malaria tablets in their possession.
As he stood there with the pastor, Greg said, “We are missionaries, maybe we should pray!”
At the moment Greg said the word pray, the boys’ eyes blinked.
Suddenly a wondrous thought entered Greg’s mind: God will heal him.
As they huddled around the boy and started praying, the boys’ eyes opened and started looking around the room. He became conscious, his condition immediately improved.
The malaria medicine wasn’t needed because God touched the boy and healed him!
“That was the moment I realized prayer is not the thing we do last. Since God is real, we need to act like God is real. I became fully persuaded in those first years, maybe I didn’t have faith like I thought I had.”
Living in the U.S., his attitude was that prayer was secondary to conventional medicine. “Our world view had dominated my world view until I got there. When push comes to shove you turn to God. If you wait to pray (as a last resort) you are a practical atheist,” he concluded.
Greg and Rebecca assembled a team of people to translate the Scripture and verify its meaning.
Their Muslim neighbors were not openly hostile, but persecution arose in subtle forms. “They were welcoming to foreigners. There was not a sense of danger to us,” Greg said. If a Muslim converts to Christianity, they may not face violent retribution, but they will likely face humiliation and be treated as inferior.
“They will do things like when they distribute the food, with one bowl to a man, one to a woman, one to a child, what’s left over goes to the dogs and the Christian man.”
Muslim converts who had multiple wives had wives taken from them after conversion. If a Muslim gets sick, the family would normally supply food during their illness. But if they began following Jesus, the family would ignore their plight.
“The attitude is, ‘They are lost to us,’ and they will slowly starve.’”
Sometimes they did open air evangelism, traveling to other villages. “One night we all piled into my Landcruiser, about 8:30. We only had one car so, we could only take 25 people. Everybody’s spleen was up on their elbow, organs of the body are displaced and moving around from the terrible road.
After a bumpy two-hour ride, at 10:30 they reached a small village near the border with Sierra Leone. “We would pile out and start singing our evangelistic songs, and everybody gathered, nobody was going to miss this.”
Greg translated one of their evangelistic songs this way:
All of you idolators, stop that now,
All of you adulterers, knock that off,
When Jesus comes back some distant day,
You won’t say I won’t do that again.
“Our old pastor would get up and say if you’re a Muslim you will go to hell. It was hardcore. People would come forward. Everybody who could hear was pushing their way forward.”
They were able to plant a small church in that village. “It got smaller after they realized you aren’t allowed to do adultery and things like that,” Greg noted.
In the Yalunka language, Greg discovered they have one word that means like and one word that means love.
One day Greg asked one of his translation helpers the difference between the two words. “If it is somebody you like, if they did something wrong to you, you could abandon them. But if you love them, you would never abandon them,” the man replied.
“Should you love God?” Greg asked.
“You should definitely love God.”
“Does God love you?”
The man got quiet for a moment as he considered the question. “You ask hard questions. I have no idea if God loves me or not.”
“I got to be the first person to let him know God is love and he has a Father who made him and loves him like a Father.”
Two years after studying the Yalunka language Greg arrived at the point he felt more confidant to preach. He and Rebecca completed most of their translation work of the Old and New Testament in 11 years. Their actual dedication of the Scripture took place 20 years after they first arrived in the village.
“We are very tight partners with Wycliffe Bible Translators,” he noted. “Our approach doesn’t differ that much, but we focus more on unreached and unengaged people groups.”
Pioneer Bible Translators recently passed the 100-Bible translation project mark, among 48 million speakers of those languages in 24 countries.
“We have experienced a real movement of God’s Holy Spirit among us,” Greg emphasized. “We got to a point where we said we’re going to make prayer the strategy of our organization.
“In those 14 years, we went from 35 translation projects to 101 projects. We went from ministering in five countries then to 24 countries now. Do you have any idea how hard it is to start work in 19 countries where the unreached and unengaged are located?
“There was a huge, great movement of God’s power that has happened for us.”
To learn more about Pioneer Bible Translators, go here