February 6, 2018 marked 32 years since I went to a small village in southern Mexico to learn their Mixtec language and help them translate God’s Word into their mother tongue. A number of years ago I wrote the following so others might know the incredible way God was working in that place. My 12 page book starts out with an intro, then shares this story. There is also a Spanish version of it. There is an abridged version of Sebastian’s life in one of my first blog entries on this site. (See the August, 2015 archive.)
This is a true story. It is an amazing and inspirational account which tells how God worked in the life of Sebastian so that the Mixtec people might hear His Word in their own language. Sebastian left school during the second grade to take care of the family goats. He was an alcoholic from an early age. He had never seen his language written down, but after he became a Christian, Sebastian read his Spanish Bible over and over to learn more about God and to re-teach himself how to read. Soon thereafter, at the age of sixty, seeing that his wife and others weren’t understanding the Spanish Bible studies, he bought a notebook, invented his own alphabet of this previously unwritten language and began to write.
This account shows just how much God wants people to have His Word in their own language, and so He used this man in such an incredible way. Today the people of this region have the New Testament in their own language in print and audio form. This makes us think of the passage from Acts 2:6-8 y 11b: When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? …We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
God preformed such a miracle in Acts so that this multitude of people from many different places could hear the Good News about Jesus in their own language, and in this way began a movement of God that continues to this day. This is also what happened among the people of this village. God used this man so that these Mixtec people could hear His Word in their mother tongue.
There are still many towns in Mexico and throughout the world where people still do not have the Word of God in their own language. Please consider how God might want to use you to meet this immense and critical need.
Betty, a public school teacher in Mexico, didn’t know what she was getting herself into. She had been assigned to this small village by the education authorities. It was not her first choice; a three hour dusty bumpy trip from “civilization” in the back of a truck. Ten hours from the city she lived in. Seven hundred people in the village, few who spoke much Spanish. They spoke Mixtec, one of over sixty major indigenous language groups in Mexico. They were dreadfully poor; subsistence farmers somehow growing crops out of the rocky ground, barely enough to feed their families. Their houses had dirt floors and one light bulb. They cooked over an open fire and made their own tortillas. They had given her a small room, also with a dirt floor, next to the school.
Despite their poverty the people were generous. They shared what little they had with her, happy that she had come to teach their children, many who came to school knowing little or no Spanish. She spent as much time teaching them Spanish as she did all the other courses combined.
Everything about living in that village was hard. She had never seen such big fleas. But Betty was not one to give up easily. When first told she had been assigned to this far away place she resisted. But after praying about it, she felt God calling her to go. So despite the hardships she knew she was where God wanted her. This was especially brought home to her as she realized that the people, though devout Catholics, understood almost nothing of the Bible. The priest, who came just once a month, served mass and did other ceremonies related to the church but did not expound on the Bible.
Betty had been preceded by a Christian man who had planted seeds by preaching the Gospel as he went around selling shoes. She started teaching the school children Christian choruses and held a Bible study for the adults. Many people began to attend. They were starved to hear about God’s Word, knowing it was a good thing. However, few understood much of what was being taught since Betty could only explain it in Spanish. There was one man, Emilio, who had traveled around and knew more Spanish than the others. He had become the first believer in the village. She had him translate what she was saying into Mixtec. This was hard for him, not knowing how to say in Mixtec so many of the Biblical concepts she was teaching. He sometimes had to use a mixture of Spanish and Mixtec words, and so this life-changing message was still not getting into the depths of their hearts.
Soon Emilio’s elderly father, Sebastian, began attending the studies and accepted the message of salvation. Here was a man who had drunk himself into oblivion countless times over the years. His drinking buddies were fellow musicians who played at parties. Despite his new confession of faith, Sebastian just could not resist the temptation of playing his fiddle and getting drunk with the others at these parties. But one day Emilio confronted him during a hangover and said if he was really going to follow Jesus, he would have to make a break with the past and sell his instruments. Painfully realizing this was the source of his problems, Sebastian parted with his beloved instruments, and never drank again.
As time went along and his faith grew stronger, Sebastian felt sorry for his wife and others who didn’t understand Spanish. He read his own copy of the Bible over and over to help himself relearn to read Spanish. But his heart burned to be able to help the others. He felt they needed the Bible in Mixtec, not just an off-the-cuff translation like his son was giving them. But what could he do? His Mixtec language did not even have a written alphabet.
Sebastian lived a hard life. He woke early and went to bed late. He made hats and baskets out of palm to earn extra spending money. He worked hard plowing his rocky fields with a team of two steers and a plow he had made himself. He participated in town work, such as helping to build the first village school or fixing up the streets. He had served as a town official several times. He had been working since he was small, having had to drop out of school to take care of the family’s goats beginning at the age of seven.
He had five living children. Five had died in infancy. His diet consisted of tortillas, beans and herbs. Rarely did he ever taste meat unless he went hunting. His evenings were now filled with attending the studies or reading his Bible over and over. Such wonderful things in it that his wife and others were missing. Sebastian prayed to God about what he could do to help them.
One day he went to the store and bought himself a little notebook. Using Spanish letters he began to translate Luke 24, the resurrection story. Such good news! But it was so hard. So many sounds in Mixtec that Spanish didn’t have. So many Biblical concepts that he didn’t know how to say in Mixtec. How could a guy with a second grade education do this?
Sebastian now held a notebook which had several Bible chapters translated into Mixtec. He felt as if it had been the hardest work he had ever done in his life. Harder than plowing through the fields which were practically bedrock. Harder than carrying firewood down the mountain trails back to the village. Harder than spending ten to twelve hours a day making palm hats and baskets. But God had helped him. He had figured a way to write it, at least a way which he could read.
Still he felt inadequate. Who was he to translate God’s Holy Word? What if he had really misunderstood some verses and told the people something wrong. He read in Revelation that those who add to or subtract from the Word are cursed. So even though he took his beloved notebook to the study each time, he never read from it.
But one night was different. Sebastian felt a stirring in his heart. A fire in his soul. He could not sit still any longer. People were falling asleep. Their minds were wandering. Several spoke quietly among themselves. A few just didn’t come anymore. What was the point when they understood so little? So he threw caution to the wind, stood up, and said he had something to share. With trembling hands he opened up his notebook and positioned himself beneath the lone light bulb in the room. Taking a deep breath he began reading. Slowly, haltingly at first. He heard several gasps as they realized he was speaking, that is, reading Mixtec, their heart language.
He continued, gaining strength and confidence as he read on. Looking up he could see several ladies crying. No one was sleeping or nodding off anymore. No more talking quietly to one another. No more getting up and moving around. They were all focused on him and what he was saying. He continued. The light of understanding shone in their eyes. He read on for a long time. These people would never be the same. And neither would he.
Betty was not there to rejoice in this amazing fruit of her work for the Lord. After a little over two years, the education officials had decided to transfer her to another place. She had left with a heavy heart, yet content with the fact that she had planted seeds. But she could not have imagined the marvelous things God would do with the seeds she planted.
Time passed and Sebastian’s notebook was filling up. Despite great personal sacrifice he continued to translate more chapters. His basket and hat production went way down. Money was at an all time low. But he would not be stopped. God’s Word was more important. God always provided enough to meet his needs.
He was now reading in almost all of the five services they had each week. Some ladies also came to his house every week to listen to him read. The great barrier of Spanish was being destroyed. God was no longer a “foreigner”, an outsider. He now spoke Mixtec. His Word was going straight to their hearts, instead of in one ear and out the other.
The more Sebastian translated, the harder it was. So many hard concepts! So many things he didn’t understand very well. So hard to write down certain words which didn’t seem to have any of the same letters as the Spanish alphabet. But none of this stopped him for God was helping him. He was a man on a mission.
Betty helped the people build a church with the support from other churches of her denomination in that region. Her home church then decided to take the little church on as their mission. Ministers were sent out to the church to preach, not realizing that their Spanish would be little understood. Not all of them were receptive to Sebastian and his notebook, and so weeks would go by when he didn’t have a chance to read from it during a service. But this did not stop the four or five older ladies who regularly came to his house to listen to him read it. Most of these ministers didn’t last long in the village. The language barrier and the living conditions sent many of them home disillusioned.
One day a Christian linguist from the United States visited the village with the goal of helping the people make books and translate the Bible into their Mixtec language. On his first night in the village God led him to Sebastian and he was overcome with emotion when he found out what was inside that notebook. Sebastian immediately began helping the young linguist learn his language. He also began dictating to him his translations. They began to talk about concepts Sebastian was having a hard time translating and others that he was misunderstanding. As the years went by he and the linguist worked together on the Scriptures. The Gospel of Mark became the first published Scripture ever in that place. Thirteen years after the linguist’s arrival Sebastian held in his hands a draft of the whole New Testament.
But life had been hard on Sebastian, and the liquor of the past had taken its toll. Not long after finishing that draft, he began spitting up blood and the linguist took him to the hospital over an hour’s drive away. The doctors unsuccessfully tried to remove his gall bladder. His children, who had moved to the more modern city where the hospital was, tried to get him to stay there. But Sebastian wouldn’t even think of it. He loved his village and he loved reading from his notebook to the people. So he returned, but one day he suddenly collapsed in a field near his house. He’d apparently had a stroke. He lost consciousness, his liver shut down and he passed on into glory. The linguist, who got to say a few words at his funeral, explained that while the people may have not realized it, a hero had been living among them.
It was Sebastian’s dream for his people to have the Scriptures in their own language. The dream has continued. The whole New Testament was recorded and is available to the people. On March 15, 2008, the published Mixtec New Testament was first made available to them during a joyful celebration event.
Betty, who still makes visits to the village, is pleased. Her Bible study had grown into this. From a seed planted in the elderly man’s heart to a quantum leap as he read from his ragged notebook to the people and now this. She had suffered a lot during those early years. So had Sebastian. But this makes it all worth it. She thanks God. Only He could pull off something like this.
Go to Google Play and search for Mixteco de Tezoatlan for the app which contains the text and audio of the New Testament.
A search of Mixteco de Tezoatlan Cantos on Youtube finds a page of videos of Mixtec songs and Scripture portions.
A search of Tezoatlan Mixtec NT on Youtube finds a video of the New Testament Dedication Celebration.
A wonderful site is called Scripture earth, which has Scripture audio and video for over 1000 languages all over the world. The part of it referencing Tezoatlan is: http://www.scriptureearth.org/00i-Scripture_Index.php?sortby=lang&name=mxb&ROD_Code=00000&Variant_Code=
Tezoatlán SIL site: http://www.mexico.sil.org/language_culture/mixtec/mixtec-mxb
This account is based on talks with Sebastian, Emilio, Betty, her father, people of the village, and living over 20 years in village.