“What advice do you have for me?”
The young man sitting across from me in the simple second-floor classroom at the Northern Training Centre is suddenly earnest. It’s a marked shift from our just-completed interview, when I’m sure our shared laughter drove Bernard,* our translator, crazy. Twenty-year-old Sam* is one of the cheeriest souls I’ve ever met, and he radiates joy like a sunbeam.
He’s in the midst of the exciting, occasionally- awkward transition from teenager to adult, and he’s trying to figure out life. But after hearing his story of perseverance and God’s grace, I’m not sure what advice I could offer him.
Sam is Bernard’s language helper. He’s also the first Ne person ever to graduate high school.
Sam grew up in a Christian Ne village. He attended primary school and studied hard, achieving good grades despite the challenges of studying in Kinsha,* his second language. The school ended after Grade 3, and Sam was offered the chance to attend secondary school in a nearby city. It was an amazing opportunity, and it would forever change the course of his life.
Just 10 years old at the time, Sam left his family and village life behind and entered a very different world. All of the friends he arrived with eventually dropped out, deterred by language difficulties. There were bullies at the school, and sometimes they stole what little money he had; he couldn’t even call home to commiserate with his family because they didn’t own a phone.
It was a challenging time, and it pushed Sam to grow in his faith. He had been a nominal Christian for as long as he could remember, but as he listened to the preacher at a Christian gathering in the city, he decided he truly wanted to give his life to Christ. He began reading his Kinsha Bible every day, and praying.
“Every day, I prayed to God, ‘God, help me!’ because in my people, no one ever finished high school,” Sam recalls. It made him determined not to quit. “I set my mind to do it. Whatever happened, I would do it.”
Persevering through his final exams, he graduated at last, the first Ne person ever to do so. He proudly tells me that his name and tribal affiliation is now listed in the local university’s record of high school graduates.
His tribe was thrilled, and invited him to come home to celebrate. It was a special time visiting his family and community, and having his achievement honoured. The trip was also a reminder of the way of life he had left behind—many of his childhood friends were working in the fields, getting married at age 16 or 17, and beginning to have children. Sam knew his path was different.
He applied and was accepted at a discipleship school in a neighbouring country, travelling there before the pandemic hit and the land border closed for what would be three long years. The program was an opportunity for him to grow in faith and to study languages, and he began learning Chinese, English, and Thai, as well as music.
As Sam was adjusting to his new life, Bernard* had returned to his host country after a visit to Canada, and was praying for a language helper. To progress with the Ne translation project, he needed to learn to speak the language, but the only Ne speakers were in villages across the border, hours away from the Northern Training Centre where Bernard is based. He tried video calls with a Ne friend, but the shoddy Internet connection and scheduling difficulties made the experience frustrating.
Then, one day, Bernard’s colleagues noticed a little red car with a Jesus fish symbol on it as they were doing errands in town. Curious, they followed it to the discipleship training school, where they learned there was a student from the Ne tribe. Sam was quite possibly the only Ne speaker in the whole country, and he was willing to work with Bernard. It was a coincidence that had God’s fingerprints all over it.
Sam began teaching Bernard the Ne language when he wasn’t busy attending classes. “He’s a good guy to work with,” says Bernard. “He’s just really on the ball, really intelligent, and he knows what I’m trying to get through.”
Bernard believes that Sam will grow to become a strong leader and advocate for his people group and the development of their written language. In the meantime, Sam continues to study languages and hopes to enter university, if he can raise the funds for tuition. He dreams of one day sharing the gift of education with his people.
“I want to open a school in the Ne villages to teach languages and music and the Bible for people who cannot go to school,” he says.
But today, as the lethargic ceiling fan churns the humid air in the classroom and chickens squawk in the background, he’s asking me for advice. I can see that his request is genuine, so I fight the impulse to hide behind a self-deprecating joke. Instead, I tell him:
Keep following Jesus. Keep studying. And go visit your mother when the border opens.**
**The border reopened in February 2023 after being closed for three years