“My people believe that it is only when the new god comes that they can go to school and get an education. They are still waiting for the new god.”
Pastor Cam* is a young Ne* (pronounced nay) preacher and translator, well-versed in the ancient prophecy that continues to shape the lives of his people to this day. Scattered in villages throughout the hills of Southeast Asia, the Ne are farmers and hunters, dedicated to their community and proud of their culture. They are also largely illiterate, and trapped in a cycle of spirit worship and sacrifice as they wait until the "new god" appears.
But Cam is convinced that the god in the prophecy is not a new idol, but Jesus. It is time for his people to find freedom in Christ.
Pastor Cam’s childhood
The 35-year-old isn’t officially ordained, and his name isn’t actually Cam. The nickname is a nod to the late Cameron Townsend, who founded Wycliffe back in 1953. Like Townsend, Pastor Cam is adventurous and ebullient, an itinerant preacher with a passion for the gospel.
But in contrast to Townsend’s California roots, Cam grew up in a Ne village, the son of farmers. His family was typical of others in the area—they grew rice and vegetables, and tried to keep the spirits happy. It wasn’t easy.
The spirits in the region were jealous, and kept villagers impoverished with their constant demand for animal sacrifices, verbalized to the people through the local shamans. Cam’s parents used all the money they had to purchase pigs and chickens for sacrifices—whatever the capricious spirits desired. Eventually, they couldn’t keep up with the demands. Everything they had was gone. And then Cam’s two older siblings became sick.
“We didn’t have money to go to the clinic. . .We couldn’t, because we offered everything to the spirits,” Cam recalls.
Both of his siblings died. Grief-stricken, Cam’s parents believed that the deaths were a punishment from the spirits because they hadn’t offered the correct sacrifices. They were trapped by the neverending demands.
A few years later, a preacher from a neighbouring people group came, proclaiming the freedom that Christ offers. Cam’s parents and many of their neighbours were ready to believe, and most of the villagers became Christians. Cam was 12 years old.
Freedom for the Ne
As he grew, Cam developed a burning desire to see all Ne people become free. He knew firsthand the misery that animism and a lack of education brought, and he believed that freedom would come when his people could read the Word of God in their own language. It was time for the prophecy to be fulfilled.
“I always pray for my people, and I’m always looking for ways to get involved with them. One thing that I can do is teach literacy and translate the Bible,” says Cam.
He began developing a writing system for the Ne language. First, he tried the complex script of the national language, then the Romanized alphabet of a neighbouring people group. His instincts were good, but he didn’t have the training that would allow him to be successful. He knew he needed support, and he began praying earnestly that God would send someone to help him.
Cam finds a translation partner
Eventually, a translator in the area introduced Cam to Bernard,* a Wycliffe Canada linguist who began teaching Cam the skills he would need to develop a Ne writing system.
Bernard had been analyzing data and writing reports for multiple language surveys in the region, but he was ready to join a long-term project. The cerebral Canadian with the passion for linguistic precision and the charismatic Ne pastor with the big vision bonded over their shared love of rock music, language, and Jesus. They decided to partner in the translation work and began to assemble a team of Ne speakers and literacy specialists to join them. Enthusiasm for the project ran high among the Ne, not only in Christian villages, but in Buddhist and animist villages as well.
But then the pandemic hit, followed closely by unrest in Cam’s country. The land border closed between their two countries, with Bernard stuck on one side of the border and Cam and their language helpers on the other. It was a serious setback.
Like colleagues all over the world, they turned to video calls, but the Internet connections in the Ne area were spotty at best. Bernard and his literacy counterpart, Anika,* would conduct multi-day online training workshops beset by spasmodic Internet connections, temperamental microphones, and the sheer tedium of participants on both sides of the call communicating in their second, third, or even fourth language.
In his pessimistic moments, Bernard was afraid the project would stall, or even collapse. But Cam was as determined as ever to help his people find freedom through reading about Jesus in their own language. He continued travelling throughout the Ne region, sharing the gospel and his vision for Ne literacy; and creating music videos about Ne life.
“He is very, very talented in languages,” says Bernard. “. . . And he’s pretty quick on the uptake; we taught him to do language survey, and he went out there on his own and did it.”
The first verse
But as the pandemic and unrest continued to wreak havoc on the project’s timeline, Cam wasn’t content to stick with language survey. He pushed ahead, and began to produce some preliminary translations of Bible passages. One day, Bernard was astonished to receive a first translation of Matthew 28:19 from Cam, ready for his approval.
Bernard felt the full gravity of the task in front of him—approving a preliminary translation is a significant step. But after poring over the verse for several hours with a Ne language helper online, he was satisfied that the verse was indeed a good first translation.
Cam hung the verse on the wall of a modest church building in the new Christian Ne village; it was translated specifically for the baptism service of seven families who had recently put their faith in Jesus. As the new believers shared communion together, the verse was a proclamation for all to see and hear:
The new God is come.