Brazil Trip Reveals Ministry Opportunities; Music and Language Breakthrough
A trip to the southern hemisphere for two former college friends revealed exciting developments in worship opportunities for tribal Brazilians and a musical breakthrough in a decades-long mystery of an indigenous language.
MIWC Founder John Benham and his long time friend, Steve Sheldon, traveled together to Brazil in October on behalf on MIWC, to meet with various ethnic minority groups, missionaries, missionary agencies, educators and the Christian University of Brazil to investigate a potential partnership with Liberty University to provide ethnomusicology training to Brazilian nationals.
The pair, who first met during their time at Northwestern College (now the University of Northwestern-St. Paul), began their trip at AMI Bible College just outside of Chapada, Brazil. There they learned that the college works with a variety of indigenous minorities and would like to see the minorities affirming their own ethnic identity through their worship practices.
Ethnomusicology is the study of music from different cultures (especially non-Western cultures). At MIWC, missionary associates study the music to understand the culture, which helps to understand how to communicate the Gospel message to people from that culture.
Benham and Sheldon spent extensive time meeting with the Janzens, who are the son and daughter-in-law of MIWC associate James Janzen. The Janzens focus their work in Brazil on teaching Bible, discipleship, worship and ethnomusicology to indigenous people.
While with the Janzens, MIWC's representatives met a woman named Méti from one of the local minority groups.
As a believer, Méti wanted to make music to God using their traditional music. However, not being from a family of musicians presented a challenge, because in many of the tribes there, the right and responsibility to make music is inherited.
Benham said, "It was a great struggle, but with a miraculous experience the song was given to her when she was awakened during the night."
Méti has since composed the first and second songs for the church in her village. Mrs. Janzen and Méti are currently teaching theology of worship together at AMI Bible College.
Benham said the Janzens have done amazing work in this area of Brazil, and seem to be natural ethnomusicologists who have a spiritual sensitivity in their work.
After leaving AMI, Benham and Sheldon flew to Brasilia where they stopped to visit SIL International headquarters there. According to its web site, "SIL International is a faith-based nonprofit organization committed to serving language communities worldwide as they build capacity for sustainable language development.”
The pair then met with UniEvangélica leadership to discuss the need for ethnomusicology training of Brazilian nationals and a music program, which has 470 school-aged children from poverty-stricken areas enrolled.
Next, Benham and Sheldon traveled to Anápolis and SIL International offices there. At SIL, they met with missionary Keren Madora, who followed Steve and Linda Sheldon’s work with the Pirahá tribe. The Sheldons started their work with the Pirahá via Wycliffe Bible Translators in the 1960's after graduating from Northwestern College.
In an extensive meeting where she and Sheldon shared the difficulties of translating the Pirahá language, Medora revealed that after 24 years with the Pirahá, she has determined that their language is not tonal as has always been assumed, but a sung language.
Benham said since traditional methods of breaking the code of a tonal language have not and will not work, it appears the discovery Madora made may be the final answer to deciphering the Pirahá language.
Missionaries have worked with the Pirahá for 250 years, but Madora and the Sheldons were the first of many missionaries to learn to sing much of the language. (Madora's story was first reported in the MIWC Spring Newsletter of 2001.)
Her discovery appears to have stimulated a new excitement in the Pirahá . Benham said adults now come to school and bring their children with them. This school seems to actually be for Madora. Since she is very close to singing the whole language, the adults are trying to teach the rest to her.
Benham said, “We think that their excitement is that after all these years someone may be able to actually communicate the story that all the other missionaries have lived before them and wanted to tell them, but couldn’t because they could only ‘speak’ the language. In other words, language fluency requires that the language be sung. We must hold these people up in prayer so that the story can be completed.”
In between meeting with all of these individuals and groups, Benham presented a variety of seminars on the role and importance of indigenous music in worship, discipleship and evangelism, and as a means of preserving cultural identity.
This trip to Brazil not only renewed the long time friendship of John Benham and Steve Sheldon, but forged new relationships and a challenge for MIWC's future involvement throughout Latin America.