Craig Mathison- During a public riot and his own arrest in the first century, the early church missionary & apostle, Paul, turned to his arresting officer and said, “May I say something to you?” Acts 21:37 records the officer, quite surprised, replying, “You know Greek (my language)?” Paul’s conversation with that officer in his own tongue even gained him the chance to address the crowd who moments earlier had cried out for his execution.
Knowing and respecting the language of another still opens doors. On the island of Sicily, an improbable but amazing story in missions continually is adding new chapters as that simple principle of knowing and respecting language is the basis for reaching the unreached. A missions team, headed up by AGWM missionaries Neil and Kathy Vanaria, engages with refugees arriving from a multitude of nations, tribes, peoples and languages and shares God’s word with them in their own languages. Light for the Lost is key to making this happen.
Neil & Kathy Vanaria answered God’s call to missions in 1988. They moved to Papua New Guinea and took on the assignment of translating the New Testament into the Mesem language. It was a long and difficult process as they first had to learn Tok Pisin, a national trade language so they could begin to communicate and learn Mesem. Only by learning Mesem themselves could they be sure to make a trustworthy translation. It took 25 years but they finished the Mesem New Testament in 2013. Still called to missions they prayed, “Where now, Lord?” God directed them to Sicily, a large island off of southern Italy and the the homeland of their own ancestors. He directed them to engage with the thousands of refugees arriving on Sicily’s shore. Little did they know that their respect and understanding of the language of the “other” would again prove essential to the ministry God would open for them.
As they meet migrants, they start by asking them, “What country are you from?” When the migrants answer, the Vanarias respond, “So, which tribe are you from? Are you from this tribe, that tribe, the other tribe, etc?” They have taken the time to learn about the migrants, their tribes and their languages so that they can say, “May I say something to you…in your language?” For with the help of Light for the Lost funds they fill mini-SD cards (that fit in inexpensive cell phones) with the scriptures, evangelistic texts and even evangelistic movies and videos, all in the respective languages of those who are arriving. These migrants, surprised as Paul’s arresting officer had been, respond as if to say, “You know my language?” This is opening the door for relationship with the Vanarias missions team as well as the message of Jesus in the scriptures. In the past three years, the Vanarias and their team have handed out individually over eight thousand scriptures to these migrants and refugees. The Vanarias also have launched two ministry centers in different Sicilian cities, both under the name Casa di Rifugio which means, “House of Refuge.” Many migrants and refugees have come to know Jesus and been baptized and now they themselves are carrying the Gospel to other migrants and refugees.
In one case, a Gambian (Gambia is a small Muslim-majority country in West Africa) who has been coming to Casa di Rifugio for nearly two years has grown greatly in his Christian faith. He decided to forget the prejudice that so often exists between Asians and Africans and he approached a Nepali man in the refugee camp to invite him to a Bible study. Sam, this Nepali friend, was the only person from Nepal in that camp so he was happy someone spoke to him. Kathy Vanaria says, “Sam speaks a bit of English, a bit of Italian and a bit of Hindi. We have a team member who speaks Hindi) and between all of us, we managed to communicate with Sam. We gave him a phone memory card that included the Jesus film, the scriptures and music in Nepalese.”
Kathy continues, “After a couple of weeks of attending Bible study Sam asked, ‘Who is Jesus and where is heaven?’” He understood our explanation and the week following asked our son, Anthony, who is now one of our team members, ‘When did Jesus become God?’. The following week Sam asked, ‘How can one man pay for the sins of the whole world?’ The week after that he said, ‘Could you teach me to pray?’ The next week Sam sent me an SMS and said, ‘I believe in the Lord.’”
It's wonderful to see what the Lord is doing among the migrants and refugees landing in Sicily. They come from many different backgrounds including animism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. But when they come to understand that God knows their language and has good news for them, they respond eagerly. And Light for the Lost is making it possible for the Vanarias and their missions team to share God’s great news with migrants and refugees in a way that touches their heart for God truly does know their language. Light for the Lost enables missionaries to say to searching people in their own language, “May I say something to you?”