The Gift of Literacy

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Luminous brown eyes peered cautiously at me from beneath matted black hair. A dirty brown hand hesitantly reached for mine. I smiled down into those beautiful eyes, trying to look past the lice and dirt. Down her cheeks, I couldn’t help but notice clean trails cut through the grime by tears. An adult-sized torn and stained t-shirt was her outfit for the day.

“What is your name?” I asked.

“Sema,” she replied.

“Do you live here?”

“I live right over there, and this is my brother. And here are my cousins. They live next door.”

Soon all the other children crowded around, wanting to tell me about themselves, too. Their caution evaporated, and they laughed and joked and vied for attention. I became a living jungle gym as children climbed onto my lap and played with my hair.

“Do you go to school?” I asked the kids.

“Sometimes,” was the reply. “But many days the teacher doesn’t come. We don’t know when she will be there. Some days we have to help our parents in our jungle gardens. So we don’t go to school much.”

“Can you read?” I asked.

“No, we can’t read.”

“How old are you?” The ages ranged from 5 to 12. My heart was sad as I left that day, a little boy clinging to me, not wanting to let me go. As I made my way to the truck, past the other little hovels, the adults sitting around were laughing uproariously. Holding up cans of beer, they slurred, “Come and party with us! Come have some beer!” One grandma stumbled over to me. She took hold of me and wouldn’t let go, insisting I come over. I finally made a break for it and left the inebriated crowd to their reveling. This particular extended family is extremely poor, mostly because of the adults’ choices. They seemed to be perpetually drunk, perpetually pregnant, perpetually fighting or having affairs. I felt angry that these beautiful children were trapped in a cycle that is nearly impossible for them to escape. That day, a seed was planted in my heart—a seed of desire to do something to help the poor kids in the villages who don’t have an opportunity for better education or to improve their lives.

When I worked at the school in town last year, we had several difficult situations. Pnong kids who wanted to come to school would attempt to enroll. But when we gave them placement tests, 12- and 13-year-olds couldn’t read or do basic math. How could we put them in first grade with 6-year-olds? If we suggested this, they would leave in humiliation. Lord, what can we do to help these children who can’t go to school even if they want to? I prayed.

I began searching online for literacy resources. But I didn’t want just any literacy course. Those provided by the government were full of reading material based on belief in spirits, Buddhism and animism. I really wanted to use Bible stories to teach literacy. At the mission headquarters in the capital city, I asked if they had materials like this. They had some books with Bible stories that their literacy teachers use, but it wasn’t a program designed to teach students to read and do basic math. After more prayer and online searching, I came across the Bible Society website. They had created a literacy program based solely on reading stories from the Bible! The literacy books have beautiful, lifelike pictures and start at creation and go through the main Bible stories. We got in touch with the Bible Society, and they arranged a training for our teachers and us.

The way God works is marvelous! He has been preparing everything we need before we even asked. Before we went on furlough, we decided that, upon our return, we would hire two Bible workers to help plant churches in new Pnong villages. One of those Bible workers is Noy. Since we moved to the village two weeks ago, our closest neighbors are Noy and his wife Ma Ceort. Noy is the man I wrote about a few months ago who experienced a miraculous heart change and conversion. By the time you read this, Noy will be baptized. Also, we have hired him as our literacy coordinator.

When we started going over the job description with Noy, his eyes shone with deep joy. “I used to be the literacy coordinator for another organization, so I have experience doing this!” he exclaimed. “This is exactly the job I would love to do! Before I gave my heart to God, I tried so hard to start charities and do this kind of work, but everything I did failed. But as soon as I gave my heart to God, He just opened all the doors for me, and now I am going to be very busy doing the work I have wanted to do for so long.”
As we discussed with Noy our desires to use literacy classes as a church-planting opportunity, his desire to do the same resonated strongly. Noy will train facilitators in six Pnong villages where we would like to plant churches. The literacy program is very easy for a common, literate villager to facilitate. The actual “teacher” is the memory stick that has audio instructions pre-recorded. The students sit on mats in a circle and follow the instructions while the facilitator walks around and helps them.

Noy is not a small thinker. He is a very capable organizer and leader. He has big ideas and, because he knows it is God’s will to bless the Pnong people, he has the confidence to attempt great things. He is one of the most motivated and diligent people we have ever met. For example, we were recently in the capital city doing literacy training on a Monday. Noy had to help the school with legal papers on Tuesday. Wednesday, he traveled home, and Thursday, he had his first two literacy classes up and running. We are excited to see what God will do through Noy and his wife Ma Ceort. Please pray that they would be like Paul to the Pnong and that this would be the beginning of a church-planting movement.

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