“The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.”
— 2 Peter 3:9 (NLT)
Andrew lay on his back in the massive, thatched-roof hut, trying to sleep.
The veteran missionary had lived and worked here for 11 years, so it didn’t bother him that total strangers were snoozing close by. That was a typical sleeping arrangement, even for guests, on this large tropical island.
But the human bones and animal skulls lining the rim of the circular roof? That worried him a little.
Andrew had only arrived in this remote village that day, doing initial survey work on the Yef language, which he’d never heard before. He didn’t know Yef culture, but he’d seen skulls and bones arranged like that before. They were probably some kind of spirit fetish, used to worship evil spirits.
He recalls thinking it wasn’t exactly the most comfortable place he’d slept. But with no other place to sleep, Andrew did the one thing he could do: He prayed. That’s when he realized he was in the right place at the right time.
Discovery in the 20th century
Andrew and his family had moved to this Pacific island in 1980 to work with Wycliffe Bible Translators. He’d started working with a tribe of people about 50 miles from the Yef village he was now visiting for the first time. He had flown over much of the large island in a small Helio Courier airplane, but never this stretch.
Then one day, flying at about 6,000 feet, Andrew and his pilot saw it: a big, mushroom-shaped roof in the middle of the rainforest. There were no gardens or clearings around it, like most other villages they had seen — just a single hut about 20 feet across.
When Andrew and the pilot got back to the airport, they described what they saw and the area around it to other missionaries familiar with the region.
What they suspected at first, they eventually found to be true. They had spotted a previously undiscovered people.
Finding new languages
That first sighting kicked off months of planning in preparation for a language survey of a wide area surrounding the hut. During that survey trip, Andrew and another missionary named Roger found five separate, distinct languages that were all unrelated to each other. One of them was Yef.
Roger hired a group of men with machetes to hack rough helipads out of the rainforest. Like many linguists before them, Roger and Andrew took standardized word lists into the jungle. With a point-and-gesture method, they asked people what their words were for everyday things — “rock,” “stick,” “water,” “leaf” and many others.
During the Yef survey, one young man, probably in his late teens, seemed to understand Andrew’s intent better than his peers. He became Andrew’s buddy and didn’t leave his side. That, too, was normal for this kind of work.
But that night, as Andrew looked up at those skulls, the youngster began to talk to no one in the room in particular. As he spoke, he kept saying the word “Allah” — the word that Andrew had taught other tribes to use for God. Andrew would later learn that this boy had walked for days through the jungle to another village, where some local Christian people taught him about God and how to pray.
That night, back in his home village, the boy used his knowledge of God on Andrew’s behalf.
“My very strong impression was that God prepared him to be in that place for that day,” Andrew says. “Nobody had pre-announced this. Here’s this guy. He is in the right place at the right time, and he turns out to be just a wonderful helper. And then, that night, I felt really strongly that he protected me spiritually and perhaps even physically.
“The Bible repeatedly shows that God is sovereignly in control of people coming to the Gospel,” he says. “He’s the one who opens their hearts, He’s the one who gives them understanding, despite very minuscule exposure to the Gospel. And I think that’s what He was doing.”
Twenty-six years later, that initial spiritual experience has matured into a full-blown Christian movement among the Yef people (see main story). With 50 oral Bible stories recorded in their language, the Yef are ready to move onto full oral translations of the Yef New Testament.
“There’s probably nothing more valuable for almost every aspect of life than giving someone as much of God’s Word as you possibly can in a clear, understandable, natural-sounding form,” Andrew says. “There’s no substitution for that.
“If you really want people to grow and really want them to know Him and feel intimately connected to Him, they need to do that in their own heart language.”
Story By Lincoln Brunner / Photos by Mark Elliott