I spoke to Katherine O’Donnell, a Wycliffe member living in Tanzania, about her work of Scripture engagement.
What do you do in Tanzania?
My goal is to help people to engage with the Bible in the language that’s most appropriate for them. When I say engage with, that can be anything from helping them first of all to get hold of a Bible, whether that be written or audio, and to being able to read or listen to it, to being able to understand and think about it, and to being able to apply it to their own lives and be changed by it.
How did you come to be involved in the work of Wycliffe, and Scripture engagement?
I’ve always had a bit of a thing about Africa. As a child, I was really inspired and excited by missionary stories. When I was in my early teens, a couple who worked in Malawi came to speak at our church. They brought some African artefacts, and we sang a Malawian-style song, which I thought was great. But even though I had a bit of a thing about Africa, I wasn’t thinking of going there myself.
As I went through school I started to think maybe I wasn’t just meant to send money that way, but rather to go there myself. After school I took a gap year in Kenya through Wycliffe, and spent six months home-schooling some American children in a remote village. That was my first personal encounter with working overseas, and it confirmed to me that that was the direction God wanted me to take.
I was advised to get some normal life experience rather than go straight into working with an organisation, and get some Bible college time. So that’s what I did. After university I worked for two years as a public health nutritionist and then spent two years at Bible college. For my Bible college placement, I ended up going back to Kenya and training Sunday school teachers for a few weeks. And I absolutely loved it! This was more like what I wanted to be doing, as I was getting more concerned with people’s spiritual nutrition rather than their physical nutrition.
Wycliffe previously hadn’t seemed like quite the right fit for me – but then I somehow found out about the Scripture engagement side of Wycliffe’s work. And suddenly it was like this stuff I want to do and was gifted in doing, came together with this organisation I had so many links with and that I knew so much about. That’s when I decided to apply to Wycliffe and did my training. I wanted to work in Africa, and I’d been to Kenya, so we looked at East Africa, and the best fit seemed to be the Mbeya Cluster Project in Tanzania.
What’s the most rewarding thing about your work?
I think it’s seeing my local colleagues grow in their understanding of the Bible, and in their ability to teach. I also love it when I get to teach, and see people engaging with and having fun with the stuff we’re doing. I spend a lot of time training Sunday school teachers, and I love seeing these adults enjoying themselves playing games, and then later hearing anecdotal stories that their Sunday schools have got bigger because they’ve become more fun.
What keeps you going when you find your work difficult?
My Tanzanian colleagues are a huge encouragement to me, but even bigger than that is the hope that we have in Christ. A few years ago I went through a very difficult time spiritually. It was really hard – I couldn’t pray, I couldn’t sing, I was grappling with big questions about my faith, partly due to one of my MA modules exploring God’s providence and suffering. This culminated in what some might call ‘the dark night of the soul’ in my walk with God.
One Sunday evening I decided not to go to church, but instead stayed home and for some reason felt like reading the whole of the book of Hebrews! There had been one verse from Hebrews 11 going round and round in my head – ‘Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ – and so I just decided to read the whole book. As I read it, it was as if light suddenly started to shine into the ‘dark night’ that I was going through. A significant theme in the book of Hebrews is persevering because of the hope that we have in Christ, and this theme resonated in the midst of all my questions. Life can be very hard, suffering is everywhere, but without God we have no hope, without Christ and his resurrection there is no reason to carry on living. So we have to keep trusting. Because where else is there hope?
Do you find it difficult being single on the field?
Yes and no. I think the hardest thing about being single in the work that I do is that there’s so much transition, which can make you feel more vulnerable, because there’s no-one taking that transition with you, there’s no-one who knows both parts of your life. And so then it feels like I have these two separate identities, and there’s no one that shares that with me. So in that respect singleness is hard. In other ways, it makes things easier, because I have more freedom to travel, and things like that. But there is a cost as well. It should throw us back on God, because he’s our constant companion, and it does to some degree, but I can’t touch God, I can’t feel him, I can’t hold his hand. But at the same time I think God is really kind and faithful. He’s given me friends, and people that I can be with. It’s not a husband, but they’re people who I can spend time with, I can have a hug with, I can share my life with, and that’s really valuable.
What would you say to someone else considering this work?
Come and join us! This work is so important! Here in the UK and Ireland, we are so blessed with multiple ways of engaging with Scripture. We have all sorts of resources at our fingertips, but in Tanzania, it’s not like that. A lot of people can’t read, or don’t find reading easy. Most of the resources that we use rely on some level of literacy, or a desire to read, or an ability to critically examine text, because that’s how we’re trained educationally – but their education system is different. So it’s really important to help people learn simple tools for engaging with the Bible, and to make the Bible accessible in places where people can’t easily pick up a Bible and read it and understand. It’s exciting work - you get to be out there engaging with people, although there’s a lot of time behind a desk as well. And it’s a privilege to come alongside people and teach and train and support in that way. Translating the Bible is not enough on its own. There are too many stories of Bibles sitting in boxes not being used because we don’t have people out there helping people to engage with the Bible in their language, teaching them how to read in their language, making audio resources or visual resources available to them. The Holy Spirit can of course take and use God’s word, and write it on someone’s heart, but just think about your own life. I haven’t just grown up reading the Bible on my own and letting the Holy Spirit teach it to me.
Any missionary myths you want to dispel?
Missionaries are NOT super holy. We haven’t got it all sorted! People sometimes have the idea that missionaries have things more sorted spiritually. And I don’t think we do.
How can readers pray for you?
It’s a constant prayer request for me that I would know God more. I can’t do this work and have a half-hearted relationship with God. I want to know him more, understand him more, understand his character better, so that I might become more like him, and worship him, love him and serve him better.
This article was previously published in Words for Life.