Walking together while speaking different languages

From Left: Egon Sawatsky, Marius van Hoogstraten, Liesa Unger, Vikal Rao, Fiona Neufeld, Don McNiven, & Thobekile Ncube
Release date: 
Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA - “Isn’t English your first language?” Marius van Hoogstraten (Netherlands) asked Don McNiven (Canada), after a laughter-filled conversation about the proper spelling of the English word “future.”

Both men are members of Mennonite World Conference’s Program Oversight Committee, which met in October to further plan the upcoming Assembly at the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA 21-26 July 2015.

The committee members represent churches from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America and each speak at least two languages. In order to communicate for their planning sessions, they use the one language they have in common: English.

While all committee members speak English fluently, they discovered that translating their conversation into the languages of their homelands was not always as easy.

“When looking for a theme we had wanted to use the word ‘story’ in the title,” reflected Liesa Unger (Germany), Chief International Events Officer for Mennonite World Conference (MWC).  What they discovered, however, was that the English word “story” would translate into “history” in many languages and the idea of “history” was not what the team was trying to say.  So they settled instead on the theme of “Walking with God.”

One of the committee’s tasks during their October visit to Pennsylvania was to plan the subthemes for each day of Assembly. This task was more difficult than it seemed: how would they find simple, memorable words to describe the theme of each day that mean the same thing in all of MWC’s worshiping languages?

They encountered their first problem in deciding on a word to use to describe the work of evangelism and social justice: words that translated well into Ndbele, the language spoken by committee member Thobekile Ncube (Zimbabwe), or French and Spanish but didn’t have direct translations into modern German, for instance. Other words described only speaking the good news of Jesus without including caring for the poor or working for justice as part of evangelism.

Why so much effort for clear communication?  Because communication is an essential value for MWC, said César García, MWC General Secretary, in a recent article.  “Communication has the same root as other important words in MWC’s mission and vision: communion and community. It is not possible to have real communion with those with whom we do not communicate.”

And so the work for clear communication continues for an event that will include as many as 10,000 people from 85 different countries. Fiona Neufeld (Paraguay), one of Assembly 2015’s interpretation coordinators, joined the Program Oversight Committee to plan translation for the event, which will be available for all worship services in Spanish, French, and Portuguese. 

And yet the Assembly planners are also aware of a challenging reality: for many of those traveling to the United States in 2015, these “common languages” are still not their first language. The team plans to honour and celebrate this diversity by using other languages as part of the morning and evening worship services.

MWC’s diversity of language and culture will also be celebrated through the Global Church Village, which, under the direction of Vikal Rao (India), will provide space for congregations from each continent to share their culture, food, worship practices, and way of life with the global church.  The Global Church Village will include a stage for performances of music and dance from around the world.

“You get to know other cultures and worldviews through their language, which allows you to get to know other people and their realities,” reflected Egon Sawatsky (Paraguay), youth program coordinator. “Getting to know these people from around the world and their stories shows how great God is, and how diverse his creation is. Sometimes we think we [alone] have the image of God, but then we realize that his ways and his thoughts are way higher than ours.”

MWC release by Emily Ralph