Earthquake Sets Back Solomon Islands Bible Project

Monday, June 18, 2007

It took Richmond theology student Alpheaus Zobule nearly a decade to make the New Testament available to the people of the tiny South Pacific island where he grew up. But in one April day, a magnitude 8.1 earthquake dealt his work a powerful blow.

Zobule, a 38-year-old son of subsistence farmers from the Solomon Islands, came to the United States in his 20s and earned master's degrees in linguistics and theology, all so he could find a way to make the Bible available to fellow islanders, whose language had no written form.

There are many Christians in the Solomons -- a nation of 1,000 islands -- but most of the 5,000 people on Ranonga have only a basic literacy level and are unable to fully read the Bible. Those who can read and write do so in English and another regional language but not in their native tongue, Lungga.

Zobule, a doctoral candidate in biblical studies at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, became something of a celebrity in the Solomons three years ago when he found a way to make the Bible accessible to people in their own language. It took him six years to figure out how to write Lungga, analyzing people's speech patterns and creating two fat books on grammar. Then he translated the New Testament.

With funding from the Bible Society of the South Pacific, Zobule took 2,500 copies of the New Testament in Lungga to the Solomons in 2004. The project included using the Lungga New Testaments to teach people to read and write, in their own language and in English.

But since the April 2 quake, which killed 50 people and destroyed 6,000 homes -- including the two where Zobule's library was -- the fate of his religious and literacy materials is not known.

Communication with people on Ranonga, one of the most remote islands in the Solomons, is almost nil because of heavy damage to their frail communications infrastructure, but Zobule was told that 120 of the 180 homes in his village of Lale were reduced to rubble -- including the building holding his books. Another stock of New Testaments is stored at a village nearby that was damaged, and their condition also is not known, he said.

Since the earthquake, churches across the United States have been sending donations for Zobule's Richmond church, Grace Covenant Presbyterian. As of Friday, the church had received $16,500, Associate Pastor Christopher J. Thomas said.

"This disaster is going to impact the translation and literacy project in a very big way," Zobule said in an e-mail. "Community support is an important element in the project we are doing and in the next few years it is going to be a challenge. The literacy program we are running cannot continue under the circumstance."

Donations can be sent to Islands Bible Ministries, a development organization Zobule founded in the Solomons, via Grace Covenant at: 1627 Monument Ave., Richmond, Va. 23220. Questions can be answered by Zobule at agzobulegrace@hotmail.com or Grace Covenant at thomas@grace-covenant.org.

-- Michelle Boorstein


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