I’m Leoma Gilley and this is how I’ve been living deeply.
I was attending Wednesday night supper at First Presbyterian in Chattanooga back in the early 1970s and somebody asked me what I did for a living. I told them, ‘Well, I’m a speech therapist.’ And someone at my table said, ‘Oh, you mean like phonetics and stuff?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ They said I’d probably be interested in Wycliffe. I wondered- what is Wycliffe? They explained Wycliffe did Bible translation involving ‘phonetics and stuff.’ Intrigued, I went to a meeting Wycliffe Bible Translators was having that weekend. Being an introvert, I liked the idea of working one on one or in a small group, which was how Wycliffe did things. And I knew how much the Scriptures had changed me, so what better gift could I give someone than the Scriptures? The Lord said, ‘This is your job.’ So, I followed His call, and CSPC, which is now my home church, supported me from the very start. Wycliffe was very open to letting you choose where you wanted to work. And for me, after several years of training, that wound up being a literacy project that needed attention in the Sudan. They had this group that had a Bible produced in the 60s or 70s, but the people couldn’t read it. I was supposed to figure out why. That involved learning Arabic in Khartoum, Sudan for a year, and then I ended up with the people group called the Shilluks in 1983. The language system was almost impossible to discern, and a friend told me I needed to go to England to get a PhD or we’d never figure it out. So in the fall of 1984, I began studies at The University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. I found Shilluk speakers wherever I went and ended up working with people in various locations. When I tried to define the language system one way, they would say, ‘No, it doesn’t work like that.’ They would push me out of my incorrect assumptions and require me to think about it again. Then I’d figure out another possible system and we’d repeat the whole process again. It was frustrating, but exactly what I needed. By the time I finished my PhD, I was much closer to understanding how the language worked.
Following my study program, I moved to Khartoum to meet with Shilluk elders and important people in the community about the proposed changes to the writing system. After about a year of discussions, we reached an agreement. Only then could we start a literacy project to confirm people could actually read it. We needed to demonstrate our system would improve the use of the Scriptures before any translation could begin. I continued to work on the linguistics while the new translators did their work. Of course, that added more challenges than I can possibly recount. The team ended up successfully translating the entire Old Testament and New Testament. One team member, Otto, was key to the completion of the translation and also our linguistic work. If he hadn’t been there, we would still be trying to understand the verb system. Otto is a brilliant natural-born linguist. Believe it or not, I first met him working as a doorkeeper! The translation was finished in 2012 after starting back in the mid-1990s. At the dedication in April 2013, Otto said he was going to have someone read from the Old Testament, and the guy had only had about half an hour to practice. So, when he got up to read, I was listening very carefully, and I think he hesitated on only one word. I looked back at Otto and gave him the thumbs up. I told him, ‘We nailed it!’ In 2016, I went to Juba to help with a dictionary workshop for the Shilluks. The ladies brought their Bibles so I asked them to read some verses at the beginning of each day. When they took those Bibles out, they had the texts highlighted with all their favorite verses and they would read them fluently. I thought, ‘YES! This is the fulfillment of my life’s work!
The Shilluks taught me some really valuable lessons. Here’s one example: There are two sides to every story and you need to listen to both of them before you make a judgment. Besides Otto, there was another gentleman named Peter whom I considered a brother. He’s now an elder in the Presbyterian church. I’ve known him since he was a youth, and I don’t think I have ever heard him make a negative comment about anybody. He’s had plenty of opportunity- his father was an alcoholic and taught his children nothing about God. Yet Peter, this godly man, acted as the mediator whenever a conflict arose on the team. He helped me find the right words so I didn’t accuse anyone, because accusations are taken very seriously by Shilluk people. I learned so much from watching how he handled difficult situations.
Before I left the U.S. to start this work, a spiritual mentor told me, ‘Whatever your job is as a missionary, your real purpose for being there is to love people. If you really love them, they will know it.’ I really took that to heart. I shared a house with a variety of colleagues in Khartoum. We had Shilluk house help. The office for the Shilluk project was right in the compound. And I had a Peter as a guard and go-between for the neighbors. We had Sudanese people there all the time. People felt free to come to my house and use it like it was theirs. I grew to love these people and felt more comfortable in Sudan than in the United States. Over the years, I gained many brothers and sisters, close lifelong friends, in Christ. I always tell them we are brother and sister: same Father, different mother. Eventually, I needed to return to the USA to care for my ailing mother. The day I was leaving, one of my “brothers” came by the house, sat down with me and said, ‘What will we do without you? You have loved us.’ And I thought, ‘You could not have given a better benediction.
I’ve officially been retired since October 2017 but I stay busy. I’m helping with the grammar and English for the Shilluk-English dictionary. Otto’s daughter and Peter are working with me on that. I’m also hosting the son of a friend from Kenya. Ben joined me as a high school student for the purposes of cultural adjustment and graduated from Bearden High School. In August he’ll graduate from the UT School of Engineering. He’s lived with me that whole time. It’s been a blessing during COVID to have someone around. He’s taller than I am so he can reach things that I can’t, and he’s stronger and can do things I can’t. We have a really good friendship. But the main reason I retired was because the Lord was calling me to write. My dad was a gifted storyteller and I inherited that gift. I’ve written a devotional called The Still Small Voice of Love. I was also challenged by a colleague to pray for things so big I didn’t know how to pray for them, so I came up with a book called Praying for Big Things. From the opioid crisis to war to abuse to racism, I wanted to say something more than, ‘Oh Lord, do something!’ It’s filled with prayers drawn from various passages of Scripture that jumped out to me on those and other issues. I’ve also written Prayers of Confession for Lent and a book of prayers Christians can pray for Muslims every day of Ramadan. Those are the four books I’ve published in recent years. Previously I’d written a book on my 20 years in the Sudan, Every Day But Not Some. The Sudanese say I represented them well. Anyone who has traveled in the developing or majority world will relate to the stories. There is much humor, and I’m the ‘fall guy.’ I’m actually working on revising that book right now- splitting it into two volumes and then adding two more books. It’ll be a four-part series. The first book will hopefully be published in 2024. One friend says this is my story of how I fell in love with Africa and how I came to value the Sudanese as friends and mentors. I learned more from them than they ever did from me. God puts people like me in places like Sudan because He knows we need more work so Heaven won’t be such a shock when we get there.