A seeker finds his voice
MANILA, Philippines — He seems like an unlikely candidate to receive…
BAGUIO, Philippines — Filipino Christians gasp as Chris Swinford tells them what he found in a box in an African village.
Speaking to a packed auditorium at Philippine Bible College, Swinford talks about a church he once visited in the West African nation of Liberia. It’s one of 85 countries where the West Texas native has preached through his work with Sunset International Bible Institute, a Lubbock-based ministry that trains and equips Churches of Christ around the globe.
The Liberian village had little electricity and no plumbing, Swinford tells the Filipino Christians. The church’s leaders pointed him to an outhouse and told him to use “the good paper” in the box.
The “good paper,” Swinford discovered, was the Good Book — copies of the New King James Version of the Bible, sent to the village by a mission society.
Some of the pages were torn out.
(That’s when the Filipinos gasp.)
“You know, those were Bibles,” Swinford told the Liberians. “They were horrified, but none of them knew.” Few of them could read their own language, much less English.
Back in the U.S., “I’m sure there was somebody who had a plan to say, ‘We’re going to send a box of Bibles to every village,’” Swinford says. But paper, English Bibles weren’t what they needed.
Swinford, a former missionary to Ukraine, knew he’d done it, too — sent boxes of Sunset’s training materials, in books and on CDs, to far-flung reaches of the earth, not knowing how useful they’d be.
“It makes you think about a lot of the mission work we do,” he says. “We do it with ourselves in mind.”
Seven years after that trip to Liberia, Swinford holds up a small, blue box — about the size of two, back-to-back iPhones — as he speaks to hundreds of members of Churches of Christ from across the Philippines during the first annual Heritage Bible Lectureship.
It’s a solar player, a self-contained speaker connected to a hard drive that bears a complete, spoken-word Bible. In the past four years, workers with Sunset have distributed them to members of Churches of Christ who have taken them to more than 50 countries — from Cuba to camps of South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia. The players are in the nations of Latin America, Europe, Asia and Africa — including Liberia.
Related: A seeker finds his voice
Now Swinford and his coworkers have come to the Philippines to speak at the lectureship and to distribute the players — including solar player No. 10,000. By the end of the year, they plan to have 2,000 players distributed among the Philippines’ 103 million souls.
“If you won’t use it, don’t take it,” he tells the Filipino Christians. “If you’ll just use it to listen for yourself and you won’t share the Good News with anyone else, don’t take it.”
That rarely happens, he says. Workers with Sunset estimate that each solar player in its 10-year lifespan will be heard by at least 100 people.
And, in some cases, many more.
Ministers in Ethiopia reported 136 baptisms in the two months after distribution of the players there.
Habtu Zemech, an Ethiopian whose East African Mission partners with Sunset, says that his countrymen will walk for 20 miles — instead of the usual 10 — to hear Bible lessons from the solar player.
In Kenya, a crippled man named Isaac sold sheep and goats to pay for a bus ticket to the capital, Nairobi, to receive a solar player.
He was the first in line.
In addition to the Bible, each solar player contains a memory card with 325 hours of Bible curriculum taught by Sunset instructors and partners from ministries including World Bible School and NewLife Behavior Ministries. There also are two hours of a cappella hymns — a feature many recipients note as their favorite, along with lectures on Christian evidences by Ed Wharton and a lesson on evangelism by Jerry Tallman.
One of Sunset’s supporters once jokingly referred to it as “God in a box,” a term that makes Swinford wince. His generation was taught to “think outside the box,” he explains, and not to put artificial boundaries on God’s word.
Actually, the solar player represents some out-of-the-box thinking, Swinford says. Sunset’s president, Truitt Adair, and Richard Cravy, director of technology, were searching for ways to distribute the institute’s curriculum beyond the reach of its Lubbock campus and its nearly 80 associate and extension programs around the globe. They needed a device that didn’t require the user to know how to read — and one that wasn’t dependent on electricity.
After his experience in Liberia, Swinford says he realized the value of such a device.
To meet their needs, Adair and Cravy found the Papyrus Solar-Powered Audio Bible.
The cost, however, was much higher than a box of Bibles.
Sunset raises $500 for each player — a cost that covers equipment, translation of Bible lessons into languages including Spanish and Amharic (spoken in Ethiopia) and transportation. Churches of Christ that provide money for the players make a substantial investment in their brothers and sisters overseas, Swinford says.
“There are villages in Africa with a $500 missionary that teaches the Bible,” he says. “We have preachers who take them to seven or eight congregations and play them.
“Is it worth $500? When it’s winning souls in a village in Africa or a village in Central America it’s worth immeasurably more.”
That’s a belief shared by the Sun Valley Church of Christ in Gilbert, Ariz. After learning about the solar players, the 400-member congregation raised $25,000 in one collection for the project. That amount astounded Ken Grypp, one of the church’s elders.
“I had to ask for forgiveness because my faith was a mustard seed,” Grypp said as he presented Adair with the funds in 2014.
With God’s help, he added, the solar player could do as much for the Gospel as Gutenberg’s printing press in 1439.
“There have been few times in my life when I have recognized something so powerful,” he said, “something that is so potent in its potential to change the world.”
At the Philippine Bible College, after Swinford describes the solar players’ features, he and his coworkers open suitcases full of small, cardboard boxes, each bearing a player, as the Filipino church members form four long lines to receive them.
The Sunray Church of Christ in Texas, a congregation of hard-working farmers and other dedicated Christians, provided 80 of the players, Swinford tells the church members, because “they are willing to invest in you as a Bible teacher, as a preacher.”
The smiling Christians spread across tables in the auditorium to unbox the devices. Each recipient fills out a card with their contact information before lining up again for a Sunset worker to take their picture with the player.
As she distributes the players, Sunset worker Penny Kendall hears stories from the Filipino Christians about how they plan to use them. One woman, a kindergarten teacher, plans to play the audio Bible during her students’ rest time. Another woman who received a player a few days earlier says she’s been playing the tracts for her young son.
Originally the devices were intended solely for preachers, Swinford says, “and then we found that women shared them greatly with everyone around them. Young people take them to all their friends.”
For example, he says, a hairdresser in Nigeria plays Bible lessons for her clients as she works. Multiple baptisms have resulted from the effort.
Another Nigerian, Aweye Silvanus, received a solar player after he went blind. As he travels from his home to a hospital in the city of Calabar, he plays the lessons on the bus for his fellow passengers and tells them about Jesus. At the hospital, he uses the solar player as he visits patients, and crowds gather to listen.
“Jesus has actually told us not to cease preaching the Gospel,” Silvanus says. “In Acts 5:42, it says we should not cease preaching. Brethren, the sent were going out daily from house to house, preaching the Gospel of Christ.”
In the Philippines “there are more churches here than preachers,” says JoJo Ramos, a member of the Midtown Church of Christ in Baguio.
He and his wife, Janet, run a business and operate a ministry center in their city. They also make regular trips into the rural mountain communities of their island, Luzon, to teach and evangelize. Having a solar player they can leave with Christian families in the mountains “multiplies our preaching capacity,” he says.
The day after the solar player distribution, Sunset workers worship with the Midtown church. As the service concludes, Swinford presents the 10,000th solar player to Ed-Mark Delacion, a member of the Instruction Street Church of Christ in the Philippines’ capital, Manila. He hopes to plant a congregation in his rural home village.
Delacion was baptized just a few years ago as he completed his mechanical engineering degree. His classmate, Jaydee Tangunan, invited him to church and studied the Bible with him.
With the solar player, “he’s going to be able to reach out to his family with robust Bible knowledge,” Tangunan says of his friend. “This is a very important tool. He’s going to be a pioneer in his province.”
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