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Seventy-five years ago on June 6, the Allied invasion of Normandy—D-Day—marked a turning point of World War II. It was also a turning point for Ken Jacobs, an American soldier in the second wave hitting Omaha Beach, code name for one of the five sectors of the invasion.
Just prior to the assault, the commanding officer of Company C, 112th Engineering Battalion, told Jacobs and fellow soldiers, “You’re expendable. You’re all expendable. If you go down, there are soldiers behind you. And soldiers behind them. And more soldiers. That beach is our mission. We must take that beach.” Jacobs said his CO continued to drive home that message while men prepared to leap from landing craft into the chill of the English Channel.
As he jumped out, the gangly young Jacobs turned to his best friend: “I’ll see you on the beach.” Germans killed that friend minutes later. Their mortars and machine guns took down other soldiers. Jacobs made it to shore behind an amphibious tank that protected him from gunfire. He crouched behind corpses on the pummeled beach, trying to advance while avoiding mines.
Then more seasoned Rangers arrived, spillover from those attempting to scale 150-foot cliffs further down the beach at Pointe du Hoc. The Rangers saw the infantry’s disarray and broken chain of command, so they directed Jacobs and other battered, overwhelmed young soldiers. Within six hours soldiers captured the plateaus above Omaha. Eventually, Jacobs made it to the French countryside.
More than 1,700 Americans were killed that day on Omaha Beach alone. Through August 1944 almost 30,000 Americans died liberating Normandy.
When Jacobs entered the Army at age 23, he sensed God telling him not to be afraid, that He would protect him. He believed God preserved his life at Normandy specifically for a higher purpose.
After the war, Jacobs enrolled at St. Paul Bible College. There he met his future wife, Elaine, who lost her first husband when Nazis shot down his plane. Wycliffe Bible Translators sent Ken and Elaine to the Chamula people of southern Mexico. Earlier missionaries had dubbed these descendants of the ancient Maya “The Impossible People” because of the difficulty reaching them.
The Chamulas had no written language. They practiced animism, sacrifice, and witchcraft. Alcoholism and poverty reigned in a system that kept people chained to tradition, ritualism, and fear. They distrusted outsiders and threatened to kill new faces.
The Jacobses spent 50 years among the Chamulas, gaining the trust of one person at a time. They created a written language and spent 23 years teaching it to the people and translating into it the New Testament. Jerry Jacobs, the Jacobses’ adopted Chamula son, then a young boy, now 61, remembers his dad sitting daily with orange 3 x 5 cards, pointing to objects, and writing phonetically what his Chamula friend uttered.
While Ken did most of the translation work, Elaine won over Chamulas by treating their diseases, especially parasitic illnesses. She shared the produce of her vegetable garden and conversed in Chamula. Previously, when someone professed faith in Christ, other Chamulas would treat him as an invader, ostracizing and sometimes killing him or a family member. They often burned down the homes of new believers or threw them in prison, believing they had violated sacred traditions.
Despite persecution, so many Chamulas came to Christ that Jacobs, with help from the Mexican Bible Society, began coordinating the translation of the Old Testament. They finished translating the entire Bible in 2001. Today, tens of thousands of Chamulas call Christ their Savior. More than 130 evangelical churches preach the gospel.
The Chamula people now thrive in their communities, having gone from little to no involvement in business, education, and politics, to leaders in every area. Jerry Jacobs said he can’t help but think of his homeland when he reads in Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
Struggles remain. Some aren’t yet involved citizens. Racism between people groups occasionally arises. The third generation of Chamula Christians needs continued solid teaching, like all believers, to pass on their new legacy. But the transformation is real and widespread, permeating every aspect of society.
Elaine Jacobs died in January. Ken Jacobs, 97, lives in a senior center in Minnesota. When my husband Bill and I met Ken Jacobs, he got our attention by telling us what his commander at Normandy told him. Then he grabbed Bill’s lapels, looked him in the eye with a piercing gaze, and proclaimed, “Christ was expendable. He was expendable for you. YOU were His mission.”
—Sharon Dierberger is a World Journalism Institute mid-career course graduate