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Clockwise from left: Ken Jacobs as a World War II soldier (Courtesy of Jerry Jacobs); Ken and Elaine in 2001 near where the Old Testament was translated into the Chamula language (Jerry Jacobs); Ken with a Chamula church gathering (Jerry Jacobs); Ken studies the Chamula language with assistance from traditional elder Juan Perez Pelote (Turgrul Üke ); Elaine identifying parasites (Jerry Jacobs). ()


D-Day plus 75 years

God saves a soldier to save others an ocean away

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

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Monday night ex-offender worship service at Brookside Community Church (Handout)


Friends in need

A church helps former inmates by building relationships

“A friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17).

Let him be czar of the criminal justice system, and Indianapolis Pastor David Cederquist would issue court orders for at least one good friendship for each person coming out of prison.

Cederquist is pastor of Brookside Community Church in Indianapolis, an unusual inner-city effort to help former inmates find a new way of life.

Cederquist knows the sad pattern—too many get locked up, then go back to their old ways after release, losing family and friends. They don’t have a job or a place to live.

Sometimes it’s called recidivism, with as many as 70 percent of inmates returning to prison a second or third time. With several thousand inmates returning to Indianapolis each year, the church at 1035 N. Olney offers an unusual option. The package includes traditional church worship services, along with prayer and Bible study during the week. A separate community development corporation also offers job placement, a food co-op, emergency help, and a place to live, with two transitional houses in the neighborhood.

Behind all these efforts is something more foundational: a hope for at least one friendship for each person. “If you can find one person you can trust, behind that one person are many others in the church,” Cederquist said. “No significant change in life comes without a significant relationship.”

Cederquist didn’t learn this friendship theory in seminary, yet he gets some interesting support from the academic world of prison research.

From Baylor University, Byron Johnson wrote More God, Less Crime. Johnson recommends a mix of faith, friendship, and service for ex-offenders. “When people begin to work and mentor others and serve others, they tend to forget about themselves,” says Johnson. “That transforms them.”

At the Brookside church, Coi Taylor has found friends and is serving others above and beyond a court order. Facing possible time behind bars on a drug sale charge, Coi was put on house arrest and ordered to do 200 hours of community service.

At Brookside he was assigned to work under Landon Martin, who had grown up in the smaller community of Goshen, Ind. Landon was in charge of church operations, which includes renovations in the 110-year-old church building. As an African American from urban Indianapolis, Coi Taylor wondered about a small-town white guy as a supervisor. “I’d never heard of Goshen, Ind. Where’s that?” Coi recalled. “I had my fears over how he would accept me.”

He found more than a supervisor. “Landon started asking about me and my story, my mom, my dad, how I grew up with my grandfather. He really wanted to know about me, how I got involved with drugs. It was stuff no one else had really asked me about.”

Landon and his wife Lori had two children who were adopted, one African American, another from Africa. “That really impressed me,” Coi said. The friendship was a bridge when Coi got discouraged, under house arrest, sometimes tempted to return to his old life. He had to be hospitalized with a broken foot a few months later.

“Was the friendship with Landon really real?” he wondered. “Landon came to the hospital with his family. They prayed for me. People from the church would bring meals over to me after I was out.”

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Jon Gambrell/AP

A member of Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps sounds off during a drill in Owerri, Nigeria. (Jon Gambrell/AP)


Obeying the clarion call

In Nigeria’s national youth service program, campers socialize and march in mud, rain, and matching T-shirts

It was a wet Tuesday morning last year when I arrived in Nigeria’s southern Rivers state, towing a suitcase packed with white T-shirts and shorts, white rubber tennis shoes, and a fanny pack.

Those articles were the basic uniform requirements at the military-style camp where I planned to stay for the next three weeks. The place brought back memories of boarding school: The fenced compound included single-story buildings, a vast field, and freshly cut grass. The hostel where I was to sleep contained 34 metal bunk beds, each with provisions for a mosquito net.

For me and about 2,800 other university graduates at the camp, attendance was not optional—it was part of a one-year service requirement for all Nigerian college graduates, a program known as the National Youth Service Corps.

The NYSC program began in 1973—three years after the Nigerian civil war ended—with the goal of rebuilding and reconciling the war-torn country. To kick off their year of service, prospective corps members must attend one of the paramilitary camps scattered throughout the country. Critics have called for an end to the program, but the service corps may still fulfill a worthwhile goal, as my own camp experience suggests.

The camp I attended operated on a tight schedule. At about 5:20 each morning, officials blew a bugle and sounded whistles to hustle out the “corpers,” as they referred to us. We jogged to the field in our white shirts and shorts with little flashlights lighting the way. In the background, soldiers yelled, “Double up!” and “If you’re walking, you’re wrong!”

We got in line according to our designated platoons and started the mornings with Christian and Muslim prayers. Next came the national anthem, announcements, and parade activities for the day.

The rules included prompt obedience and punctuality. One morning, my hostel block was slow in coming out for the morning parade as the soldiers blew their whistles. We found an army official waiting for us at our hostel’s entrance. He asked us to kneel on the concrete, then issued a stern warning before releasing us to join the other corps members jogging to the field.

One line of the NYSC anthem goes, “Under the sun or in the rain / With dedication and selflessness.”

That statement applied to us on an almost daily basis. Some mornings, clouds darkened and rain drizzled down while we stood in line. I appreciated my uncomfortable rubber shoes only for their easy-to-clean feature after the daily run through muddy grounds.

Less-tedious camp activities might include a carnival, pageants, or a bonfire night. Corps members could also attend training sessions on tailoring and baking, among other skills. 

NYSC came after the country’s civil war that pitted the eastern Igbo ethnic group against government security forces. The ethnic group complained of marginalization and demanded to secede from Nigeria. The youth service program emerged as one attempt to reconcile the country, where about 250 ethnic groups coexist.

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