Sharing the Bible. A book most traveled, most translated -- and still timely [BY]By Curtis J. Sitomer, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Bible -- the world's most translated book -- continues to bring healing, regeneration, comfort, and inspiration to the earth's remotest borders. A flow of reports from around the globe to those who distribute the Scriptures -- foremost among them, the American Bible Society (ABS) in the United States and the United Bible Societies (UBS) abroad -- indicate this type of impact.

For instance:

A woman believed to be living in an East-bloc country (her name and residence are withheld) was jailed by authorities on suspicion of being a spy. She asked a fellow prisoner -- who has access to the ``outside'' -- to get her a Bible and a hymn book. ``I opened the Bible without looking for a particular passage,'' she wrote to friends. ``It fell upon the book of Acts and I read from the 16th chapter about how Paul and Silas praised the Lord in their prison.'' She shared her thoughts with cellmates -- and they sang hymns and read the Bible together for several days.

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``Suddenly, the comfort which we received from the Bible made it much lighter in our cell,'' she said. ``Sometimes before I fell asleep I would think about what happened in prison when Paul and Silas were singing hymns to God in their cell -- and other prisoners were listening to them.''

This woman was soon released. She thought about taking the Bible with her. But she decided to leave it so others ``would have the comfort from God's Word.''

A man from Thailand said he was ``addicted'' to card playing since the age of 13. He later became a compulsive gambler. His wife left him. And his life was shattered. He contemplated suicide. Then a friend gave him what is known as a Gospel ``portion.'' ``When I read in Matthew 11:28 the invitation to the burdened and weary, I knew it was for me,'' he said. ``Christ not only saved me but he delivered me from the burdens of gambling, drink, and smoking.'' This man now serves in a small church in Nongki, Thailand.

Gaylord Kambarami, a UBS Bible society worker, was driving to his home in Zimbabwe. The back of his car was filled with Scriptures to share with townspeople. Mr. Kambarami was stopped by a military roadblock and accused of carrying weapons. When his trunk was opened, an interrogator repeated the charges. Confused, the missionary insisted that all he had were Bibles. The soldier smiled. ``That's what I am talking about, brother,'' he said. ``Don't you realize that is ammunition!'' Mr. Kambarami says he remembered that the Bible says a knowledge of the Lord is ``better than the weapons of war.'' He was allowed to continue on his way.

A church in a poor section of Atlanta reports that ABS-supplied Bibles are allowing its young adult members to study the New Testament and giving them a ``growing excitement about God.'' One youthful woman, unable to read or write, began to participate in a scriptural study group as she gained confidence and inspiration from listening to Bible cassettes. A man with failing eyesight -- who also had a long history of criminal activities -- was given a large-print Bible. ``Now he is accepting the truths of the Word and God's promise in it for him,'' a church official reports.

A sheriff's deputy who, on his own time, conducts Bible classes for inmates in a California jail, says he gets 40 to 50 volunteers for each class -- and several usually say they will devote their lives to God. There is a growing demand for the Scriptures, he adds, including Spanish translations.

Million Belete, regional secretary for the United Bible Societies for Africa, recently helped provide food and water to famine victims in Ethiopia (his native land). ``Their hunger and thirst is indescribable,'' he said.

But he added that in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, he saw another kind of hunger -- manifested in the people flocking to churches to hear the Word. Many churches in this area now hold several services on Sundays to cope with overflow crowds. ``Africa is hungry for both temporal and eternal bread and is grateful to those who are sharing it,'' Mr. Belete told his UBS colleagues.

This hungering and thirsting after ``eternal bread'' has translated into a quest for the Scriptures in almost all parts of the globe -- particularly in Africa.

Last year, for example, UBS global ministries distributed over 15.5 million Bibles in Africa -- a gain of 2.5 percent over 1983. This was the fifth year in a row that there was an increase. But this is only part of the story.

The American Bible Society, UBS's primary scriptural supplier in the United States, estimates that the number of Christians in Africa increases by 20,000 a day. ``These are people of all ages who need the Word in their own language to help strengthen them in their new faith,'' says ABS official John A. Duguid.

Two African countries -- Liberia and Mozambique -- nearly doubled their Bible distribution totals in 1984.

The boom is global. Parts of the Bible have now been printed in 1,808 different languages and dialects. The complete Bible is available in 286 languages; the New Testament in an additional 594; and single Biblical books in a further 928. Bible societies report that in total they annually distribute 500 million Scriptures in 180 countries and territories.

And there are significant ``firsts.'' For example:

Last Christmas there was a notable piercing of the Iron Curtain with the distribution of 10,000 ABS-sent Russian Bibles to Baptist congregations in Moscow.

The complete Bible was published in three languages that had no Scriptures before -- Fulfuld'e (which is spoken in Cameroon), Emato (spoken in Mozambique), and Marshallese (which is spoken in the Marshall Islands of Micronesia in the Pacific.)

New Testaments were reported in 25 languages that had none before. Most of these appeared in languages in which scriptural portions (single books of the Bible) had been already been published. But this was a first time for Batak of Indonesia, Lokono of Sierra Leone, and Yaweyuha of Papua New Guinea.

Scriptural portions were published in 20 languages for the first time. These included dialects from Australia, Cameroon, Canada, Colombia, Ghana, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Papua New Guinea, and Sudan.

While Bible distribution continues to spread abroad, the Scriptures continue to be popular in the US. There is an increasing demand for Biblical materials from the general public -- but also from special groups, such as youth, the military, Hispanics, prisoners, the elderly, and the blind.

Alice Ball, general secretary of the American Bible Society and presiding officer of 69 global Bible societies, attributes some of the new verve for the Word to the growth of evangelical religion in the US. But she says there is also evidence that ``the [religious] mainline is getting out of social action and into Bible study.''

Underwritten by a $40 million annual budget, ABS distributes the Bible at cost to anyone who wants it. Miss Ball says the society believes that ``every person on earth has the right to be confronted with the Word of God in their own language and at a price they can afford.''

ABS stresses, however, that its work is done without religious or ``doctrinal note or comment'' -- and without profit.

The Bible now comes in various forms and translations. The US Bible Society says the King James Version is still its top seller -- with the Revised Standard Version increasingly popular among mainstream-to-liberal Protestants. Others in demand: the New English Bible, the New American Bible, Today's English Version (known as the Good News Bible), and the New Jewish Version.

More controversial are the National Council of Churches' ``Inclusive Language Lectionary'' (which purges ``male bias'' from scriptural selections) and ``The Book'' (a ``project Bible'' backed by Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network). Neither is distributed by ABS, but both have gained significant public popularity.

ABS insists it is less concerned with Biblical versions than it is with generally spreading the Word. It distributes Bibles in almost any way it can -- but mainly local groups across the nation manned by 50,000 volunteers. Some are church representatives -- maintaining Scripture Courtesy Centers (Good Newsstands) to dispense Bibles at cost to those who want them. These volunteers also dispense scriptural ``portions'' in shopping malls, nursing homes, and correctional facilities. Recent emphasis has been on getting the Bible, or parts of it, to the poor, the young, the undereducated, the incarcerated, and the military -- through the church as well as outside of it.

For instance: Several hundred New Testaments in Spanish were sent to a Hispanic congregation in Palatine, Ill., to be presented to each family in the church. And 30,000 scriptural selections were distributed through the Emmanuel Gospel Center in Boston -- most to Spanish-speaking churchgoers in the inner city.

Chaplains at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri received 2,500 New Testmaments, Psalms, and selections to use in their ministry with military personnel. Inmates at New York State prisons receive Bibles as they begin their sentences or when they are released. The Southern Baptist Convention of Kansas-Nebraska also gives Bibles to prisoners.

Seasonal scriptural selections are shared by Roman Catholic children in religious classes in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. And students in the religious education program of the Evansville, Ind., Council of Church -- many of whom come from homes where there is no religious orientation -- also receive Biblical portions.

Additionally, ABS-distributed Bible verses are sometimes inserted in local newspapers, placed on Meals-on-Wheels trays delivered to shut-ins and the aged, and voluntarily shared through services groups, such as the Boy Scouts and Kiwanis clubs. Bibles are also put on cassettes and printed in Braille.

ABS and the United Bible Societies plan a major program over the next three years to bring the Scriptures to children and young people both in the US and abroad. This Youth Advance Program will concentrate, among other things, on training youth to enlighten their peers about the Scriptures.

Maria Martinez, ABS executive secretary for distribution of the Bible in the Americas, says the Scriptures are a particularly important tool to help society speak to its youth. ``It's important that we nurture young people and motivate them to seek help from the Bible,'' she adds. Gideons challenged in court

Anyone who occupies a hotel or motel room can reasonably be assured of clean towels, a rate card -- and a Gideon Bible. The Gideon Bible is known to most across the globe. But fewer people can identify the Gideons themselves, their goals, and their version of the Scriptures.

Gideons International, based in Nashville, Tenn., is an organization of Christian business and professional men who distribute Bibles to hotels, hospitals, schools, and institutions around the world. The Gideons generally shun publicity about their operation. But they do estimate that they now distribute over 23 million Bibles a year. These Scriptures go out to 134 countries in 55 languages

Actually, there is no ``Gideon'' Bible. The organization sends out the King James Version or Today's English Version, which it purchases from the American Bible Society.

Gideons International has no denominational ties. But it has a strong commitment to the teachings of Christ Jesus. And this has caused some recent conflict with civil liberties groups over distribution in the public schools.

A year ago, in response to a Des Moines parent who charged that Bible distribution to students violates the constitutional provision for separation of church and state, Iowa's Civil Liberties Union filed a federal suit against an elementary school for distributing Gideon Bibles to students. The case was recently settled -- with Gideons agreeing to halt this activity.

A similar situation in Michigan led to an opinion by state Attorney General Frank Kelley that distributing Gideon Bibles in public schools is in conflict with First Amendment freedom-of-religion guarantees. A representative of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) said that Bible distribution to schoolchildren is widespread in many areas of the state.

Legal authorities are reluctant to press charges against a group that supplies the Scriptures. Most add that the Gideons withdraw when challenged with trespassing the public sector. ``The trouble is that once you let the Gideons do it [distribute the Bible to public schools], how are you going to keep Reverend Moon and others out?'' asks AU's Joseph Conn. C. J. S.

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