SIL International Home

Kenneth L. Pike (1912–2000)

My Pilgrimage in Mission*

Kenneth L. Pike

Previous | Next | Contents

Cameron Townsend and Wycliffe

Several good things grew out of this rejection, for God always uses stress as a building block. First, I was devastated and wondered if I should give up belief in God. Instead, I chose to resist all "internal leading" for a year, except via the Scriptures and suggestions from advisers, until I could regain balance. Second, it turned me away from a task that, at least then, would have been very difficult for me, one involving multiple daily social contacts with foreigners. Third, it allowed me to build up my physical strength by taking an outdoor job with the Citizens Workers' Administration of helping to eliminate gypsy moths from New England, which were destroying its forests. I had to climb trees (even though I was afraid of heights) to paint moth eggs on the undersides of branches. Finally, it let me return to Gordon College for a further year. There by the grace of God I met student Sam Fisk, who told me about Camp Wycliffe, which Cameron Townsend had started the previous summer (1934) in Sulphur Springs, Arkansas, to train Bible translators. Sam and other friends advised me to look into that role, which eventually proved "built for me." I could use my academic ability without having to face the nervous strain that service with the CIM would have involved.

I wrote to Townsend and decided to go to Camp Wycliffe that summer of 1935. I hitchhiked to Sulphur Springs from Connecticut, since I was short on money, and at the same time I used the social contacts along the way to improve my personal-relations skills. After five days, at three hundred miles per day, I got to Rolla, Missouri, where my brother Galen was in forestry. He drove me the rest of the way down to Arkansas and also gave me $35, which I badly needed for expenses. The course was in a little log cabin in the Ozark Mountains. On the first day, a student from the previous summer took the new students, including myself, for a training walk. On the way back I met Townsend. He asked me what I would be doing afterwards. I didn't know. He said, "Why not come with us to Mexico?" I agreed, and that was my acceptance into the Wycliffe program.

The summer course was a turning point in my life. Townsend taught us grammatical analysis, based on his experience with Cakchiquel, a language of Guatemala; L. L. Legters gave a few lectures on anthropology; and Dr. Elbert McCreery, from Biola, lectured for ten days on phonetics. This last topic initiated the academic writing focus for my study for the next decade or so. I left for Mexico with Townsend and a few of the other students.

In Mexico City I decided to study the Mixtec Indian language of Oaxaca. With Townsend's help I worked on the Mixtec language with an old army man. A few days later I left for the state of Oaxaca, with a high school student to guide me, since I knew no Spanish. On arriving at the Mixtec area, the high school guide left me, and there I was alone, to learn by immersion something of the culture as a whole, including a start on the language. I enjoyed it. This experience set the tone for my holistic approach to learning. In the first hour I had learned that the language was tonal, with words differing just by pitch. But I did not know how to analyze tone.

After a fall and a winter there, Townsend had me come back to Arkansas to help teach phonetics to the students that summer. There I encountered further phonetic difficulties. A Cakchiquel Indian from Guatemala (with whom Townsend had worked on the New Testament) was to be the one from whom I must try to learn phonetics. But he had sounds that I could not myself imitate. So it was clear that I needed help. Nevertheless, Townsend suggested at the end of the summer that I should write a book on phonetics. How wild that seemed! So on arriving again in Mexico City, I scribbled a few pages but then gave it up, heading back for the Mixtec area determined to come out with a start toward the translation of the Gospels.

Alas, another surprise. I now felt more athletic than ever before, since I had learned to enjoy my four-day hike into the village over the ten-thousand-foot pass. And I continued to try to be more socially involved with people. So I chatted with an old American man who was stepping off the train. And then I tried to help the carriers of hundred-pound grain sacks to take one to their store. But I slipped and fell, breaking my left leg. I was taken to the home of a friend, but no doctors were there. I prayed, asking God where I had sinned. The only answer was that I had been told to write phonetics and had not done so. Twenty-three hours later, the train came to go to Puebla. They put me on it and there in the seat facing me was the old American I had met earlier. It turned out he was a bone surgeon from the Mayo Clinic, and he did his best to help me get comfortable. Another ten hours, and we were in Puebla, where folks from the hospital met me. They put my leg in a "basket" (too late for a cast), and I woke with a high fever, with malaria coming on. But I started writing phonetics eight hours a day in bed! And that became the first half of my book Phonemics (1947), which was to help people make alphabets.

Previous | Next | Contents

*International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October 1997, used by permission.