Neal's Call to Wycliffe

by Neal Brinneman

Neal in his bedroom-office in Togo, 1979

Photo courtesy of Paul Meier

My Beginnings with Wycliffe

Surviving three private plane crashes convinced me to pay attention to the call I had felt—from a young age—to mission work ( Read “Crashing into the Mission Field” ).

Sierra Leone

In June 1966 I left for Bumpe, Sierra Leone, to work under the United Brethren in Christ Mission. I served as a secondary school principal and math-science teacher, as well as a bookkeeper for the school, boarding home and mission station. Supervising workers on the mission compound and school was my responsibility too. I also designed and constructed classrooms and housing for boarding students.

Some evenings I accompanied students who led services in outlying villages. I preached, and one of the students interpreted into Mende. After a three-year assignment, I was replaced—as planned—by an African.

Too old for Wycliffe?

Since I had enjoyed learning to speak Mende and felt I knew the Bible well, I applied to Wycliffe as a translator. They said I was too old at 35 to begin a translation project, but if I passed the SIL (linguistics school) course, they would consider me.

Leaving Africa, I went straight to SIL in Merstam, England. After the heavy load I had carried in Sierra Leone, SIL classes seemed easy; I even had time to play volleyball and ping-pong. I passed the course and was accepted into Wycliffe. The following summer, in 1970, I took the second SIL course at the University of Oklahoma.

Field Orientation: a vacation, October 1970 – January 1971

Next, I attended field orientation (called Jungle Camp in those days), a course in cultural adaptation in southern Mexico. For me, a single man, it was an enjoyable “vacation.” I had never had the opportunity to camp out. Canoeing on the river, hiking in the jungle and meeting the local people were fun activities. One night I slept in the corncrib of an Indian family and shared their meals.

France: language polishing, 1971

After finishing my training, I was assigned to Togo, a French-speaking country in West Africa. Since French had been one of my college majors, I needed to spend only a few months in France to polish my skills. One Sunday I met a French lady in the church I attended in Lyon. She asked me to take some textbooks to her sister who was principal of a school in southern Togo.

Ghana: language choice, December 1971

Because SIL* in Ghana administered language projects in Togo at that time, I first went to its northern headquarters in Tamale. I looked over survey results of the languages of Togo and chose the second largest which was Lama. (Another couple was already interested in working in the largest group. The first SIL team had entered Togo because the center of their language project proved to be in Togo, not in Ghana.)

Lomé, Togo: divine appointments, January 1972

I then returned south to the capital, Accra, and traveled 100 miles by taxi, crossing over the border into Togo at the town of Kpalimé where I was to deliver the books. The lady director asked if I could substitute for a math teacher who had not showed up. I agreed, and also did repairs on the buildings.

A couple weeks later, I went south to the capital, Lomé, to seek governmental approval to study the Lama language. They sent me to the national library by chauffeured car and introduced me to the director. He happened to be from the language group just south of the Lama area and knew Gaston, the assistant to the regional governor in Kande, the town where I would be living. He graciously offered to accompany me to Kande and introduce me. I continued to teach, waiting for him to get free for the trip.

Kande, Togo: royal treatment, February 1972

After a month at the school, the library director picked me up in a government vehicle. We took two days to travel the 300 miles north to Kande. Once there, he introduced me to Gaston who apparently viewed me as important enough to lodge me in the governor’s house! The governor had gone to Paris and would not be back for six months.

The next day the director told me he wanted to stay a while in his home area and would not return immediately to the capital. He gave me a first class train ticket and his chauffeur took me to the station.

Once in Lomé, I took public transport back to Accra where I picked up my drum-full of personal belongings. It went on the roof of a taxi and I returned to the Togo border. I then rolled the drum along the street about two blocks to the Assemblies of God guest apartments. The next day I returned to Kande by train.

While living at the governor’s, I had use of the whole house, including three servants who prepared my meals, washed my clothes and cleaned. During those six months, I visited around town and started learning the language. When the governor’s return was imminent, Gaston quickly found a family in town with an extra dwelling in their compound and moved me in. He also used some wood from a bridge building project to have my furniture made. The town mason and carpenter did the all the necessary work—charged to the government.

God opened up contacts and guided me so that the Lama could have His Word in their language. He definitely treated me royally during my initial contacts in Togo.

*SIL is a language development partner organization with Wycliffe. Ghana later formed a partner organization to Wycliffe called GILLBT.

March 2005