“It’s pretty amazing that you can change the destiny of a language group,” said Pam Daams, Wycliffe Bible translator and Covenant-sponsored missionary.
For more than 40 years, Pam and her husband Nico have been translating Bibles for Wycliffe Bible Translators. Their work has taken them to places too numerous to list, mostly in the Polynesian islands, but also to training and conferences around the world. In talking with them about their amazing journey, I can’t help but ask: “How does a couple end up making this their life’s work?”
Nico, whose early work experience was with the Netherlands merchant marine, said he simply made himself available to God. While cycling through Australia, Nico visited a church where the preacher was giving a sermon on the talents. ‘It wasn’t important how many talents God has given you,’ the preacher explained, ‘it was about how you use the talents you have.’
“I’d been a good Christian, but it never occurred to me that if He is my Lord, I should make myself available to do what He wanted me to do,” said Nico. “I decided to make myself available.”
After making that decision, Nico waited a full year. During that time, he heard a presentation about Bible translation. “I picked up a brochure, and I knew this is what God wanted me to do. I ended up going to the Wycliffe training school in England.”
That’s where he met Pam.
Pam, from Houston, had heard about Wycliffe while growing up in the Baptist Church, and she had felt called to full-time Christian work since she was 12. She attended Wheaton College outside of Chicago and was at a chapel service when one of the congregants was talking about a trip to Papua, New Guinea. When the man’s group reached one village, a villager greeted them by saying, “We’ve been praying for you to come.” The group had to tell him and his fellow villagers that they weren’t coming for them.
“Here we are trying to find the best way to talk about Christianity: to talk about Christ in an attractive way,” Pam said. “There is someone asking us to come. We need to go where people have asked us to come.”
Motivated by this experience and her upbringing, Pam also was attending the Wycliffe training. Pam and Nico quickly became a couple. They learned Greek and Hebrew, then waited to hear where God wanted them to go.
“I had no training whatsoever with Bible translation -- could not read a Bible in Greek or Hebrew. I had no linguistics background,” Nico said, but what he and Pam did have were open minds and hearts. “We joined Wycliffe in ‘75. The biggest thing for us was to make ourselves completely available without restrictions. We were making ourselves available to God.”
Nico and Pam’s first assignment, in 1978 after nearly three years of training, was in the Solomon Islands, beginning with the people of Rennell and Bellona, who had been Christians for 40 years. “These people had seen the power encounter take place between the Christian God and their traditional god, and they made a radical turn to Christianity,” Pam said.
Nico and Pam lived on the island for six years and then moved to Honiara, were they worked with the Tikopian language group. In 1990 Nico was appointed director of Wycliffe Netherlands, and the family lived in the Netherlands for the next six years.
It takes an average of 15 years to publish a New Testament, Nico said. While the Daams were serving in the Netherlands, the Rennellese New Testament was completed. At the time, the two were trying to decide their next move. “All of the sudden, we were experts in administration and in the field. And we had to figure out: What will we do for the future? We really had to ask God, ‘Please confirm if you want us to stay working with Polynesian languages.’ ”
Nico and Pam returned to the Solomons for the New Testament dedication in 1994, making a stopover in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia, to meet representatives of the Kapingamarangi community. This Polynesian group had requested Bible translation 12 years earlier.
“We showed up at their church community, and they were still interested in Bible translation,” Pam said. “They said they knew the Holy Spirit had sent Nico. It was the most remarkable program.”
Nico added, “It was also remarkable that they had started fundraising. They offered to pay for us to come and stay, but we have support for that, so we were able to use their funds for printing. They paid for their own printing costs of the New Testament and part of the Old Testament. Their commitment to Bible translation was amazing.”
Because the Kapingamarangi people were so organized and so determined to have a translation, the work went quickly. The team finished translating the New Testament and a shorter Old Testament. The Daams and Eric, the youngest of their three sons, moved to Australia for Eric to finish school, and Nico and Pam then took on a coordinating role as contact was made with all the smaller Polynesian groups across the Pacific.
The Daams said during that time, they started thinking about what they learned from the Kapingamarangi project and how to apply it to other groups. A plan emerged: the Daams would oversee the English-speaking Polynesians; another couple would be in charge of the French-speaking Polynesian Islands.
A decade later, after a rough trip back to the islands in 2004, Pam and Nico knew they couldn’t keep up the pace of the multiple, challenging moves. “At that point, we were increasingly working with multiple projects, with multiple people depending on us. Being gone for long periods of time wasn’t responsible,” Pam said.
“There is so much work just in the Polynesian languages. We created a strategy to train more islanders. In 2009, an Isles of the Sea project officially started, with Nico and Pam as coordinators, and Pacific islander couples are mentoring to be consultants/supervisors.
Pam explained that God wants to communicate with all the language communities of Micronesia and Polynesia, even the smallest ones, and He wants to do this in a language they can understand well enough to grasp the outrageous concept that He Himself died to pay for their sins. The scriptures must be translated into the languages that people really understand well, again and again for every new generation.
Nico gave an example: “The Kapingamarangi had a very strong works-based theology when we went there. ‘People, you don’t have to do all this for your salvation, my son has paid the price.’ That was an alien concept, difficult to accept. It they hear that lesson in English or even a related island language, they may not get it. Once they get the message in their own language, it clicks. All the sudden, they realize the notion of grace. It totally changed their theological thinking.”
Pam has shifted her focus and now teaches Bible-based trauma healing. In March, she helped lead an initial equipping workshop in Sydney. Many of the participants work with
refugees and now lead small healing groups in refugee communities.
Pam is also involved in trauma healing in the Solomons. To reach the diverse populations, Pam said, “we created lessons filled with very profound material stated in simple English.”
Pam said since her first trauma workshop in 2013, they’ve been able to build a more experienced team; many are training Solomon islanders. Still, the topic is reaching a level where more structure is needed. “I was just going to lead a few workshops and now, it sorta took over my life,” she said.
Covenant Associate Pastor Jill Williams said it is a privilege for the church to be involved with the Daams’ activities. Covenant has been sponsoring the Daams since 1996 when they met Covenant member Betty Hall in Houston and she suggested sponsoring the couple. Covenant is one of three churches that sponsor them. Churches in Holland and Guam also sponsor them.
“The large perspective is that God is waiting for people like ourselves, churches like Covenant, to be available to make Bible translations happen. When it’s all working, we feel terribly blessed to be part of His plan,” Nico said.
The couple stresses that younger Bible translators are needed. Statistics on their website (isles-of-the-sea.org) show that almost 2,000 languages still need Bible translations. “There is a huge need for people to work in Bible translation -- a need for younger people from this church that God is calling who would have a supportive church behind them. We’re coming to the end, but others are just at the beginning,” Pam said.
“It’s a privilege to be involved in all this,” Nico said. “We’re certainly not stuck in a job that we can’t get out of. People are sitting there waiting for something, and we are the ones that can do it.”
Learn more about the Daams and their work at isles-of-the-sea.org.