John & Susan Iseminger (left) with children Emily, Laura, Mary (L), and Andrew. (photo courtesy John Iseminger)
Story by Craig Combs
One long night, when he was just fifteen years old, John Iseminger found himself in a struggle, one that kept him awake and wouldn’t let him go.
“I was reading Tortured for Christ, about Richard Wurmbrand and what he went through for the sake of Christ,” said John. “I’m reading this and said, ‘If that’s what it means to be a Christian, count me out!’ I threw the book across the room and turned the light out.”
He still couldn’t sleep. He lay still, thinking about what it meant to follow the Lord.
“I realized there is a cost to following Christ. Is it all real?” said John. “I could see from Jesus’ life, my father’s life and other people’s lives that it was real. I got down on my knees and said to the Lord, ‘I don’t like this, but I know you’re there. I know you are listening, and you want me to serve you. If it means giving my life like Richard Wurmbrand, okay. I’ll do that.’”
When Susan Foster was fifteen years old, a missionary came to speak at her church in Toronto, Canada. The missionary challenged the youth to consider serving abroad, and Susan remembers that challenge as a key event in her life.
“The challenge from the visiting missionary affected my thoughts and plans for the future,” Susan recalled. “As I made decisions for life choices I remember always thinking, How is this decision going to get me into missions?”
John spent his summers in Canada with his parents, who volunteered at InterVarsity’s Pioneer Camp in Ontario. After university, John decided to volunteer at Pioneer Camp just one more time before he began his enlistment in the U.S. Navy.
John’s bus ride to camp was perhaps the most important one he’d ever take. When he climbed off at a gas station to catch the bus for the last leg of his journey, he ran into Susan Foster, also on her way to work at Pioneer Camp. This was the beginning of their relationship.
Yoked together for mission
After that summer of work together, John went to join the Navy in California while Susan stayed in Toronto. They wrote letters to each other for two years, and at the end of the second year, John asked Susan to be his wife.
Their mutual desire for cross-cultural work was established from the start.
“Literally on our honeymoon, we decided we were serious about missions,” said John. Now it was a matter of discovering what their future service would look like.
God had already provided signposts along the way. At around 18 years old, John had committed himself to reading the entire Bible in one year. He continued to do the same thing each year that followed. “By the time I was trying to decide on a mission, the Bible itself already had a huge role in my life,” said John. He knew Wycliffe was one of the organizations he and Susan should consider.
The same week John’s enlistment with the Navy ended, the Isemingers went to the Wycliffe offices to ‘enlist’ in the ministry of Bible translation.
Working on establishing their partnership base, the Isemingers decided to move close to Susan’s home church in Toronto, which had a strong missions focus. It soon became evident that this church would be that base.
“They were very supportive, saying, ‘Please come here. Study here. We want to support you and encourage you,’” said John.
Focus: Mozambique and Meetto
During a church mission conference John and Susan were introduced to a visiting speaker. When he asked where they were going, the Isemingers said that they didn’t know yet. The speaker encouraged them to go to Mozambique. John remembers thinking, Mozambique? Where’s that? The speaker told them more about the country and urged them to pray about it.
“From the day he mentioned it, we were both at peace with… where God wanted us,” John said.
John with Zilangalile, the night guard, at the Meetto translation office in Balama, Mozambique. (photo by Søren Kjeldgaard)
On their arrival in Mozambique in 1993, John and Susan spent time in Maputo, the nation’s capital. They were introduced to the Makhuwa-Meetto language group, a group of over one million speakers, with no Scriptures in their own language. The Isemingers realized that the Meetto would become their focus.
A local church leader, responsible for the Isemingers’ invitation to work in the Meetto area, introduced them to the Meetto churches in 1995.
John recalled the leader’s introduction. “[He told them], ‘Now you are receiving John here. He is not a tomato planter. He is not going to produce immediately. You are planting a coconut tree with John. It’s going to be five to ten years before he starts giving fruit. But when he starts producing, it will be in big amounts and there will be a big impact. Just wait for the plant to grow.’”
Indeed, it took some time to see fruit. John remembers a low point in those early years that illustrated how much of a difference there is between having Scripture and valuing it.
“The real wall we hit was at the time we were at a Jonah [translation] workshop in 1998,” said John. “When it was all done, we printed up about 100 copies and presented them to the church. The next Sunday, there was no celebration of any kind. Now, one of the decorating habits around here, in the church, is to take bits of old paper and make cut-out snowflakes from it and hang it from the bamboo rafters in the church. So we came back the next Sunday, and there was Jonah, cut up into pretty snowflakes hanging all over. Talk about a wake-up call!”
The Isemingers had been living in the regional capital, where Portuguese was the preferred language, even in churches. Their real breakthrough came when they decided to move to a village at the geographic center of the Meetto language area.
“When we moved out there, it changed everything,” John said. “It changed our outlook and everyone’s outlook toward us. It shocked the church because their view of Christianity was that if you are living in a village and you come to Christ, you need to get out of the village and into town. We went counter to the whole thing. We, the educated expatriates, are going to live in the village and support that little congregation out there. Everybody was initially scandalized. But in a short time we were getting stories back: You know, Jesus did that too! He left the comfortable land to go live on earth. That was the big breaking point for the church. They started to take notice and say, ‘There really is something to this.’ It was at that point we started to get some Scriptures out.”
“Let them run…”
In 2008, SIL Mozambique selected John to serve as Director, calling him to administrate and coordinate their language work throughout the country. Susan took on the job of branch personnel coordinator. These roles have moved them away from daily involvement with the Meetto work, but the Meetto people …
For more on the Meetto translation project, see Long Journey: The Story of the Scriptures in Imeetto.
Editor’s note: Craig Combs is a communications consultant with the Wycliffe Global Alliance Communications team. This story was originally written for Wycliffe’s Africa Communications Network.
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