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In their own tongue: New technology brings the Book of Mormon to people who lack written language

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A young girl in Chiapas, Mexico, where villagers are connecting with the Book of Mormon in their native language for the first time.
Getty Images

A philanthropist and a videographer pave the way for the Book of Mormon to be brought to a remote Mexican village whose language has been all but lost to humanity

Pati Gomez was raised in Tenango, a remote village in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. Bordering Guatemala, the mountainous highlands and dense rainforest of Chiapas are dotted with Mayan archaeological sites and Spanish colonial towns where 560,000 people speak Tseltal, a Mayan language all but lost to humanity.

Chiapas is the poorest state in all of Mexico. Seventy percent of the indigenous people there fall below the government subsistence level equivalent to $38 per month. Many students don’t go to high school because they must work to support their families by subsistence farming.

Pati wanted to get educated so she could live a better life. After high school, she moved to San Cristóbal de las Casas, worked hard, and learned Spanish. She also was attracted to a church, wondering what it was like inside. Her curiosity led her to missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Book of Mormon. She was baptized.

Pati Gomez opened her home to teach the gospel to her family and neighbors in their own language, Tseltal.
Courtesy of Jan Garbett

A year later, Pati served a mission to Mexico City, then returned home to teach her family and neighbors in their native language of Tseltal. No Book of Mormon is available in Tseltal, and most people who speak the language can’t read anyway. Still, many were baptized, and Pati’s home became their meetinghouse. Membership has continued to grow, and a chapel is now being constructed in Tenango.

The situation of the Tseltal-speaking Saints in Pati’s village sheds light on an enormous problem facing the Church: Of the 7,139 languages spoken in the world, half have little or no written counterpart, making it impossible to print the Book of Mormon in those languages. And even among those who do know a language that can be written, three-quarters of a billion adults worldwide can’t read, according to Unesco.

It seems Lehi’s promise to his son Joseph that his seed “shall hearken unto the words of the book” (2 Nephi 3:22–23) is an impossible dream.

But not to the Lord.

New developments are now making it possible to bring the Book of Mormon to remote people who can’t read or don’t have a written language—through the use of the Church’s new Book of Mormon Videos series coupled with emerging technology. But the groundwork for this fulfillment of Lehi’s prophecy was laid more than two decades ago.

The Lord’s Timing

In 1998, Jan and Bryson Garbett from Salt Lake City, Utah, founded a nonprofit entity named Escalera Foundation.

“We had planned a trip to Disney World,” said Jan, “when we heard about a service trip to help in Mexico. After asking our eight children what they wanted to do, we canceled our trip to see Mickey and his friends.”

After arriving in Chiapas, Mexico, the Garbetts saw an immediate opportunity to help improve education. They started with scholarships to motivate students to stay in school, and eventually started building classrooms. To date, the foundation has constructed 181 schools in Chiapas and has provided 123,000 students with the opportunity to continue their education.

Bryson and Jan Garbett with their Escalera team in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.
Courtesy of Jan Garbett

The Tseltal Trial

Following recent leaps in video technology, the Lord brought two other factors to play: production for the Book of Mormon video series and the failure of Jonathan Farrell’s business.

Jonathan Farrell graduated from BYU’s School of Animation in 2008. He was snatched by Pixar and later Dreamworks to do character effects animation. In 2015 he moved back to Idaho and started a virtual reality filmmaking company.

In 2018, an alternate reality set in for Jonathan and his family. “My business was floundering,” he said, “and the spirit kept putting this idea of traveling in our heads. It didn’t make any sense, but we sold everything, packed our five kids into the van, and started driving around the country. A year later, we found ourselves in Chiapas, 2,900 miles from home.

The Farrells sold everything, loaded their van, and were guided by the Spirit to eventually end up in Chiapas, Mexico.
Courtesy of Jonathan Farrell

Soon Jonathan met Kevin Doman, then the president of the Mexico Tuxtla Gutierrez Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “President Doman knew my parents and was aware of my background,” said Jonathan. “He wanted to do an experiment: a voice-over of one of President Russell M. Nelson’s conference messages with Tseltal.”

President Nelson’s message was copied from YouTube, and Tseltal was dubbed over the existing soundtrack. The rudimentary result was introduced to Tseltal-speaking members at a district conference. Two other people were present: Jan and Bryson Garbett.

“For some time, Bryson and I had been wondering how we could help the indigenous people we saw joining the Church in Chiapas learn more about the Book of Mormon,” said Jan Garbett. “It has never been translated into Tseltal. A light came on when we saw this video. Bryson knew with some improvement, it could become a tool needed to get the Book of Mormon videos into this and other indigenous languages.”

The Garbetts asked Jonathan about his interest in such a project and then asked the Church for permission for the raw files of ten Book of Mormon videos for a pilot program with the Tseltal people. Church officials asked if the local area presidency and mission president wanted this. The answer was a resounding “yes.”

Next, the Garbetts partnered with Book of Mormon Central (BMC)—a nonprofit specializing in creating scripturally based content and media. “The Garbetts realized they needed to partner with an organization who was already recognized by the Church and had a greater capability to administer this,” said Brent Hall, director of fundraising at BMC.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Jonathan and his family returned to the United States. Thankfully, Jonathan was able to work remotely, helping hire a manager in Chiapas who found translators and voice actors. He oversaw the process and then combined the Tseltal audio files with the raw video files for a finished product. But it was more than a year before he and the Garbetts could return to Mexico to present the first videos.

“They Have Remembered Us”

Jan Garbett will never forget the moment when the villagers in Tenango first saw the Book of Mormon presented in their native language through the new videos. “When the people saw and heard Moroni explaining the destruction of his people, burying the plates, and Joseph Smith retrieving them for translation, they were on the edge of their seats,” she said. “A missionary sitting next to us exclaimed, ‘They are finally understanding what we’ve been trying to teach them!’”

“I can’t find words to describe the feeling,” said Pati. “This happened to me when I was baptized. Others said, ‘Wow! What is this?’ And well, this is the Book of Mormon. They said, ‘How wonderful, they have remembered us.’”

Tsaltal-speaking members in Chiapas hear Book of Mormon stories in their own language for the first time.
Courtesy of Jan Garbett

“The elders wanted those they teach to gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon,” said Pati, “but without materials, it’s very difficult. When they saw the videos, even the kids were surprised, perking up their ears, listening. And I said, ‘Thank you, Lord, for helping your people so they can continue to be strengthened.’”

Following the pilot project, the Church gave approval to extend the effort to more videos and more languages. Preparations are underway to dub videos in a second language in Mexico—Tzotzil—and Qechua in Peru, in Aymara in Bolivia, in Q'eqchi in Guatemala, and Kichwa in Ecuador.

“I just returned from Bolivia and Peru,” said Jonathan, who recently joined Book of Mormon Central futime. “As in Mexico, we are putting the tools into the hands of the people. We hire bilingual locals (Spanish and the indigenous language) as project managers and teach them how to use the equipment. They hire translators and voice actors and we coach them on voice acting. Once the recording is completed, I merge the language files to the raw files received from the Church and produce the new videos. The completed videos are sent to area authorities and mission presidents to distribute to the missionaries and members.”

Fulfillment of Prophecy

Speaking of the gathering of Israel, President Russell M. Nelson has said that it is “the greatest challenge, the greatest cause, and the greatest work on earth today.” Prophets of old also saw our day and understood the reason.

About 74 BC, Alma told his son Helaman, “Were it not for these things that these records do contain, … Ammon and his brethren could not have convinced so many thousands of the Lamanites of the incorrect tradition of their fathers. … And who knoweth but what they will be the means of bringing many thousands of them … to the knowledge of their Redeemer?” (Alma 37:9–10).

Nearly two millennia later, President Spencer W. Kimball stated, “I am confident that the only way we can reach most of these millions of our Father’s children is through the spoken word over the airwaves, since so many are illiterate.” He then issued a challenge. “My brethren, I wonder if we are doing all we can. Are we prepared to lengthen our stride? To enlarge our vision? … Using all the latest inventions and equipment and paraphernalia already developed and that which will follow, can you see that perhaps the day may come when the world will be converted and covered?” (emphasis added).

That day is here. The indigenous people of Chiapas plant beans and maize that they harvest then cook over an open fire on dirt floors. They scrape the soot that gathers from the ceiling and use it to dye colors in textiles they weave by hand. Yet amazingly, they have cell phones.

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A native woman in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas.

Instead of producing a book to read—which would take years to translate and isn’t even a possibility for unwritten languages—a video is overdubbed in their own language for just $5,000, a fraction of the cost of translating and printing the book. With mobile technology and the Book of Mormon videos, the curious as well as the new convert who cannot read have immediate access to truth.

“We want to replicate what we did in Chiapas, Mexico,” said Jan. “We’ll start with 18 videos in six indigenous languages from the Book of Mormon videos to teach the key doctrines outlined in Preach My Gospel. Then we’ll add more to get the basic narrative established. Eventually, we’ll do all 115 videos in each language. Through it, we can invite all to come unto Jesus Christ. It is a small and simple yet profound way we could help the Lord hasten his work.”

Watch a video highlighting the events of this story below:

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Video Companion
In Their Own Tongue

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