Can the Christian Church ignore illiteracy? Frank C. Laubach has shown us that the illiterate masses will take the hand of anyone who reaches down to help them. This turbulent world is finding that the educated elite of the major powers can no longer hold the lid down. The pot of restless, rising expectations is boiling over. The masses are coming up, either the way of the pagan materialist or the way of the compassionate Christian. They are coming up literate and capable of relating and communicating, or illiterate, unstable, and volatile. This is the century of their rising.

The plight of the desperate billion is a great opportunity for Christianity. It is our chance to be our brothers’ keepers as never before. This can be the century of compassion. And in it we have the opportunity of communicating the Gospel as we help the unlettered climb the steps of literacy to a more abundant life. The printed word in the hand of the new reader can either build up or break him down. It is the map he will follow as he begins the journey of a new life. Language is the key to culture. With it we learn, think, and interpret all that comes through our senses. With language we express our thoughts and feelings. And with language we persuade others.

Missionaries, ministers, teachers, and lay volunteers who have had experience with literacy education as a missionary tool talk about it in such terms as these: “unparalleled opportunity,” “very effective,” “essential,” “the most helpful thing you can do,” “has the first place,” “cannot justify not doing it,” “powerful instrument,” “without it … efforts useless among primitives,” “our biggest opportunity,” “most imperative,” “top priority,” and “indispensable.” A. M. Chirgwin, in The Bible in World Evangelism, says: “Millions of new literates constitute what is probably the greatest evangelistic opportunity of today. They have a new skill and are eager to develop it. If at this psychological moment the Bible, in some suitable part or form, is put into their hands, there may result one of the greatest accessions to the Christian Church in modern times.”

The field for literacy education is not limited to unclothed jungle tribes. I know of church-related literacy efforts from New York to Florida and from Southern California to Alaska. Many who have worked with illiterates say that teaching an adult to read is the most rewarding thing they have ever done. Adult literacy education strikes at the grass roots of poverty. It destroys the vicious circle of ignorance-poverty-ignorance by attacking the weakest point in the circle—illiteracy. Only when we eliminate illiteracy can the circle become a line pointing toward knowledge and adequate means.

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The fifty new countries that have joined the United Nations since World War II are concerned with nation-building. To build a nation, the ancient foes of ignorance and poverty must be destroyed so that the constructive power pent up in the citizenry can be released. Where reading and writing are unknown, the range of communications is limited, commerce is chained, business claims, inventories, and accurate records are impossible, and the democratic process is frustrated. Moreover, a money economy cannot be established. These are some reasons why new nations as well as old realize that literacy is a precondition to modernization. Fighting poverty without adult literacy is like fighting on the battlefield without bullets.

On an Asian tour President Johnson discovered that leaders of the emerging nations realize that self-sustaining economies can be built only on a foundation of literacy. He reported that free governments cannot function responsibly and successfully without “a deep layer of literacy among the electorate.” “In many of the newly independent nations,” he said, “there is a grim and deadly race against time in the efforts to overcome illiteracy before ignorance overwhelms and destroys the meaning of independence itself.… Go into the world and help the peoples of the earth to learn. That is the most vital, most urgent, most noble service that freedom can render.…”

Adult literacy education also strikes at the grass roots of paganism on one hand and at Christian lethargy on the other hand. Churches in the United States as well as in the developing nations have a growing concern for literacy efforts. UNESCO studies show that literacy campaigns are most successful when they are related to an immediate need. A church-centered program can provide both the mechanism and the motivation for a program in which new readers are given the means to continue climbing the literacy ladder.

Because of the centrality of the Bible, a Christian who cannot read is a cripple. Therefore, the church in educationally backward areas is invigorated when its literacy level is raised. And when a literacy campaign is also seen as an outreach for the unreached, the benefit is more than doubled.

Missionary concern and contributions are matter-of-fact without the warm heartbeat of evangelism. Spiritual rigor mortis may occur when evangelism is practiced solely by the clergy, solely in the church building and in an outmoded vocabulary, and as an artificial duty rather than a natural expression. A combined literacy-missionary program can infuse vitality into a church and reduce spiritual unemployment among its laymen.

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From the day Paul dictated to his amanuensis his first pastoral letter, missionaries have faced the problem of nurturing new Christians through the written word. A stable, mature church is built upon a literate membership. Many African converts who could not read the Bible and other literature have drifted back into paganism. Literacy is a powerful instrument in the preservation and growth of a Christian outlook on life.

Dutch missionaries had a flourishing church on Taiwan three hundred years ago, but efforts to translate the Bible into the aboriginal tongue were thwarted. People were not taught to read. When missionaries returned to these people many years later, there was no trace of the church that had once been so robust. A man currently associated with these people blames this failure on illiteracy. “A permanent indigenous church, at least on Taiwan,” he says, “must be built on literacy and literature in the mother tongue.”

When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, there were 470 million people on the earth. In 1964, the world population stood at 3.3 billion. By 1980, it will rise to 4.3 billion, if people continue to increase at the present rate of 85 million a year. The growth is accelerated in areas with high illiteracy rates. When illiteracy prevails, an exploding world population cannot be controlled.

If a man is fed, he will hunger again. If he is clothed, his clothes will wear out. If he is healed but returns to his old way of life, he may get sick again. But if he is taught to read, he can help himself. He can learn how to plant and grow food. He can learn to earn enough to clothe his family. He can learn how to deal with disease and how to help lift his village or neighborhood to health. Two-fifths of the people of the world—1,320,000,000 human beings—are still illiterate. One of the most far-reaching and long-lasting acts Christians can perform is to teach the unlettered multitudes to read.

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