Cameron Townsend: Good News in Every Language

Chapter 1
The Oval Office

Cameron Townsend sat on the couch and looked around. He found it hard to believe he was seated in the Oval Office of the White House. Across the room, behind a beautifully handcrafted desk sat President Richard Nixon, his craggy gaze fixed on Cameron.

It wasn’t the first time Cameron Townsend had been in the presence of a president. On the contrary, he had met with numerous presidents and leaders around the world. A former president of Mexico had even become his close friend. But somehow, being in the presence of the president of the United States was different. Many Americans dreamed all their lives of meeting the president, and now Cameron Townsend sat less than ten feet from him.

After he had been introduced to President Nixon, Cameron explained that workers with Wycliffe Bible Translators, the organization he’d started, had just begun translating the Bible into its five hundredth language.

President Nixon looked very impressed. He leaned across his desk and looked Cameron in the eye. “What an achievement!” he exclaimed. “You are doing two wonderful things: giving people the Bible in their own language and teaching them to read it. What can I do to help you?”

Cameron took a deep breath. The president wanted to help him! It was more than he could have hoped for. He chose his words carefully. “Mr. President,” he began, “we still have a lot of work to do. Even today there are over two thousand language groups that do not have an alphabet, much less a Bible translation. We need eighty-five hundred new recruits to get the job done. Would you be kind enough to write a letter that we can use to challenge young people all over this nation to volunteer their services?”

President Nixon’s eyes lit up, and the corners of his mouth curled in a smile. “I would be honored to,” he replied.

Cameron shook President Nixon’s hand, and then their meeting was over. Cameron took one last look around at the plush surroundings of the Oval Office before being led from the room. After some of the places he had lived over the years, from a cornstalk hut to a tent, it was hard for him to imagine what it would be like to live in a mansion like the White House. Yet Cameron Townsend would not have traded one night living in a hut or a tent for a night in the White House. His living conditions may have been less than basic at times, but he had always been pursuing his lifelong dream. Besides, position, power, and prestige were not important to him. What was important was that people who had never had the chance to read the Bible in their own language got that opportunity. And that was the reason he had come to the White House to meet the president.

It was a snowy, blustery day outside when Cameron walked away from the White House. As he walked, he looked towards the Capitol and thought back to growing up in Southern California. His fellow students in high school had been convinced he would end up a senator within ten years. But what a different turn his life had taken. Yet as a missionary and a linguist, he had probably met more world leaders than he ever would have met as a senator. He wondered whether any of his boyhood friends back in Downey could have foreseen the twists and turns his life would take. Cameron Townsend certainly hadn’t. Yet he wouldn’t have changed the course of his life for anything.

Chapter 2
A Trip to Fresno

The crowing of a rooster woke fourteen-year-old Cameron Townsend early one morning in July 1910. As the early light of dawn filtered into the tiny room he shared with his brother Paul, Cam, as everyone called him, tried to remember why today was so special. Suddenly it came to him. Today he was going to Fresno with his mother and Paul. His four older sisters, Oney, Ethel, Lula, and Mary, wouldn’t be going. They all had more important things to do than visit relatives in Fresno. They had jobs and boyfriends and other responsibilities they could not leave. And Cam’s father, Will Townsend, would also be staying behind on the small farm the family rented. He had to tend to the tomato crop that would be ripe for picking in less than a month. After the harvest, he would make several trips into Los Angeles to sell his tomatoes at the farmers’ market.

Until now, riding along on the wagon to Los Angeles with his father was the most exciting thing Cam could imagine. After all, Los Angeles was ten miles away. Today, though, things were going to change. He was about to ride a train two hundred twenty miles north to Fresno. Not only had he never ridden on a train before, but the farthest he’d been away from the farm was Long Beach, fourteen miles south of Downey. Each year the family went there on an outing to watch the ships pass by and wade in the cold water of the Pacific Ocean.

After rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Cam dropped his feet with a thud onto the polished wood floor. He was anxious to get his chores done and be on his way. He pulled back the threadbare floral curtain that separated the “bedroom” from the living room and scurried through the kitchen, where his father was sitting in the old rocking chair to the left of the stove, exactly the same place he sat every morning. His father was reading his Bible, just as he always did—three chapters on a weekday morning, five on Sunday. Cam waved to him as he grabbed a bucket and headed to the water pump for a morning wash. The wash taken care of, he quickly pulled on his coveralls and went to help his father milk the cows.

“Morning, boy,” said Mr. Townsend in a very loud voice.

Cam turned his head so that his father could read his lips. “Good morning, Dad,” he replied deliberately before squatting on a three-legged stool beside a cow. He rested his forehead against the animal’s warm flank, reached for the udder, and began working his hands up and down. Cam aimed the flow of milk into a wooden pail. There was no talking with his father as he worked; there never was, since Will Townsend was stone-deaf. Cam’s mother told Cam that it had happened gradually, the result of a construction accident back in Colorado soon after Cam’s father had married Cam’s mother. Cam’s father could read lips and still liked to talk and sing, though he had no idea of how soft or loud his voice was.

Soon the pail was filled with creamy warm milk, and Cam and his father walked back to the tiny ramshackle farmhouse in which all eight members of the Townsend family lived. Mrs. Townsend had already made the oatmeal for breakfast, and Paul had set the table. Cam’s older sisters emerged two at a time from their bedroom, and soon the whole family was seated around the table. Mr. Townsend gave thanks for the food, and they all began to eat.

After breakfast, Mary and Oney cleared away the dishes while Lula pulled the big leather Bible down from the shelf on the sideboard. Everyone sat silently as Mr. Townsend read a chapter from the Bible, and then they sang a hymn. It was “Amazing Grace,” one of Mr. Townsend’s favorites, which he sang with gusto. Cam and Paul looked at each other, barely able to keep themselves from laughing out loud at how off-key their father was singing. One look from their mother, though, was enough to snap them back into line. While she enjoyed a joke as much as anyone, the children were under strict orders never to laugh at their father. Everyone deserves his dignity and the chance to make the best of what he has, she would constantly tell them.

Finally Mr. Townsend offered up a prayer and finished the morning devotion with the same words as always: “May the knowledge of the Lord cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.”

“Amen,” chimed the entire family, and then the two boys were released from the table to pack the scuffed black duffel bag their mother had brought down from the attic for them.

Within an hour, Cam and Paul were seated in the back of the wagon. Once everyone was comfortable, Mr. Townsend cracked the reins, and the horse lunged forward, dragging the wagon behind. They bumped along towards the railway station to catch the eleven o’clock train north to Fresno.

Cam and Paul sat side by side, their noses pressed to the window, staring out as the train wound its way across the San Gabriel Mountains and on into the broad, fertile San Joaquin Valley.

“Twins?” asked the conductor as he came through the carriage collecting tickets.

“No,” replied Mrs. Townsend. “Just two peas in a pod.”

And so they were. While Cameron was two years older and a little taller than Paul, sitting down they looked almost identical. Paul’s hair was a lighter shade of brown, and his eyes were brown, too, not blue like Cameron’s. Apart from that, the two brothers looked pretty much alike with their side-parted hair, wide foreheads and slightly sticking out ears. But while they may have looked alike, they had very different interests. Cam liked to figure things out. He liked puzzles, mystery stories, riddles, and anything else that made him think hard. Paul, on the other hand, liked to do things with his hands. He was forever peering under the hood of the few automobiles that had started appearing around Downey, trying to understand how the pistons or carburetor worked.

The train rolled on through the lush countryside. Fields blooming with crops ready for harvest seemed to stretch on forever in every direction. Finally, at five o’clock in the afternoon, the train hissed to a stop at the station in Fresno. Mrs. Townsend let out a little gasp of happiness as she waved out the window. Cam leaned over to see what she was looking at and recognized his aunt and grandfather from the family photo that hung on the living room wall back at the farmhouse.

Soon everyone was standing on the station platform, where there was a lot of kissing and hugging. Cam was greatly relieved when it was time to climb into the wagon and head for his aunt and uncle’s house. He liked his cousins instantly, and they all ran outside to explore the neighborhood while the adults sat drinking coffee and talking about how the prices for produce were better in 1910 than they had been the previous year and how wonderful it was that there was enough money left over for train tickets.

Fresno in July was much hotter than Downey, and Cam was glad his sister Ethel had made him a new swimsuit for his birthday on July 9, the week before the trip. The cousins wasted no time in showing Cam and Paul the local swimming hole, located in a nearby irrigation canal. Cam watched in admiration as his cousins leapt into the water, yelling and daring each other to go farther out. Finally they began calling for Cam to dive in. Cam swallowed hard, wondering how he was going to tell them he couldn’t swim. After a few moments of indecision, he decided not to tell them at all. Instead, his heart beating wildly, he stepped back for a long run up to his dive. He had seen the others all dive, and it didn’t look too difficult. He would just have to be careful not to go out over his head.

Cam dived off the edge of the canal, hitting the water at a steep angle. Water rushed up his nose and into his ears. He kicked his feet downwards, feeling for the bottom of the canal with his toes, but there was nothing. He needed air. Desperately he flailed around with his feet as he sank farther down. Finally his toes felt the silty bottom. With all his might he pushed off the bottom and shot upwards. As his head broke the surface of the canal, he had just enough time to take a half-choked breath and yell for help before he began to sink again. Down he went. Fear pulsed through him. He knew he was going to drown right there at age fourteen. Somehow he managed to take his mind off the fear and focus on his decision the year before to become a Christian. He was glad he had made the decision, though he hadn’t planned on seeing heaven quite this soon.

Again his feet touched the bottom, and he was able to propel himself upward once more. He broke the surface and again yelled for help, though not so loudly this time. The water felt like it was surging into him through his nose and mouth, and he knew he didn’t have the energy to fight to get to the surface again. His arms stopped flailing as he floated downwards. Everything was silent and still.