In a quiet, shady spot, the low brick building boasts only a small, faded metal sign with arrows pointing left and the words Imprimerie Chretienne: Christian Print Shop. Inside, the plain-walled office in Koutou, Chad, is ringed with mismatched furniture and piles of paper, some stacked precariously high - blank reams in various colors and already-printed pages waiting to be cut, collated, bound and distributed.
In an age when readers consume words as pixels and the global publishing industry teeters in crisis, Jack Snyder’s print shop feels like a relic. But in Chad, where it’s one of only four such shops in the entire country, the humble collection of museum-like printing machines is a hub of Christian literature production. It is, in fact, a vital engine of church growth in the central African nation.
Barthelemy Belemgoto would know. He’s been working at the print shop since 2001, alongside TEAM missionaries Snyder and his wife, Nancy. From a yellowing desktop computer on a corner desk, Belemgoto takes care of administrative tasks such as accounting, prepping projects for printing and serving clients. But what really excites him is the relationship-building opportunities and knowing that the material he helps produce has the potential to change lives.
“If there was no Christian print shop here, there would be nothing for people to read, and they would be hungering and thirsting for Christian literature,” Belemgoto says.
A SPIRITUAL OASIS IN THE "DEAD HEART OF AFRICA"
Chad’s morbid nickname may refer to its desert conditions and distance from the sea, but the “Dead Heart of Africa” also has a spiritual thirst that local missionaries encounter daily. Workers at the shop cooperate with a network of evangelicals to translate, print and distribute literature — a priority that dates back to the earliest missionary efforts in Chad — to the 12 million people who speak nearly 130 different languages among them. “We touch more ministries throughout Chad than any one ministry,” says Jack, who has been running the print shop with Nancy for the past 28 years, though its legacy goes back more than 60 years.
While there is an evangelical community in Chad, it’s not very prominent. The influence of Islam, the largest religious presence, began as early as the 11th century, gaining dominance by the 17th century. In the early 1900s, North American missionaries of various denominations began working in Chad, but the Christian community suffered great persecution in the 1970s. Today, roughly half of Chadians identify themselves as Muslim, while about 20 percent are Catholic, 15 percent are Protestant, and the rest are either animist or atheist.
Cultural values can be difficult to shake and the male-dominated “chief mentality,” as Jack puts it, is carried into the church. He believes pastors need to be taught to be shepherds instead of dictators, and Bible school teachers need to be reminded to exemplify humility and a teachable spirit so their students can also understand what faith is. “To love the Lord and to love God’s Word and not just to have a bunch of stuff in their head,” Nancy adds.
Discipleship and leadership training are a challenge because “the church doesn’t recognize that people in the pew — just your normal, everyday, going-to-church type of people — are gifted, too,” Jack says. “And that the Holy Spirit leads them,” adds Nancy. Many people who are qualified to serve as leaders or become pastors don’t reach their full potential. Some are overlooked, some don’t have the finances, and others don’t have basic education.
The Snyders are trying to change this through the materials produced at the print shop, which are distributed to churches far and wide. Nancy also works closely with local believers, discipling them, teaching them the Bible through a course called Basic Firm Foundations, and encouraging them to go out and share the gospel with others.
The print shop is crucial for Mechthild Roth, a missionary on loan to TEAM from the German organization Sahel Life. Roth came to Chad in the late 1980s and eventually found her way to working with vernacular Bible schools — that is, schools taught in local languages. Initially, she wanted to serve in Cameroon as a “dorm mom” at a school for missionary kids. But she did an internship in Chad and eventually felt God had a place for her there, working with women. “I wanted to train women to lead women’s groups, but they were all illiterate, so I started teaching literacy instead,” Roth says, pointing out the irony of the situation: She knew very little about literacy and was just learning the language of the Lele tribe herself.
Over time, Roth began leading Bible studies, revising the song book and revising the catechism, which is how she got more involved in the production of Christian literature in Chad. She even began to explore how she could help translate the Old Testament into the tribal language. She says, “that’s how my ministry changed from one tribe to many tribes and from one language to many languages!” Roth explains that when she arrived in Chad, the teachers had to rely on their own notes from Bible school and seminary to prepare lessons. Unfortunately, she did not find much that could be used, partly because she could not read the language to evaluate the material.
“We had a few things we could revise and check against the French originals,” Roth says, “and I started to search on the African and European markets for books we could use here. But the pickings were pretty slim because the educational level in Chad is still not really great.” She began writing her own lessons, but this has taken a lot of time and research. “The trouble is that you can’t use European or North American books because the culture is so different and the whole worldview is different,” she says. “I found one book written in Kenya, but that book is too thick so I had to pull out the most important material and try to format it for Chad.”
From her office across the road from the print shop, Roth now works in writing, translating and typesetting. The shop prints nearly 40 titles for her per year in five Chadian languages, plus a few in French. There are actually about 20 tribal languages represented in the schools, but the print team can’t provide material in every language. Still, without the existing vernacular lessons, Roth believes the training at vernacular Bible schools in Chad would suffer, “because most of the students don’t have the level of education to go to the French Bible school here,” she says. Roth adds that there is also a financial challenge as the churches simply can’t afford to send students.
Bible training is essential, however, because the churches are growing and need qualified leaders. There are an estimated 2,000 churches in the Evangelical Church of Chad association that the team works with. A large number of those churches don’t have pastors. At the same time, there are only 13 vernacular Bible schools, with 350 couples currently involved.
AN AGENDA WITH AN AGENDA
It’s undeniable that Roth and the Snyders are committed to the church and are passionate about spreading the gospel through their work at the print shop and vernacular Bible schools. Considering only four people are involved, they produce an astounding variety of literature that reaches people all over the country and even in bordering nations.
The team writes, translates, designs, prints or distributes literature that includes a quarterly magazine, hymnals, the Basic Firm Foundations course, gospel tracts, and as the only print shop in the south, even material for the community, such as school report cards and hospital charts.
One item, a printed pocket agenda, has become so popular throughout Chad that nearly everyone has one or has heard about them and wants one. Formatted as small calendars, the agendas present the gospel and explain the plan of salvation. A Bible verse is printed on the back of each page in both French and Arabic, a deliberate strategy. “If you want to take the verse out, you take the calendar out, too,” Nancy explains. “Some Muslims went to the Imam and asked, ‘Is it OK for us to have these?’ They were told, ‘Oh, that’s harmless. That’s just an agenda!’” Jack says that if they had better distribution channels, they could easily print up to 30,000 agendas as the demand is high, even though they have some leftovers from their last print run of 10,000.
Print shop co-worker Belemgoto says that people in other countries — including police officers, government and military officials — are requesting these agendas because they’re not only practical but they also help Christians grow spiritually and provide them with a tool for sharing the gospel. The Bible verses in the agendas are carefully chosen to address specific issues — for example, clarifying that Christians believe in just one God, an important point since many Muslims interpret the Trinity to mean Christians worship three gods.
Pointing to the yellow paper the agendas are printed on, Belemgoto explains why they don’t print on white. “Muslims won’t accept the virgin white because that’s a Western way of things, which means it is not pure. It’s corrupt,” he says. “So we use yellow. It looks funny, but that’s what they accept.”
TEAM wasn’t yet working with Muslims when the Snyders first arrived in Koutou, so their focus was on indigenous people and producing literature in the four or five main tribal languages (90 percent of the material currently being printed). Over the last couple of decades, Jack estimates they have printed hymnals in about 17 different languages. In the past ten years, as missionaries have begun to work with Muslims, the print shop has produced some literature in Chadian Arabic for other organizations.
The print shop’s priority is producing material for the Evangelical Church of Chad. “We are considered an in-house print shop.” Jack explains. “Up until recently, TEAM was in the driver’s seat partly because of the finances and everything else it took to run it.” However, the Snyders never intended to run their own programs or for the print shop to run around them. Their goal from the very beginning has been to bring it to the point where nationals can run it without needing the assistance of missionaries in any form.
“When we first came, we had no idea what that was going to look like,” Jack says. “But it didn’t take long for us to realize it was going to take a lot longer than we expected. We have tried at different times to go to the church leadership and get some idea of what their vision was for the print shop and for literature as a whole. More often than not we would get the answer, ‘You just take it and do it.’ That has been frustrating because it didn’t give any clear direction.”
Nancy recalls a meeting nearly three years ago where pastors from different areas and tribes were told: “We’re talking about the print shop and we’re thinking we might have to close it down” just to see what their reaction would be. They were asked to explain why they thought the print shop should exist and then to explore what would be needed for it to survive. “That was the first time we saw them really work and step into it personally,” Nancy says.
“We’ve come a long way,” Jack says. “Last year, we were scheduled to be home on furlough for a year, but because I had kidney stones that were abnormal, we were home for six months longer. That was the first time we left the print shop without any missionary supervision.” Their extended absence gave them a chance to see how the Chadian staff ran the shop on their own and to identify any areas where they needed to do more training. To their delight, the staff kept it running without major problems.
Now the Snyders are pondering what comes next in their career. “We don’t have that much longer before we’re gone,” Jack says. He and Nancy have been praying for a long time for somebody to work with them and take their place, and they continue to prayerfully consider what the transition would look like. Would it be an individual stepping in or the church taking over? Do they need a full-time worker? A pressman? Someone with business and administration skills? A handyman? “If somebody is computer oriented and can also do the finances and administrative tasks, they can catch on to the digital press stuff,” Nancy says.
In the meantime, the Snyders continue to work and focus on discipling the print shop’s workers. Through morning devotions, they teach about integrity, honesty, transparency and humility. “We try to help them understand that these are qualities in a godly man. Because Chad is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, it has had a big negative impact on the church and Christians in general. Honesty and integrity are issues,” Jack says. “They have told us they didn’t realize that the money in the cash box in the print shop belongs to the print shop and not to them. Knowing we can leave them and they are not going to dip their hands in...It’s those kinds of things that secure the future of the print shop.” Nancy points out that it has been a result of the devotions, not confrontations by her or Jack, that the men have begun to understand biblical principles and change their views.
“God has gifted each of us in different ways,” Jack says. “Mine is not language or being able to speak. God has gifted me in using my hands, and I knew that when I said yes to going overseas, not knowing whether the Lord would ever take me. So I walk into the print shop and know that I am reproducing God’s word thousands of times.” Nancy adds: “Each piece of literature is a missionary.”
-Written by Ann-Margret Hovsepian
-Photographed by Robert Johnson