written by Edith Whitney Whitson, granddaughter of Ira Joy Stoddard
This story is called “The Power of a Song”, because in it I shall tell you how by singing a song my grandfather had a chance to tell a tribe of wild people about the love of Jesus for them.
These people lived in the Garo Hills. In the northern part of India are some very high mountains, called the Himalayas. Before you get to these mountains, you reach some that are not as high. These are called “The Foothills”. Some of these foothills are called “The Garo Hills”. My grandfather had heard about the people who lived there, they were called the Garo Tribes. There are many tribes among them called by different names. The tribe that Grandpa was interested in was called “The Nagas”. All the Garos were head hunters but the Nagas were the worst of them all. But they thought they were the best. Every night they went down into the valley and cut off people’s heads and took them home and hung them on their houses. The man who had the most heads on his house was considered the bravest and most important man in the tribe and so was called the chief. Of course this was very wicked; to cut off people’s heads, but the Nagas and all the other Garos were so ignorant that they did not know that they were wicked. When people are wicked and do not know that they are wicked, it is hard to teach them to do better. My grandfather thought, “If I can tell them about Jesus and how much he loves them, perhaps they will want to give up their wicked ways. But how can I get a chance to tell them about Jesus’ way of living and Eternal Life?”
My Grandfather had heard that the Nagas were musical people. They loved to sing and they loved to listen to other people sing. My Grandfather had a good voice and loved to sing God’s praises and people liked to hear him sing. One day he got on his horse and rode up near the hills where the Nagas lived. He tied his horse to a tree and walked slowly toward their village, singing as he went. This is what he sang: “Ek huka tona so dur dur annoy” (This meant: “There is a happy land far, far away). “Jo rodda lok tok tay dimdip de moy” – “Where saints in glory stand bright, bright as day.”
He walked on singing all the verses of the song in Assamese. The Garo had no written language of their own but they talked a language somewhat like the Assamese language and Grandpa hoped they would understand what he sang.
As Grandfather walked along, singing, he heard a rustling in the bushes, and he knew that there were people there listening to him singing. But he did not say anything to them or let them know that he heard them. Although they were warlike people and cut off their enemies heads, they were timid and afraid of anything that they did not understand. So walked right up to the edge of their village singing the hymn all the way and he turned around and walked back to the place where he had tied his horse, still singing, got on his horse and rode home.
The next day, Grandfather again went to the foothills and sang his song. Again on this day he heard the bushes rustling and he knew there were people listening to him sing. But they did not let him see them. So again he went home without speaking to them. On the third day Grandfather did the same thing. This time, he caught a glimpse of some of the people and heard them whispering to each other. But they did not come out of the weeds where he could see them clearly, so he went home again. On the fourth and fifth days the same thing happened. On the sixth day, just as Grandfather started to sing “Ek huka tone sa –“ a man came out of the bushes toward him. Grandfather stopped singing and waited for the man to come closer to him. But when the man saw Grandfather watching him, he was frightened and ran away.
Then all the other men rushed out of the bushes and ran to their village. Grandfather went home again wondering if be would ever get a chance to talk to the people or the Naga village.
The seventh time that Grandfather came back to the foothills, he had no sooner started to sing "There is a Happy Land" when a crowd of men rushed out of the bushes toward him. Now what were they going to do? These men were head hunters, were they going to kill Grandfather and hang his head on one of their houses? Should he have heeded the advice of the other missionaries and the British Government to stay away from these people? But Grandfather was a very brave man. Although he wondered it he was safe, he kept on walking and singing, “There is a happy land." The men crowded around him and blocked his way so that he could not walk any further; so he stood still and continued singing and the Garo men stood still too and did not say a word until he finished his song. Grandfather could see that they were very excited and had something to say, but either they were so fond of music that they liked to hear the song or they were polite.
As soon as Grandfather had finished his song, one of the Gara men said, "Bwama, where is this Happy Land, tell us how to get there. We want to go there.” Then they all started talking at once, asking questions: 'Where is it?" "How long will it take to get there?" "We want to see this beautiful place." “When can we go there?"
When the excitement died down a little so that Grandfather could be heard, he told them about the Happy Land and how to get there. If he told me the exact words he used to these people, I have forgotten what they were, but I think He said something like this: "The Happy Land is the home of God who is the great father of us all. He is our Father and his is sorry when we do wrong things and treat other people unkindly. He is our Father. He is the Father of everybody, so everybody is our brother or sister in God; so it makes God fell badly when we are unkind to our brothers and sisters. So it does not please God when you make war on other people and bring their heads home to hang .on your houses. You would not do that to your own brother who is the son of your father here on earth. It is wrong to do it to your brother in another tribe who is on earth who is the son of your Father who is in heaven which we call “The Happy Land.”
I think perhaps that is all Grandfather told them that day. Perhaps he told it to them over and over again. You must remember that these people had never heard before about God or Jesus and they did not understand everything that Grandfather said about them. So they asked lots of questions and sometimes they asked the same question over and over again, just as you ask your parents the same question over and over again. Perhaps after awhile Grandfather started asking them questions to see how much they had understood of what he had told them; just as your mother or father ask you questions when you have been asking the same one too many times.
After awhile Grandfather said that he had to go home for that day. They all begged him not to go home but to come and stay with them so that he could tell them more about God and "His Happy Land" late into the night and begin again early ln the morning. They wanted to hear more; much more about it. But Grandfather told them that he would not spend the night with them, because they were known to be very bad people and not to be trusted, if he did not come home that night, the British government, under whom his missionary work was done, would send out soldiers to see what had become of him. That would make trouble for the Naga people. When Grandfather had asked the British government for permission to go the Hills to preach, he had been told "Absolutely no" at first. The government had planned to send troops of soldiers in there to kill off all the
people because they were so bad. Grandfather had begged them to give him a chance to convert the Nagas, because he knew that with God all things were possible, and he believed that all people had a right to hear about God and Jesus so as to have the chance to make their lives better – a chance to live “The Jesus Way”, as they called being converted and trying to live as Christians should.
So finally after much argument the government said that Grandfather could have two years time in which to try to convert these people. Nobody thought that it could be done - not the British Government, not the other missionaries, not the natives that had already been converted. But my Grandfather had great faith in God’s ability to do everything and he knew that God had told him to go and preach to those people. So Grandfather did something that no other missionary bad dared to do. He went up to the "Foothills" and preached to the headhunters. In telling me about it, Grandfather said that God I had performed a miracle in giving him the chance to talk to these people. That was true, but If Grandfather had not been brave, if he had not gone up to the "Foothills" when God told him to, if he had not made use of the gift, that gift of being able to sing, then God could not have performed this miracle - could not have given him a chance to lead these people to God and a better way of living. So Grandfather walked back to where be bad left his horse and rode home. The next morning he went back as he had promised he would, and many other mornings he went back and talked to them about God and the right way to live. He talked to them, sang to them, and taught them to read so that they could read the bible and learn for themselves about God and teach it to their children. But first Grandfather had to write the Gospels in their own language. As I told you before, they had no written language of their own. What they talked sounded much like the Assamese language but was a little different; so Grandfather had to do a lot of hard work to take the Assamese written word and change it into words that the Garo people could understand.
Are you wondering what Grandfather said to these people when he went back there the next day? I think they came to meet him, asking him the same questions. They asked, “Bwama, tell us more about this Happy Land". "When can we go there?" “How long will it take to get there?" I think Grandfather told them, “You can not go there until God sends for you. You must live the way God wants you to and never forget and go back to your wicked life." Grandpa went on preaching to and teaching these people for a long time. Then he had to go away to some other work. He wanted to stay right there and continue to teach these people but the Mission Board said they had other work for him to do. He had trained one of the smartest of the young men of the village to teach and preach and so he left the work in his hands. My Grandfather did not go back to the Naga village for two years. Then he went back to visit them. As he drew near, he started to sing, "Ek huka tona Sa.” The people came running out of their houses, calling, "The Bwama has come back." Grandfather looked around the village and asked, "Why is everything so different?'. "When I was here before you had human heads hanging on your houses; your streets were dirty; now you have a church building; your streets are clean; the heads are gone. What does it mean?” “Oh, Bwama,” they said, "We built the church ourselves so that we could have a quiet place in which to worship the true God. As for the heads, don't you understand? We are living the "Jesus life” now and we have put out of our lives everything that had to do with our old wicked life. Everybody in our village is living the "Jesus life." Instead of hunting heads now we spend out time teaching the people of the other villages “The way of Life ."
In telling me about it, my Grandfather said, "Do people in this civilized land of the United States of America do as well as that when they are converted to "The Jesus way of life?” Do they give up everything that makes them think: of their old wicked life before they took Jesus for their personal savoir?"
This my grandchildren is the story my Grandfather told me of how he had the opportunity to save people for God and Jesus because be obeyed God' s call in the first place and then made use of a gift God bad given to him - that is - the ability to sing.