Humorist, Bargain Hunter, Bible translator, but most of all-- a man of Zeal for the Gospel
By Steve Van Nattan
Charlie, like real men worldwide, had a great sense of humor. He also could make himself the brunt of the joke. I recall one day riding into Mwanza from the AIM Mission headquarters complex. The front of our '55 pick up was full, and Charlie, several Africans of the Sukuma tribe, and I were in the back of the pick up. Charlie Hess was doing what he did so well-- telling stories that would have you holding your sides in pain as you roared with laughter. Only this time Charlie was doing this in Sukuma, and the Africans were in stitches. Here is the point-- You don't do this in another language unless you have mastered, not only the language, but the idiom and the thought pattern. Charlie Hess learned the Sukuma language to the point of mastery and beyond, which was a tribute to his love of Africa and its people.
Is there any blessing in mastering the humor of another culture? The answer is, Charlie Hess knew the Sukuma language so well that his final approval on the Bible translation into Sukuma was respected by the African church. They were sure the translation would be correct if Bwana Hess approved of it. You never really show people you love them until you can pray and preach in their language, but they love you back when you can weep and give comfort in their sorrow, and when you can lay them on the floor with THEIR humor-- humorous tales they have never before heard-- about themselves.
One day Uncle Charlie cornered me-- I was maybe in ninth grade-- and he told me I should accompany him around Mwanza while he bought some school supplies for his grandkids who were about to head off to boarding school. His grandkids went to the same school for missionary kids which I attended. Uncle Charlie was way too heavy really, and he had one terrifying problem. He could not really look behind his Chevy carryall when he backed up. He just tooted the horn and backed up real slow. Well, we headed off for downtown Mwanza to shop to find bargains. Uncle Charlie was famous among the missionaries in our mission for his uncanny ability to deal and get bargains from the hundreds of small shops, suks, and dukas in the back streets of Tanganyika, mostly owned by Indians from India.
Mwanza is the city on the very south end of Lake Victoria. This city was the government headquarters for the province, and it was rail head for the railway to the coast of Tanganyika. It was the mail port on the south end of the lake, and all commerce in the upper half of Tanganyika moved through Mwanza. Many cultures crossed paths here, and Indians from India by the thousands called Mwanza home. They had moved from India, with its horrid class distinctions, in order to open shops and make a living without the cultural chaos of India hanging around their ears. These Indians became the merchandisers of East Africa. They were at the same time, shrewd, ruthless, deeply helpful, and grateful if they made a shilling off of you. Loyalty is not an Indian virtue in business dealings, but the Indian has a strange way of ripping you off and loving you for who you are.
Charlie Hess had also mastered these strange Indian traits. Once he parked the Chevy carryall, he hustled me along, and we headed off in a rush that was amazing considering his huge size. Uncle Charlie did everything with gusto. We went from shop to shop, and every Indian merchant knew Charlie Hess and seemed genuinely fond of him. We went down side streets that were filled with all the odors of Africa-- onions already frying for the evening curry, open sewage, livestock of all kinds, and sweat from hundreds of African workers who were the vehicles for the shipping and receiving of goods into Mwanza. The sounds come back to me now-- clanging kitchen tools in use over the walls around the houses, a knife sharpener sitting on his perch with the huge stone wheel whirling away as he sharpened someone's hoe, dogs barking, monkeys screeching in the trees over the shops, and Jaliwal Patel yelling, "Tani boy, kuja hapa sasa hivi. Weka kitu huko" (Worker, come here at once. Put the thing over there.)
Of course, Charlie knew that the friendships he made with all these Indian merchants could not color his zeal for a bargain. His way of dickering and dealing was amazing. He would push the Indian merchant with words and sorrows and financial limitations-- any logic that worked. I had a hard time keeping up as Charlie would rush from merchant to merchant telling each one that the last fellow made a lower offer. He never lied, and the Indians knew he had the upper hand. A cup of tea was offered by the merchant in order to detain Charlie so as to wear him down if possible.
I was in school. I loved to watch the most basic commerce, the same kind Jesus and Paul would have known long ago, and I determined to put it all to work. To this day, I have been known to walk off with a deal others could not get. Thanks Uncle Charlie.
By the end of the day Uncle Charlie had bought enough ball point pens to last his grandkids all the way through college. He had to buy a large quantity in order to get the best price. He handed me a handful as he rejoiced in his victory. He had also gleaned several other bargains on paper tablets and other school things, and his grandkids were delighted later.
Best of all, Uncle Charlie would move to a word of testimony for Christ with the greatest of ease. The Indians were willing to listen too. After all, was this not a man who could think and deal on their level?
Uncle Charlie was asked to preach for a great convocation of missionaries from at least four of the mission's fields. His Bible teaching skills were in demand at such times. All the missionaries were gathered in their finest, and all of us from the missionary kids' boarding school were in our places.
One of the dear missionary ladies was called on to sing a solo just before the message. She had an unusually sweet and skilled voice and was a blessing in that regard. But, the song she chose to sing was "Only one life twill soon be passed, Only what's done for Christ will last." Uncle Charlie came to the pulpit, arranged his Bible, and then told the lady who sang that she had sung beautifully, and he was sincere and tender about it. In a flash, he then roared, "And, it's a lie of the devil." The room was electrified. Uncle Charlie then went on to show that what we do for the devil will last. And, he was right, AND, the record certainly needed to be set straight. The story of Lot's compromise, and the sin that followed, with Lot drunk in a cave in the desert, is just one of hundreds of accounts in the Bible where compromise and things done for the devil lasted and lasted.
In later years, as a pastor, when I came to a hymn we were singing, perhaps a very precious old favorite, but one that had bad doctrine in it, I would change the words, or I would tell the folks the hymn would have another hymn pasted over it next Sunday. This was infectious. The church I pastored in Grant, Michigan became very careful about hymns, and all hymns were subjected to the Word of God. Thanks, Uncle Charlie.
Uncle Charlie knew of a grove of citrus trees that had been abandoned not far from his mission station. They may have been planted by German colonial officials as far back as the 1920s. He invited my family to go on a picnic and fruit picking expedition. The grove was near an abandoned old colonial type building that was crumbling. No one lived there, and the grove was available to the public. There were oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, and probably other fruit trees. Uncle Charlie, a huge man, climbed at once into the crotch of a grapefruit tree and started harvesting with zeal.
Is there a lesson?
Yes: Luke 16:9 And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
There are many opportunities for a Bible believer to make friends, even to make a list of abandoned citrus orchards, so that there will always be food on the table. I am sure Jesus did not mean to USE people with wealth. But, it is very wise to make sure you have a few friends who produce wealth in this life, whether they are born again or unsaved. They know where the mammon is, and you will learn from them.
There is a lot more to tell about Uncle Charlie, but that will have to wait for another day.
Question: Who do you know who teaches as he lives life? These are the most priceless teachers-- those who show how to deal with life.