‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last’ – John 15:16


Wrong day. Wrong time. Wrong place. And the wrong side of the road.

Mary Gardner and her best friend from university, Mercia Malcolm, rarely found themselves on the same continent. So when, in March 2011, they found themselves not only on the same continent, but in the same city – Jerusalem – they anticipated meeting up and catching up again face-to-face with joy and excitement.

‘Our friendship,’ Mercia recalls, ‘was what the Irish call an anam cara – a soul friendship – where you can instantly pick up the depth of sharing no matter how many years you have been apart.’

Mary was 11 weeks into her six-month stay in Jerusalem, where she was studying Hebrew at the Home for Bible Translators to prepare for the start of the Ifè Old Testament translation project. Mercia arrived in Jerusalem on Tuesday 22 March for a 10-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She brought with her some things that Mary had especially requested: ‘proper’ teabags (for Mary loved a good cup of tea), some oatcakes, and some pencils (as Mary loved to draw). They had arranged to meet at the earliest possible opportunity on Thursday afternoon. However, a few days before, Mary’s class schedule changed and an opportunity opened up for them to meet a day earlier – at teatime on Wednesday.

Mary Gardner in Israel Mary Gardner in Israel

Mary was staying at the Home for Bible Translators dormitory at Yad Hashmona, about seven miles from the centre of Jerusalem. On her unexpectedly free afternoon, Mary decided to get a bus into Jerusalem a couple of hours early to buy spices at the market. She loved to cook and was due to prepare a meal for the community of students with whom she was staying. Her classmates at the time recall that she had made them nettle soup from plants she had picked up while walking – an example of Mary’s ability to combine her love of walking with getting free food!

That day, Mary got off the bus near the central bus station and then crossed the road to the bus stop on the other side. ‘We presume,’ Mercia says, ‘to double-check – because that’s the way she would have been – on the time of the bus home.’ As Mary stood by the bus stop, another bus pulled in, and at that moment someone pressed a button on a mobile phone remotely triggering a bomb hidden in a bag that had been left on the pavement.

Within moments a paramedic who happened to be passing on a motorcycle was at her side, but Mary was already unconscious. An ambulance rushed her to hospital, where the doctors tried everything they could to save her, but tragically she died of her wounds.

Mary’s death ripped a hole in the lives of many people that was – and still is – felt in many places around the world: in Scotland by her generous-hearted parents, her sister and three brothers, her dear friend Lesley who for years distributed her prayer letters, and the members of the churches who nurtured and supported her; in America by Pat her Wycliffe teammate and friend for over two decades; in Ireland by Mercia; and in Togo and Benin by the Bible translation team she had mentored, and the Ifè people she had lived with and dedicated her life to for 20 years.

A woman reads the Ifè New Testament A woman reads the Ifè New Testament


In early 1981 two women, Hélène Boëthius from Sweden and Anna Kohler from Switzerland, who were working in Togo, went to research the Ifè language area. It soon became very clear to them that the Ifè people needed the Bible in their own language.

At that time there was no written form of the Ifè language, hardly any Christian work among the Ifè, and very few Ifè Christians. The Ifè, like many African people groups, have traditionally held animistic beliefs, which means they believe there is a spiritual dimension to all of life. But with those beliefs comes the need to try to control and appease the spiritual powers that can cause death, misfortune and madness. Any missionaries who were trying to connect with the Ifè were repeatedly hitting a brick wall. So when Hélène and Anna officially started the Ifè language project in late 1981 there was much work to do.

An Ifè literacy class An Ifè literacy class

They began with the painstakingly detailed process of language learning and linguistic analysis. After three years’ work, Anna had to return home to care for her elderly parents.

A couple of years later Marquita Klaver, from America, joined the project. And a number of years after that, when the Ifè language had been written down, they began translating Luke’s Gospel and preparing basic teaching materials for the fledgling literacy programme.

By late 1990 Luke had been translated into Ifè and printed, and the literacy programme was growing. But after 10 years of work the team felt that the project was going too slowly and they needed help to get it going faster – and God was preparing that help.

‘God willing, the goal of the whole Bible in Ifè will become a reality in the near future.’

Although Mary Gardner was Scottish, she was not born in Scotland, nor did she spend much of her childhood there. She was born in Nairobi in 1955, the precious firstborn of Tony and Jean, and it was only when Mary was 15 that she returned to Scotland to complete her schooling.

Mary studied English and French at the University of St Andrews, where her first roommate was Mercia Malcolm, and they bonded quickly over a shared love of books and mutual favourite authors. Mary and Mercia also shared a faith journey during their years at St Andrews – a journey which would shape both their lives.

‘We were both exploring going deeper into faith,’ Mercia recalls. ‘There was a sort of crisis point in our third year, while Mary was in France, and I was still in St Andrews, where we found that God seemed to be doing the same thing in both of us.’

During this time they shared a deep correspondence – ‘16-page letters’, Mercia remembers – about the surprising things that God was teaching them. Both Mercia and Mary kept all the letters they wrote to each other during this profound time of growing faith, a time that Mercia summarises as being ‘that moment of surrender of life to God which can never be retracted whatever other struggles may come.’

In their final year at university Mary and Mercia shared a flat that, Mercia says, ‘became a little hub for a Christian community. It became an important centre for a lot of us. It was a very special time.’

After university Mary and Mercia both completed teacher training and spent a number of years teaching – Mary in Orkney, Mercia in England. ‘Teaching was not a good fit for Mary,’ Mercia says. ‘She knew it wasn’t the right fit, but didn’t know what to do instead. Then she went on one of those taster weekends with Wycliffe, and when she came back her teaching colleague Lesley said Mary was “glowing” because she had found the right fit with Bible translation – and after that she never turned back.’

Seed planting

Pat Devine, from Massachusetts in the USA, first met Mary in the summer of 1989 just outside Paris where they were both honing their French skills in preparation for working in French-speaking Africa. During this time Mary worked at a youth camp in France where, Pat recalls, ‘Mary used to laugh that she picked up a lot of rough language and bad jokes in her renewal of French!’

Reading the Ifè New Testament Reading the Ifè New Testament

Mary and Pat both ended up in Togo, where they each visited several language projects that were asking for additional personnel. Though they visited the Ifè project separately, both of them felt it was the place God had prepared for them.

So in 1991 Pat and Mary officially joined the Ifè team and over time became ‘a natural pairing and partnership’. Pat recalls this was an act of God’s grace because, even though on the surface she and Mary appeared to be quite different – British, introverted, bookish versus American, extroverted, film lover – ‘it didn’t take us long to realise that we had a lot in common – the things we read and movies we liked, being out in nature and taking walks. God was so kind to us because one of the sweetest parts of our friendship and our working relationship is that we relaxed well together. We just enjoyed each other’s company. It was a gift from the Lord.’

When Mary and Pat joined the Ifè team the intention was that they would come alongside Hélène and Marquita in order to help move the project along. However, God had other plans. Within a few years the other women moved on and Mary and Pat found themselves as the project managers overseeing a team of, at that time, four full-time translation and literacy workers. Eventually, missionaries from other organisations also left the area and, because Pat periodically travelled for other work activities, Mary often found herself as the only missionary in the area. Mercia says that Mary didn’t find this easy: ‘I know that at times she found the isolation hard. She hated conflict and sometimes found it challenging to be constantly living and working outside of her own culture, and she found it hard not being part of a church in her own heart language – but she was in the place where she could do what she was meant to do.’

‘God put into my heart a longing that other people should have the same access to the Scriptures and to the Bible that I enjoyed.’

And what Mary was meant to do was to help translate the Bible into Ifè. Talking to an audience at St Silas Church in Glasgow (one of her supporting churches), Mary explained that God had ‘put into my heart a longing that other people should have the same access to the Scriptures and to the Bible that I enjoyed – it was his word that had led me to him and it was through his word that so often he has continued to speak to me.’ She further explained that giving people access to the Bible is an essential part of God’s mission: ‘The Bible is crucial to our understanding of God. So it is really important that we can read the Bible and have access to it in a way that we can really understand it, so that it speaks to our hearts, so that we can trust that it is accurate, so that it makes sense to us, and so that we can hear God speaking to us through it.’

Mary teaching Greek to the Ifè translators Mary teaching Greek to the Ifè translators

As the Ifè team grew, the work of giving the Ifè people access to the Bible in their heart language proceeded – word by word, verse by verse, chapter by chapter, book by book. Slowly but steadily the translation process advanced, through initial exegesis – which is carefully checking the meaning and accuracy of every word – and translation. Then through checking the meaning and readability with the Ifè community, checking the theological accuracy with a translation consultant, and the many revisions coming out of this process. And then, finally, the typesetting and printing. The aim throughout this whole process is to produce a clear, accurate and natural translation that can be used by God to transform many lives. This all happened alongside the ongoing Ifè literacy work. And all of this was overseen by Mary and Pat while they mentored the Ifè translators and literacy workers, preparing them to take over running the project.

‘The power of the Scriptures in Komi’s life convinced his wife to become a Christian too.’

One of the Ifè men that Mary mentored closely was Komi Sena. Komi was probably born in 1968 but, like many Africans, does not know his exact date of birth. He studied philosophy at university in Lomé, the capital of Togo, but after that he couldn’t find much work, and wound up labouring for a pittance at a local sawmill business. So in 1999 when the Ifè language project was recruiting new translators, Komi tried out and was accepted. At the time, Komi was a new Christian and he did not know the Scriptures well. But, Mary recalled in her talk, ‘as he worked on the translation, the Scriptures began to change his life’ and, after a number of years, seeing ‘the power of the Scriptures in Komi’s life convinced his wife to become a Christian too.’

Right from the start Mary perceived Komi’s potential as a Bible translator. ‘He learnt how to test his translation in the community and lead a review committee, and to work with a translation consultant,’ Mary once wrote, describing Komi’s rapid progress as a translator. ‘He also reviewed what the other translators had translated. During the New Testament revision he worked on the consistency of phrasing among the four gospels, a very slow and painstaking task requiring great concentration on details.’

Komi became a central pillar of the translation team as they worked towards the completion of the Ifè New Testament. Mary described the final stages of this work: ‘After a year of final revisions, we went to Yaoundé in Cameroon to typeset the New Testament. It was a scary moment when we realised that we could make no more changes – but it was also a celebration! Then the final version was sent for printing.’

‘It was glorious’

The Ifè New Testament was dedicated on a wonderful day in October 2009. ‘It was a big milestone in the history of the people and of the project,’ Pat notes, ‘and all the glory goes to God.’

Bishop Barrigah-Bénissan holding the Ifè New Testament over his heart Bishop Barrigah-Bénissan holding the Ifè New Testament over his heart

Mary, Pat, Hélène and Marquita were all there to share the joy of the Ifè people. During the celebrations, Bishop Barrigah-Bénissan held the Ifè New Testament over his heart saying: ‘I will touch my heart with these words, so that these words may be in my heart.’

A crowd of almost 2,000 people joyously celebrated the arrival of God’s word in Ifè. But even more exciting was seeing how God was opening doors into the Ifè community.

‘Even in the early 1990s there was throughout the Ifè villages a resistance to Christianity,’ Pat says. ‘But from the end of the ’90s and the beginning of the 2000s God started moving. People began to welcome the offer of literacy classes. Our efforts to interest people in learning to read and write Ifè went from a sense of trying to pull teeth to the reality of having people knocking on our doors saying: “We want a class.” And dovetailed to that, all of a sudden, people were open to the gospel.’

‘To have traditional religious leaders who were willing to say publicly “I’ve left all that behind and I’m following Jesus” had huge ripple effects throughout the community.’

Some very significant community leaders began to put their faith in Christ. Pat recalls that ‘the conversion of well-known traditional priests was a big deal. To have traditional religious leaders who were willing to say publicly “I’ve left all that behind and I’m following Jesus” had huge ripple effects throughout the community.’ These ripple effects ran far and deep and wide: ‘So in a short span of just 30 or so years the Ifè territory went from having only a few churches, mostly in towns, to having hundreds of Ifè churches scattered throughout the region.’

‘Over the years we had printed individual New Testament books as we translated them, often distributing them through the literacy classes. But with the arrival of the full Ifè New Testament, well, you can see how God had been at work preparing the ground for it,’ Pat proclaims. ‘It was glorious.’

People read the Ifè New Testament at the launch celebration

‘Ifè went from having only a few churches to having hundreds of churches.’

But God still had much work for the project to do: further mentoring of the team so they could fully take the ‘baton’ of leadership of the project; completion of the project offices; transferring ownership of the project to a local organisation they had set up called ACATBLI (which in English stands for: Christian Association for Literacy and Bible Translation in the Ifè Language); and the biggest job of all – translating the Old Testament so the Ifè people could have access to the whole Bible in their heart language.

Pat had to go back to America to care for her ailing father in 2010, and much of Mary’s work during that year had to do with the administrative details involved in transferring ownership of the project to ACATBLI. This was necessary work, but not work that Mary enjoyed – she just wanted to get on with the Old Testament translation.

Yet the foundations for the Old Testament translation were being put in place: Komi, along with his wife and two daughters, went to Abidjan in Ivory Coast to complete a masters degree in Bible translation. Meanwhile Mary arranged for further study in Old Testament Hebrew to equip her to be a translation consultant. The best place for her to do that was at the Home for Bible Translators. And so, in January 2011, Mary travelled to Jerusalem.

The Ifè team in 2003

Ripping a hole

‘Why would God take our mother from us?’ was the heart-rending response of the Ifè team to Mary’s death.

The loss of Mary was immense – for her parents and family, for the Ifè project, for Pat and Mercia and all those who loved her so much. As was the loss of all the good she could have done – in Bible translation, as well as through her warmth, kindness and grace.

‘Mary committed her whole life to the service of his kingdom.’ 

‘It felt like she had been ripped out of something,’ Mercia says, ‘and the ramifications have been great. It ripped a hole in our lives and, of course, in the Ifè project.’

Mercia talks with moving honesty about how ‘it has been hard theologically, wrestling with all the questions that  have come out of it. It does shake you that God saw us writing all those emails changing the time we were to meet, and yet allowed it to happen. There are no simple answers to that at all. I just have to hold onto some sense that God has and is bringing something from this, which felt just chaotic and incredibly, incredibly painful. And I felt incredible guilt that it was because of our friendship she was killed. So it was very moving for me when Mary’s
sister Alison said that her family were actually so glad because they knew that Mary was happy when she died – happy because she was coming to meet me.’

When Pat talks about the pain of Mary’s death she says: ‘I’ve had to grapple with why God let this happen. And although I have no clear answer, I look at all the circumstances of that day, and I think, for reasons that I don’t understand, that God allowed it to happen.’

While over 30 people were injured by the bomb, Mary was the only person killed – and because her body took the full force of the blast, she likely saved the lives of others, especially those on the near side of the bus that had just pulled into the bus stop. Among the people on that bus whose lives were saved were two teenagers from the Christian community linked to the Home for Bible Translators – one of them, Yasmine Bar David, told news reporters at the time: ‘It’s hard for me to actually imagine that is actually what she did for me… and I just want to thank her.’

‘The thought that Mary’s death allowed other lives to be saved,’ Pat says, ‘is a great consolation to those of us that loved her and continue to miss her.’

Romans 8:38–39 was one of the readings at Mary’s memorial service – ‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

And in her address that day Mercia said: ‘That was a very important passage for us at university, though we never expected to experience its truth in such a sharp way as this. Mary lived and died in the love of God and committed her whole life to the service of his kingdom. Her death, even in these circumstances, cannot be outside his will and purposes for her. She has run her race and come home into his eternal kingdom in which there will be no more tears or sorrow or loss. Someday perhaps we will know more of the purpose behind this hard separation from her, but for Mary herself there can now only be joy and rejoicing in her place in God’s love.’

The Ifè translation team in 2016: Front row, l-r: Komlan Tchalla, Yaovi Odayéfoumi Afakodja, Edoh Kaleb Agounkey. Back row, l-r: Kodjo Atchade, Komi Sena, Napo Maman

Taking up the baton

Mary’s sudden death, alongside Pat’s need to return to America, meant that instead of a gradual handover of  project leadership, it happened all of a sudden. And while that was not easy or straightforward, Pat explains, in the end ‘God enabled the Ifè team members to step up into the leadership roles. No, it didn’t go as Mary and I had dreamed or envisioned it would go, but, by God’s grace, the work continues. The team is pressing on and, God willing, the goal of the whole Bible in Ifè will become a reality in the near future.’

Komi is one of the people who was thrust into a leadership role earlier than anticipated. He had just arrived back in Togo after getting his masters degree when Mary was killed. Then a few months later an opportunity for him to study Hebrew opened up unexpectedly. Halvor and Miriam Ronning, the directors of the Home for Bible Translators in Israel, had set up a memorial fund in Mary’s name specifically for West African French-speaking translators to come and study Hebrew. They offered Komi that scholarship and arranged for him to travel to Jerusalem and complete the Hebrew studies that Mary had started. Komi reports that while he was in Jerusalem, Halvor and Miriam were especially kind to him. Komi says: ‘Ils m’ont chéri à cause de Mary,’ which means: ‘They cherished me because of Mary.’

‘In a very tangible way Komi took the baton from Mary,’ Pat says. ‘She was going to be a translation consultant; now he is. She was going to oversee the Ifè Old Testament translation; that is what Komi is doing now. Mary went to learn biblical Hebrew, but wasn’t able to finish it; Komi went and finished it. So there is a real sense in which the mantle passed from Mary to Komi. Now he’s teaching biblical Hebrew to the other translators and is the person overseeing and managing the Old Testament translation. And, by God’s grace, the work is moving ahead.’

Currently, Genesis is in the final stages of preparation for publication, and work is at varying stages on 1 and 2 Samuel, Joshua, 1 and 2 Kings, and Psalms.

‘We need to pray for this team.’

The ACATBLI offices in Atakpamé

‘But,’ Pat cautions, ‘this does not mean that the task is completed. It is not a done deal that the Old Testament translation will be completed. We need to pray for this team. Yes, God is blessing the Old Testament translation work. However, there is opposition – both practical and spiritual, and from inside and outside the church. So while we rejoice in what God has done – and is doing – let’s not stop praying for and supporting this project, because they need our prayers and support.’

That is what Wycliffe is doing – and you can find out how you can prayerfully and financially be part this work here.

Vibrantly alive

‘I had a dream a few months after Mary died,’ Mercia shares, ‘of seeing her very vibrantly alive, with her hair very red in the sunshine – just very vibrantly alive.’

Through the Holy Spirit, Bible translators and all those who play a role alongside them, are lifegivers. Their work enables people to engage with the Bible in their mother tongue. And through that work God reveals to people the truth about his life-giving love, his power to transform lives and communities, and the redemption, resurrection, and vibrant life he has planned for his people. Mary’s absence here on earth remains painful – and deeply so – but her legacy is that through her work God will continue to lead many others into the vibrant life that only he can bring.

That is the power of the Bible, as Mary knew from her own experience. She summed up her life-giving work in saying: ‘God has given me the privilege of being someone he has used to give the Ifè people the New Testament in their own language. The Bible is a key tool that God has given us to follow him, to serve him, and to fulfil his commission. As the Ifè would say: Ɔ̀ɖáyé kó tu kùs fú ŋɛ́!, which means: May God bless you!’

Story by: Alfred Thompson

Date: 21/10/2022

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