Only 18 months old, David Tusang* was lying on his back, motionless as his mother desperately scrambled to save his life in their Southeast Asian village.
Precious moments earlier, David’s mother had jumped down a nine-metre-deep water well to retrieve her helpless toddler. Under his sister’s watch, David had fallen into the depths. Time was running out. David’s skin was black and he was not breathing. Mom massaged his delicate chest, trying to force the water out without hurting him. Suddenly her child’s head jerked, vomiting water out of his tiny mouth. He was breathing. His colour was returning. He would be OK!
“When I was growing up,” says David, looking back, “from a very young age, she always told me that story.”
David is now a 40-year-old linguistics specialist serving in the Kinsha project. Lounging in an office chair at Kinsha’s Training Centre, David casually explains that in his mom’s eyes, his destiny was nailed down that day at the well.
“The life that came from me, the life that you received through the birth is gone. It’s already dead,” his devout Christian mom told him throughout his adolescence. “God gave you a new life in that well . . . that’s why you need to serve God.”
A Bad Boy
Despite his mom’s certainty of his destiny, early in David’s life he wasn’t at all interested in the life that she envisioned for him in ministry.
“I’d been a very bad boy," David says in his gravelly voice. “I had always been running, trying to do many bad things, but that [the well story] always stayed in my mind.”
With a child-like twinkle in his eyes and hints of both acceptance and regret in his demeanour, David admits that much of his life has been like a wrestling match—with God, himself and circumstances.
Life was difficult for David as a child. The son of an evangelist, he and his six siblings moved a lot from town to town throughout a remote mountainous area of the Nachik State.* Their family was so poor, David says he remembers times where they didn’t have enough food to eat.
They were also a religious and ethnic minority surrounded by the majority population that spoke the national language they didn’t know. This made school excruciating for David, who struggled to learn and felt isolated.
“My school performance was very, very bad. I always wanted to quit studying because I was not able to follow through with the lessons and I was doing very bad,” explains David. “If you are from a minority background plus a Christian, you are miserable.”
The Great Escape
When David graduated from high school in the ‘90s, he felt lost and without a future. Because of his religion and ethnicity, he says that after graduation from university, there were few jobs and not much opportunity for advancement. So, out of desperation, he chose to attend Bible school like many other minority Christians. It wasn’t out of any desire to serve God though. He just wanted to get away—as far as he could from his life and God. He chose a Bible college in India, going there with a returning student he knew.
“I was not happy. I was having a very bad relationship with my dad. I was a bad kid. Very stubborn, very rebellious,” David explains. “We had to go illegally. It was a very risky road. It was a long journey.”
Once David arrived at the Indian Bible college, his anguish continued. Taught in English, which he didn’t speak, class was like a cloudy haze. He understood little and failed half his subjects. Rather than enjoying his freedom, he felt isolated and alone.
It was in this space of desperation that David tentatively cracked open his Bible (in his country’s national language) looking for answers and willing to fight God until he found them. He read in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
“Everything is good?” he questioned. “No, everything is not good!”
But as he pleaded and wrestled, his heart was slowly creaking open toward God. His attitude and motivations began to shift. Somehow, he says, he went from failing his classes to becoming one of the top students. Nonetheless, it still wasn’t settled in his mind.
No, David wouldn’t fully trust God until he once again was saved from the brink of death in a border crossing incident that could have gone terribly wrong (see sidebar story, "Close Call).
After graduating from Bible college, a 23-year-old David was ready to begin a life of ministry. But like most aspects of David’s story, his ministry arc wasn’t that straightforward.
After briefly teaching at a Bible college in his hometown, David was approached by a graduate from the Payap MA program who was looking for local staff for the Kinsha Bible translation team in David’s home country. The first step, he was told, was to attend Payap University to study linguistics.
However, after only two semesters David dropped out because of financial constraints. So, he went back to teaching at Bible college in his home town. But that didn’t last long either. After two years, he was approached again by Kinsha to do linguistics work; this time by the project co-ordinator Mike Linden.*
“David, please don’t give up. God needs you and we need you,” Linden implored. “Will you be interested in doing language survey?”
David found the offer compelling, accepting the chance to travel to remote language groups across the nation to research languages so decisions could be made about their need for Bible translation ministry.
“It’s one of the most important steps in doing language development and translation,” David explains.
After five years of hectic travel as a language surveyor, David decided it was time to put down roots and narrow down his ministry. As he considered his future, his heart was pulled toward the Nag* and Duka* people (they speak closely related languages), who he met while surveying a remote mountainous area in his home region.
“I felt very much that God was speaking. I really wanted to do something for these people groups,” explains David of the two groups with a total population of about 40,000.
There has been a parallel between David’s relationship with the Nag and Duka people, and God’s relationship with David—both have required plenty of patience.
David’s Bible translation work with these two almost entirely Buddhist language groups started with a blank slate; they had no alphabet and no understanding of the Christian faith or the Bible. And like David was at one time angry at God, many of the Buddhist leaders in this village are hostile toward David.
“Some of the Buddhist religious leaders are very much against my presence,” explains David. “It makes it much more difficult, but we are just trusting God and we will do whatever we can. We will go slowly.”
David has helped develop an alphabet and a few simple story books for the groups since returning from PhD studies in Australia in 2012. At this stage, the work is proceeding without any mention of the Bible or the gospel.
“Right now, the only way to possibly reach out to these people is linguistics and language development,” explains David. “They live in a very remote setting. Preachers are not welcome, Christians are not welcome.
“How do we reach these people? I say linguistics. That’s the way we show our love.”
Spreading the Love
So David is patiently loving the Nag and Duka people. He does this with his linguistics work, but also by simply being there—as a friend and a mentor.
In David’s role as program manager for Bible translation work in his home state, he has plenty of opportunities to expose his Nag and Duka friends to the Christian faith.
David and his wife Zasi, who were married in 2009, currently have a Duka friend living with them in their home 200 kilometres away from the village.
“Right now it’s more about relationship building,” explains David.
During a language and culture workshop for Kinsha staff this past December at the Kinsha Training Centre, David was surrounded by three young villagers he brought with him on the long, four-day journey. Relaxing after a long day in the workshop, David and his friends reclined while the sun crept below the eastern rooftops of the compound.
David—the “bad boy,” the survivor, the wrestler-with-God, and questioning soul—speaks confidently from life experience when he considers his new friends.
“The Nag and Duka people need God. They need the living God,” he says. “They need to experience the blessings that we all have received: the light of the gospel.” ***
*Pseudonyms used due to sensitivity.