While growing up across the Alberta prairies, Leigh Labrecque heard Jesus Christ’s name a lot—usually as a swearword. To him, Christ was at best a man of legend.
“I thought of Jesus kind of like a superhero figure, someone who could do amazing things, but was fictitious.”
Sitting in his office on the second floor of the Canada Institute of Linguistics (CanIL) on the Trinity Western campus in Langley, B.C., Labrecque shares about his chaotic childhood and how he found Christ to be “real” in the midst of hardships.
For most of Labrecque’s childhood, he didn’t live with his mom and dad, who separated when he was five years old. Instead, he was handed off to relatives or people who were willing to take a boarder into their home. From ages five to 15, he moved more than 20 times and attended 12 different schools. In those years, he saw plenty of drug and alcohol abuse in his family—and also broken relationships.
Labrecque, who has been a professor at CanIL since 2013 after more than a decade serving in Bible translation in the South Pacific island-nation of Vanuatu, admits that he found his childhood experience to be “pretty unsettling.”
However, when Labrecque was 15, the direction of his life changed. He moved back in with his father and his new stepmother. And through a series of providential circumstances, they began attending church when Leigh was 17. At first, Labrecque was resistant to this new life direction, but his parents challenged him to read the Bible.
“I was reading the Bible and it just came alive,” he says. “I realized for the first time that the story of Jesus wasn’t a fictitious thing like a comic book or a good fiction book. It was actually real.”
A short time later, as Labrecque was considering whether to commit his life to the Jesus he was reading about, he says God gave him a mental picture of his future.
“In my mind, I could see two roads. One road was clear but filled with pitfalls, pain and destruction. The other road was covered in mist, stretching into the unknown. But I felt like it held a promise of hope and a new kind of life.”
Deeply familiar with the brokenness he saw all around him as a child—and having little understanding of what it looked like to be a Christian or the loneliness he would face along the way—Lebrecque choose to follow Christ down the misty path of hope. He said to the Lord: “Whatever you want.”
Searching for direction after high school in the late ’80s, Labrecque enrolled at Prairie Bible College in Three Hills, Alta. The first semester at Prairie was a whirlwind. He remembers studying the Bible and late-night talks with his new friends, learning how each other became Christians. He had an amazing time.
However, Labrecque’s father and his stepmother didn’t share his enthusiasm for Bible college. Having joined a new denomination, they had developed some strange beliefs, Labrecque says.
“They became suspicious of everyone and everything, having been told that demons lurked all around us. Because of that, they were very suspicious of everything that I was learning at Bible college and all of my Christian activities.”
At the Christmas break, Labrecque’s parents pulled him out of Prairie, believing he had “fallen away from the Lord and His proper way.
“They told me that I had been contaminated by the world and that I was not fit to come home for Christmas. So they drove me to Edmonton, and dropped me off at the YMCA in the middle of downtown. I was also told that if I contacted any relatives who lived in Edmonton, that would confirm to them that I was choosing the things of this world over God. So, with $79 in my bank account, and no friends or family, I felt very alone.”
On His Own
Suddenly at 18 years old, Labrecque was entirely responsible for his wellbeing. This was his new normal. For the next 17 years he was estranged from his father. However, despite being on his own, Labrecque held on to the vision God gave him as teenager. He remembered that God promised him that if he followed Him, he’d be given hope.
“The Lord did teach me a lesson. What He taught me was that He will provide a family for the lonely and provide a community for those that seek Him.”
Eager to return to the amazing community of Christians who cared for him at Prairie, Labrecque found two part-time jobs to save money for tuition. Unfortunately, as hard as he tried, he wasn’t able to save enough. After 18 months on his own, Labrecque contacted Prairie to ask if they had a way he could attend classes. Understanding his plight, the college’s leadership allowed him to return. To help pay for classes, they offered him a job painting in the summer and when he was short of finances for tuition, generous donors would pay his fees.
“It seemed like every two months the Lord provided through some miraculous means.”
The coming years at Prairie would be foundational in Labrecque’s story. It was there that he found God’s distinct calling for his life and God began to fulfil His promise of providing him a family.
“When my blood family abandoned me, God became my Father and His people everywhere embraced me as family.”
Answering the Call
Even after all these years, tears roll down the now 46-year-old Labrecque’s cheeks as he remembers the moment God first tugged at his heart to join the Bible translation movement. It was at a missions conference in 1992 where a Wycliffe representative, along with a group of actors, illustrated how desperate the need was for Bible translation around the globe.
Labrecque watched as actors dressed in different ethnic costumes pleaded with the Wycliffe representative to send someone to help them start Bible translations. The representative told them that they wouldn’t be able to send anyone there for 120 years because there weren’t enough linguists.
“I’m still kind of emotional,” says Labrecque, as he recalls the story. “I thought: I can be one of those people that go. I can answer the call to one of those groups. I can get people God’s Word. The Holy Spirit can pour into their lives in the same way that He has challenged me and poured into my life through His Word.”
After this experience, Labrecque became a kind of Bible translation evangelist, sharing the need with everyone around campus, hoping to convince them to join him. It was in this eager state that he learned of a student named Barbara, an American who was also interested in Bible translation.
I have to meet this girl, he told himself. Once he met Barbara, it all clicked into place in his mind, Labrecque recalls: “She’s cute, she’s smart and she’s excited about Bible translation.”
Focused on following the Lord and her studies, Barbara, a Californian, initially didn’t see the same potential in Labrecque that he saw in her. She thought that their personalities were just too different. However, as they got to know each other better, she realized that they were a great match.
“I think we are a good team, because we balance each other,” says Barbara, talking about their relationship in their Langley home. “Thankfully, God usually works it out that way.”
Within a few years, Labrecque and Barbara were married. United in their passion for Bible translation ministry, the couple—with their first child Sharyna in tow—enrolled at CanIL for graduate-level classes in 1996. By the time they left for the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu (a country consisting of 80 islands) in 2000 to begin their Bible translation ministry, the couple had welcomed two more children to their family: Anthony and Cassia.
With a young growing family, Labrecque’s faith in God’s promise of “providing a family for the lonely” was fulfilled. However, the story wasn’t finished. In October of 2002, God gave Labrecque another gift.
As he and Barbara were just getting their feet wet in Bible translation ministry, Labrecque received a long-overdue email. It was from his father, apologizing for abandoning him and shutting him out for so many years. Soon, Labrecque’s father scheduled a trip all the way to Vanuatu, where he met Barbara and the kids for the first time.
“That first night of his visit in Vanuatu, we stayed up until 2 a.m.,” explains Labrecque.
Face to face, Labrecque’s father apologized again. And in response, despite everything he’d gone through, Labrecque shared that God had helped him to forgive him many years before, but that it would take some time to build trust between them.
“In many ways, our relationship became stronger than ever before,” Labrecque says. “During the difficult journey that we had during the 17 years of separation, God took us in our broken state and recreated us.”
Ultimately, God’s given Labrecque everything He promised him: hope, purpose, community, family and even reconciliation. All God asked was for Labrecque to trust Him while following Him into the unknown.