When Mike Linden* is approached by leaders from minority language groups to help start Bible translation work, he knows the circumstances in their communities are sometimes far from safe.
This was definitely the case in 2013 with a pastor from a Neye* village in a sensitive Southeast Asian country. He told Linden (director of the Bible translation effort known as “Kinsha”) that the 30 believers in his militia-controlled village were interested in a Bible in their mother tongue.
Linden explained to the pastor that the first step for a Bible translation was for a Kinsha language surveyor to visit the primarily Buddhist region to study the geographic and linguistic boundaries of their language.
Many people were excited about the prospect of an alphabet in their mother tongue. But others weren’t, including a militia leader in the village who caught wind of the language survey.
“No more church and no more language development,” he told the pastor, grabbing his shoulders aggressively. “If you make an alphabet, we’ll kill you.”
Fearing for his life, the pastor fled the village. Once in a safe spot, the pastor met the language surveyor to discuss the situation. The pastor told her that they should keep the research going. He was also insistent on reopening his church, which was closed after he fled.
Soon the pastor returned, bravely holding to his word. This spring they started working on an alphabet—the first step in a Bible translation for his people. Despite the militia’s threat, so far no harm has come to him or any of the other Christians in the village. In fact, the church has now grown to 50 people.
The Early Days
The Neye Bible translation effort faced a rocky reception. Fortunately, most of Kinsha’s Bible translation work hasn’t been so uncomfortable. In fact, since the Kinsha team was formed in 2002, the group has been busy responding to requests for help.
“We didn’t have to go dig . . . .” says Linden, the 52-year-old, well-spoken American. “We had people knocking on our door all the time asking, ‘Can you help us? Can you help us? Can you help us?’”
Already working on two New Testament translations in the Kinsha region at the turn of the millennium, Linden decided to organize a team of colleagues from a key Wycliffe partner organization to answer the requests for help from minority language groups. Starting with a half-dozen staff working on three Bible translations, today Kinsha has active Bible translation and other language work happening in 28 groups, with hopes of expanding to more than 40.
Kinsha's approach is based on simple math—the more local people you equip, the more the work expands exponentially.
“Back when we started this, it was very limited access,” explains Linden, discussing an ongoing conflict the region has faced throughout the decades. “Just in the past couple years, it’s opened up quite a bit more.”
Many language groups still are difficult to access for international staff. However, many educated locals—who Kinsha staff refer to as “gateway people” and can speak the regional language in their area—are crucial for manning the Kinsha team. That’s why a partnership with Payap MA program in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is so important to Kinsha’s ministry. In each of the past four years, Payap linguistics students wrote theses for Kinsha Bible translation projects needing their research expertise.
Each year a student graduated who spoke the exact regional language that was needed for the translation project that was ready to start that next year, explains Linden. “Not because we planned anything, right? We’re not that good at planning. God just put it all together.”
About half the language groups in the Kinsha area have a significant number of Christians. The advantage of this is that finding churches to partner with is not a problem, but the larger Christian population tends to bring with it a tendency to split and divide into different denominations and affinity groups.
“Several of our projects are made up of translation team members from different denominations or groups that generally do not work together or co-operate," Linden explains, "but an appeal for unity in the area of Bible translation has brought co-operation where it did not exist before.”
Despite having plenty of options for churches to attend, most Christians in these villages lack maturity until they receive the Bible in their own language and begin to understand God’s Word.
For example, before a village of Yazai* people received the New Testament in their mother tongue in 2010, it was difficult to tell the difference between church people and those who didn’t attend. Every night, both men and women would get drunk on rice whisky. Village family life was tumultuous. However, when the New Testament arrived and was distributed, these Christian villagers, who had already learned to read because of Kinsha mother-tongue literacy classes, began to understand salvation for the first time. It changed their lives. Almost everyone stopped drinking and families started treating each other better.
“Our wives are acting differently,” the men said. “They’re kinder; they respect us more.”
Excited about their burgeoning faith, the women organized a conference for 500 Yazai women from the surrounding communities. Eager to serve their wives, the men volunteered to cook food for the conference, taking off work to butcher four pigs a day to feed the huge group.
“Never before in their culture had the men served the women,” explains Linden. “Having the New Testament in their language has had a huge impact in how they’ve acted toward each other. Now they’ve actually started sending their own missionaries to language groups around them. . . . They’re going to have their own Bible school [next year] to train their own pastors using Yazai Scriptures instead of using . . . the national language, which is difficult for many to understand."
Abandoned But Not Forgotten
While Kinsha sees openness to Bible translation work in villages where Christians are the majority, it’s more complicated to reach villages where Buddhism is dominant. For a Buddhist person to become a Christian, there are great consequences. It means they often have to leave their friends and family, and move to a Christian village.
“They won’t let you stay there,” says Linden, explaining that Buddhism, more so than traditional animist religion, is tied up with national identity. “Their culture is organized around the temple . . . there is a huge social price to pay for Buddhist groups in general to become believers.”
For this reason, many Buddhists only turn to Christ when they experience profoundly the love and power of God from Christians. Some of the first Buddhists and animists to become followers of Christ in the Kinsha region in the 1950s were lepers who were cared for by Christians at colonies, when even their families abandoned them. In fact, recently retired Kinsha Bible translator Leon Heka* (see the story "Trials & Tribulations in this edition) met many of these first Christians while spending much of his childhood at leper colonies, where his father, a pastor, ministered.
Linden says many other Buddhists who turn to Christ, do so because they have seen or experienced miraculous healing and freedom from demon possession.
“Buddhists realized the only people who could do anything about this were the Christians,” he says. “The Christians come and cast out the evil spirit, and the person’s okay and the person becomes a believer.”
Today, many young believers in these communities are the children of these same Christians who experienced the power and love of Christ in a miraculous way a generation ago.
For Kinsha, the other side of the Bible translation coin is literacy and promoting use of translated Scripture. With some language groups having not a single person who can read their language, Linden questions how effective Kinsha’s Bible translation ministry would be without a focus on literacy.
“Without being able to access Scriptures, it’s useless, right?” says Linden. “Translation isn’t exciting in and of itself. What’s exciting is seeing it [translated Scripture] get used.”
When people from minority language groups learn to read, Linden explains, they gain two things: the incredible privilege of engaging with God through Scripture and a skill that provides them with confidence in their distinct ethnicity and culture. They also attain the foundational skills needed to learn the regional and national language, opening doors to previously closed employment opportunities.
“If they can learn to read in their mother tongue first, that sort of cements the cognitive process of getting meaning from symbols,” explains Linden. “They can then learn to read a second and third language much easier.”
With the demand for literacy classes beyond what Kinsha staff can handle, the group chooses to focus on facilitating literacy trainer workshops and developing literacy materials, rather than actually teaching literacy classes. This strategy multiplies the literacy effort exponentially.
To put the effort in perspective, since Kinsha began, 150 literacy trainers have been trained. They have then trained thousands of teachers who each year teach thousands more people, from all age ranges, to read and write. Today, so many minority people are learning to read and write, Kinsha can’t even keep track.
“My estimate is more than 10,000 new literates a year,” says Linden. “But we don’t have the infrastructure to go and count everybody.”
Although Bible translation and literacy are at the core of Kinsha’s ministry, the group casts a much wider net. For instance, for those who aren’t yet able to read, Kinsha works with partner organizations to record and distribute audio New Testaments and dub the “JESUS” film. They also reach new ears and hearts by training locals to orally tell two-minute chronological Bible stories in the mother tongue, ranging from creation to Revelation. So far, Kinsha has trained around 1,500 oral Bible storytellers to share the gospel.
“That’s taken off because it’s so easy to multiply,” says Linden, explaining that much of Kinsha’s training has been through partnerships with local Bible schools. “We’re holding music workshops where they come and write original Christian music. We’re doing basic Scripture engagement workshops with pastors to go over how to do Bible studies; how to do family devotions and how to teach from Scripture.”
As Kinsha’s ministry footprint continues to spread, Linden and his team will certainly stay busy. Thankfully though, it’s not all on them. And perhaps that’s what makes Kinsha strong. It is an evolving organization that trains leaders in minority language groups, and sees the most unlikely people turn to Christ because of the miraculous power of God.
It’s this same miraculous power that for the sake of Bible translation unites denominations that are normally divided. And it’s this same power that gave the Neye pastor the courage to defy militia threats and return to his village to start a Bible translation for his people.
Truly, this is the same power that will lead Kinsha forward. ***
*Pseudonym used due to sensitivity