Bible translation ministry has visibly taken its toll on the soon-to-be-retired Leon Heka.* He limps across the lawn at Kinsha’s Training Centre to greet his colleague Mike Linden.* The 60-year-old Leon‘s pace is hampered considerably on this December day by his wooden left leg and his aching body.
In light of what he went through, it’s amazing that he’s still able to walk at all. More than 15 years ago, Leon was in a motorcycle accident that broke almost every bone in his body and crushed his skull. Today, as he chats with Linden, who is the director of the Kinsha Bible translation effort in Leon’s home country, his wooden leg is the most visible sign of his injuries, along with indented scars scattered along his arms and the rest of his body.
Making his way gingerly up to the second floor to a quiet room, Leon turns the corner and sits down roughly on an easy chair. With sweat on his brow, he shares his story of hardship, tragedy and sacrifice.
Faith Through Tragedy
The origin of Leon’s Christian faith begins three generations ago when his maternal great-great grandparents gave birth to twins. In Leon’s ancestors’ ethnic Hak* village located in Southeast Asia, twins were killed as soon as they were born, because it was believed that one of the twins was an evil spirit.
Sadly, the newborn twins saw the same fate; villagers killed them by stuffing rice husks into their mouths to suffocate them. To rid the village of the apparent evil, the mother and her three remaining children were chased out of the village soon afterwards. The villagers hoped they would be killed by tigers. Once the family found refuge, however, a dark cloud still hung over them. The father was an opium addict and was not around to help the family. The mother soon died from the physical and emotional trauma she experienced. Essentially orphaned, the three children wandered until they were found and abducted by a merchant who put them to work as slaves because their father owed him money.
A local missionary from another language group saw the situation and, knowing what their fate would be, bought all three children from the merchant. Soon they all became Christians, the first known among the Hak* people. One of those children was Leon’s great grandfather.
By the time Leon was born generations later, his ancestors’ Christian legacy was thriving. The early days of Leon’s life as the youngest of 10 children were spent with his parents. They often travelled to leper colonies to minister to some of the most vulnerable and ignored people in his nation. Leon loved to follow his father, who on weekends visited some 20-plus Hak and Hula* churches; preaching, baptizing and officiating communion services.
Although Leon saw the hope and tangible love of the gospel as an adolescent, he was drawn to a different type of life. With a laboured voice, Leon explains that his dream was to go to military academy to become a soldier.
“I had to have power,” he explains. “The only people who are not afraid of anything are soldiers. I wanted to become a soldier with stars on my shoulders.”
When he shared his aspirations with his parents, Leon says they were bitterly opposed to the idea. “Kill me first if you want to become a military officer,” his mother told him. They had a much different plan for his life. They hoped Leon would commit his life to ministry like them.
Despite his parents’ objections, after his Grade 8 exams, Leon left to spend his summer with his elder brother who was in the militia. One day that summer, Leon was suddenly thrust into the midst of a conflict.
“Stay here and shoot at this position,” a militia leader told him, pointing to the enemy on the other side of the river. “I don’t care if you hit anybody or not . . . it’s important you keep shooting. Shoot two or three magazines and I will not scold you.”
Until it was dark, Leon hunkered down in that spot, shooting upwards of 40 rounds. Walking home in the dark afterward, he didn’t know whether he had killed anyone across the rivers or even which side won the conflict. At only 14 years old, it was the closest he ever got to being a soldier.
Pressured into Bible Translation
After graduating from high school, instead of following his military ambitions, Leon found himself hesitantly following the path his parents planned for him. The first step was attending Bible school. He was very familiar with the New Testament, having read it in his mother tongue from front to back before attending. Yet, as he read it, he was left with many questions.
“The first four books, they are talking about the same thing. Why? Christians are crazy,” he said at the time, referencing the first four Gospels of the New Testament. “What does the revelation mean? Seventy times seven? What do these numbers mean?”
Rather than give up on his faith because of his questions, Leon moved forward. After attending Bible college, he was offered a position to teach at a Bible school in his home state. Before long, he became the school’s principal.
Several years later church leaders in the Hak village, where Leon grew up, and the nation’s Bible Society asked him to lead an Old Testament translation for their language (the New Testament was already translated). The request wasn’t a surprise to Leon. Since he was a teenager thriving at school, they’d been encouraging him to help them with future Bible translations. He knew they needed him. None of the church leaders had the Bible school training that he had.
“Church leaders would keep visiting us. They would pray for us [Leon and his family],” he says. “They wanted me.”
The Long Road
Leon says that 1982, the year he started his Bible translation career, was the hardest time of his life. Which says a lot, seeing as in the following 33 years, he would: get in two, near-fatal motorcycle accidents; almost die of anaphylactic shock three times because of an allergy to penicillin; lose his wife to cancer; and develop black water fever.
When he started the translation, he and his new wife Naomi soon realized that the pay was minimal and that life was tough.
“We were not paid enough to eat,” he explains. “You don’t have a telephone at your home village and you can’t telegraph to a nearby town . . . a nearby city means a six-hour walk by foot.”
In the coming years, life would become more difficult for the couple. When Leon’s wife Naomi was pregnant with their first child, a previous back injury began to cause her excruciating pain. Once she delivered her first child her back became deformed, causing her to need expensive medicine and treatment from a specialist.
Unable to cover their bills, Leon took on a second job as an English teacher. Yet, they still couldn’t cover the bills. Before Naomi recovered years later, they received a gift of a herd of cattle and buffalo from Leon’s parents to help them get by.
Despite their trials, Leon found hope in the Bible that he spent so many hours translating. Although grief and loss would be a consistent companion throughout the years, he found he could trust the Scriptures.
“The Bible is the Word of God. Reading it is valuable,” he says, before explaining the importance of the mother-tongue translation that he finished for his Hak people. “It touches your heart.”
“The majority of our people will never learn the national language. I will say 90 per cent of them will never understand the national language well.”
A Life in Bible Translation
As the years passed, Leon soon realized there was plenty of Bible translation work to do in his country; enough for a lifetime of work. After finishing the Old Testament in 1992, Leon began (and finished years later) a new translation of the Hak New Testament. The previous translation, produced 35 years ago, had been translated primarily by someone who spoke Hak as a second language, so a new translation was needed.
Along with beginning the New Testament, Leon also started surveying and collecting data on languages across Southeast Asia. The task had him zig-zag around several countries to inform future Bible translation work. Mike Linden, the director of the Kinsha team and a good friend of Leon, praises his work.
“He collected [information on] 80 different dialects,” Linden says. “This is after his leg was cut off. Another area is Scripture engagement. He just travels all over the place and teaches Bible storying, Bible study methods; various Scripture engagement type things.”
The Next Generation
Just days away from officially retiring this past December, Leon speculates about what the final chapter of his life will bring. He says in retirement he’ll have more time to relax. Yet, he admits that he’s not sure if he’ll be able to sit still.
“I’m kind of an aggressive man. I want people to do it the way I did it,” he explains. “I’ll be peeking out of my windows and seeing what they are doing. I will not be satisfied.”
Before mounting his motorcycle to return home, he stops and puts his arm around his daughter Tani, who is at the Kinsha Training Centre for a literacy workshop. She is just starting her career with Kinsha. Looking at his daughter, he’s likely reminded of the fate of his ancestors generations ago. Today he sees that his family’s Christian heritage continues on through Tani.
“You need to mobilize literacy and then you need to encourage them,” Leon explains urgently. “It’s a long time before people become literate and are able to read the Bible and understand it. Maybe a decade. Even that may not be enough.”
Leon sees that there is much more work to do. Even though he is retiring, he will continue to lend a hand to the next generation for as long as he is able. ***
*Pseudonyms used due to sensitivity.