Transforming the J people
ABOVE PHOTO BY SÃ¸REN KJELDGAARD
On a hot summer morning in June 2016, a group of J girls welcomed an entourage of guests to their village to the sound of beating drums and dancing. It was a day for the Christians of that village to celebrate the dedication of the New Testament now available in their mother tongue.
The J language was surveyed to identify the need for Bible translation and language development 20 years ago, in 1996. The survey found that the existing Bible in a neighbouring language was not allowing the J people to easily understand scripture because of their low level of ability to read and write in that language.
While the J people were surveyed, I was praying for God’s guidance to go to a language group to start Bible translation. I was informed about the possibility of taking up J for Bible translation and I took this as the leading from the Lord and agreed to go to work among the J people.
After I arrived and after much struggle, I found a house in a J village. It was a one room house, 20 feet long and 10 feet wide. The house was my bedroom, living room and kitchen all in one. There was no electricity, no running water, and no toilet. But the young people of the village were friendly. I started my stay in the village as a bachelor, and several young men used to come over at night to talk and listen to the radio (my only contact with the rest of the world!). We had lots of fun and laughter. The young people wanted to know about the world outside their village.
In the village there was one particular family the Lord had prepared to help me. They gave me a house to rent in the village. One of their sons, K, became my language teacher and friend. Naturally I became close to that family and their relatives in the village. One evening as I was sitting in their courtyard, the wife told me to call her ‘atirai’ and her husband, ‘atir’.
I did not understand the significance of these kinship terms till I referred to my language learning book. ‘Atir’ meant ‘father’s elder brother’ and ‘Atirai’ meant ‘father’s elder brother’s wife.’
I was accepted into an important family in the village and this was a major breakthrough the Lord gave me! Through this family, I now was related to several families in the village and in neighboring villages.
I enjoyed my stay in the village away from the hustle, bustle and competition of urban life.
Lifestyles and culture of J
Most of the J villages are a cluster of 20-40 houses, surrounded by paddy fields and forest. Their houses are built with straw and mud. Infant mortality is high. Malaria and dysentery are leading causes of death.
People are reluctant to take the sick to the hospital either because of lack of money or fear.
Historically J were hunter gatherers. Now most of the people do agriculture and cattle rearing.
Homemade alcohol and its rampant use among men, women and young people plays a crucial role in communal life. Giving up drinking is a huge challenge for the people and a major hindrance in following Christ.
Challenges and struggles
The J people by nature are suspicious of outsiders. Outsiders usually come into their villages to exploit them through trade and other businesses. Initially I was also looked upon with suspicion.
The people thought, ‘why should a person come so far away from his own home unless he wants to exploit us?’ But as I started learning their language and took interest in their welfare, I was accepted. Gradually the barriers came down. People became friendly.
Sickness made life in the village really difficult. In the first four years there, I had malaria 14 times. There was a particular year when my wife had malaria every alternate month. Much later, in 2008, our son, who was then 3 years old, contracted cerebral malaria. The local doctor identified the disease at an advanced stage and we thought we would lose him. But God was gracious to give back his life. He was healed through the prayers of many saints and the right treatment he received at hospital.
Finding educated young people to work on the translation was a huge challenge.
In the initial years of language analysis and literacy work, our kinship brother K helped us. We trained several young people but no one continued for more than a few months. This was very discouraging. There was one particular young man, B , who had studied up to 12th grade standard. We wanted him to join the translation work but his interest was to become a school teacher. B eventually became a school teacher, but over the course of the Bible translation project, whenever he had school vacation, he would come and work with us to check the translated materials. My wife would not want any materials printed until B had read them!
A young man the Lord eventually provided was D. He was the ‘mad man’ of his village. The Lord had miraculously healed him! The Lord restored him completely and as a mark of his gratefulness to God, D became our most consistent mother tongue translator. He worked with the translation team to help complete the drafting of the majority of the books in the New Testament.
Linguistic challenges in the translation work
People have the notion that unwritten languages are simple languages. They are after all only oral languages and hence not worth our attention for development.
When we worked on the J linguistics, we found out that putting the language into writing was not difficult, but soon we discovered that J grammar was very complex and difficult.
J not only has singular and plural markers but also dual markers (when only two persons are involved). In most languages a word is prefixed to a verb or it follows a verb (suffixed) but in J, the verb root is split and a word is inserted (this is called infixing). The varying forms of Grammar in J are very different from our own mother tongue and English!
Many people received healing and miracles happened, as the first step of receiving Christ into their lives. But as we read in the parable of the sower, “some [seed] fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.” (Matthew 13: 5-6 NIV).
The J had no previous history of Christianity. When they become true followers, the scourge of social boycott, pressure from family and the community began and countless J gave up their new-found faith.
The Word could not take root in their hearts because of their lack of understanding of the Word in a ‘foreign language.’ Over the years many prayed for a breakthrough.
In 2010, audio recordings of the Gospel of Mark and 5 other books were put into audio sets and some of the evangelists distributed them in several villages. The people listened to the Word in their heart language. The LORD opened their minds to understand the Word and slowly their hearts began to turn towards Jesus.
In one of the villages a man named Su suffered from TB. One of his relatives, a new believer, visited and prayed for Su, who then wanted to know more about Christ. As Su learnt more of God’s Word, a healing process started in his body. After about 6 months he went for a check-up, where they found no trace of TB. Su was healed completely.
As a result, his entire family turned to the Lord. His testimony was so powerful that one by one the villagers started believing in Jesus.
The gospel in the heart language of the J people has gone into many villages. Several people have responded to the life transforming power of the Word in their heart language. The story of transformation for the J has just begun.
*Real name withheld for security reasons