'If the next generation grows up without these stories, it’s our fault'

After sitting quietly in a room full of Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara speakers last week, listening to them patiently work through verse after verse of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament, one of the ladies spoke up during morning tea.

Nurina Burton said, “I’m going to call my son and grandson to come in here. Because I really want my grandchildren to learn more about the word of God … so that they can learn from us and they can take it to the people.”

David Barnett, Bible Society Australia’s Pitjantjatjara Translation Consultant, responded with enthusiasm, “That would be great! They can come and sit in here and watch and listen and learn what we do.”

Nurina continued, “We don’t want to lose our children. They are an important generation – they’ve got to learn from us. Sometimes Christian leaders don’t want to listen to the young people. Sometimes they say to the young people, ‘You young fella, how come you’re preaching the word of God?’

“God’s word is for them, not just for us,” said Nurina. “It is for the new generation. We’ve got to encourage them.”

Nurina Burton talks with Colin Lee at the Bible translation workshop

The night before my visit to Alice Springs to attend the Pitjantjatjara Bible translation workshop – soon to be accompanied by my friends Scott and Colin who are Bible Society supporters – we received a text from Dave requesting urgent prayer as his car had broken down six hours from Alice. Apparently, the Indigenous translators’ bus had also been cancelled. It was supposed to pick them up from Amata, five hours’ drive from Alice.

But early the next morning, our prayers were answered when we received a message that a local repair van was found close by and Dave, along with Sam Freney, another Bible Society Translation Consultant, could pick up the Pitjantjatjara women and travel together to the translation workshop.

The workshop really goes deep with the translators that travel from remote towns like Amata. They meet several times a year in person to be able to collaborate on deeper Scripture meanings and go through multiple checks around the text that they have put on paper. On this trip, we witnessed the reading and checking of the final draft of the Book of Judges. As Dave, Sam and the translators dig into the deeper meanings of the texts, they work through the Scriptures word by word, verse by verse.

Nurina and Dave relayed their experience working together on this translation – jumping in and out of Pitjantjatjara and English for our benefit. Dave shared how the translators were reflecting on the biblical character of Joshua and his generation who entered the promised land. They all knew God, but they didn’t pass down the stories to the next generation, the translators said. And that generation grew up without all those stories of God.

Nurina is emphatic in her desire to work with this current generation of translators and teachers so they can pass the baton on to the next generation. They want to equip others so that they can preach God’s word and spread it out in the community. She says that “if the next generation grows up without these stories, it’s our generation’s fault. We’re responsible for passing these on.”

There is still only one complete Bible translation available for First Nations people.

Dave added that each of us as parents takes responsibility to teach our children the Bible. Nurina responded by saying that they felt a significant burden to make sure the word is translated and new leaders are supported. She expressed a struggle common to many Christian parents, about how their kids are always on their phones and how she wants them to engage in the Bible more.

One of Bible Society’s sponsors, Colin Lee, was able to share his own story with Nurina. His conviction is to ensure he shares a Bible story, sings a song and prays with his two-year-old daughter every night. Colin joined us on this trip because of his heart for children, supporting the concurrent production of the Pitjantjatjara Children’s Art Bible. One of the critical translators who recently passed away had a dream to help the younger children learn to read using Scripture stories and learn from the paintings that match them.

It is so easy for most of us to take for granted this joy of sharing the complete Bible with younger generations. Most of us can read the Bible in our mother tongue, and we have full access to all the Old Testament and New Testament Bible stories.

The great news is that the Pitjantjatjara New Testament and many Old Testament books of the Bible have been translated. They have also been recorded with language speakers reading the different characters portrayed in the New Testament, which is available on Google Play smartphone apps. The website aboriginalbibles.org.au is full of other partial Bible translations and audio recordings.

However, there is still only one complete Bible translation available for First Nations people: the Kriol version. This translation is derived from a ‘pidgin English’ that many speak in the North of Australia.

David Barnett and Jonathan Harris at the Bible translation workshop

David Barnett and Jonathan Harris at the Bible translation workshop

Four years ago, I rediscovered some family history I had heard of when I was very young. My late grandmother, a missionary to the Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land, had begun a translation of the Gospel of Mark into the Kunwinjku language in the 1930s. Since then, I have been visiting Indigenous sites and locations where our Bible Society translation work is going on. I started immersing myself in much of the beautiful culture.

I once lamented to one of our mission partners that I wish I had more ‘culture’ like the First Nations people. My family traditions seem to be mainly around BBQs, birthday parties and attempts to dance at weddings. My friend responded abruptly and chastised me. “That’s rubbish, Jono,” he said. “We all have our form of culture. And when we work with Aboriginal people, we grow in our culture.”

I have since found that by partnering with Indigenous peoples on projects they want to achieve and creating opportunities for other supporters to help by financing projects, we can learn and journey with them.

This was evident as we sat in the Pitjantjatjara Bible translation workshop with Sam and Dave, wrestling over a concept foreign to the locals: ‘wagons’. Sam asked, “What are these strong wagons? What would they be used for?” Some ladies thought the word meant ‘catapult’ or a fire-throwing trebuchet. Sam quickly started typing into his laptop and turned it around for the ladies to see a picture of … a horse-drawn chariot. There was a big “ooohhaaahh” around the table.

Dave said, “I’ve just made a note here that when we publish the Bible, we’re going to put a picture right here.” And he marks the place to insert a picture of an iron chariot into the Bible text – a place where that picture will be seen for generations to come when the entire Pitjantjatjara Bible is completed. What a special day that will be.

Jonathan Harris is Donor Care Representative for Bible Society Australia.