It was 1945, and Len Harris was a lone missionary in Australia’s remote Northern Territory.
Len spent his time travelling between Aboriginal communities, encouraging the small number of Christians and baptising new converts. But Len was frustrated by the large number of Aboriginal languages, and the sheer challenge of communicating the Gospel to the Aboriginal people.
But gradually he began to realise that one language, in particular, Wubuy was well-known, because its speakers, the Nunggubuyu people travelled widely either across country or by canoe. He decided to begin a translation of the Gospel of Mark into Wubuy.
He asked the Nunggubuyu people to help him choose two translators, and with the assistance of two Aboriginal Christian women, Bidigainj and Grace Yimambu, the work began.
Every day they would sit under a tree outside Len’s bark hut. Len would explain the meaning of the words to Grace in English. Grace would then explain the words to Bidigainj in Wubuy.
Together they would form a Wubuy sentence. Then they would repeat the sentence slowly back to Len, and he would write the words down on little scraps of paper.
At night Len would go to the campfire near the river, and read the Nunggubuyu people the new translation. They were excited about the work, keenly discussing all the stories and insisting on hearing them again and again.
One night, Bidigainj’s brother, Madi, a powerful Nunggubuyu elder, got up from the fire and walked away; returning to his homeland 300 kilometres away. Two weeks later, he returned bringing sixty of his people with him.
As Madi stood just outside the circle of light created by the campfire, Len held up some handwritten sheets of paper and said to him, “Anambalaman analawu. The Good Story.”
“Yuwai. Idjubulu,” said Madi. “Yes, it is true.”
With Grace and Bidigainj interpreting, Len asked Madi which stories had impressed upon him that the Gospel was true.
“It’s not the stories,” he replied. “It’s the words. Now I know that Jesus speaks Wubuy.”
Postscript: In 1948, the Gospel of Mark and the Epistle of James in Wubuy were published by the British and Foreign Bible Society. In September, 2010, the full Wubuy Bible was dedicated on Numbulwar Mission Station, which Madi had founded in 1952.