One of the most recent IBT publications is the Gospel of John in Nenets together with an audio recording. The story of this publication is a striking example of how life in Christ inspires the establishment of links with people who may feel alienated due to their different cultural background, language or social position. Such relationships are, after all, the first fruits of the coming of God's Kingdom, where human barriers are irrelevant.
The native land of the Nenets is the tundra and the forest in the Far North of Russia (north-western Siberia, the Arctic Ocean islands and the Kola Peninsula). This is a land of permafrost and vast marshy areas. The climate is very harsh, with snow falling up to 260 days a year. The temperature can fall as low as ‑70 C in the winter. The distances between towns are vast, the population density is low, and in far northern towns alcoholism is very often rampant. It's no surprise that under these extra difficult life circumstances people do not communicate much with those whom they do not know well. Alas, sometimes even the few Christian communities prefer to live isolated and not to know much about outsiders or random strangers. Our translator, the renowned Nenets epic singer Tatiana Lar, remembers how she started seeking for God after her father’s death. In the very first church she went to, having been invited by her Siberian Tatar friend, Tatiana felt so alien and frightened by the strict looks of the long-time parishioners that her only desire was to leave as soon as possible. Another Christian church in her city was well-known for its ultraconservative outlook and unfriendly behavior, so she did not even dare to go there and see. A most sincere search for God is sometimes hampered by rigidity or fear, and a seeker may feel fully enveloped by his or her inner emptiness in the midst of a meaningless universe. That was just the case at that period of Tatiana’s life, and her initial church experience merely reflected the usual situation in most people’s everyday life.
Here are several recent episodes that Tatiana shared and that occurred solely because “the nations of the world” are afraid to mix with those who are different. Nenets nomads used to stock up on food in the city of Salekhard for the entire winter, which they would spend migrating around the tundra with their reindeer. One time, several Nenets reindeer herders bought several large bags of tea and crackers. When they returned to the same Salekhard grocery store next spring, they claimed that the food they had bought was spoiled from the start: “We put so much tea into our cups, but the water did not darken and it tasted like dry grass. We put in more and more until we all became dizzy. As for your crackers, we haven't even dared taste them since they were all covered with black mold!” It turned out that they had never heard of green tea or poppy seeds… At the same time, Russian youngsters sometimes buy powder made of birch fungus from the Nenets people, thinking that it can be smoked as a drug. “When they sell it, our people wonder what will happen to these young Russians, because in reality this powder is used in Nenets medicine as an antiseptic”, Tatiana says. It seems that people cherish their own pictures of each other’s culture and civilization without any attempt to establish genuine communication.
In this cold land, where people live in isolated groups and are not used to socializing more than necessary, daring to establish relationships is a special virtue that demands strength from above. The story of our exegetical advisor Eunsub from Korea demonstrates this: “When I came to Salekhard at the end of 2000, the only way for me to hear Nenets speech was to listen to the Nenets radio. I listened to its Nenets program weekly, recorded it and listened to these records throughout the week. One of my favorite Nenets announcers was Raisa*. Her speech was clear and beautiful. Even though I had not met her yet, I started dreaming of an audio version of the Nenets Bible in her voice. Later I did meet her a couple of times at some Nenets social meetings, though it was not so easy for me to get close to her. She was deeply embedded in her own culture and very proud of it. It seemed that there was no room for me to talk to her. However, I never stopped praying for her to get involved in our Bible translation work.”
At first there was no plan to publish the Gospel of John as a separate edition. It was to be published together with the other three Gospels and the book of Acts later on. But at the reindeer festival at the end of March 2014, people from the tundra were asking about Bible texts in Nenets, and some Nenets believers were giving their offerings for the next book to be published in their language. Eunsub was open to this new circumstance. This changed the translation team's initial plan, and they decided to print John as a separate book. Tatiana Lar said that while she was translating it, she felt the strong presence of the Holy Spirit surrounding her. She managed to complete the whole translation in a relatively short time while at a Christian conference helping with the recording of Christian children's songs in Nenets.
“As we were preparing for the consultation on the book of John,” Eunsub continues her story, “I called Raisa with renewed courage, and she agreed to help! It turned out that a few years earlier she had almost been killed in a car wreck but survived, together with her unborn baby. This consultation was actually the first step for her to get involved in the Nenets project. With her knowledge of the language, she did her job very well. So when the time for the recording came, I dared ask her to also record the book. Even though she could not come to the IBT office to do the recording, she did it in the local radio studio, which was actually much better. How great is the Lord that He saved Raisa from the danger of death and gave her a new life in Him!”
Tatiana shares how she continues to compose new Christian songs in Nenets, inspired by her Bible translation work and a renewed love for her mother tongue. When young Nenets people hear these songs they come to her and ask her to teach them. She confronts them with a question, "Aren't you afraid of being looked at as if you belong to a cult?" They are not. Attracted by the beauty of these songs in their mother tongue, they are starting their own search for the living God. Some of them are interested in the Bible translation, too. The seeds of a Christian culture in Nenets have already been sown. As for Raisa, she has recently participated in a seminar for new people beginning their work in Bible translation with IBT