MAF partner completes Bible translation for remote Papuan tribe

Published: 1 May 2021

John and Helen Ellenberger

It has taken 64 years to translate the entire Bible into the Damal Tribe’s local language. Missionaries, John and Helen Ellenberger - now both aged 88 - began their life’s work back in 1957 when they first set sail for ‘Dutch New Guinea’. MAF’s Linda Ringenberg charts their amazing adventure and how MAF has supported them every step of the way…

In 1957, newlyweds John and Helen Ellenberger from the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) boarded a ship in New York and set sail for Dutch New Guinea, now Papua in Indonesia. Their mission? To deliver the Word of God to the Papuan people in their own language.

In Rotterdam, Holland, the couple were transferred onto a Dutch ship hauling 200 tons of beer, which was also destined for Papua.  Six weeks after leaving America, John and Helen finally set foot on Papua—one of the world’s largest tropical islands filled with jungles and majestic mountains.

They boarded a Mission Aviation Fellowship aircraft and headed to the farming valley of Ilaga to join other CMA colleagues already established amongst the Damal Tribe.

Reaching a remote people with the Gospel

According to Survival International, the Damal Tribe is one of 312 tribal groups in Papua and has a population of around 19,000 people (source: Joshua Project).

Damal villages are situated either side and amongst ten of the valleys south of the Carstenz Mountain Range, which soars over 16,000 feet high. The mountain passes, which people use to travel by foot, are situated at 12,000 feet.

It was the Ellenbergers' desire to bring the Gospel to the Damal people living south of the Carstenz Mountain Range.

Blasting the boulder at Jila Airstrip

Blasting a big boulder

The first step was to locate and clear some land for a potential airstrip to improve the area’s accessibility.  MAF conducted an aerial survey with John, and together they found the most suitable spot - a place called Jila, which has an elevation of over 4,000 feet.

Although the area was suitable in many ways, it still had a gigantic boulder protruding from the middle of the would-be airstrip.

John and his colleague trekked across the lofty mountain pass and asked the Lord how to dispose of this giant rock.

After the missionaries unsuccessfully tried to blow up the entire boulder with dynamite in one fell swoop, the locals succeeded in cracking it with their traditional method of burning.

John and his colleague then proceeded to use half a stick of dynamite at a time to blast the boulder into smaller pieces - a painful process that took nearly a year to complete!

John Ellenberger (R) in his younger days

Heart problems

During this time, John fell seriously ill. Even though he was only in his twenties, John was experiencing heart problems he had never encountered before. Given the sheer altitude of the 12,000 feet mountain pass, John was medically advised via radio to stay put as the four-day gruelling journey on foot from Jila to Ilaga would have been too much for his heart to take. The situation was grave.

To ensure John’s survival, he had to be medevacked. MAF pilot, Hank Worthington, therefore attempted the first ever flight landing in Jila.

After surveying the situation, Hank bravely touched down on the incomplete airstrip, narrowly avoiding what was left of the boulder. Fortunately, Hank skilfully brought the airplane to a complete halt just before the sheer precipice fell away hundreds of feet below.

This bold move saved John’s life.  Hank flew John to Jayapura on the coast where he was diagnosed with a New Guinea virus, which caused heart problems. Miraculously, following just a week of rest and medication, John made a full recovery: ‘We appreciate MAF!’ he says with a smile.

Printed copies of John’s Gospel in Damal circa 1967

40% of the Old Testament translated

John and his family returned to Ilaga in Papua’s interior.

Alongside his evangelism, John became a fully trained Bible translator. The first translated books of the Bible were ‘mimeographed’ for Damal readers. This was an early method of low-cost duplication using a stencil, which predates photocopying.   

The first book of the Bible to be officially printed in Damal was – ironically - the ‘Gospel of John’. Printing took place on the coast and MAF would fly boxes of the printed Gospel back into the Damal valleys around 1967.

Members of the Damal Tribe perusing John’s Gospel in their own language just delivered by MAF

By 1988, the entire Damal New Testament was printed and by 1992, 40% of the Old Testament was also translated.  MAF had the privilege of transporting this precious cargo into various Damal villages.

Later, John took some time out of Papua to teach at the Alliance Theological Seminary in New York from 1985 to 2003. He also served on MAF’s Board of Directors in California from 1990 to 1994.

During the Ellenbergers’ period in America, other missionaries continued the translation work in Papua.

Mission accomplished!

But in 2015, John and Helen revisited their original calling and returned to Papua once again. Building on the work of his predecessors, John helped to complete the translation of the remaining 60% of the Old Testament.

On 28 February, the last chapter of the book of Job was translated. Following a lifetime of hard work, the entire Old Testament had finally been translated into Damal: ‘Praise God!’ exclaims John.

Damal translator, Rev Timothy Birdshooter (L) and John Ellenberger proofreading the Old Testament

In recent weeks, together with Damal Translator Rev Timothy Birdshooter, John and Helen have been diligently proofreading the remaining books of the Old Testament.

Once the entire text has been proofed, it’s hoped that the Indonesian Bible Society will print 6,000 copies of the new Bibles in the summer of 2021.

In the autumn, MAF will fly them out to the villages of Ilaga, Beoga and Timika where large numbers of the Damal are residing.

What a privilege for MAF to partner with lifelong servants of God like the Ellenbergers.