A Language of Their Own: Two Former St. Louisans Translate the Bible into Ura for Villagers in Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt

Christians in the South Pacific village gathered in their light-blue frame church and sang two Psalms in their own language - Ura.

That Methodist service on a Sunday in August 1995 was historic. Never before had the people of the village of Gaulim recited Scripture in Ura. The village of grass-thatched, woven bamboo homes is on an island off the New Guinea main island.

Until two former St. Louisans began visiting Gaulim, Ura was an unwritten language. After six years of struggling to make an alphabet, Ura grammar and dictionary, the St. Louisans gave the villagers a taste of the Bible in their mother tongue. It didn't make headlines even in the nation of Papua New Guinea. Only 1,500 people speak Ura. "They put the two Psalms (Psalms 23 and 13) to music in just two weeks. They were very excited," recalled translator Gary Rosensteel, 44. "Frankly, all I could think of was how much more (translating) we had to do." At the Mehlville-area apartment where they are staying for their yearlong furlough, Rosensteel and his wife, Peggy, 36, and their two children, Lydia, 9, and Aaron, 4, talked about their missionary adventures. So far, they've translated half of the gospels of Matthew and Mark and the beginning of Genesis. They guess they will spend another dozen years in Papua New Guinea translating into Ura the rest of the New Testament and some Old Testament selections. When they return next summer, they hope to begin biblical translations into Mali, a closely related language with 2,100 speakers. Until two summers ago, the villagers' "church language" was Kuanua, a language of former conquerors. Methodist missionaries introduced Christianity to the villagers in that language. Villagers don't use it anywhere else. All of its nuances are lost to them. Most villagers attend church services every Sunday. Without Scripture in their own language, Christianity seems remote, Gary Rosensteel said. "Only about 10 to 20 percent are believing Christians," he said. Once the villagers study the Gospels in their own language, they may understand Jesus, Peggy Rosensteel said. "We know how the Scripture changed our life, and we wanted to help it change other lives," her husband said. At 12, Gary Rosensteel was baptized in a Baptist church. As a teen, he experimented with drugs. In 1976, when he was 23 and a college dropout drifting from job to job, he made a "radical" conversion at a California church. He met Peggy Ewalt, who at that time was a music student at St. Louis Community College at Meramec. They married in June 1982 and committed their lives to spreading the Gospels. They spent their honeymoon in a linguistic training summer school in Seattle, got their college degrees the following spring and then enrolled in the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Dallas. The ecumenical, nonprofit Wycliffe Bible Associates runs the institute, affiliated with the University of Texas at Arlington. Gary Rosensteel got a master's degree in linguistics. …