How God chose a troubled Québécois youth to serve in Bible translation.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28, NIV)
“Is there any possibility you would consider looking after me until I’m old enough to look after myself?”
This was the question nine-year-old Yves Léonard asked God as he ran away from his fifth foster home. After being ridiculed by his foster family earlier that day, his feelings of loneliness overflowed, and he simply opened the door and left. As he travelled the long road from his home in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains towards Montreal, his mind became clear, and he began discussing his situation with God.
“As I was talking to God, I felt a great peace come upon me, replacing all my fears. Though I didn’t hear an answer, I felt absolute confidence that He would look after me.”
Yves turned around and began walking back to his foster home. His foster parents were furious with him, but Yves’ peace remained.
“I was no longer feeling alone, as I had met Someone on the road.”
Friends Point the Way
The trajectory of Yves’ childhood didn’t magically change course after he encountered God on the road to Montreal. He lived in many more foster homes, and spent some tumultuous years as a teenager living with his alcoholic father.
While the pathos of his childhood is striking, what stands out to Yves is the constant thread of God’s love and calling on his life.
“The isolation and loneliness created by my frequent moves became forces inviting me to turn to God.”
In 1982, Yves made his way to Calgary and began—by necessity—working to improve his English language skills. Before long, he met some Christians around his age who invited him to a coffeehouse at a downtown church.
God used those friendships to draw Yves to Christ and just a few months later, he began attending classes at a local Bible college.
During his time in Bible school, a presentation about Wycliffe caught Yves’ attention. So did a fellow student named Christine, who shared his growing interest in Bible translation. They were married in 1988 and in 1994, they accepted an assignment with SIL, Wycliffe’s key field partner, to serve in Cameroon, Africa.
As the Léonards prayed about which language group to serve, they grew increasingly curious about the Baka people. The Baka, also known as Pygmies, are a semi-nomadic, preliterate people group living in small settlements and temporary forest camps in the Congo Basin of Central Africa. The area is lush and filled with rivers and wildlife.
When Yves and Christine became convinced that this was where God was calling them, their first hurdle was convincing their language assignment committee to allow them to move with their three small daughters to the jungle. Once that was cleared, they had to find a Baka settlement where they could build a home—no easy task when a group can move camp at seemingly any time.
Yves began driving to different settlements, hoping to make connections, but at times, the mere sight of his face was enough to scare people away.
“Many Baka had never seen white people, and when our vehicle would near their village, they would run into the forest or hide in their homes,” he says.
After months of perseverance, the people in a village called Ndjibot showed interest. On his third visit there, Yves asked village elders to gather, and through an interpreter, explained the idea of the Bible translation project. They responded enthusiastically until Yves mentioned that he was still considering other locations—then, their enthusiasm abruptly shifted into a loud torrent of words.
Anxiously, Yves prayed as he waited for the interpreter to translate.
“They acknowledge that it is Komba (God) who is bringing you here. They are all agreeing among themselves. They want you to know that Ndjibot is now your home. It is no longer right for you to go visit other villages.”
As relief flooded Yves’ heart, the elders led him to a small hill that had just been cleared. It was their best land, and it would be the site of the Léonards’ new home.
Listening and Learning
The Léonard family settled in the village in 1996, and Yves began his translation work by simply listening to and observing the Baka. He tried not to impose his own ideas or values on them.
“I spent a lot of time sitting at their feet learning, listening to them and learning their culture and language,” he says.
He also learned how they hunted and ate bush meat.
“I know it sounds terrible to say that today with all the emphasis on wildlife conservation, but bush meat regularly appeared on our supper table,” he says, laughing.
“They loved and appreciated Yves so much,” says Christine, “because they really sensed how much he respected them and their culture, especially when surrounding people groups looked down on them.”
Yves’ childhood experiences in many different homes prepared him to embrace a new culture and love those who are marginalized.
“This is what I had to do when I moved from one home to another,” says Yves. “I had to observe and adapt.”
As Yves spent time with his new community, it became clear to him that he needed to adjust his expectations about the translation project. Prior to moving to Ndjibot, he and Christine had planned to follow a traditional method of translation: develop an orthography (writing system), translate the Scripture, and teach the Baka to read.
“Before I went to the field,” Yves recalls, “we were doing presentations to churches to raise support. And we were telling the people that unless Scriptures are written down, their meaning will easily be lost. You know, a very Western perspective on oral traditions.
However, through the time he spent befriending and observing their Baka neighbours, Yves came to see how elaborate and consistent their oral traditions were. A flight in a bush plane provided the pivotal “Aha!” moment for him.
The pilot that flew the Léonards’ SIL directors to Ndjibot for a visit offered to take a few of Yves’ Baka friends for a short flight. Several of them had never travelled in a car, let alone in an airplane, and the experience was clearly a memorable one.
“The first night [after the flight] I’m hearing some commotion,” says Yves. It was his main language-learning helper, Konji, retelling his experience in the plane.
“He gathered a crowd. And then [in Baka storytelling style], he dynamically gave them a play by play account of the flight experience with actions and sound effects. The crowd was hanging on every word.
“He did this for three straight nights.”
Konji, a storyteller par excellence, was conveying his experience in a way that mere words couldn’t capture.
“I said to Christine, you have to hear this. If the gospel could be told—even imperfectly—in this fashion, it would make a great impact.”
This observation launched Yves into the painstaking work of translating the Bible in a way that would capture the Baka’s medium of communication, oral storytelling.
“He developed a way to have God’s Word communicate dynamically through story format, but not just the way we tell our stories in English—the way the Baka themselves tell stories,” says Christine.
During the course of the 17-year project, Yves and his language team translated 37 key Bible stories in oral story format. This story Bible was made into audio recordings with Scripture based songs, and was also produced as illustrated booklets to serve a future literacy project.
While the Léonards have warm memories of the time they spent with the Baka, it included sacrifice and suffering. They and their daughters experienced sickness, isolation, and discouragement, and there were times when they were tempted to leave. Christine attributes some of Yves’ perseverance in completing the translation work to what he learned in childhood.
“I think those gifts of administration—he had them from the beginning. But they were really honed through his sufferings and the wisdom he gained from his sufferings. Yves was focused and didn’t let the daily or the urgent overwhelm the important and the goal.”
The Léonards completed their assignment in 2012, and passed the Baka Story Bible on to church planters with World Team. They are witnessing how God’s Word told dynamically and authentically is acting as a bridge for Jesus to enter the Baka culture and their lives.
As Yves reflects on his life and on the Baka project, what stands out to him is not the success of a completed translation project, but the unbroken narrative of God’s love and grace.
“I think because I did experience such a tumultuous childhood and early adulthood, I have seen how fragile life is. I know that the difference between success and failure or finishing and not finishing often seems held by a thread.
“If our project succeeded, it’s not because I persevered, although I did persevere, and it’s not because I’m smart, although I did research and study hard.
“Rather, it was a gracious gift from God.”
Ruth Richert is a volunteer writer with Wycliffe Canada.
More: What is Yves doing now?