Unsung Heroes: Isnag Bible Dedication, Part One

By Rachel Greco

When Rudy Barlaan, a Filipino, first went to the Isnag people in the Philippines to translate the Scripture, he had only one suitcase. He didn’t have a blanket, pillow, mat, or towels. “The Isnags were the ones who provided for me, for my food, my rice, my vegetables, my meat and everything. They gave it to me for free. They were the ones who sustained me while I was in the village.”

Nard as a young boy.

God used many unsung heroes to bring his complete Word to the Isnag people in their far-flung corner of the world. Nard Pugyao grew up in an Isnag village and later became a JAARS pilot and is now a JAARS speaker. Nard says, “It has been exciting to see all these pilots and all the support people that are part of the process of bringing the Word of God to people like me. And I think of all of them, you know, if they put their hands together, it would circle the globe, the people that support, the people that prayed, the people that wrote encouraging letters. These are all the important people, the unsung heroes, some of the most important people. It’s all to the Lord.”

Dick Roe, an American translator with SIL*, was perhaps the first unsung hero in the process. He began translating the New Testament into the Isnag language in 1956 after traveling on a small canoe for 16 hours to reach the village of Dibagat upriver from the town of Kabugao

Rodney Ballard, a JAARS photographer who traveled to the celebration this summer to take pictures, experienced a taste of what traveling by canoe is like in the Philippines: “The [man canoeing] has this long pole with a steel shaft at the end and he digs it into the riverbed and pushes. What if you had a whole bunch of gear [pots, pans, clothes] like Dick Roe had? No wonder it took 16 hours.” 

To ease these travel burdens for the translators, JAARS opened an airstrip at Kabugao in 1958. Larry Montgomery, a JAARS pilot, brought over the Helio Courier and flew Dick Roe. In 1963, JAARS opened an airstrip in Dibagat, and the pilots would fly Dick, and later Rudy, from the SIL center in the town of Bagabag to Dibagat to do the translation work. Later, JAARS added a helicopter because, in some places, the airstrips serving the villages were too short, and in other places, it was too difficult to build an airstrip. 

“Aviation was almost indispensable at that time because there were no roads,” Rudy recalled. “There was no road going into the village and if we went by land, it would take us two days to get to the village. If there had been no airplanes, I would have been dragging boxes of commentaries, riding the bus, riding the boat. But with the planes and the helicopter, it made it a lot easier. It would only take 55 minutes to one hour by plane. So JAARS was indispensable at that time for us.” 

After 26 years, in 1982, the Isnag New Testament was completed and dedicated to the Isnags. Nard Pugyao had the privilege of delivering the copies to his village. “I got to fly the New Testament back to the village, to the airstrip that I helped build. And the best part of that was going in there and carrying 500 copies of our Scripture.” 

In 1996, Rudy was working in Bagabag as the linguistic department coordinator for the Philippine branch of SIL. Two Isnag elders whom he had helped train to lead the church asked if he could return to help the Isnags grow in their faith. Three pastors had come through, but none was the right person for the job because the elders told Rudy, “it is you that God has appointed to come and help us. Will you come?” 

So Rudy returned to the Isnags and recruited Nard’s nephew, Mark Pugyao, to draft a translation of the Old Testament. It didn’t take as long as the New Testament—only 15 years—because Mark could use the computer program Adapt It that enabled him to use words and phrases from another already-translated Filipino language. Rudy then checked the translation. They also used Paratext, a language translation software, to do the actual translating. 

The IT people at JAARS, SIL, and elsewhere are some of the unsung heroes behind the translation work! “The computer has really facilitated the translation,” Rudy said. “Man, without these computer guys, I don’t know what I would [have done].” 

Rudy Barlaan talks Scripture with an Isnag man.

For Nard, a highlight of the Isnag Bible dedication was a candle-lit worship service in which the Isnags sang about taking up their candle and lighting up the world. “It made me want to cry,” Nard recalled, “thinking about all the people from around the world who brought the light to us. That really touched me. I think about all those people—the unsung heroes of my life—the people that gave, the people that prayed, all the people that were involved. It’s amazing to see. Because it’s like everybody’s involved in giving [this] Bible to us.” 

There are still many people around the world who don’t have the Word of God in their language. Partner with JAARS by giving to Where Needed Most so we can open hard-to-reach places so the Light can penetrate the darkness, as it has with the Isnags! 

Keep your eyes open for part two of this article, in which God does great things at the dedication and among the Isnag people. 

*A linguistic partner of JAARS