By Kate Uttinger
“It gives me a headache.”
That’s what Leonard Brink said about translating the spoken Navajo language into a written form. Leonard Brink, affectionately called L.P., was a missionary to the Navajo people from 1900 until his death in 1936. A man of tireless energy, Brink created a written alphabet of Navajo, the language of the “wind talkers.” He wrote grammars and lexicons and translated the books of Genesis and Mark, a catechism and numerous hymns into the Navajo language.
Leonard Brink grew up near Fremont, Mich., an area of beautiful lakes and rivers just north of Grand Rapids. His father, a devout man, would spend hours regaling little Leonard with stories of the Indians who still inhabited the nearby forests. Leonard was enchanted. Occasionally, an Indian would make his way along the wooded paths and lakes near their home, increasing the boy’s fascination with the mysterious natives.
Whenever his father spoke of the Indians, he always told his son that these Native American neighbors’ biggest need was the gospel message and that missionaries must be sent to win them to Christ. Those words struck Leonard, and his fascination with Indians grew from childish curiosity to a genuine passion for their souls.
Once, when Leonard was only eight, he gathered all the kitchen chairs, arranged them in a semi-circle and preached enthusiastically to his congregation of pretend Indians. Brink’s desire to be a missionary garnered strength as he grew. Brink and his father often spoke of it, but his father was quick to point out that a missionary must be called, that he must be presented with an open door to the mission field – a door that God opened.
When Brink was 16, it looked like that door was about to swing wide.
Brink came home from church one afternoon, distressed. The “dominie” told the young men of the congregation that if any of them were interested in studying for the ministry, but could not afford to do so, he should come before the consistory that week.
Leonard was young, just 16, and he was not even a full communicant member. He was unsure how the elders of the church would respond to his desire to be a missionary, and he was careful to consider his father’s words about an open door.
As Leonard walked home from church that Sunday, he stopped along the lonely forest paths and prayed, “Lord, if you want me to do this thing, I am in your hands, open the door for me; but, if Thy will be otherwise, close the door tight.”
Before long, Brink’s prayers were answered.
In 1900 Brink began his work at the CRC mission in Tohatchi, later working in the towns of Toadlena and Farmington, in the New Mexico Territory. He was also instrumental in establishing a Christian school at Rehoboth that still exists today.
He worked alongside Herman Fryling, a fellow classmate, visiting the natives, teaching in the government-sponsored school and busily learning the language. Navajo, up to that point, was primarily an unwritten language and a complicated one at that. Though many missionaries and other non-natives, particularly Catholic Franciscans, had made attempts at creating a written Navajo language, there was no unified alphabet or lexicon that scholars could appeal to until the late 1930s.
Brink was an able scholar himself, though his large, clumsy build and backwoodsy demeanor belied that fact. He was friendly and many of the people seemed to take notice of this new preacher and his genuine interest in them. The more time Brink spent with the Navajo, the more he became convinced that they needed to be able to read the Scriptures and sing the great hymns of the faith in their own language.
While he, like many other missionaries of the time, believed that the Indians needed to accustom themselves to the ways of white men, Brink understood the importance of a peoples’ mother tongue. The Dutch had long preserved their native language in the New World, preaching largely in Dutch into the Twentieth Century. Brink felt that the most lasting way to reach a people was not to erase their culture, but to understand it and to communicate effectively in its context.
Brink committed himself to giving the Navajo people their own Bible. With the help of native interpreters and other missionaries, Brink began his work of translating – or rather creating a written representation and then translating – the books of Genesis and Mark.
But Brink ran into some rather interesting problems.
The American Educational Review, a monthly review of higher education in America at the turn of the century, reflects upon the challenge of Brink’s chosen task: “The translation from English into the Navajo vernacular is said to be attended with peculiar difficulties. … The Navajos have no less than 12 verbs meaning ‘to give,’ the one used in any particular case depending upon the nature of what is given. … To listen to a conversation carried on between two Navajos, one unfamiliar with the language would think that it consisted mainly of inarticulate grunts; but a difference of sound so slight as to pass undetected by the untrained ear makes a vast difference in meaning.”
What Brink also discovered was that he would have to create completely new phonetic symbols for the Navajo language to accurately translate the Scriptures, since for “several sounds common in Navajo there are no English equivalents.” Not only did this require a clear understanding of the subtleties of Navajo (it is an extremely nuanced language – as in English, the same word can have a multiplicity of meanings), it demanded of Brink an excellent grasp of biblical Greek and Hebrew. It was painstaking work, work that often came after long, hot days traversing the dusty tracks of arroyos and plateaus between the distant hogans of the Navajo – on the jolting seat of a horse-drawn wagon. No wonder Brink had a headache!
Though Brink was not much of a diary-keeper, he was a prolific writer. He translated numerous hymns from Dutch into English and wrote many hymns and poems. Brink produced a steady stream of articles for his denomination’s magazine The Instructor, and founded and edited the publication, The Christian Indian.
The church’s young people back in Michigan were treated regularly to his colorful descriptions of Navajo life out in the “wild and wooly west.” In one such article, Brink unpacks the word “hogan,” or dwelling, for his young Dutch-American readers. He describes the construction and use of the hogans and what daily life is like in these Navajo homes. But Brink does not stop with a mere social studies lesson, but invites his readers to join him in a “trip to bring the gospel to the hogans.”
He writes: “With my interpreter I arrive at a Navajo hogan, the dogs usually announcing our coming. We walk up to the door, greet the members of the family and are seated. We tell them that we are on a friendly visit and would like to talk with them a little while. They will naturally ask us who we are, and where we are from. We may have brought a chart with us and likely a Navajo Bible. It is usually easy to begin our conversation by talking about the things that happened in the beginning, about the creation of the world, and of man, and then about the Fall and its dire results for the world and the human race, white people and Indians included, and then come to the story of the Son of God, the Savior, and talk about Him as the Savior of all kinds of people, Navajos included. We are in no hurry, we take our time and explain as we go along.”
Brink ends his article with an observation that is reminiscent of Paul’s list of missionary obstacles in 2 Corinthians 11: “We have not planned in this article to give a detailed account of hardships and such like which a missionary’s life among the Navajos entails, about camping out and sleeping in the open, about sandstorms and quicksands and blizzards and swollen streams, about scanty fare oftentimes, about broken rigs and played-out teams, about losing our way in this great expanse of territory, and about multitudinous delays and disappointments. After all, these are all in the day’s work when we bring the gospel to the hogans.”
Brink was always determined to preach simply and clearly. He had little use for eloquence in preaching: The point, for Brink, was that people should be able to understand the gospel message. In Brink’s preaching there was “no chitter-chatter, no obtuseness, no high-sounding words, no involved sentences. Plain words to plain people, carrying a direct message.”
Many Navajos remember Brink as the missionary who took time with them. He never rushed from one home to another and never considered his missionary activity complete with just a short visit or two to the Navajo hogans. He spent long hours visiting with families, taking an interest in their children and sharing meals and stories on the beautifully woven blankets offered to him by the Navajo wives. For the Navajo people, he dug wells, built church buildings, sang hymns, planted new mission works and put nearly 8,000 miles on his car (when he finally got one!) going from hogan to hogan in just a few short months.
In 1917, the American Bible Society printed Brink’s translations of Genesis and Mark, later followed by portions of the Psalms, Isaiah and the Pauline epistles. It is very likely that some of Brink’s translation made its way to the linguists who finally unified the written Navajo language in the late 1930s and to the military minds who enlisted the Navajo Code Talkers in the Second World War.
The extent of Brink’s success in the Navajo mission field will never be known until Glory. Brink’s own estimation of his 35 years with the Navajo? “Looking back over all the paths I’ve come, I can see where his hand has led me all the way and opened and closed doors for me again and again. Let me say in all earnestness, that I cannot get away from the conviction, that it was all undeserved, all sovereign grace, every step of the way.”