Yesterday, I had the rare opportunity to sit with people of significance, Leon and Lorraine Dillinger. Such opportunities are rare in life, because people of true significance are rare treasures. I’m tempted to use the word “greatness” in reference to the Dillingers, but doing so would 1) embarrass them, and 2) risk taking honor away from the Lord whose work in and through them is what tempts me to use the word “greatness.”
In a nutshell: Equipped with an intense love for Jesus paired with an unsurpassed commitment to do the Lord’s will and some medical and Wycliffe translation training, Leon and Lorraine went to Papua, Indonesia in 1958, and have, for 56 years and counting, given their lives to the Lord’s service among the Dani people. Leon, arrived 9 months before Lorraine, and in addition to preparing an airstrip for future flights in/out of this remote highlands village, he also prepared their “honeymoon cottage,” which was a grass hut. When Lorraine arrived, they married and lived in that grass hut.
The stories they have lived are too numerous to attempt to retell, but a few important ones must be included here: they reduced the Dani language to writing; taught the Dani to read and write (their own language); translated the Bible into Dani; have been part of the establishment of 130+ Dani churches, led by Dani pastors; and established schools and a Bible institute. They also helped improve the Dani people’s health by introducing certain medications and a variety of new vegetables (the sweet potato made up about 85% of the Dani diet when the Dillingers arrived) and protein sources including soy beans, peanuts and a variety of animals for meat.
A fun contextualization story: When they were translating Isaiah 53, they faced a conundrum.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.
The Dani had no knowledge of sheep. The only animal of which they were aware were wild pigs. Lorraine said, “We wondered what to do. The Dani had never seen or heard of sheep. We decided that we could use ‘pig’ in place of ‘sheep’ because the Dani understood how pigs can run off; they see that all the time. However, that didn’t solve the problem. Pigs don’t go to the slaughter quietly, which meant we couldn’t use ‘pig’ in place of ‘sheep.'”
What did they do? Realizing only “sheep” or “lamb” could work in that passage, they requested and received from the Dutch government a flock of sheep and began teaching the Dani about the character/personality of sheep so that the passage could make sense to them. (The sheep also served as a source of protein and wool, which was helpful in the cold temperatures of the Papua highlands.)
In addition to speaking in chapel, Leon and Lorraine spoke to our student ministries class. I was impressed at how this couple who has spent over 50 years living among a primitive people could so easily communicate with a group of youth-directors-in-training, who are part of a high-tech, modern world. However, the principles of culture that the Dillingers learned in their work among the Dani are the same principles of culture that today’s student ministry leaders must adapt. I hope at least some of our students realized the privilege they had in hearing from these fountains of wisdom and knowledge yesterday.
In the Dillingers, I met humble unassuming servants of the Lord. They have the work credentials – even making the cover of Time (Dec/1982) – that many in our culture would flash before others in order to get to the front of the line or gain complimentary goodies. But they don’t use their credentials in those ways. I noted in Leon’s chapel presentation that he didn’t communicate “I did” or “we did,” – even though it would have been perfectly normal in our “it’s about me” culture. Instead, always mindful to give the Lord proper priority, he used phrases like, “the Lord worked it out so that . . .”
Lorraine was equally humble (remember, she has worked side by side with Leon reaching the Dani since 1958): In a private conversation about what can be a controversial topic in mission theory, I pressed her for a clarification about their work as it contrasted to something a recognized missiologist said in a seminar I attended recently, and her answer was simply, “What we found was . . .” Even though she obviously disagreed with the other person’s statement and has a lifetime of credentials to support her position, she didn’t throw him under the bus or speak unkindly toward his work. She simply reiterated what she and Leon had experienced among the Dani. I learned much from their demonstration of humility.
Although they no longer live full time among the Dani, their work has not stopped. They continue to visit the Dani regularly, and Leon is working on a set of Bible commentaries in the Dani language. I hope that their complete story (or as much as is possible) can be captured in a book. The historical record of the modern mission movement will have a significant gap if it isn’t.