Conditions were less than ideal when Bill and Norma Jean Jancewicz [yan-SEH-vitch] arrived in northeastern Quebec in 1988 to launch Bible translation for the Naskapi people.
With a baby girl and a five-year-old son in tow, and no place to rent or buy in the village of Kawawachikamach [KA-wa-wa-CHIK-ah-match] (abbreviated Kawawa), they shared a three bedroom house with an older Naskapi man named Noah.
It snowed, too. For four straight days—in June.
Inside Noah’s house, the young family faced further challenges.
“There was no fridge or stove, no washer and no dryer,” says Norma Jean. “So I started to pray—but the prayer went unanswered for a couple of weeks.”
To get by, the couple kept their perishables in a neighbour’s refrigerator. While praying about the situation one night before bedtime, Norma Jean remembers thinking that things couldn’t get much worse.
“However, Noah came in that night . . . and slipped in the bathroom, breaking the toilet. So after that, we didn’t have a toilet either,” she says, laughing.
But the next morning, a young Naskapi man arrived to install a brand new toilet.
“And then a dump truck pulls up, and there’s a washer, and a dryer and a stove in the back. And the Naskapi guys come right in carrying the appliances, and put them in place. And then that afternoon, a refrigerator arrives.
“So in one day, it all worked out according to God’s plan and timing.”
The Jancewicz family lived with Noah for nearly a year—and with three other Naskapi hosts before the birth of their third child, Nick, in 1990. After he arrived, there was no longer any housing available at Kawawa, so Bill and Norma Jean rented a house in Schefferville, 15 km away.
Despite such trials, and other hardships they endured while living in the rugged borderland between northeastern Quebec and Labrador, they have persevered for more than 24 years so the Naskapis could receive the life-changing Word of God in their language.
A Shared Path
Bill and Norma Jean first met while both were in high school, through their hometown church youth group in Connecticut. They dated for a short time, but when they both went off to college, their relationship cooled.
Then a few years later, during spring break, they saw each other again and Bill asked Norma Jean if he could write to her. Their courtship revived, they began seeing each other during holidays and summer vacation.
Ironically, both had begun exploring service with Wycliffe Bible Translators, independently. Norma Jean was thinking of serving as a teacher, while Bill was leaning more towards graphic design.
Following their marriage in 1981, the couple prepared for service with SIL, Wycliffe’s main partner organization, by enrolling in courses at the University of Washington in Seattle. There, Bill excelled in linguistics, earning straight A’s.
“I can’t say I was hooked on linguistics,” says Bill. “But I thought, this isn’t so hard.”
“I found it hard,” Norma Jean adds with a chuckle. “But he didn’t.”
When the time came to consider where—and how—they would serve in Bible translation, they talked with Roger Gilstrap, director of SIL’s North America Branch and more recently director of Wycliffe Canada. Aware of Bill’s proficiency in linguistics, Gilstrap encouraged the couple to consider leading a Bible translation project in northern Canada.
Although neither Bill nor Norma Jean had felt a strong calling to native ministry when they started their path with Wycliffe, Gilstrap’s advice didn’t catch them by surprise. They had already given some thought to serving in Alaska or Canada, among a First Nations group.
“The Lord has often provided guidance to us through our leaders,” says Bill, “so we thought, 'Let’s have a look at the Naskapi situation, and pray about it, and see what the Naskapi people themselves think about it.'”
That openness to God led Bill to visit Kawawa in 1987 with Don Hekman. Don and his wife Martha had spent 14 years in a Bible translation project for the Innu (formerly Montagnais) people of northeastern Quebec and more recently, Don served as president of Wycliffe Canada.
A year later, Bill and Norma Jean arrived in Kawawa with five year-old Ben and their one-year-old daughter, Elizabeth (Beth). After overcoming their initial trials with missing appliances and a broken toilet, they focused on getting to know their neighbours—and Noah, who could often be heard singing along to his favourite country music on the Naskapi radio station.
The five of them managed to live together amicably, but frequently Noah would seek refuge in his bedroom.
“With a family of four moving into his house, he must have felt that we kind of took over,” says Norma Jean. “So he would sometimes just retreat to his room.’”
Initially Bill concentrated on learning the language and building relationships, but some of their Naskapi friends still weren’t real clear on what he was trying to accomplish.
“People would say funny things,” Norma Jean says. “Like, ‘You know, I could get Bill a job here, they need a construction worker on the houses.’ Because during the language-learning phase we would go and talk to people . . . and visit all the time—so they must have thought, maybe it would help them if Bill had a real job.”
Then in the early ’90s, a team of linguists from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, who were working on a Naskapi dictionary project, asked Bill for his help. He readily agreed and his work on the three-volume dictionary, published in 1994, helped to establish his credibility along with his role among the Naskapis. Shortly after, the Naskapi Development Corporation offered him some office space and made sure he had the computers, software and other supplies he needed to move ahead in Bible translation.
As much as possible, Bill sought to facilitate translation by training the Naskapis themselves. Then-chief Joe Guanish provided invaluable insights into the Naskapi language and customs, while three mother-tongue translators (MTTs) worked with Bill on translating Scripture.
In 2004, the Jancewicz family had to return to Connecticut so Bill and Norma Jean could care for his elderly father. While in the U.S., Bill stayed engaged with the language project and the three MTTs kept translation moving along.
“For the Naskapis,” says Bill, “it was a wonderful thing for them to understand that we went away to take care of my dad, because that is a high value in the culture.
“But it was also a good opportunity for our children to go to high school outside the community,” he adds. “Our daughter Beth went to high school in Connecticut, and Nick finished high school there too.”
During their five years in the U.S., Bill worked on the Bible translation in Connecticut and would return to Kawawa two or three times a year to keep the project on track and support the mother-tongue translators.
In 2007, he and Norma Jean attended the dedication of the Naskapi New Testament. And though they had been considered for a change of assignment, after Bill’s dad passed away in 2009 they decided to return to Kawawa.
“Every home had a New Testament,” says Norma Jean. “More and more people were learning to read and using the Bible as their text for reading the language.
"It’s great . . . because reading God’s Word changes your life. Which is why we came back,” adds Bill. “People here need to learn how to read the Scriptures, and now, more than ever, they want to.”
Mama Jean and Mr. Bill
With their own kids now grown up and living in the U.S., Norma Jean works at the Kawawa school, helping to develop mother-tongue curriculum.
Bill oversees ongoing work on Old Testament translation, including the book of Genesis, while finishing translation of a Naskapi lectionary, teaching literacy classes, and facilitating publication of various Naskapi-language materials.
And that’s just “at the office.” At home, the couple continue to serve as foster parents, too—something they’ve been doing for years. Whether they lived in Kawawa or Schefferville, their home was always filled with Naskapi or Innu children.
“Mama Jean and Mr. Bill”—as they’re affectionately known by dozens of youngsters—estimate they have cared for more than 25 kids over the years. Some were repeat visitors who stayed for only a few weeks or months; the longest stayed for three years.
The three Jancewicz kids agreed early on to share their rooms with friends and classmates who needed some support, often at a moment’s notice.
“Now, our youngest son Nick is considering a career as a social worker,” says Norma Jean. “He’s witnessed what it’s like for children not to have the security that comes from a home to come to after school, or not to know when the next meal will be provided.”
All three of the Jancewicz’s kids still maintain strong ties to the Naskapi community and Beth, an artist, sometimes returns to her northern home to teach art in Kawawa’s school.
With so much invested, Bill and Norma Jean aren’t eager to leave Kawawa. But they also want to remain open to God, should He call them somewhere else.
In the meantime, they’re excited by recent developments in Natuashish [Nat-TWA-shish], the Naskapis’ sister community in Labrador. It’s home to more than 1,000 Mushuau Innu [MOOshoo-aw IN-new] people. They were relocated from Davis Inlet in 2002, in a much-publicized effort by the federal government to help them overcome crippling social problems.
“People from both communities originally came from the same group of nomadic caribou hunters,” Bill wrote to financial and prayer supporters this past fall. “But their histories that diverged around the beginning of the 20th century resulted in two very different writing systems and some dialect differences that we are just learning about.”
Last September, Bill and Norma Jean travelled to Natuashish for the second time in two years, to hold a translation workshop with help from the three Naskapi MTTs. Norma Jean conducted workshops for Innu-speaking classroom assistants interested in improving mother-tongue education in the local school.
The couple are hopeful that the Mushuau Innu people, who are predominantly Catholic, will choose to follow the lead of their Naskapi cousins by initiating a language project and translating the Scriptures.
If they do, that could well lead to transformed lives—now and for eternity.
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