A reflection by David Johnson, DAI Senior Consultant, Latin America
One week ago, I was disembarking from a weeklong trip aboard a riverboat named ‘Evangelista’ (Evangelist) with some fifty fellow travelers. We found ourselves climbing back up the steep embankment of the Amazon tributary, the Ucayali River, into relative civilization in the city of Pucallpa, Peru.
We were exhausted, dirty, hot, and saddened that we now had to say goodbye to one another. It was an extraordinary week, and that morning, as the riverboat wound its way back downriver, carefully avoiding the hidden sandbars, we each shared our thoughts about the week. For many, tears were shared as well.
Only six days earlier, most of us had never met. The majority were from various cities and towns around Peru, but there were others from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Ecuador, and even two from the US. Very few had ever visited the Amazon basin and fewer yet had ever been to a village of one of the Amazonian tribes.
It was a floating missions conference on a riverboat that belongs to the first church ever established in Pucalla–Iglesia Evangélica Misionera de Pucallpa (Evangelical Missionary Church of Pucallpa). During the year, the riverboat hosts a variety of ministry activities, all directed toward the vast number of tribal groups that live along this system of tributaries, which flow into the Ucayali River and end up in the Amazon. Evangelism, medical care and health education, clean water projects, and much more take place. And it’s all based from this floating platform dedicated toward sharing God’s love to those who have not had many, if any, opportunities to hear the good news about Jesus Christ.
The conference is a product of a consortium of organizations; almost all of the leadership, preparation, teaching, and logistics are provided by Peruvian volunteers who sacrificially give of their time because they believe so strongly in the cause and the strategy of such a conference. RAP – Red Amazónica Peruana (Peruvian Amazon Network) is the name given the consortium, and it is made up of a number of both Peruvian and international organizations. Asociación Segadores, Iglesia Evangélica Misionera de Pucallpa, Misión Suiza, APOYO, Red Trans Amazónica, Centro de Mobilización Misionera de Pucallpa, and others working alongside various associations of tribal pastors.
During parts of each day, we sat through workshops: The Biblical Basis for Missions, God´s Heart for Missions, Supporting Your Missionary, Working Amongst the Native Communities of Peru, and Strategies for Working in Tribal Communities. There were films in the evening, such as Peace Child and Ee-tow!, which demonstrated how God has worked amongst tribal groups in other parts of the world. But we also spent time in several villages, experiencing first-hand the realities of life in these isolated communities and putting into practice some of the things we learned about in the “classroom.”
Toward the end of the week we were divided up into teams, each one being assigned to a village in which to conduct a research project. It was an opportunity to try out some of the methodology and principals we heard about during the training sessions. My assigned village was Flor de Ucayali (Flower of the Ucayali), located on the Ukukinia River, which is a tributary to the Ucayali.
To me, this team was a reflection of how God is mobilizing the Peruvian church in missions. Ingrid was our team captain—coordinator of a missions program at her church in Lima. Marianna is the wife of an assistant pastor of one of Lima’s larger churches. She and her husband left their two young children with her parents (for the first time ever) because they believe God might be calling them to missions; her husband wept openly the day we returned while telling us how God spoke to him through the story of Jonah to open his heart to these people and missions. Nilsa, whose husband is pastor of a church in Puerto Rico that has missionaries in the Middle East, Central Asia, Spain, Peru and other counties, led the workshop on “Supporting your Missionary.” While waiting at the airport to depart, she said: “I’ve been working with missionaries for years, but now I know the incredible difficulties and obstacles they face on a daily basis.” Kurt is a physical education teacher and college professor in the Peruvian highlands who feels God may be calling him to missions. Sofia is the missions pastor in a church in Machala, Ecuador, who knows she is called to missions and is in the process of training a whole group of young people for missions while she waits for her church to give her the green light to go. Another man by the name of Kurt, a 20-year-old American college student, has missionary relatives in Peru and is living with a Peruvian family to learn more Spanish this summer. His Peruvian “mother” signed him up without him knowing what the conference was about! I ended up being his translator for the week. Zaida, who is one of the leaders instrumental in putting this conference together and the key logistical person on the planning team. And finally, there was me. I heard of this conference when I was invited to Pucallpa to do a leadership training workshop both for and with a group of leaders that Americo Saavedra and the HCJB Global APOYO team had been working with for several years. It was that group of APOYO trained leaders that had birthed this Misión Abordo initiative.
Having done my master’s thesis on cross-cultural entry and culture shock issues, I was intrigued to see how all of the cross-cultural hurdles exist in reaching out to tribal groups as well. “Remember,” said Irma during our orientation of this tribe, “these people are not as warm and emotional as we are–you only shake hands. They do not hug or give kisses in greeting, and men must be very careful not to touch women and vice versa.”
Language as an issue surfaced quickly. In organizing some activities for children, it became clear that Spanish, though taught in the government sponsored schools, was not always understood, and one of the younger mothers had to be recruited to translate. The tendency to be task-oriented rather than relationship-focused on our part also lifted its head. We were loud—they were quiet. The tribal chief, who must always be sought out first to receive permission for any activity in the tribe, met us with great skepticism and was clearly uncomfortable with these “outsiders” who kept peppering him with questions. The team, made up of mostly Peruvians, discovered they were foreigners in their own country.
God’s pot was boiling in all of our hearts and minds. He brought some fifty strangers together in order to plant the seeds for the transformation of our world-views, our understanding of his kingdom and the aligning of our hearts with his heart for the lost.
My greatest takeaway was to see how the seeds of mentoring and training a small group of leaders, over several years in Pucallpa by Americo Saavedra and the APOYO team, led to unexpected and wonderful ministries being birthed that are now touching thousands of people. Men and women who saw beyond their own church, their own denomination, their own people, their own country, and who learned how to build networks and teams to do things that any one of them could never have done on their own. They had become Kingdom builders with a capital “K,” willing to serve, go and do, whatever and wherever the King asks.