Indigenous tribes transformed by Gospel
EDITOR'S NOTE: This year's Week of Prayer for International Missions, Nov. 30-Dec. 7, focuses on missionaries who serve in South America as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists' gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. This year's theme is "GO TELL the story of Jesus"; the national offering goal is $170 million.
BOGOTÁ, Colombia (BP)--Sweat dripped from Dut's short, slender body as she hollowed out a grave in the floor of the Colombian rain forest.
Only minutes earlier the Nu* Indian woman had given birth to her ninth child, a boy, but didn't like what she saw. The baby's head was misshapen, pointed -– a temporary defect doctors would recognize as the result of an intense labor.
But there were no doctors here. Dut was ignorant and alone, except for several of her children who had tagged along with their mother as she ventured into the bush that day.
They watched as Dut laid their brother's tiny body in a shallow hole and began to cover him with dirt. The newborn shrieked in protest, his arms and legs struggling against the handfuls of cool, damp soil that pressed against his skin.
His cries weakened as a wave of earth washed across his face, followed by another and another. Abruptly, the jungle fell silent. Without pause Dut stood, brushed the caked blood and grime from her hands and turned toward home.
Lee Rojas* felt sick to her stomach. Watching her own 2-year-old daughter playing with friends in the Nu village, the Colombian Baptist missionary struggled to comprehend the cruelty described in Dut's macabre confession. Even worse, she learned that Dut had buried four other children alive -– one simply because it was a twin (the Nu believe the smaller twin is possessed by evil spirits).
What Lee didn't know was that the Lord would use these brutal sins to transform Dut's life. Through Lee's witness, Dut would be one of the first Nu to begin a relationship with Jesus Christ. The resulting change in her life is a glimpse of the way God is making His Son's name known among Colombia's indigenous, a group of more than 100 Indian tribes scattered across a nation nearly twice the size of Texas.
Spearheading that effort are Southern Baptist missionaries Fernando and Brenda Larzabal. Born in Argentina, Fernando began his ministry career as a missionary pilot. He met Brenda, a teacher from Saranac, Mich., on a mission trip to Belize. They have been married 22 years and have four sons.
They're charged with helping to mobilize the Colombian church to take the Gospel to every Indian tribe.
Lee and her husband John* are among a growing number of Colombian missionaries who have accepted that call. It's a big job, and there's no one-size-fits-all strategy. Whether Betoye, Ticuna or Wayuu, each tribe is as unique as its name, with a distinct language, culture and worldview.
What they have in common is their need for Christ. Of the 100-plus Indian tribes, only nine are considered "evangelized." More than 60 others are without any Gospel witness. That means no known believers and no evangelical churches. Instead, most tribes are animists -- spirit-worshippers who live in fear of failing to appease gods they neither know nor love.
"This is the very edge of darkness," Fernando says. "The overwhelming need of these people is to be delivered from the fear of Satan.... Without God, there is slavery. Without Christ, there is fear, and that's what they breathe day in and day out."
The Rojases know firsthand what that kind of fear can do. They've lived among the Nu for nearly 10 years and have often watched Nu families go hungry, sometimes for days, because they were too afraid of evil spirits to go hunting in the jungle.
"It's like a different world," Lee says. "The Nu live very primitively."
There's no electricity or running water in the villages. Until recently, the Nu didn't wear clothes. They sleep in hammocks hung from open huts topped with palm fronds. The jungle is their only source of food. Poison-tipped darts fired from blow guns snare birds or monkeys; wild plantains, insects and honey are gathered by hand.
This primal existence is due to the Nu's limited contact with the outside world; they are considered isolated even among other Indian tribes. There are no roads that lead to Nu villages. To reach them, the Rojases must hop a two-hour flight aboard a small plane to an unmarked landing strip carved into the jungle. From there it's a four-hour walk with their two young girls in tow.
INSURGENTS VS. THE GOSPEL
But distance isn't the only barrier between the Indians and the Gospel -- there's the threat posed by anti-government insurgents and illegal paramilitary outfits. Clashes with the army have forced these groups into remote areas of the Colombian countryside, the same areas where indigenous tribes make their homes. The insurgent problem is so widespread that nearly every unevangelized tribe, including the Nu, falls within their territory. Ransom kidnappings are practically guaranteed for foreigners who try to reach them.
While Americans would be conspicuous in these areas, Colombians blend in -– which makes them ideal missionaries to indigenous communities. There's still some risk; but for the sake of the Gospel, it's risk missionaries like the Rojases are willing to take.
"It's true where we live is a bit dangerous and sometimes isn't very comfortable," Lee says. "But God tells us that the day of salvation is today. Christ died for the Nu and He sent us to tell them. We know our lives are in His hands. If we die, so be it, because Jesus will be there waiting for us."
That sense of urgency was burned into the Rojases' hearts the day Cho died. Counted among the family's dearest Nu friends, he was there from the very beginning of their ministry. Cho had helped John and Lee on countless occasions, spending hours patiently teaching them the Nu language or sharing fish he had caught for dinner. Their girls, Grace* and Joy*, even called him "grandpa."
But despite all Cho had given them, the Rojases were not able to give Cho the gift he needed most. At the time, they were trying to perfect their language skills and hadn't yet been able to share the Gospel with any of the Nu -- not even Cho.
One day Cho became very sick. He was taken to a doctor in the city, but he died the next morning. John was sent to bring home his body.
"My heart broke," Lee remembers. "I told God, 'He didn't have a chance to believe because he wasn't able to hear about You.'"
That night the Rojases poured out their hearts in prayer, pleading with the Father on behalf of the Nu.
"We asked God that we never again bury a man or woman of this tribe without having the opportunity to tell them about Jesus," Lee recounts.
Filled with regret and doubt, they turned to the Larzabals for help. Fernando and Brenda reassured them and offered their guidance and friendship. They connected John and Lee with a local Colombian church that agreed to support the couple's ministry. More importantly, the Larzabals helped them develop a new strategy for reaching the Nu, one that allowed them to begin sharing the Gospel right away.
Within just a few months the Rojases were back on the field, witnessing to the Nu for the first time using chronological Bible stories. This is an evangelism tool that involves sharing and discussing a series of key stories from the Bible, usually from creation to Christ. Story sets often are tailored to address specific issues relevant to a particular people group.
"We prayed that the stories would be more to the Nu people than just another fable or fairy tale," Lee says. "Specifically, we asked that the issue of sin would be confronted and understood because the Nu did not take blame for anything they did."
DUT'S SIN AND SALVATION
Dut was among the first to listen to the stories and was captivated by what she heard. The Rojases quickly recognized the Holy Spirit at work, bringing Dut closer to confronting her sin.
"She had already learned from the story of Cain and Abel that God knows and sees everything," Lee says. "When we went over God's law of 'Thou shall not kill,' Dut knew she was cornered and that day she confessed."
"I buried these kids alive and now I am on the burner," Dut told Lee. "What will God do with me?"
Then came the story of Jonah and Nineveh's repentance.
"I have to do like the people of Nineveh," she said. To the Rojases' surprise, Dut immediately knelt in the dirt and asked for God's forgiveness.
"That was a moment of rejoicing for us," Lee remembers. "We knew this was the beginning of God's Word arriving with power among the Nu people."
They still hadn't gotten to the story of Christ. When they did, Lee says Dut was overjoyed to learn that Jesus had died for her sins, even the sins that seemed unforgivable -– like murdering five of her children.
"No, I am not going to hell because Christ paid for that, too," Dut declared.
She soon brought her entire family to listen to the Bible stories. Dut's sister was next to receive the Lord. Within a year, the Rojases had shared the Gospel with all 120 Nu in the village. More than 60 accepted Christ and 20 were baptized.
Today John says God's presence continues to transform the village. Nu believers no longer worship spirits or visit witch doctors. Adultery, theft and other problems have dropped dramatically. What's more, Nu families aren't going hungry for fear of evil spirits.
"In the past I used to be afraid of death and would not hunt in the jungle," one Nu villager told John. "But now I know that if I die I will go to heaven because God sent a Savior for my sins.
"Now I feel free."
*Names changed. Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board. To learn more about reaching South America for Christ, go to samregion.org. Gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering can be made at www.imb.org/offering to support the International Mission Board's more than 5,300 missionaries worldwide, including Fernando and Brenda Larzabal in Colombia.