Encounters on the mountain with the unengaged, unreached

SOUTH AMERICA (BP) -- From the edge of the mountain, I can see another world. Behind us are the seven villages of an indigenous people in the forests of South America. Below, the sun is setting and lights are coming on across a modern city on the edge of the jungle.

Here, it is dirt tracks and homes of mud and wattle or simple block. There, it is paved roads, streetlights, concrete and steel.

It has been a good day. My colleague Rich* and I were warned our journey might be difficult, even dangerous, that many indigenous tribes are not open to outsiders. Rich is doing research among 24 indigenous tribes along one river. They are among hundreds of unengaged, unreached people groups in South America. There was even uncertainty whether the tribes would allow us on their land. But our reception thus far has only been welcoming.

Theo*, a medicine man for one village, greeted us warmly. He introduced us to his chief who was comfortable with Rich conducting research into the family structure, worldview and religion of the tribe and gave me permission to photograph in their village.

We were welcomed in Theo's hut of mud and wattle. He invited friends to show us crafts and indigenous art. He painted his face. And he showed what kind of wood is best to make a bow and how to begin shaping it. Then he invited us to walk in the forest with him as he pointed out plants and their uses and talked of the animals found there.

We had made a friend.

As dusk begins, we make our leave. Theo invites us back in the morning. He will gather some friends. They will dance and sing. We will eat jaca -- a sweet, watermelon-sized fruit that grows on trees.

We depart, confident and full of hope for all tomorrow promises.

But now -- at the view -- our day changes. I am the one who wanted to stop. The view has little to do with our work, but it is beautiful -- a panorama filled with mountains, pink clouds, checkered fields and the sparkling city.

A woman approaches from a nearby house and invites us in. We enter the large block building and are offered a seat. Others gather. Some are children -- who are quickly shooed away -- then a young woman sits down. We learn the older woman is the wife of the head chief of all the villages in this area, and the young woman is his daughter.

We are asked to wait until the chief arrives. He will want to talk with us. Maria*, his daughter, begins questioning us. Her questions come quickly, in staccato bursts.

"Who are you?" she asks. "Who gave you permission to come on our land? What is your purpose here? What is your end goal?"

I photograph her.

Maria is intense. Her eyes bore right through me.

When Cristoval* -- the chief -- arrives, the questions begin again. We learn that while we may have permission from the neighboring chief to be here, we don't have his permission. I raise my camera to photograph him.

"NO! NO!" he shouts, hands waving in the air.

If he were closer, I think he would slap the camera from my hands.

A young man slips through the door. He speaks in a language Rich doesn't understand. We learn he is the medicine man for the chief.

The interview is suddenly over. Cristoval tells us he doesn't have any more time for us tonight. He is fasting and preparing for a sacred ceremony. We are to come back tomorrow. Early. We will talk more then, he says.

We leave with little hope of welcome in the morning. The trip down the mountain is sobering. Our spirits plummet like the road into town. There is little we can do but pray. In town I text friends and tell them we need prayer. Rich does the same.

In the morning we arrive for our meeting. We have been humbled by the interaction with Cristoval the night before. This is his land, not ours. I leave my cameras in the truck; Rich leaves his notebook. We are certain we won't be here long.

But the chief is a different man -- or a man with a different heart. He strides across the ground and greets us warmly, offering a two-fisted handshake, both hands enclosing ours. We are invited in. Coffee is prepared. Members of the family appear. Soon the room fills with happy, laughing people. We learn Maria has a smile and meet her sister, Grace.*

We can stay.

Cristoval begins telling us the history of the tribe. "I will never remember this," Rich says. "Can I get paper?"

"Yes! Yes!" says Cristoval. "I wondered where your paper was."

"Can I photograph?" I ask.

"No," he says.

My heart sinks.

"... not until I put on my headdress."

The medicine man reappears. He helps some of the children don their headdresses, then he dons his. It is beautiful, blue-feathered, flowing across his shoulders down to his waist. When the chief dons his, I take portraits of everyone.

We learn that Grace has been very active -- militant, she says -- in the Indian rights movement. She and Maria have traveled to New York and Florida for conferences. They were once part of a group that surrounded the Catholic church in a nearby town and demanded their land back, threatening to breach a dam and flood the town if they didn't get it.

Land disputes between Indians and others have been fierce. Non-Indians have hired pistoleros -- gunmen -- to threaten the Indians. One chief shot three. A number of Indians have also died.

After an incredible three-and-a-half-hour visit, Cristoval leads us into the forest to their sacred ground where their religious rituals take place, where their sacred dance is danced.

It is a privilege -- and unexpected; few outsiders have been here. This is the heart of the tribe. One outsider -- a woman -- was recently beaten to death for entering.

Back at the house the chief leaves on an errand. We talk more with Grace and Maria. Rich is asking questions, doing his research. When he gets to religion, he learns that what they know of Christianity is a mix of indigenous religion, folk Catholicism, spiritism, superstition and Catholic dogma. Few, if any, from the tribe embrace it. They say they prefer to hold to their traditional faith.

Grace shakes her head.

"A lot of our people don't even know our religion," she says. "They say they do, but they hide behind it ... and our culture."

She wants her people to move ahead -- to win -- she says. When pressed for what she means, she says she wants them to take advantage of all that is going on about them while retaining the best of their culture.

That means they will have to change, she says.

"There have been times in my life that have been so hard," she says, "I've wondered if there was something else out there."

She has met some evangelicals -- her term for everyone who is not Catholic -- and was not impressed.

"They have faith," she says, "but they don't have love. Faith without love isn't worth much."

Rich tells Grace her words are straight from the Bible.

"Next time you come, bring your Bible," she says. "I want to know more about it."

Rich says he has one in the truck. Grace asks him to go get it. For 20 minutes they talk, flipping from verse to verse as they converse. He is astonished at how much of what she says is virtually a paraphrase of the New Testament -- a text she has never read.

It is time to leave. It is long past the time we told Theo we would be back at his village for dancing and song. Rich asks if we can offer a blessing before we depart. Grace asks that we wait until her father returns. He should be here shortly.

I am nervous. Rich has outed us. They now know we are Christians and I wonder how Cristoval will receive that news.

When the chief arrives, he nods his head in agreement. We form a circle and take hands. Others from the family appear and press in to join us. Rich offers a prayer in Jesus' name.

When he finishes, Cristoval lifts our hands above our heads and prays in his native language, sings and blesses us ... until we come again.

It is misty and rainy now. The track is muddy and we slip in and out of four-wheel drive. We meet Theo along the way. He has heard we are at Cristoval's and is coming to see when we will arrive.

At a house next to a clearing at the top of the mountain, 20 to 30 people greet us warmly. The mist has brought on a chill. The wife of one of the men we met yesterday is inside, in bed. Sick. We are asked if we would see her.

Rich and I look at each other. Something is expected of us here. We're not sure what, or how far we should press things. We are certain everyone here now knows we are Christians.

We enter the room. We are given medical records. The woman has an enlarged heart and aorta and very high cholesterol. She was at a clinic several weeks ago, but there is no money for medicines and little expectation of further treatment. She has no feeling in one leg and both legs are cold as ice in spite of layers of blankets.

We decide to pray. Rich explains there is no magic in this, then we lay hands on her and we pray.

Outside, faces are painted, headdresses tied in place. The men dance a bit in the mist. The women join them. Before long, the chill bites into us. When rain begins in earnest, we all retreat and gather under a porch to sing and eat jaca.

Gifts are exchanged. Rich decides to present a Bible.

In this village one man married an outsider. When it was discovered she had a Bible, they tore it apart and danced on it. Rich asks that this one be respected -- that it is a gift from him to them -- and hands it to one of the spiritual leaders of the tribe.

Perhaps someday when they know him better, he says, he can tell them about it.

When we leave, the sick woman is sitting in a chair.


*Names changed. Will Stuart is a photojournalist and writer for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. To learn more about the IMB's "Embrace" initiative to call churches to embrace an unengaged, unreached people group, visit http://call2embrace.org. To find out more about the tribe related to this article, visit http://commissionstories.com/uupg