I have long hoped for an opportunity to be a part of getting the Bible into the hands of a people group that had never had one in their own language. That prayer was finally answered this month. This is how it happened.
We at Amazon Vision Ministries received an invitation by the chief of a Mayorunan tribe deep in the west Amazon Basin to come to their village. This resulted from working sixteen years in the West Basin among the Ribeirinho people and sharing the good things of God’s Grace – the gospel, medicine, dental care and more. AVM is a trusted organization and has been open to ministry to the Indigenous.
The invitation came when one of our teams were in the area of the Mayoruna tribes and met the Chief’s son. He invited us back to the village to build relationships and teach stories from God’s Word. We began to pray for God’s direction.
The plans involved creating the right team, making the right preparations, and deciding on strategy. Understanding cultural mores, making practical logistical decisions such as transportation by small float plane into the area, preparing for safety concerns and packing well were all part of the careful planning. All this was done over the span of a year and the team of five from four US states met at the airport in Bogota Colombia. From there the adventure began as we flew into Leticia, Colombia, crossed over into Tabatinga, Brazil, then by boat taxi to Benjamin Constant. It was at this point that we were to be flown into the village two and a half hours into the basin jungle. But God’s plans differed from ours.
To our disappointment the news came just a few days before our departure – we would not be allowed into the Mayorunan tribe protected within the indigenous area. We soon discovered there were multiple reasons why not. Trust had been broken by others (foreigners) who had made promises that were not kept, and there were complicated issues with FUNAI, the government agency assigned the responsibility to protect and provide for the indigenous peoples. A meeting was set up for us to attend with the hopes of reversing the news.
The first meeting was not encouraging. We traveled by “fast boat” from Tabatinga to Benjamin Constant to catch another “fast boat” through small tributaries into the interior town of Atalaia do Norte. To our surprise, we were met by a representative of FUNAI. The new acquaintance was to serve as translator and mediator for our meeting with the Mayoruna.
Greetings were given and our appreciation for their willingness to meet with us expressed. Their frustration, suspicion and lack of trust was shared openly and honestly. (This is a story in itself for another time.) It was an insightful three-hour discussion which was translated in three languages, English, Portuguese, and Mayorunan, with leaders representing four groups, FUNAI, the Mayoruna, the Matses and our team. There were multiple issues; our hope of forming a meaningful relationship with the Mayoruna and delivering the Bible translated in their own language, a Bible they had never seen or held, was weighing in the balance and seemed to be fading fast.
We held to this hope – the Chief himself had traveled two days and two nights by canoe to meet with us personally. In addition, his brother and one of his six sons joined him. We had the opportunity to speak face-to-face, offer our regret for the broken promises and confusion that others had left behind and ask which ways we might truly be helpful.
The Chief spoke and made a simple yet life-and-death request – could we provide powdered anti-venom for snake bites that too often take the life of his people. We learned from those sitting among us that it could be purchased in Leticia, Columbia. We promised two vials and made a quiet commitment among ourselves to do everything we could to double the quantity. We made plans to return in three days to continue the conversation and deliver the anti-venom. As the meeting concluded and we headed back, the following reflections lingered: the transparency of our conversation, the willingness to learn from one another and seek to help in ways that would not harm, and finally – their willingness to meet with us again and continue the discussion.
Three days later we made the same river trek back to Atalaia do Norte. We were met by our FUNAI mediator again. This time the Chief brought his wife and three sons along with other leaders. We were hopeful.
I greeted the Chief telling him we had a couple of gifts – the first of which I would ask the leader of our team to give him. He remained seated as she placed 4 vials of anti-venom in his hands. His face lit up and to our surprise he stood and reached out to her with a warm embrace.
I then told him we had five Bibles in his language – the Word of God – the God who loved him and his people so much that He gave his own son to die for their sin and reconcile them to Himself. The mediator who had served as one of our translators interrupted and said with firmness, “We are here to talk about projects, ways you may help the people - put your Bibles away and let’s talk business.” Preaching the Gospel to the indigenous is illegal unless otherwise requested by the tribal leader. The FUNAI representative was doing his job and enforcing the law. There was nothing we could do but sit with their Bibles on our laps.
We sorted through options of how we might best serve this Mayorunan tribe. It was settled when the Chief spoke and invited the team to his village. The time was set for spring of 2019. They offered to teach us the traditional ways of their culture and their day-to-day life and work. They wanted to build relationships and asked if we would like to assist them in rebuilding their maloca (communal home) and share the Word of God at night around the fire. We agreed and put what was communicated in writing, signed by all parties.
We had been drinking strong, (very strong) sugared coffee. I explained our “toasting” tradition. They soon understood and our toasting turned into a moment of trust, fellowship and celebration!
Then it happened! One of the sons of the Chief stood and said, please give us the Bibles. And to our utter amazement the mediator said, “Can I have one?” Our quick reply, “of course!” They took the Bibles and became enthralled reading God’s Word! They would not put them down!
What an amazing moment to see the faces of an indigenous tribe who saw for the first time and held in their hand the Word of God. God had answered my prayer of a lifetime. He had answered the prayer of our team, as well as the prayers of those of you who have prayed for us. He answered in a much greater way than we could have ever imagined. You see, instead of spending our time in one village, we met with leaders that influenced eleven Mayorunan tribes, as well as the Matses and Ticuna people and set up a platform for ministry in the city of Atalaia.
This article hardly does justice to our experience. But the point is clear. Getting the Bible in the language of the people – to the people – is the commission of our Lord and the history of our Christian faith. This was a unique privilege the Lord granted as a part of AVM at work in the basin since 2002.
Yes, it was taxing. The travel was challenging (especially the emergency landing on our trip home), spiritual battles of various sorts, the bugs and bites, the heat and rain, different food items, the language barrier, but isn’t the Christian faith about facing our challenges with purpose and faith?
Such mission involvement presses spiritual growth, to love those who are different in so many ways, to move outside of our comfort zone (one of our greatest spiritual battles as western Christians), and to trust the Lord at a deeper level for safety, effectiveness in ministry and with those back home whom we love and miss. As scripture says:
“Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!” – Hebrews 12:1-3 MSG
I want to thank all of you who were a part of this great accomplishment. It took each of us to see the miraculous work of translation and delivery of God’s Word to an ancient indigenous people. My heart is deeply grateful.
We were invited back next spring for a unique six-day opportunity in this Mayorunan village. A new set of challenges filled with excitement – “we’d better get on with it”.