Reaching remote people in Amazon jungle takes giving up control, safety, time

Reaching remote people in Amazon jungle takes giving up control, safety, time

By Roy McCormick
Special to Baptist Press

Although we sometimes lament the digital age, truth be told it’s nice to be so connected. Most of us can’t remember the last time we were out of contact without a phone, a computer or even a GPS-enabled car to get us out of trouble. It seems that everyone, everywhere on the planet is accessible, but that’s not the case.

There are still remote, uncontacted places in the world where the gospel has not yet been declared.

Some of those places are in the Amazon Basin, a massive area larger than the continental United States that includes portions of six countries: Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. This dense jungle expanse hosts many of the remaining people groups on the planet who live without any contact from the outside world. Estimates vary, but there may be as many as 50 remote groups scattered across the Amazon.

Broke away from outsiders

These hunter-gatherers fled war and disease decades ago to the relative safety of the river headwaters, out of reach from people such as rubber barons, lumber workers, drug runners and gold miners who sought to exploit them. These uncontacted groups may have once been part of a larger, now-contacted tribe, but the groups likely broke away before encountering outsiders.

Because of language drift and cultural differences, they now exist as separate peoples. They may venture out only to steal machetes and other indispensable tools. And when they do, they can be violent and murderous. If they are seen, frightened villagers usually greet them with shotgun blasts.

Based on what we’ve learned from recently emerged groups, the general Amazonian tribal culture and photos shot with telephoto lenses, we believe the remaining uncontacted groups are rife with disease and spiritual warfare.

As animists they believe everything in the physical world has a more powerful spiritual counterpart. The wind has a spirit, as do certain trees, animals and people. The spirits are often seen as malicious and cause sickness, confusion and death. These tribes perform rituals with animal sacrifices, libations and chants to appease or control the spirits. The color red is thought to shield them from evil, so they paint themselves with red dye or wear red-beaded bracelets. They are completely unaware of the power of the gospel. If you or I had been born in one of these groups, we could live and die without hearing the name of our Savior even once, apart from the intervention of Christ’s Church on mission.

How do we even begin to bring the gospel to these peoples?

I’ve had the privilege of working with an indigenous missionary named Wilson who has been called to reach his uncontacted “cousins,” the Iropi. The Iropi tribe speaks a similar dialect to Wilson’s native tongue, so it’s likely they broke off from his tribe more than 100 years ago.

Watching Wilson live out his Great Commission calling to the Iropi has shown that in order to reach these isolated groups Christians must give up three things that Western culture highly values: control, safety and time.

Many of us have jobs, take vacations and plan our schedules well in advance. Work with the uncontacted can’t be scheduled. For years Wilson simply waited. As he and his team waited they worked hard to prepare for contact with the Iropi.

They built dwellings for themselves so they could stay nearby. They planted fields, cut trails and left gifts the Iropi might find useful, such as machetes or cooking pots in order to initiate peaceful contact. But they did all this back-breaking work while acknowledging that if God did not extend His hand to bring the tribe out, then there was nothing more they could do except “wait for the Lord, be strong and courageous” (Ps. 27:14), and trust that God’s plan was better than theirs.

Years later, when Wilson finally saw the Iropi, he nearly lost his life.

The band that greeted him from the deep jungle was divided. Some treated him as a long-lost brother while others snuck around to his blind side to shoot him with six-foot-long arrows.

‘I was prepared to die’

Wilson described to me how he dodged their lethal missiles while he sang the first songs to our Savior the Iropi had ever heard.

“I was prepared to die, and if it was my day for God to call me, then so be it,” he said. “But instead He gave this old man the strength to dodge arrows!” As King David wrote when the Philistines attacked him, “In God I trust; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Ps. 56:4)

For Wilson the danger was incidental to the work and nothing compared to the blessing of working for his Lord.

Wilson waited 17 years for first contact with the Iropi, and only then did his mission finally progress to “hello.” He’s still waiting to learn the language and culture, share the gospel, make disciples and plant churches.

Life of sacrifice

In many Western cultures, a “career” may now last only six to eight years before a person moves on to something else. Wilson lived a life of sacrifice for nearly two decades before completing the first steps of his ministry. It may be another 17 years before the work is complete. But at the end of his work, Wilson — and hopefully all of us — will be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7).

Most people will never find themselves in the Amazon jungle, dodging arrows while singing praises to God.

That particular blessing may be limited to Wilson and others on his team. However, whatever your ministry context, my prayer is that you “lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily ensnares us” and “run with endurance the race that lies before us” (Heb. 12:1). Wait on the Lord, do not let fear drive you and stay the course to completion.

EDITOR’S NOTE — Some names have been changed for security reasons. Roy McCormick has worked in the Amazon Basin for the past 13 years as a discipler and trainer where he serves with his wife and three children. Although he has lived in Bolivia and Brazil, he now lives in Peru.

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