by Dave Miller
Homer Firestone shares his unique insights into the task of evangelism in indigenous cultures.
On April 20, 1946, first-term missionaries Homer and Elvira Firestone set sail from New Orleans on the Norwegian freighter M. V. Narvick, bound for Bolivia. They almost did not finish the voyage. Homer was stricken with acute appendicitis while at sea. Doctors, flown by amphibian plane from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, removed the inflamed appendix, saving his life.
That operation made a vital difference for many thousands of Bolivians. When they finally arrived in La Paz, the Firestones launched a long church-planting career among Aymara- and Quechua-speaking peoples. Today nearly 200 churches are the fruit of their ministry.
Along the way Homer earned a Ph.D. in anthropology and linguistics from the University of New Mexico. His original research into indigenous cultures has been published in professional journals, and, more recently, in two books, The Gospel According to Bolivia and The Andean Soul.
Homer also translated Mark and Acts into the Guarayo language. It was one of the earliest Scripture translations done among tribal peoples in Bolivia.
After a 40-year missionary career in Bolivia with the Church of God (Anderson, Ind.), Dr. Firestone retired to Yucca Valley, Calif. He preaches regularly, consults with mission boards, and helps with community service projects in Mexico.
His training and experience have given him unique insights into the task of evangelism in indigenous cultures. He shares some of those perspectives in this interview.
Dr. Firestone, what significant events have shaped your missionary career?
When we first started our work in La Paz, most of the missionaries were working with Indians. The consensus was that somebody ought to work with the high class. Since we were just starting, they were very anxious that we do that.
But we soon learned that, in order to reach Bolivians, you don’t start at the top and work down the social scale. You have to start at the bottom and work up, for the simple reason that there are more people who move from the lower to the higher social strata than there are moving from the top layer down. The effort to reach the high class, if that were one’s goal, would be most easily done by working through this percolating process from the bottom up.
This was further impressed upon us when Luciano Condori came into our lives. That was significant because of the change it brought in our understanding of Bolivian culture. A very dynamic man, Luciano was an Aymara Indian through and through. I won’t say the years we worked with him were all easy. When two people work closely together, having come from two different cultures, there are bound to be misunderstandings and frictions, and there were. But somehow, when we endured the hard knocks of understanding each other, we began to understand one another’s culture.
I learned, in working around other missionaries, the commonly held idea that, in order to be a more successful mission, you had to have more missionaries. Our association with Luciano Condori, on the other hand, taught us that expansion in our work did not depend upon the number of missionaries we had, but on the quantity and quality of national leaders with whom we worked. We realized it was not from the States where the strength was to be drawn for the work, but from the very field in which we worked.
You have studied anthropology and linguistics. What has that contributed to your ministry in Bolivia?
Basically, know-how. How to take facets of the Bolivian culture and facets of the biblical culture and message and bring them together in a meaningful way. It gave us a lot more patience and kept us from becoming ingrown.
Anthropology also helped us to see the disadvantages of introducing high technology, not only into Bolivian culture per se, but also into the church’s ministry. We could see the influence of technology in breaking down the native culture. Our training allowed us to concentrate on the cultural, psychological, and spiritual problems associated with a new religion. We were able to establish a church in Bolivia without getting caught in a great landslide of cultural change. We could do away with the excess cultural and social baggage which is very costly in missionary work.
What have you found to be the most practical strategy for planting a church in a rural, indigenous community?
Itinerant evangelism. The missionary should be an itinerant evangelist. And, he should develop itinerant evangelists among the nationals. This gives people time to integrate the message into their lives, their culture, their thinking. He is not overloading the cultural system nor the psyche of the individual.
By itinerant evangelism, I mean returning. Not just traveling evangelism. It is more like the old Methodist circuit riders. You build up the church through continued, itinerant evangelism.
Then develop local leaders, not imported leaders. I mean people with enough motivation. There are always those who are moving up. We must be aware of who they are. This is part of the missionary’s job. He should help the national itinerant evangelists to do this as well.
Keep the people visiting between communities. Maybe they already have a trading relationship. Help them develop it. This is itinerant evangelism on a mass basis. It works for learning hymns, learning to play instruments, learning the format of services.
If we can grasp the fact that the act comes before faith, we are well on our way to success. In a religious commitment, the act comes before the theology, before the rationale. This is where missionaries often make mistakes. We have our schools, we try to teach. We approach people from the cognitive side, from the theological side. This doesn’t produce as many converts as if we get them committed in action.
How do we get people to act? This is the itinerant business, getting people to move about, getting them into a group where something is happening. Then after something has happened to them-in theological terms, we would say the Lord has touched them-then we can talk about theology. Then we can give them the rationale.
Religious activity is a right-brain activity, speaking in terms of human behavior. When we approach religion from the point of view of logic, we are using the left-brain to do a right-brain function. Religion dies when it becomes too left-brain, when it becomes too cognitive, too theological. We lose the feeling of the mysterious and of the unknown.
All of this sounds like we have left God out of the picture. That’s what I don’t want to do. In all of this, we hope we have the leadership of the Lord, so that we also maintain within ourselves, as missionaries and itinerant preachers, the same feeling of the unknown, the mystery. If we lose this, we’ve lost our very purpose.
Along with Cirilo Lopez, a Bolivian, you founded Congregaciones Evangelicas, which has become one of the fastest-growing indigenous churches in Bolivia. What principles did you follow in establishing this church body?
Number one, we never tried to start anything with Bolivian believers that they themselves could not carry on once we disappeared from the scene. In other words, something within their technological capabilities and cultural understanding. We did this by letting them take the leadership and initiate the basic organization, the basic procedures, the basic method by which they were to work. That meant that we had to stay in the background.
Number two, we did not make the believers "missionary dependent." The size of the missionary organization on the field is likely to correspond to the amount of missionary dependency. But even to cut it down more, we did not make ourselves present 100 percent of the time. We were only involved intermittently in church functions.
We encouraged them to learn to play hymns on native instruments, rather than buying accordions and organs. With their instruments they could develop their own hymnology.
It setting up the format of the services, we let them deviate from what we did when we were there, without any correction from us. Because many of the congregations were established in areas where Saturday nights and Sunday mornings were the most convenient times for services, we let them go ahead and develop that kind of schedule.
We tried not to bring in extraneous customs. We tried to develop the ones that they already understood. It helped in their evangelistic outreach. The message was a new message, but it wasn’t presented in such an odd way as to make it unacceptable. This facilitated its reception.
Another tactic was not to attend the church’s business meetings. Normally, they made the decisions in their own fashion. If a decision made at their annual business meeting was incorrect, they had another year to correct it. The church was self-governing, self-propagating, and self-sustaining.
We never put money into the organization. We never picked pastors or helped them pick pastors. We did not purchase vehicles for them. We felt we had a moral obligation to help them and become involved in their sacrifices. But what funds we put in were more our own contributions than contributions from people in the States.
You now help mission boards evaluate their programs and strategies. What do you see that most encourages you?
I see people becoming more aware, particularly in the more conservative churches, of the fact that current cultures that differ from ours are not necessarily evil. I see more of an understanding of other cultures. I would like to help missions make the cultural selections that are advantageous and be able to avoid those that would be detrimental. One of the encouraging things is the awareness that cultural differences may not necessarily affect profound faith.
What are the important foundations we must preserve in an animistic culture?
We should conserve the concept of the supernatural, which is always very strong in animistic societies. We don’t want to turn people into materialists, but keep them with a sense of mystery. A sense of mystery is maintained by helping them remain aware of many things they don’t understand. That doesn’t mean keeping them in ignorance. It means educating them, because an educated person is one who is aware of many things he doesn’t understand.
We should preserve those cultural units that relate to the emotions. Some things in the culture, in the psychology of the people, generate a lot of emotion. What we need to do is create Christian avenues whereby emotion can be discharged in an acceptable manner, a way that holds the community together and makes for good mental health.
Some people feel there should be no emotion in religion. Well, that’s robbing religion of one of its basic functions. It’s the first step to a-religiousness, and that is what we don’t want to do. We want to harness emotional energy for good purposes, particularly for personal relationships.
Also, we want to preserve the native way of thinking, that is, analogical thinking. Jesus used analogical thinking in parables. Analogical thinking is one of the basic modes of religious thinking. It’s a more natural way of thinking compared to strict, controlled, scientific investigation. We need to find analogies within the culture and use analogical thinking to communicate.
The missionary’s preaching should be what I call "seed preaching." His preaching is not just evangelism and it is not just teaching. It is sowing seeds. He must be aware of what the meaningful analogies are, how to seed those and fertilize them, so the native evangelists can expand upon them, so that people will have some bridges, or little roots between the gospel and their own culture.
What contribution to missions work do you hope to make through your two books?
The Gospel According to Bolivia, I hope will serve as a model for what to do and what not to do, as the case may be. I think there is a certain lack of understanding of what happened to culture in the history of missions. It’s too late for a lot of that to be recorded. Those who follow me in missionary work will at least have some kind of a description of what happened some place.
In The Andean Soul I tried to give a description of the more covert aspects of the culture of the Andes. I tried to present some of the things that are basic to religious people, whether they are Christian or not. I’ve tried to point to some of the things which, to destroy, would be to destroy the personal and cultural foundations that we hope people will use to come to the Lord.
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