An Interview with Bruce Olson
by David Miller
Bruce Olson discusses what God did during his time with the Motilone—and how he saw Christ renew a nearly extinct people.
One of the epic missionary careers of this generation was launched in 1961 when 19-year-old Bruce Olson arrived in South America in search of the Motilone Indians. The lanky, blond teenager from Minnesota had once seen a photo of a Motilone in a mission magazine and believed God had called him to tell the tribe about redemption in Christ. Hardly anyone else believed that however, including several mission agencies that rejected Olson’s application for service, insisting that he was going about it all wrong.
Olson did something right. Not only did the Motilone embrace the gospel wholeheartedly when they heard it, but immediately began sending their own missionaries to evangelize neighboring tribes. Their conversion to Christianity prompted the Motilone to make other changes. At the request of tribal elders, Olson set up jungle schools to teach the Motilone to read and write their language. Eventually, four hundred tribal scholars would go on to graduate from Colombian high schools; more than forty have earned university degrees. Today, Motilone doctors and nurses staff the tribe’s twenty-four healthcare centers. Motilone agronomists direct a dozen farming cooperatives and Motilone lawyers advise tribal elders on legal matters.
The result: a tribe which was slipping toward extinction in the 1960s because of disease, malnutrition, and war with encroaching homesteaders and oil companies is now prospering. Life expectancy has increased by decades as infant mortality and death from epidemics have plummeted. A strong tribal economy provides steady income for community development and the Motilone live peacefully within the borders of their own 320 square mile tribal preserve.
Yet the best part of the Motilone story is the tribe’s fierce determination to maintain their ancestral way of life. Without exception, every Motilone who has graduated from high school and university in Bucaramanga or Cúcuta has returned to resume traditional life in the jungles. They do so because of their conviction that God himself met the Motilone on the trail of life’s experience and entrusted them with stewardship of their territories. Some time ago, Olson granted a 2-day interview in Bogotá to missionary-journalist David Miller. Excerpts from that conversation follow.
Miller: What would you consider the important experiences that have shaped you since your arrival in the jungles?
Olson: First, we were ambushed and a 4 1/2- foot-long arrow slashed into my thigh. I fell to the jungle floor and I remembered what my father said: “Don’t waste your life there in South America.” Then I heard the Indians walking over to me and a miracle happened. God put peace in my heart, and he spared my life. I have seen miracles where God has healed or delivered, but nothing has touched me like that.
Second, when Bobarishora (a.k.a. Bobby, the first Motilone convert) accepted Jesus into his life, the other thirty-two communities came together during the Festival of the Arrow. Bobby started singing about a trail, and on this trail he saw the footprints of God: “We found ourselves separated from God because of violence and deception. We struggled to come back to God.” Bobby sang for twelve hours, while the person beside him was mimicking the song of how God became Christ. Everyone in the longhouse was silent. “There are many trails in the jungles,” Bobby said, “but there is one trail that goes to the horizon. And Christ came to walk that trail so we can walk in his footsteps.” They understood for the first time the shed blood of Christ and his resurrection.
Another experience that touched me deeply was seeing the orchestration of God while I was kidnapped by (ELN) guerillas. I was chained to a palm tree for six months; my clothes rotted off. I came down with diverticulitis and was hemorrhaging internally, on the edge of hallucinating. In those terrible moments, I remembered words the Motilone use to coax parrots and monkeys out of the canopy. The parrots and monkeys walked over to me and touched my hands. I found a closeness to God in this. Then a Motilone appeared in the jungle canopy and whistled to me in the tonal qualities of his language. He said tribal elders sent him to find me. I answered, “I’m sick, I’m cold. I’m going to die here.” He said, “That’s why I came, to stop your sickness, and tomorrow you will be unshackled.” Then he disappeared. The next day, the guerrillas unshackled me and took me into their camp.
Miller: Your kidnapping by the ELN in 1988 attracted international attention. What was it like?
Olson: I discovered that two hundred of the guerrilla combatants didn’t know how to read or write, although they could discuss dialectical materialism and communism. They invited me to teach them literacy, political schemes of government. That was after they tortured me, and forced us to watch five of our fellow hostages executed. It was horrible. Then one of the ELN guerrillas gave his blood for a transfusion to save me from dying from the diverticulitis. “Do you know who I am?” he asked. “My father was killed, and for two years your cooperative gave my family food to keep us alive. Now my blood flows through your veins.”
When the guerrillas finally were convinced that I would not join their cause, I was released. I’ve gone back to share the gospel with them, and discovered that over four hundred guerrilla combatants have left the organization.
Miller: You experienced another abduction more recently, right?
Olson: Yes, in 1999. It was about 8:30 in the morning and I was driving in my old Toyota on a dirt road. I was stopped and thirty guerrillas came out of the underbrush shooting. One bullet passed through my side, one went through my leg, and a third lodged in my neck. My car was taken away from me and I was taken into the bush. I realized it was the EPL and this was going to be for money, whereas the ELN (ten years prior) abducted me for political advantage. There’s no way out except to pay—I know it would have been in the millions of dollars—and if you don’t pay, you’re shot.
For about a week I was marched through the jungle, my hands tied behind my back. But I was released occasionally to relieve myself, so I took advantage to escape. About a day and a half later, I reached a settlement. It was reported to the police in Cúcuta and they called me to give more details, but I didn’t go.
Miller: Over the years you have confronted harsh criticism because of your ministry.
Olson: Yes, for instance between the middle 1970s and the early 1980s, I felt continually threatened by evangelical mission organizations saying I was a maverick, that I wasn’t true to the Christian faith. Then this French ethnologist stumbles into the jungle and finds that the Motilone have a health center, that they are growing corn and livestock. He said, “Someone is ruining the Indians.” He opposed me because he assumed I imposed that on them, but I did not.
Then the Colombian military arrested me and held me for eight months on suspicion of aiding the insurgents. Once we had a dilemma between myself and some of the evangelical colonists in the area who wanted to take the Motilone lands.
Miller: You mentioned conflict with some evangelical mission groups. What were the points of controversy?
Olson: So often we North Americans evangelize from perspectives of our cultural interpretation of worth and worthiness. We come in with money, planes, radios, solar energy—all these marvelous things so we can eat beef stroganoff in the jungles. My conscience doesn’t allow me to put a landing strip in the jungle as a strategy to further the cause of Christ. In the capital world we have become very clever, and we think because of our cleverness we’re going to fulfill the Great Commission. We computerize the world and find out statistics, but what about the Holy Spirit and the Macedonian call?
We have taken millions of dollars to strategically reach into an area, and fifteen years after we’ve reached the tribe, we’ve devastated their cultural expression and interpretation of who they are. They might be aligning themselves with the Western economy, they might be reproducing and having children, but they don’t have the values of their grandparents.
Miller: What strategy would you recommend to evangelize tribal peoples?
Olson: What we must do is be adopted into the culture, accept the traditional values. The tribal people have balanced their traditions with the creation that surrounds them, the environment which they protect. We should accentuate the positive and dialogue with sensitivity. Eventually, the Motilone will have much to say to the Columbian Church and perhaps to the Church worldwide.
I find that the rebirth of an individual comes through the understanding of the shed blood of Christ and his resurrection. I find I can convert through charity, and they are happy for about five days. But then they’re miserable again. Why? Because the inner person needs healing and reconciliation that comes only through the shed blood of Christ. This I learned as a young person in the Lutheran Church. The Wesley brothers preached this very articulately. They brought people to repentance, and the social shortcomings of society were changed. I found the same thing among the Indians as well.
Miller: This brings up the topic of “redemptive bridges.”
Olson: God was preparing the Motilone for the gospel. They had his messengers, the Chigbariri—whom I consider to be angels—but they didn’t understand the death and resurrection of Christ. All eighteen tribes where I work today have the legend of the Sojourner, in eighteen different languages. Throughout the Americas, God has prepared the terrain to preach the redemption of the cross. So where the “medicine man” and I had certain similarities, I would build on this common ground. The medicine man, after killing a wild deer, takes the hide and pulls it over his head and down his back and says, “I have become a deer; you no longer see me.” I said, “Jesus, in like fashion, poured his blood over our deception—that is the Motilone word for sin—so that when God looks at us, he sees Christ.” And this was confirmation to them as truth.
Through the resurrection, we are secure in the family of God. The Motilone abandoned their orphans to the jaguar, because they believed the spirit of the orphan would destroy any adopting family. But then they saw that God adopts us into his family through the resurrection of Jesus, so we must adopt our orphans back into community. The Motilone started emulating Jesus. It’s the first change within the Motilone social structure.
Miller: Would you counsel missionaries to do what you did?
Olson: No, they should do something much better—something unique that God has for each one of them. I’m not this maverick any longer. I am invited to speak for mission organizations and I say, “Well, where you have a traditional mission work, maintain it. But send your new people to pioneering areas.” The really great challenge, I think, is where the gospel has never gone, among unevangelized peoples. These peoples are being eliminated, disappearing because of sickness, and being imposed upon by the Western culture. Also, I would send my missionary candidates to get a university education in the country where she or he is going to serve. You bond with the people there, and that’s helpful.
Miller: What first motivated you to give your life to the Motilone?
Olson: I was fifteen years old, studying ancient languages at the University of Minnesota. God challenged me to ask what my priorities were. “To serve you,” I answered. “How shall you serve me?” “Through Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.” I wanted to do investigation in the original languages of scripture. God said to me, “These are tools. How can tools be foremost in your life?” God was saying that he needed to be foremost in my life.
I felt a soft spot in my heart for tribal peoples, and when I contemplated this, I was very frightened. But God said to me, “This is your place.” I told the pastor. He said, “You’re crazy.” I told the elders in my church, my contemporaries. They were surprised. But God put peace in my heart.
Miller: What have you learned about God in your years with the Motilone that you would not have otherwise?
Olson: First of all, I see God in creation. I hope you don’t think I’m crazy, but I’ve embraced a tree, and when the leaves lift to heaven, it thrills my heart. I find God’s character in the jungles, in the people and the community. I see scripture differently as a translator than I saw it as a young Christian in Minnesota. I’ve learned that God speaks—this is true and it doesn’t depend upon my emotion. Whatever happens to us, God is with us. Not necessarily orchestrating, because we make our own decisions. And even if I make a mistake, God can reconcile the mistake.
Because the Indians don’t resemble westerners, we say they are inferior. They need our instruction and proper theological positions. Not so. The Indians know the compassion and principles of Christ. The jungle reflects the holiness of God and his nature. They know Christ is redeemer of the jungles. If we walk into the jungles and share scripture and Christ’s shed blood and resurrection, the Spirit touches the hearts of the people. They don’t become Christians by going to church in Cúcuta, or by learning Spanish, or by learning to grow corn. They become Christians by the resurrection of Jesus.
Miller: You have seen an upsurge in violence and illegal armed groups in areas near Motilone territory.
Olson: Yes, beginning about two years ago. An estimated three thousand guerrillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) are in the area. I know at least fifty people who have been executed by them. Drug traffickers are now closely associated with the FARC, and on the national scene in Colombia, they have a huge amount of funds, estimated to be about the financial movement of General Motors. They are setting up clandestine operations and enticing Indians to join them.
Miller: What will happen?
Olson: The FARC don’t know the trails, the terrain, so they cannot make inroads as a military movement. When Motilone speak to me, I say, “The defense of your people is that civilization does not know the contour of the terrain.” But the FARC have shown some Motilone how to grow cocaine. I would say that of tribal members, ninety-eight percent of the Motilone have accepted Jesus as the Son of God. But there are some Christians who are just kind of roller-coasting, passengers on the bus. What hurts is to see Indians being beguiled with certain appetites for money and fortune.
Recently, we had a meeting with about three hundred people present and the Indians asked that I speak to the assembly. I said, “Remember two words: independent and autonomous. You are the race of peoples who’ve been here for five thousand years. Maintain this. Don’t align yourself with any factional group.” After that meeting, the drug traffickers said that statement would cost me my life.
Miller: What are you going to do about the threat?
Olson: Because of my influence in that area of the Catatumbo, the drug cartels believe they cannot develop the fullness of their objectives. So eliminating Olson would intimidate the Indians. They might be right, they might be wrong. But I realize I’m putting the Motilone in a precarious situation. They have to sustain a status quo with the drug traffickers, with Chavez of Venezuela, with the ELN, EPL, and the FARC. And I’m complicating the situation for them.
It’s a dilemma. It might be noble to remain in the area and not let the guerrillas chase me out of there. But that’s not my place to say. I must react to what is most beneficial for the Motilone. So, between myself and God, with great sorrow in my heart, I would leave the jungles.
I think a gradual exit as I’m doing now is showing that the Indians are strong. I’ve given them certain clues, but they’ve put together their politics and their ideal—and it’s not dependent on me. Whereas violent members of society think that with the absence of Olson, all this social development will disappear as well, I don’t think it will.
Right now I am resting back and waiting on God. I find myself embarking on a new experience in life.
Miller: You have passed age sixty-five. Are you planning to retire?
Olson (chuckling): I’m too young. Besides, I don’t know what retirement is. I might start a second career. I’m intrigued by investigation into ancient manuscripts and similarities between Aramaic and some indigenous languages in South America. Since I’m efficient in fourteen languages there might be some possibilities in Bible translation.
I want to be available to the Motilone and to the other tribes. I want them to know that I haven’t just slipped out of the picture. The Indians are becoming articulate in Spanish, in legislation, and social development. I have always felt I was a sojourner to their country. I’ve been one for forty-eight years. But now that I see their decisions, I realize I am not needed.
Miller: You have accomplished a number of things in your lifetime. How would you like to be remembered by Colombia?
Olson (with tears): As someone who was adopted by the Motilone Bari.
David Miller, a missionary-journalist, has lived in Bolivia since 1981 and currently serves as Latin America regional coordinator for global missions of the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana).
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