by William C. Pencille
The Jesuits had called them Zamucans; to the Bolivian farmers and villagers living on the edge of the jungle they were Barbaros or Yanaiguas. In great fear the Paraguayans spoke of them as the Moros. They called themselves Ayore, one of the nomadic hunting and gathering tribes of South America.
The Jesuits had called them Zamucans; to the Bolivian farmers and villagers living on the edge of the jungle they were Barbaros or Yanaiguas. In great fear the Paraguayans spoke of them as the Moros. They called themselves Ayore, one of the nomadic hunting and gathering tribes of South America. They lived in the vast plains of eastern Bolivia and northern Paraguay, the Gran Chaco. After a brief contact with the Jesuits at the time of the Spanish conquest, these Indians retired into the Chaco’s forests and grasslands, emerging only for an occasional raid on the outposts of civilization that encroached on their forest homes.
In the early 1930s George Haight of the South America Indian Mission made a brief contact with them south of Robore in eastern Bolivia. Nobody followed up, however, until 1943 when five missionaries of the New Tribes Mission lost their lives in the attempt. In 1948 missionaries established permanent friendly contact with the tribe. By the early 1950’s several hundred Ayore Indians were living more or less peaceably in three centers in eastern Bolivia. The South America Indian Mission, the New Tribes Mission, and the Lithuanian Baptists of Brazil were the missions most directly in touch with them.
Missionaries could tell much about the dangers of contacting savage Indians, the problems of learning an unwritten language, and the difficulties of taking these people almost directly from the Stone Age into the space age. Here it is my purpose to deal with the problems and dangers of bringing the Gospel to people who believe that many animals and inanimate objects possess personal life or soul.
DEATH ATTRIBUTED TO A SPIRIT
Long before the missionary learns the language and beliefs of a primitive tribe he, faces a serious and often dangerous problem: their complete lack of resistance to the so-called white man’s diseases. The less contact with civilization, the more acute the problem. Respiratory diseases, measles, conjunctivitis, and other common contagious diseases wreak havoc among the isolated Indians of interior South America.
When the missionary reaches people like this they soon get sick with a variety of new illnesses. Immediately a good part of the missionary’s work is cut out for him: he must keep them alive until he can learn the language and witness to them. Medicine is a must; some of us wonder how it would have been possible to evangelize these Indians before penicillin and other miracle drugs were discovered.
There’s a more subtle and dangerous difficulty, however. For example, when the Ayores felt their bodies hot with fever, they walked to the river and sat in it to cool off . We begged them not to and told them germs made them ill. "Germs?" they asked. "What is a germ. Have you ever see one?" I hedged. Since I couldn’t prove what I said, they clung to their own beliefs. "We know what makes people ill!" they said. "Evil spirits!" They thought that since they had previously lived with the spirits of Indians, and hadn’t gotten these new illnesses, quite obviously this new spirit must be a white spirit. When an important person died, in spite of my efforts to save him, his relatives came to my door with spears to kill me.
They shouted, "You killed our relative! You’re a witch doctor; you’ve put a curse on us! All your friendly ways have been a trick to wipe us out. We’re going to kill you!" Why they never did it I don’t know. "The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear Him and delivereth them."
THE WITCH DOCTOR
The witch doctor holds almost complete sway over the tribe; he is the only one with power to control and exorcise evil spirits. He does this by smoking tobacco leaves and invoking the help of the departed Sidi, the great legendary sorcerer who turned his power over to the tobacco plant. Inhaling great amounts of tobacco smoke, the witch doctor trembles in every limb asSidi enters to imbue him with his power and wisdom. Then the witch doctor kneels over the prostrate patient and sucks and blows on him as he talks to the evil spirit causing the illness. Finally, with great effort, he sucks out the "spirit," usually a stick, a stone, a piece of bone-almost anything that strikes his fancy-that he had slipped into the patient’s mouth by sleight of hand. When be pulls this out and holds it up as the offending spirit, the people are relieved that at least one spirit has been overcome. Indians being children of Adam like the rest of us, this act of showmanship no doubt relieves some neurotics among them.
They often frustrated me by refusing my medicine and preferring the witch doctor. On every camp clean-up day I found pills of all sorts hidden in the cracks and crannies of their huts. When I confronted them with this they said, "Oh, I didn’t need them! The witch doctor sucked on me and blew tobacco smoke over me! I’m much better now!"
Of course, many weren’t cured; I often wondered how many more would die before they gave up their belief in spirits. On the other hand, when I saved somebody’s life the witch doctor quickly moved in and claimed the credit.
A great literalism went along with their belief in spirits and in the power of the witch doctor to exorcise them. I don’t believe I ever really convinced them that the best way to cure a boil on their foot was to stick a needle in their arm! When one Indian complained of pains in his stomach, I gave him a pill. As I watched, he ground the pill to powder and moistened the powder with a little water in the palm of his hand. I’ thought that all of this was to make the pill easier to swallow, until he suddenly extended his stomach and carefully spread the white paste over it. After all, it was his stomach that hurt, not his mouth!
Because of their animistic beliefs I was often in danger, but at least twice I was saved for the same reason. A group of Indian warriors killed an ox belonging to a Bolivian Army sergeant because he had brought flu to our camp, killing twelve men. I thought the chiefs were going,, to kill me because of the deaths, but they said, "Oh, no; it wasn’t you that killed them! It was the spirit of the ox! The witch doctor saw it very clearly!" Another time they killed a rancher’s horse and then claimed that the spirit of the horse was responsible for deaths that occurred a few weeks later.
STEPPING ON CULTURAL TOES
Frequent offenses against the cultural beliefs of the people are equally as dangerous during the early days in a tribe, and perhaps more difficult to understand. I like to think of this as stepping on cultural toes. I
There was no trouble when I first took pictures of the Ayores; they had no idea what that little box with an eve in the center pointing at them might be. When the first colored slides came back, I decided to break the monotony of the long jungle evenings by showing them to the Indians. I hung a sheet on the wall of our house, set up the projector, and announced a surprise for them later. As darkness fell, the ‘entire tribe gathered expectantly. Without warning, I turned on the projector and a life-sized Ayore man in full color suddenly appeared on the sheet. The women screamed and fled for cover in the forest. The men ran f or their weapons. I was hardpressed to explain the picture; their word for shadow, soul, and these pictures was the same! I had stepped on their cultural toes by showing them the slides before I -could explain them.
I thought the tape recorder would be a fine instrument to help me learn their complicated language, so I invited some of the men to the house one night. As the chief sang, I turned on the recorder and held the microphone near his mouth.
The spinning wheels fascinated them; they had no idea what the mike might be. When I replayed the song, they recognized it, but the old chief pressedhis lips together tightly to shut off the flow of words. The harder he pressed, the louder the music. He tried to speak, but was so frightened that words refused to come; his voice was just a squeak. The frightened men looked at each other; the chief was certain I had captured his voice. Who knows how much more of him must be in that little black box on the table? The Indians fingered their weapons nervously; I ran for a screwdriver to take off the top of the recorder and show them there was really no one inside. I had seriously trampled on their cultural toes.
Before coming out of the forest to live with us, the Ayores had no domesticated animals. Once in civilization, however, they became fond of dogs; soon there were twice as many dogs as Indians in the camp. After their yearly festival honoring their bird god, the Ayores asked me to take the jeep truck into the jungle and bring back some of their women who were sick. The eighteen mile trip over poor trails took several hours. As I was inspecting the springs of the truck before returning, one of the dogs bit me on the leg and tore my trousers. I picked up a stick, threw it at him, and knocked the dog cold.
I thought he was dead; so did the Indians. They surrounded me with a roar, brandishing their spears and war clubs. "He killed our dog!" they shouted. "Let’s kill him and wreck the truck! We’ll go back into the jungle! We’ve had enough of him anyway
I was sure this was the end, so I sat down against a huge tree so no one could spear me from behind. I couldn’t reason with them or even talk to them. Every time I tried, they shouted "Liar! Liar! Liar!" I prayed plenty. just when death seemed inevitable, the dog staggered to his feet and wobbled off into the woods. The Indians watched him go. "Well," they decided, "the dog didn’t die, so we’ll let him live this time!"
I learned later that to the Ayores all animals have personality and spirit. They never ate deer, the tapir, all birds, lizards, and many other animals because they had special ties with the ancestry of the tribe. The dog that they had obtained from the white men was more sacred to them than even their own children.
Although I noticed that the Ayores never punished their children and were critical of me when I spanked mine, I thought little of this. One day one of the young women got angry with her husband and began throwing his belongings into the fire. I couldn’t stop her and finally one of the Bolivian men with me struck her a few light blows across the small of her back with a braided whip. The blows didn’t even discolor her skin, but she stopped her tantrum and spent the rest of the day sulking by her fire.
Months later this same girl began to suffer from a growth on her back. It resisted all my efforts to cure it. She got thin and emaciated, and it was many months before the growth disappeared and she regained her usual strength.
A year later fear of a flu epidemic caused many of the Indians to leave the mission. A few weeks afterward I heard by way of the jungle grapevine that they had killed a young Bolivian boy as he was gathering firewood in the jungle near his home. When the Indians returned to the mission, the girl who had the growth was not with them. I asked her husband about her, and he turned on me angrily. "She’s dead! You killed her!" he said.
Stunned, I protested my innocence and told him how much I thought of the girl. But the man retorted, "You white men killed her with the whip! The whip drove the spirits into her! But I got even; I killed the first white person I met after she died!" A small boy had paid for our ignorance of their fear of blows on the body.
Perhaps the most trying time I ever had with them was when two groups living at the mission tried to massacre each other. I talked them out of it only with great effort and personal danger. I separated the groups and cared for them inseparate camps eighteen miles apart. A love ‘ triangle caused the conflict. The father of one of the girls was a witch doctor; he had put a curse on the entire family of her competitor. When -news of the curse reached this family, they decided to kill the witch doctor and his followers before the curse had time to take effect.
At the beginning of my ministry among them much of what I tried to teach them was meaningless because I was too negative. I didn’t relate my teaching to their beliefs and practices.
I started to teach them as soon as I knew enough of the language to put the words together. It must have seemed to them that I was against everything. The witch doctors and chiefs smoked a lot during their ceremonies and I was against this. When they said the bird god was responsible for the death of a man, I ridiculed them by asking how such a small bird could kill such a strong man. This brought a reaction, but not what I wanted! They shook their fingers in my face and said, "You might know the birds where you come from, but you don’t know our birds!"
I was against murder and adultery, the burying alive of their babies, and a host of other things I simply called "sins." Many of the Indians were always angry with me because I seemed to be against everything they did. I never gave a more coherent reason than, "Dupade chetaque" (God doesn’t like it.").
When I told them about the Gospel remedy for sin and urged them to trust in the Lord Jesus who died for their sins, they stoutly maintained they were not sinners. White people who killed them were bad. Enemy groups who put a curse on them were bad. But they were not.
Gradually I realized it was useless to ridicule their bird god unless I offered something positive in its place; the bird god did have power over them-Satanic power! Comai, one of the first young men to leave the bird worship, told me one day about a discussion he had with an old woman of the tribe. She had warned him, "Comai, watch out! You have left the religion of our people! Something terrible will happen to you!" Less than an hour later a rattlesnake attacked Comai as he walked down the path to the river. He narrowly escaped, but had he been bitten, and the prophecy of the old woman fulfilled, the Gospel would have been set back immeasureably. I don’t believe the snake’s attack was an accident.
I changed my approach regarding their bird god. I told them, I feel so sorry for you, kept under the control of such a cruel and powerful god! But I come to you in the name of a more powerful God! He made all things-in fact, he even made the bird you worship! If you will leave the bird and worship Him, He is able to protect you from the wrath of the bird!"
Medicine provided a ready opportunity to show the power of God. Of ten when the witch doctors couldn’t cure someone, they abandoned the patient or buried him alive, saying this was the bird god’s work and the case was hopeless anyway. In these cases whenever I could I prayed aloud in their language over the patient, asking God to heal and to show his power. With miracle drugs and prayer I healed many people. Medicine helped me to break down the fear of spirits and to bring people to faith in God.
As I mentioned before, I opposed their use of tobacco and often argued with them about it. Then I realized that only the chiefs and leaders of the tribe smoked, and only in their ceremonial and council meetings. They treated the pipe with great respect and reverence; it was a sacred object. They called tobacco Sidi. Sidi, they told me, was the greatest, the wisest ‘ and the strongest chief who ever lived in Ayoreland. When he left this earth he turned his power over to the tobacco plant, and now his wisdom, power, and strength were available to anyone who smoked the leaves of the plant and swallowed the smoke.
With this in mind, I sawthat there was no connection between smoking in their culture and in ours. I didn’t want to break down the chain of command in the tribe or I would have had complete anarchy on my hands. The chiefs couldn’t rule without the pipe, it was so ingrained in their life and thought. I stopped opposing smoking by the leaders who weren’t Christians. With those who were, I dealt more positively, pointing out that their bodies were now the temples of the Holy Spirit, and His wisdom, power, and strength were now available to them. I warned them that the Bolivian church frowned on smoking.
One day Comai came to me, deeply troubled. "Don Guillermo (Bill)," he began, "my father-in-law wants to retire from the chieftaincy, and the tribe wants to elect me in his place!"
This was a great honor for a man so young and I told him I was glad for the confidence and respect his people showed him. Then I asked if he felt he could accept the position without compromising his testimony for Christ. "No," he replied slowly, "and I am going to tell them I can’t be their chief for that reason."
A few years later the elders again approached Comai and offered him the chieftaincy. This time they added, "As our chief you don’t need to use the pipe and Sidi! We want you to be our leader so that you can help us in our dealings with the white men. No one in the tribe understands Spanish as well as you. That is what we need most!"
I told the Indians about God’s law against adultery and murder, but the bird god never dealt with these things. Nothing in their culture connected religion and morals. They kept certain taboos and regulations rather than offend the delicate sensibilities of their bird god. They constantly murdered people, but justified it by saying they only killed white men who would kill them first if they could, or Indians who had put a curse on them. They justified adultery by certain tribal social laws that governed sexual relations.
If murder and adultery were not sins to them, selfishness and anger were. Anyone who refused to share what he had with others, or who raised his voice in anger, disrupted the tribe’s harmony and life.
There were a few dried-up oranges on a tree in my yard and I wanted them for my children, so I warned the Indians not to touch them. But some boys took them and I gave them a good tongue-lashing. The Indians were shocked: this man preaching against adultery and murder, but was selfish and angry! Who could understand his strange ways and his God? This didn’t change the sinfulness of murder and adultery, but it did change my own conduct. Through these and other similar experiences 1 learned that the life of the preacher and the spirit and understanding of his preaching are all-important to the acceptance of the Gospel.
WHERE SHALL WE BEGIN?
With animistic tribes like the Ayores it isn’t hard to deal with spiritual concepts; the Indians are more "spiritual" than most of us. I’m not referring to the Holy Spirit but to the spirit or unseen world. Spirit beings, life after death, the unseen world-all are concepts they are familiar with and deal with every day. When we present the truth in the context of what they already believe, they readily accept -the Gospel.
Language is a big problem. If there are no bilingual Indians in the tribe to act as interpreters, you have to spend long months and years before you can effectively bring the Gospel story to them. The Indians learn scattered words and phrases of the trade language in their area, but not enough to grasp the truths of the Gospel and to grow in the things of God. The missionary can’t understand their subtle feelings and beliefs until he knows their language well. Once he masters it, Genesis rather than the New Testament forms the basis for his first teaching. Primitive tribes have no Christian or theological background; it is senseless to begin with the death, burial,and resurrection of Jesus Christ. "Who is Jesus?" they asked. They must know something of the Father before you can introduce them to His Son.
Since the Ayores were so spirit conscious, I didn’t anticipate difficulty arriving at the right word or concept for God. But I ran into problems. Obviously, I couldn’t use the bird god, Asona, to portray God; Asona was vengeful and cruel. You couldn’t follow through and say that Asona had a son and so on. The Spanish word for God, dios, wouldn’t do; it meant beginning from a complete unknown and trying to fill this new word with all of the attributes of God.
Finally the word dupade came to light. I heard them use it one afternoon after a successful hunt. When I asked them who Dupade was, they said he lived in the sky, but no one knew anything about him. On special occasions, when they were hungry and shouted to him in ‘ the forest, he helped them find food. If Dupade proved to be wicked or licentious, I couldn’t say he was the God I had come to tell them about. But he proved to be neutral and completely unknown, so I was convinced that this was the word I had been searching for. Then I told the Ayores that I knew Dupade; he was the one who had sent me to them. He had written a book, the Bible, and had sent His Son into the world to suffer and die for all men.
When I told them that all things had been created by Dupade, they lost much of their belief and fear in the animals and inanimate objects of the forest. If God were the creator of these things, surely He must be more powerful than His creation; perhaps it would be safe to trust the creator rather than fear the creatures!
Tribes with no written language pass on their history by telling stories, so they accept the missionary as a story teller. They grasp this type of teaching more easily than doctrinal or textual teaching; you can teach them almost the entire range of doctrinal truth by using Bible stories of both the Old and New Testaments. Unless you dwell on the law quite extensively, the Indians will insist they don’t need the Gospel. "By the law is the knowledge of sin." You must hurt their consciences with the law before you can heal them with the Gospel.
TEACH CHRIST, NOT CULTURE
Watch out for teaching culture rather than Christ. It’s hard to separate the Gospel from the trappings of our Western culture. We must not simply transplant our home churches on the mission field. They won’t grow in that soil. But if we set the Word of God free, it will purify a sinful culture and build up a church of believers.
We often associate clothes and cleanliness with being a Christian. Most of the Ayore Christians now wear clothes, but I taught them this for physical and social reasons, not because clothes made them any more acceptable to God. I had to be careful not to inject legalism and Pharisaism into their understanding of the Word of God. Had I made a shirt a prerequisite for attending church, some Ayores would have equated clothing with the grace of God as a means of salvation; they would have become spiritually proud if they had a shirt and their neighbor didn’t.
You must show real love, understanding, and patience toward the believers as you try to help them grow into mature, strong Christians. At times I was tempted to be critical of my brethren among the Ayores, even doubting that they were born again, when they reverted to old pagan customs during times of testing. Comai, one of the strongest and most faithful believers, has been greatly used in teaching and helping his own people. However, when his baby died Comai cut his forehead with his ax and burned his arms with a live coal from the fire.
How could he do such things? He went back to what he had done as an unbeliever. Backsliding with me might bring failure to read the Word of God and pray, a doubting of God, a critical spirit, anger-a return to the things of my old nature. Comai in his sorrowslipped back to -the things that were formerly natural to him. My responsibility was not to judge him, but to help him bear his burden and restore him to fellowship with his Lord.
Someone has said, "There are few problems but many dangers in pioneer work. The problems come with the second with authority on the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith in the face of shifting theological positions. E. M. Blaiklock of New Zealand says, "If we are to fulfill our function, conservatism must be informed conservatism. Orthodoxy should be something more than a mere emotional attitude. It must be the stand of an educated Christian . . . . Informed conservatism believes that no truth can be alien to the Word of Truth, and no honest scholarship can harm the faith." Sanctified scholarship is one of God’s best gifts to the church.
3. We need sound pulpiteers. Our pulpits are occupied by men who are at the mercy of commentators. The pastor must be able to dig deep into the Scriptures with his own tools. How can we preach the whole counsel of God if we by-pass portions of Scripture because we don’t have the tools to soundly interpret them? Methods and tools are obtained and sharpened in higher theological training.
4. Highly educated laymen are emerging in the church. Many laymen have gone abroad for further studies and they have obtained higher degrees in their professions. College students attend our churches.
Because evangelicals have established only Bible schools, they can provide only Bible school graduates. I became pastor of a highly-sophisticated church in Cebu City, Philippines, when I was twenty-six. Some of the members were not ordinary people. We had the former governor of the province, the commander of the third military area, the superintendent of schools for the province, business executives, university professors, lawyers, and college and university students. I had troubles. I blamed the people for their lack of spirituality. As I look back, I must share the blame. I was young, inexperienced, immature, and lacked the essential sanctified diplomacy. I lost something I will not be able to regain.
My own experience can be multiplied throughout the mission fields. Well-meaning missionaries blame themselves for failing to properly train young Bible school graduates. Some condemn the nationals for being incapable of spiritual maturity. Some of these failures are not due to the failure of the missionaries, or to the incapability of the nationals, but to the methods used. We thrust Bible school graduates into places of prominence and leadership when they are too young, immature, and inexperienced.
5. College graduates are looking for theological education on the graduate level. They do not want to go into full-time Christian service; they just want to have formal theological training to further equip them for lay leadership. They feel out of place in a Bible school.
With all these reasons for an up-graded theological education program, why are missionaries and national leaders apprehensive? They fear the loss of evangelistic and missionary passion. They believe scholarship and soul-winning don’t mix.
We have to admit that there are built-in dangers in a seminary program. The constant pressure to pursue academic excellence often brings unconscious neglect of the devotional life and active Christian service. Seminary students tend to be critical of almost everything. But I am convinced that these dangers can be avoided if the seminary leadership is spiritually sensitive and the faculty demonstrates the happy combination of godly piety, evangelistic activity and thorough scholarship. The philosophy of a seminary vitally influences the emphasis of the faculty and the attitude of the students. If a seminary aims to produce fruitful ministers of the word of God, then appropriate emphasis on prayer, evangelism, holy living and right relationships will be made along with the disciplines of scholarship.
SHOULD BIBLE SCHOOLS GO?
Should seminaries replace Bible schools? Should we continue the Bible school program without the seminary? Could there be a happy compromise by turning Bible schools into Bible colleges so that young people will be adequately prepared for graduate theological studies?
Bible school advocates should not feel threatened by the demands for higher theological training. God raised up the Bible institute movement when liberal scholarship almost obliterated biblical missionary vision and ministry. Most of the missionaries who direct the missionary -outposts of the world are products of the Bible institute movement. Wesley A. Olsen says: "Authoritative missionary statistics substantiate the fact that even today the majority of missionaries on the field had some of their training at Bible institutes and Bible colleges. The battles won by Bible institute graduates were not won in one generation." I’ve learned the truth of this. After fifteen years with the missionaries, the Ayores seldom speak of their old gods. No longer do they threaten my life when I step on cultural toes. They don’t blame me for the deaths of their people. But all of the vices of civilization-materialism, alcoholism, prostitution-cause far more difficult problems to deal with.
Paul counted "the care of all the churches" a greater trial than beatings, shipwreck, and hunger. Many of us, working to bring primitive animists into the twentieth century, would certainly agree.
Copyright © 1967 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.