Friday, June 10, 2005
Missionaries have a bad rap. Ask your average person and they picture someone like John Lithgow in At Play in the Fields of the Lord. I thought I'd offer an alternative to this negative view of missionaries that is so prevelant in the media and even modern textbooks.
I don't pretend to be an expert on evangelism through the ages and in all nations. Obvious there have been many dark chapters in Christion missions. What I hope to present are examples of what happens when the Gospel is shared the way I believe God intended.
I'll start with Bruce Olsen who is one of my all time heroes. I won't pretend to be objective for reason that will eventually become transparent. Here is a short description of his work:
Since 1961, missionary Bruce Olson has labored for the gospel of Jesus Christ among the Motilone Indians deep in the jungles of Colombia's high Catatumbo region. But today Olson's most exciting missionary work still lies ahead.
In the past thirty years, Olson has founded bilingual schools, medical clinics and agricultural centers among the Motilones. His Christ-like humility and work of service to the Motilones has earned him the status of a tribal member. Indian chiefs throughout the region representing 50 tribes and half a million tribe members look to Olson with great awe and respect. He has become a friend of five Colombian presidents; has spoken before the United Nations; and has received educational awards from the Colombian government. Although he completed college only through correspondence schools, his work on translating the Scriptures into the native Indian dialects has earned him honor among linguistics scholars.
Nineteen-year-old Olson first travelled to South America with only a one-way plane ticket and $70 in his pocket. A young person with a deep burden for Colombia's hidden people, Olson set out in in search of the Motilones: a fierce, primitive tribe that no white man had ever encountered and lived. Olson's adventures in Colombia brought him face to face with the Motilones when he was shot through the leg with a three foot arrow. He was brought as a prisoner to their camp to recover. "Bruchko" - the name the Indians gave him (the Motilones were not able to pronounce Bruce Olson) - eventually won over the hearts of these tribal people. Today the Motilones are almost universally converted to Christ.
Three years ago, Bruce Olson was kidnapped in the mountain jungles of Colombia and detained for nine months as a political prisoner by communist guerillas. Hoping to win him as a valuable communist leader, the communists attempted to indoctrinate him through daily political dialogues. "Papa Bruchko" - as they called him - became a source of fascination among the young recruits in training. Many of them began to join Olson in prayer and Bible study. As many as 60 communist guerillas eventually gave their lives to Christ. His refusal to join ranks with the communists earned him death threats and he narrowly escaped execution by a firing squad.
Fearing the reprisal of a united war effort of 50 jungle tribes, the guerilla leaders released Olson in the summer of 1989. The Indian tribes of Colombia had united against the guerillas in a war-pledge to defend Olson's cause if he was executed. The unity of the Indian tribes behind one white man was unprecedented in Colombia's history.
After his release, Olson found that he had become a national hero in Colombia. In the major cities, articles demanding Olson's release had appeared almost daily in the newspapers. Olson's courageous stance against the guerillas was one of the key factors which inspired the common citizens of Colombia to take a bolder, tougher stance against the drug cartels.
From the United States to the Amazon and from the African plains to the Australian outback, indigenous people are being systematically pushed off their homelands -- and robbed of all they possess. Yet Bruce Olsson and the Motilones have managed to preserve 95 present of their traditional land in Colombia -- 83,000 hectares.
The Motilone are the only indigenous people know to have made the transition from an aboriginal lifestyle to modernity, and such contact is usually fatal to a tribal culture. The following passage from Bruce's website written by an admiring journalist and fellow missionary gives you the scope of what God has achieved.
And they have developed [twenty-six] tribal centers on their reservation, each about a day's walk from on to the other. [Forty-two] graduate nurses staff each center's clinic. Vaccination and preventive medicine programs have almost controlled TB and measles epidemics -- a perennial problem among indigenous peoples.
The Motilone population, estimated at forty-five thousand at the turn of the century, was down to a low of three thousand when Bruce arrived. Now the tribe is growing again -- and estimated at about five thousand people.
Bruce has also promoted a cooperative of the Motilone people in the river valley. The cooperative has five goals: developing tropical agriculture, managing a farm store, providing medicine for the Motilone clinics, supporting the [twenty] bilingual schools established in the area, and providing necessary advocacy with the government to protect tribal rights.
The cooperative brings together [two hundred] Motilone families and [sixty] Colombian farm families who also live in the area. The cooperative has created a bridge between these once warring factions. And it has allowed them to be not only self governing but more equitable in their local business transactions.
The co-op's main cash crop is cacao [chocolate]. A few years ago, Bruce began some grafting and developed a hybrid which doubles the size -- and value -- of the native bean. This provides the tribe with necessary income for purchasing selected modern products.
Currently, the tribe has [five] hundred students studying in its own bilingual grade schools. Another [forty] students, all on scholarships, live in Bucaramanga and attend secondary schools and university.
The advanced students spend their vacations at home, catching up on the skills and ways of their tribe, which they miss by being outside the tribe so much. The wisdom of this is readily apparent. The tribe needs lawyers, nurses, and doctors to act as buffers against those who covet its land. Yet the Motilones would never respect a male member who didn't know how to hunt, fish, and run. Nor would they respect a female member who didn't know how to weave, garden, and prepare the traditional foods.
I recommend at least visiting Bruce's website, or better yet, finding his book to get a full sense of the magical-realismic quality of his story. Hopefully this exerpt from the article "Hostage!" on his site will give you a taste. It relates the low point of his captivity with the ELN terrorists suffering from a painful illness that surpassed anything he had previously experienced:
Then an absolutely amazing thing happened: A bird known in Colombia as the mirla began to sing. I looked up and saw the full moon pouring down through the thick jungle vegetation and felt, inexplicably, that it was shining for me. The mirla's song was the most hauntingly beautiful sound I'd ever heard. As I listened, I wondered why it seemed so familiar, why it soothed me so deeply .
The bird's song soared through the damp, moonlit air as I clung to consciousness.
The music was incredibly complex, set in a minor key. The notes never repeated; they reminded me more and more of something achingly familiar, something comforting -- but I just couldn't put my finger on it. An ancient Aramaic chant -- was that it? Yes, it was reminiscent of that -- but why did it make me think of the resurrection of Christ?
The familiarity puzzled me, but I had no real need to understand it. The music was the most exquisite I had ever heard; I was sure of that. It was communicating something profound to me, something I needed desperately but couldn't identify. I let the song carry me for a long time. Then I lost consciousness again.
When I came to, the bird was still singing. I wondered whether I might be hallucinating. After all, everyone knew mirlas never sing at night. And I was desperately ill, barely hanging on to life. It wouldn't be unusual to hallucinate in my condition. But what I was more intent on trying to understand was why this song -- real or imagined -- was having such an amazing, restorative effect on my spirit. I could feel myself coming back to life with each note.
Then, as the bird's song continued to penetrate the quiet night air, I knew: I knew why this song seemed so hauntingly familiar, why it spoke to me of the resurrection, why it comforted me like familiar, loving arms. The mirla was singing a Motilone minor-key tonal chant, mimicking the traditional sounds with such amazing accuracy that I could almost hear their words, could almost see my friends Kaymiyokba and Waysersera and ll the other Motilones I loved, singing the prophecies of the resurrection of Christ in the timeless Motilone way, our hammocks swaying together in the rafters of a communal home in the jungles as they had for the 28 years I'd lived among them. I could almost feel their warm, reassuring hugs.
In that moment I was lifted above my agony in a way I'll never be able to describe adequately. I didn't even care whether it was real or imagined. The Motilones were with me; I knew it now. I had not been abandoned. And I was going to survive to be with them again, because God had used the mirla's song to transfuse His lifeblood into me.
One of the guerrillas walked over to my hammock as I opened my eyes at dawn. The pain was subsiding a little.
"So," he said softly, "how did you like your personal concert last night?"
I questioned him with my eyes. "The mirla," he said. "His song kept us awake all night long. We've never heard anything like it! The boys wondered whether it was a special angel sent to sing for you. Did you hear it?"
I also have a very personal reason for my affection for "Bruchko". Before his harrowing encounter with the Motilones, Bruce spent time with their more friendly arch-enemies, the Yukos. He has set out from a small Venezuelan town called Machiques and when he met the Yukos they taught him their language but warned him against trying to find the Motilones. However after the Motilones accepted the Gospel, one of their first impulses was to make peace with their ancient rivals the Yukos, and one tribe discipled the other. The Yukos, impressed with the change in the Motilones where easily converted by their former enemies.
One thing Bruce noted about the tribal value system was that unless you were immediate family, compassion was virtually non-existent. If a neighbor fell out of a tree hunting monkeys and broke his back, the others just stepped over him. This changed among both tribes after Bruchko's arrival. Sometime in the early 70's, a little girl who live in the village of Machiques, Bruce's original departure point from civilization, was visiting a scenic mountain area where the Yukos lived on a family outing. She accidently fell into the river and was being swept away by the strong current. In an act of compassion that would have been unheard of under the old tribal system, a Yuko woman pulled the girl from the river. That little girl was my wife.
To this day thinking about that story brings tears of wonder and gratitude. Thank you Bruchko!