Many Amazon People Groups Remain Unreached

by Shawn Hendricks

Weary travelers stand alongside a river somewhere in South America's Amazon Basin. After three hours of trying to maneuver upstream by motorboat to a remote village, a group of International Mission Board missionaries grudgingly accepts the realization that the day's journey has ended.

Shallow waters, exposed rocks, tree limbs and a rough current that nearly capsized the boat won't allow the group to go any farther.

Score a victory for the Amazon.

Thousands of miles of dense jungle create a daunting "wall" for those wanting to take the gospel to this area. The only hope for some of the people groups in remote areas to hear about Jesus is through faithful Christians praying that the gospel message will reach them.

"A lot of people don't realize how big the Amazon Basin and the jungle really is," says Terry*, a Baptist missionary who leads work among indigenous peoples in portions of South America. "It covers a huge area the size of the United States," the Texas native adds. "You have massive areas where there are no airstrips, no roads. The only way to get there would perhaps be by helicopter or boat."

More than 400 people groups-roughly 26 million people-live in the Amazon Basin. Of that number, 270 people groups are less than 2 percent evangelical. About 85 of the people groups survive completely isolated, deep in the jungle.

"We know they exist," says Terry, pointing out that some of the groups have been spotted only by satellite. "We know very little about them--except they live in primitive situations. They're [understandably] suspicious of outsiders."

Access Dangerous, Prohibited

Two key factors keep these groups unreached by the gospel. The government prohibits missionaries from having access to them. And, most of these groups live in areas considered too dangerous for outsiders. Dangers include guerilla fighters, hostile tribes, poor flying conditions, crumbling or nonexistent roads and unpredictable waters.

Over the years, many missionaries have lost their lives attempting to take the gospel to these isolated peoples. One of the most well-known incidents occurred in 1956-recounted in the 2006 movie, The End of the Spear-when a group of Huaorani Indians in eastern Ecuador killed Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming and their missionary jungle pilot, Nate Saint.

But not all was lost among the Huaorani. "When [those five missionaries] died, it really raised up a host of prayer warriors [who] began to pray for the Huaorani," says Russ Bare, another missionary and Texas native who leads work among indigenous people in Ecuador.

"Today we have many Huaorani believers. There is power when God's people pray."

Penetrating the Corners of the Basin

More than 50 years later, prayer is still needed if the gospel is to penetrate the isolated corners of the Amazon Basin.

Missionaries continue to explore ways to reach Amazon peoples. One option is training local believers to go into the remote areas; another involves sharing the gospel with those who venture from their isolated villages into cities or areas along the rivers.

Some indigenous believers endure persecution to share their faith among their people. Pablo*, who leads a church among his Kogi people, works with a missionary to translate portions of the Bible into his language. Christian workers estimate there are only 100 believers among the 11,000 Kogi, who are located in remote areas of Colombia.

"The Kogi live a sad life," Pablo says. "It's just full of fear. They're never really at peace." The Kogi spend their lives seeking to pacify the spirits by offering payments for everything they do-whether they are cutting down trees or harvesting crops. Pablo says some of them wonder, "If I don't make this payment, what's going to happen? Will my child die if I don't make the payments correctly?"

Life for the few believers also has been difficult. Some Kogis have threatened the lives of Pablo and fellow Christians. Still, these believers continue to share the gospel among their people.

"[The Kogi] see a big difference in our life," Pablo says. "And when we tell them Jesus has paid all for us, they really like that."

Not all, however, are happy with indigenous people like the Kogi turning their lives over to Christ. Many anthropology and government organizations don't welcome change among indigenous people.

"The government a lot of times sees indigenous peoples as museum pieces-- something they can show. They are actively against indigenous peoples being educated having choices."

The only way many of them will be reached is through prayer, Terry says. "[Missionaries] have been working in South America for 150 years, andI would ask them to pray that God [will] open [these people's] hearts to understand who the one and true God is through Jesus Christ."

Baptist Press

*Names changed or last names removed for security reasons.

Shawn Hendricks is a writer for the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board.

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