Upriver to Reach the Unreached

Photos and story by Dick R., Wisconsin

Nueva Italia resembles nothing so much as a classic frontier town from a B-grade Western movie. It lies on a wide spot in the Ucayali River, three days by slow boat upriver from the city of Pucallpa, Peru. There is no other way to get here. When you arrive, you feel that, if you have not reached the end of the earth, at least you have come to its jumping-off point.

Pulling into port – a muddy riverbank, really – your senses are assaulted by the bright heat of the sun in this Amazonia community, by the shouts of stevedores (dockworkers) and the rumble of diesel tractors loading giant hardwood logs onto barges. The barges are attended by tramp trawlers waiting to carry the precious cargo of wood downstream, where it will be transformed into exotic polished woods for distant expensive markets. Smaller logs are simply pushed into the water, tied together to make rafts on which the workers live for a week or more as the river carries them to Pucallpa.

Young girls walk down the dusty streets in their gray-skirt-and-white-blouse school uniforms, giggling and whispering. As they pass, they greet you politely, “buenos días” (good morning). But there is little else that seems polite about this community.

The main business in Nueva Italia is logging the jungle, clearing enormous tracts of land far into the forest’s interior, and somehow, without discernible roads, transporting the big logs to massive muddy yards of wood. Houses are tin and thatched-roof ramshackle, a thin veneer of civilization in the chaos.

A bodega on the corner will sell you almost anything for three times the price of Pucallpa’s stores. One telephone services the entire town; a few moto-taxis ply the streets; occasionally a small motorbike will pass carrying a family – father, mother and small children pressed tightly together.

On a mission

We walk slowly, our small band of five – Rosa, a businesswoman from Lima, Peru; Jairo, a pastor and farmer from another village; Abelardo, a Shipibo pastor and orality teacher; Cecilio, a Shipibo church leader and student; and myself. The mid-morning heat is oppressive. The only church in town is abandoned and derelict, its paint peeling and wood rotting. Vegetation chokes the walls and fast-growing saplings push through the rotted roof.

We ask for the house of Maria Paola (name changed). Her father had brought the 16-year-old girl to our boat, the Evangelista II – with its mixed team of medical practitioners from the U.S., church leaders and volunteers from Pucallpa and Lima, and the Shipibo Bible students who live in villages on the river – for medical attention the day before.

Both Rosa and my wife, Ruth, discern in conversation that, while Maria Paola may have some physical and emotional afflictions, she seems to be spiritually oppressed as well. In talking with her father, he admitted taking her to the brujos – practicing witches – when medical help seemed to make no difference in her behavior.

We decide to make our way back to Nueva Italia, seek out Maria Paola, and pray for her deliverance from the demons that seem to hold sway in her life.

We had read the relevant Bible passages. From Ephesians, we read how Christ, raised from death and seated on the throne of heaven, defeated the principalities and powers and had them placed under His feet. We, as followers of Jesus, are also raised to new life in Christ and seated at his right hand. This morning, we fasted and prayed through breakfast.

Confronting the darkness

Finally, as we walk around the village, we are told that the family lives just next door. Her father is a shopkeeper; the house is small, dominated by a small store selling Coke, Inka Cola and Guarana. He recognizes Rosa at once and welcomes us into his home.

Maria Paola is just inside, on her bed. There is no door, only a curtain. The room is tiny. Her mother ushers us in, and we crowd single-file against the bed. She is frightened at first, anxious, reluctant to talk; but she recognizes Rosa and allows us to stay.

She looks like a wild-child, emaciated and sitting forlornly cross-legged on her make-shift bed, her long black hair unkempt, dark darting eyes wild, words almost inaudible, and both hands in constant motion, snapping her fingers as if to push away any conversation directed her way.

Rosa introduces our team, and engages Maria Paola simply, asking her name, and whether she knows Jesus. She says “sí” (yes). But her behavior belies her answer. Rosa asks for permission to pray with her; Maria Paola is uncertain. But we begin to pray, Rosa and Jairo in Spanish; I in English; Abelardo and Cecilio in Shipibo.

We invoke the powerful name of Jesus. We pray for the healing presence of the Holy Spirit. We command the spirits who are present to flee. Maria Paola squirms anxiously. She snaps her fingers when Jesus’ name and power are invoked, as if to push Him away from her.

Claiming victory

The heat in the tiny room is oppressive, and sweat pours down my hands and fingers onto the open pages of my New Testament.

I take Maria Paola’s hands in mine so she cannot deflect our prayers. She struggles for a moment, but then relents. When I relax my grip, she begins again to snap her fingers. I bend down, my forehead pressed against my hand which holds hers on top of my New Testament. I pray fervently for God’s mercy and Jesus’ healing touch. Maria Paola begins to relax, and her head finally sags against my shoulder.

We pray for what seems an eternity; perhaps it is only minutes or maybe it is an hour. Maria Paola is quiet. Rosa asks her if she can say “Jesús es el Señor” (Jesus is Lord) in her life. Maria Paola agrees.

She smiles at us, her eyes are clear, her demeanor calm. We leave her with a Bible, highlighting the passages that will remind her that Christ has defeated the spiritual forces of evil and rescued her from the power of darkness.

As we leave, her father thanks us, presenting us with the only gift he has, a bottle of warm soda for each. Maria Paola emerges from her room, gives Jairo a shy kiss of thanks. For a moment, the light has shined in the darkness.

* * * * *



  • For Maria Paola and her family — that they would continue to see transformation and freedom in Christ.
  • For continued opportunities to reach the unreached along the Ucayali River.

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