Word of God, word of mouth

Oralidad teaches Peruvian leaders to spread a spoken gospel

A Shipibo leader makes a house visit to tell Bible stories to two Shipibo women recently.

DVDs? Nope. iPads? Hardly.

Even in this hyper-digitized world, Abelardo Vasquez Lopez is using a tool as old as communication itself to share the gospel in eastern Peru.

Vasquez, 39, is a pastor from the Shipibo tribe, a group of about 40,000 native Peruvians who live along the banks of the Ucayali River, the headwaters of the Amazon.

Literacy is common for Shipibos, and many of their villages have public schools. But oral storytelling remains the Shipibos’ preferred method of passing along their history and way of life to the next generation. That’s why the Oralidad (Orality) Project started here.

Start with the stories

Vasquez is one of about 80 students who have participated in the Oralidad program over the past seven years. The students – mostly Shipibo pastors and leaders — start the course by memorizing 50 Bible stories that they can retell verbatim. The stories include:

  • Creation
  • The Fall
  • The Flood
  • Elijah and the prophets of Baal
  • Jesus feeding the 5,000
  • Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection
  • Pentecost

Memorizing those 50 key stories is the first step in a four-year program of intensive Bible training launched in 2008 by the Evangelical Missionary Church of Pucallpa, Peru, working in partnership with ReachGlobal missionaries Blair and Joan McGwire. Classes are taught in Spanish by a team from the church led by Ruth Hidalgo. The Shipibo people have their own language of the same name, but most also speak Spanish, the national language of Peru.

Take it to the people

The Shipibos live in villages of 200 to 300 people along the Ucayali River. People here make a subsistence living mainly from fishing, hunting and raising crops such as plantains, corn and papayas. Many also work as artists who sell their work in the larger regional cities of Pucallpa and Iquitos

Stepping out of your boat and walking up Main Street in a typical Shipibo village, you soon arrive at a large quad in the middle of town dominated by a soccer field in the center, with a government school standing on one side. Women sit sewing and talking in small houses with palm-branch roofs. No plumbing or electricity here — the only poles you see are the ones the houses are built on.

The partnership has been using the program to train leaders from the 60 different Shipibo villages visited over the past 10 years by short-term mission teams from the United States that had provided services such as medical clinics and water filters. As a result of those trips, many Shipibo people put their faith in Jesus. Requests for help in starting churches followed soon after.

“So we say in order to have a church, you need to have leaders, you need to have a pastor,” Blair McGwire says. “We’re not going to stay and do it. We’re going to more villages. And so then we have men who step forward, and they join the Oralidad Program.”

Of the 80 students who have taken at least some of the four-year course, 13 have graduated. About 30 students are enrolled now. The program takes place every two months as Oralidad students, new and old, come together to memorize the stories.

Memorizing the stories enables students to tell them anywhere – from the pulpit of a church, sitting around with friends at a village community center or underneath a mango tree, or just chatting in a hut with family members.

The Oralidad training program’s ultimate goal is to spread the Gospel throughout the Amazon region.

“What excites me about it is that it gives the indigenous guys the tools that they need to reach their own people,” McGwire says. “Our job has been, and will continue to be to get the ball rolling; but we need them to keep it rolling. The Oralidad Program — and all the training that they receive — enables that to take place. Our role will continue to be to encourage these guys and move on to new areas.”

Panoramic Plan

Last year, McGwire invited Florida pastor Slayden MacGregor to participate in the program. Rather than stick to the usual training material, MacGregor supplemented it with a weeklong course called “The Panoramic Study of God’s Plan.” The study’s goal: help students understand God’s purpose as it develops through scripture. It essentially synthesizes the entire Bible into one course.

Vasquez says the course was well received at a recent Oralidad training session. He calls the course impactful, increasing his knowledge and therefore his ability to teach others about the plan of God. The material from the course was new for a lot of the Shipibo pastors.

“They were very surprised by the teachings and explanations that were given since they were new for them,” Vasquez says. “They were left with the desire that this topic could be covered in a form even deeper in order to remember it and grow it.”
Vasquez thinks the course is important for Shipibo pastors because as they learn the plan of God, they can remember God’s purpose for themselves. He believes he has seen God’s hand at work through the continued interest of the Shipibos to study and learn.

“They were left challenged to share with others in their churches and towns,” he says.

Pray for Oralidad

Vasquez asks for prayer. “Personally, I would like to dedicate more time to the work of God and that all my countrymen would listen and know the Word. I ask for your prayers that this longing would be realized.”

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