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.”

1000 Words: Acting Out The Gospel

Teens from Hershey Free Church in Pennsylvania bring the gospel to life through a skit during a two-hour evangelism program in a Shipibo village located in the Peruvian Amazon. In August, nine youth from Hershey partnered with 16 Peruvian youth to share the gospel of Christ in nine villages along the Rio Mazaray.

Photo credit: Joan M., EFCA ReachGlobal missionary to Peru

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1000 Words is a column dedicated to photos from the field — photos that capture more than words can say alone. See archives.

The First of Many

The river carried them upstream. Past the fishermen reeling in the daily catch, past the women scrubbing yesterday’s laundry, past the girls gathering the day’s water supply. As everyone went about their daily routine, they continued along the Ucayali River to the village of Ahuaypa, Peru, for something new and exciting.

In Ahuaypa, the Shipibo church members prepared for their new arrivals. They cut poles from the jungle forests and brought a blue tarp to construct a temporary kitchen outside the church. Men gathered wood for the fire. They transformed the village school into sleeping quarters. The Shipibos, a native Amazonian tribe in Peru, were ready and anxiously watched as their guests trickled in on colectivas (taxi boats) or peci-peci (motored canoes) from the river.

Fifty-five young people, ages 15-20, arrived from 10 different villages for the first ever Shipibo Christian Youth Camp in February 2011. The entire event was created, planned, and executed by the Shipibos for their own people.

From evangelism to spiritual growth

This camp was just one outcome of the partnership between the Evangelical Missionary Church of Pucallpa and Hershey Free Church (PA) that began in 2002. The members of both churches have worked together in the Amazon jungle visiting villages along a 200 mile stretch of river. They present evangelism programs, provide medical care, construct water filters, and offer training to village church leaders. New churches emerged in areas that were previously unreached by the truth of Jesus Christ, including the Ahuaypa church which did not even exist seven years ago.

Fun and learning

EFCA ReachGlobal missionaries, Blair and Joan, were privileged to take part in this first youth camp. “It was nice for us to be involved in the camp without leading it,” said Blair. “I specifically declined the invitation to teach sessions so that [the Shipibo church leaders] could take charge of the program.” They did just that, exceeding everyone’s expectations.

The camp was four full days filled with an immense amount of growth and fun for the youth. The intent of the leaders was to have discipleship-style teaching and study to strengthen the campers in their faith, focusing on Isaiah 40:31 as the theme verse:

“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (NIV)

Each day of camp they discussed a relevant area of life for these kids: Bible Study, Spiritual Growth, Marriage & Sexuality, and Alcohol & Drugs. Then they took a deep look at what God says in His Word about these things.

Blair sat on a Question & Answer panel at the end of the sessions. He said that one of the most impacting sessions for the youth was on marriage. “To be able to ask and get answers was wonderful for them,” Blair said.

Changing culture

It’s not surprising that marriage was a hot topic for these youth. In the Shipibo society, many girls are married by age 15. Their view of marriage is more like the idea of “living together” in the North American culture. Separations are common, and some men have multiple wives at the same time. The abuse level is high as men get drunk on fermented yucca plant. It was freeing for the young people to hear the vastly different approach that God intended for marriage.

The work of God’s servants and Christ’s love is penetrating through a society plagued by unfaithful abusive marriages, practicing witch doctors and an animistic religion. Where many tried to combine their knowledge of Christianity and their old animistic religion, churches with sound doctrine have risen and are shining brightly among the people.

The church in Ahuaypa, born out of the first evangelistic visit in 2005, now has the strongest congregation in the region. There are 40 regular attendees from a village of about 500 people – almost 10 percent of the village population desires to learn from the Bible. The members are actively involved in the church and have created a women’s and youth ministry also.

Amidst the Bible studies and teaching at the camp in February, there was plenty of recreation, too. Broken into four groups named Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, and Amos, the kids challenged each other in soccer, volleyball, and various relay races.

The camp climaxed with the obstacle course which stretched into the banana grove on the edge of the soccer field. As the teams began the course, torrential rains fell from the sky. The fun continued as the resulting mud made the obstacles even more challenging.

The first Shipibo Christian Youth Camp was one example of the wonderful success of the outreach along the Ucayali River. “Judging by the reaction of the youth, their leaders, and the host village, it will not be the last!” agreed Blair and Joan. Already, youth leaders from other villages expressed a desire to hold more youth camps in their villages.

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  • For the Ayuaypa village church, as well as the other villages along the Ucayali River, that God’s truth would continue to penetrate the culture, changing the lives of the people.
  • That God would bless the desire for additional youth camps, providing the leadership and resources to duplicate the event in other villages.