HUANCANÉ, Peru– On a mountaintop overlooking the adobe homes of Huancane, Peru, there was a time when Juan Mamani poured beer at the base of a six-foot cross bearing the image of Jesus’ crucified body.
The act wasn’t an offering to Christ but to the wooden cross itself, a prelude to an all-night, booze-fueled party known as the Cruz de Mayo (Cross of May). It was also a physical manifestation of the spiritual depravity that separates Peru’s Aymara people from God.
Today, Mamani climbs that same mountain for an entirely different reason. Each week, the 60-year-old Aymaran grandfather makes the hour-and-a-half hike over its summit to Huancane where he meets with Rick and Kelly Martinez.
Rick, who hails from Miami, and Kelly, a native of Millington, Tenn., are Christian missionaries working to spread the Gospel and plant churches among the Aymara. Two years ago, the Lord used their witness to lead Mamani to Jesus Christ. Now Rick is discipling him to take the Good News to his own people.
With Mamani’s help, the Martinezes have launched three new Baptist church plants in the past three years, one of which Mamani pastors. It’s a good start, but only a beginning for the Gospel here.
Roughly 80,000 Aymara live in the two provinces surrounding the city of Huancane, divided among some 700 villages that dot the high plains of the Peruvian Andes. In this harsh, remote environment there are fewer than 40 evangelical churches, except for the Martinezes’ church plants. But unlike many of the world’s more than 6,000 unreached people groups, the Aymara have had plenty of opportunities to hear the Good News.
“Everybody here has heard about Jesus – everybody,” Rick says, explaining that Catholic missionaries first brought the Gospel to Peru more than 400 years ago. But instead of fully embracing Christianity, the Aymara simply blended it with their faith in spirits and nature. The result was folk-Catholicism that revered both God and natural “spirits” – not saving faith in Jesus Christ.
“At first glimpse, we’re not offering them anything new,” Rick says. “Religion is [the problem for] these people. They have the knowledge, but they don’t have the relationship. They don’t love Jesus.”
Rick points to the Cruz de Mayo as an example. The festival’s roots began with the ancient Aymarans who ascended Mount Pocopaca in order to worship the “spirit” they believed dwelled within it. Today, the hybridized version of the festival still revolves around the mountain but also incorporates Mass, a blessing by the local Catholic priest and a procession that follows the “stations of the cross.”
“You have elements of Christianity, and yet, that cross really represents the mountain spirit,” Rick says. “It’s what they did before Catholicism – they just slapped a cross on it.”
In order to lead the Aymara to genuine faith, Rick and Kelly believe they must separate the worship of creation from the Creator by presenting an undiluted Gospel message. Simple Bible studies coupled with the “JESUS” film are their primary tools for evangelism. The idea is to start Bible studies in dozens of Aymara villages. As the groups grow and mature, they simultaneously lay the groundwork for new churches.
“You have to chip away at their worldview and replace it with truth,” Rick says. “It’s a slow process.”
It isn’t easy, either. Though the Martinezes have seen some success, the Aymaras’ resistance to the Gospel usually has more to do with lifestyle than theology.
“There is no Culture here, no outlet,” Rick explains. “The one time that the Aymara people have to let loose is during these religious festivals, which are basically big drunken parties.”
But once the parties are over, most Aymara return to a life few would envy. There are no jobs, so most families eke out an existence growing potatoes and raising sheep. Peru’s climate makes farming especially difficult. At 12,500 feet, the air is thin and dry. Intense sunlight scorches the rocky soil by day while temperatures dip well below freezing at night. Homes have no heat, electricity or running water. What little money families manage to earn is saved to buy alcohol for future festivals.
This is why it’s hard for so many Aymara to surrender their lives to Christ. Asking them to follow Jesus is asking them to give up what they perceive as their only escape from the drudgery that consumes daily life.
“It’s almost like saying we would have to give up Christmas,” Kelly says. “And I don’t even think that equates.”
Despite the festivals’ spiritually and physically destructive nature, Rick and Kelly don’t go around wagging their fingers.
“I believe my job as a missionary isn’t to tell these people how to live,” Rick says. “My job is to teach them the truth and allow them to come to the conviction that the things they’re doing aren’t right.”
Kelly adds, “We depend upon the Lord to open their eyes so they’ll see a relationship with Christ is the most important thing.”
Copyright 2008, SBC, Baptist Press, www.BPNews.net.