Posted by: trevormeers | July 15, 2010

Elvis of the Andes

(The latest in a series of reports from a recent missions trip to Peru. 12 days, 21 Gringos, 7,800 Bibles distributed. Plenty of stories.)

If 21 kids simultaneously hit a baseball through the neighbor lady’s window, it would look like this. Our line of trekkers strung itself like stolen beads across the plowed hillside, some of us staring at the little house in the valley, but most looking intently at our toes. Our native guide—perhaps a veteran of leading people on such ill-advised routes—was high-tailing it across the valley, apparently abandoning us to our fate.

Pushpi sports a foam tie to grab the kids' attention as he shares the Gospel at a school assembly.

The field’s owner, a squat lady in the traditional colored skirts and high hat of Peru’s Quechua women, stood outside her adobe doorway, unreeling a line of mountain invective at the clueless gringos caught crossing her field. Even in normal conversation, the Quechua language tends to slide through the American ear about as easily as Cantonese. It’s heavy on vowels and delivered with stabbing emphasis on seemingly every word. When a Quechua speaker starts bringing the wrath at someone walking through her new crop, the language becomes a verbal saw blade.

As we withered under the woman’s blasts, the man in the red dress shirt, sweater vest and slacks swooped in from the right like a fighter escort saving a flailing bomber. He sauntered into the woman’s yard and began talking in a voice we couldn’t hear. Her protests evaporated into the air as he kept chatting, and we slunk by in a line, acting like we couldn’t take our eyes off something somewhere off in the distance. By the time the last trekker passed the adobe, the woman was smiling, waving and cupping a copy of the Gospel of John in her hand.

Angry Landowner, meet the Elvis of the Andes. He probably didn’t have to say anything all that diplomatic, since his high voice is the most famous one in the Cordillera Blanca and Negra mountains and the sweeping valley in between, thanks to his radio show. When he enters any village in these hills and starts talking, people say “Pushpi!” and gather ‘round.

Pushpi is the most famous preacher I’ve ever met, but on most of our trek, you could barely distinguish him from the hired hands heating our water for meals and tying the burros to their pegs each evening. You’d see him holding a sapling to help gringos cross a glacial stream. He oversaw the construction of a stone oven to cook a freshly slaughtered sheep. He stood at trail junctions like a crossing guard to keep people from wandering into the Andean underbrush. While we prepared for dinner, Pushpi’s voice echoed from somewhere up in the hills, sounding through a bullhorn as he walked the villages announcing the night’s showing of The Jesus Film.

But most memorably, Pushpi preached. His stages were concrete slabs in school yards and hard-packed soccer fields. When he stood in the cold each night, laying out the Gospel after The Jesus Film, he spoke in the glare of a single light bulb held aloft by one of his apprentices. We gringos waited in the darkness to hand out Bibles, and although we couldn’t understand his words, we began to pick up his pacing, waiting for the moment each night when he tapped the microphone to represent a beating heart. When Pushpi took the stage at the public school in every town we passed, he held his Quechua New Testament out to the kids, explaining the life-changing power of its contents and shushing them if they weren’t listening closely enough.

At the end of the evening services and school gatherings, we saw how Pushpi’s Elvis nickname arose. The one-man band who followed our camp struck up his goat-skin drum and pipe, and Pushpi began singing about “Jesu Cristo.” Feeling the music, he’d shuffle forward and back, then step smartly back and forth across the stage. At the first school, he grabbed red-and-white streamers and waved them across the stage. He dragged the school’s principal into the routine, and the kids roared. The songs seemed to last forever and all sound the same to us, but Pushpi (who looks to be on the far side of 60) kept the action going long after the gringos slunk back to their campfire to warm up.

Pushpi shares the tale of the man-eating gringos as Pastor Phil interprets.

On a few nights, he joined us to tell stories that his old friend Pastor Phil translated into English. Beginning nearly every sentence with “Entonces… (the Spanish version of “So then…”) Pushpi spoke of his burden for the Quechua people and his history with gringo missionaries. He eventually rolled out his go-to tale for visiting Americans. The one about how the Quechua people believed as recently as about 1990 that every gringo was out to kill as many Quechuas as he could. (If that sounds paranoid, read up on the conquistadors; you’ll get it.) Pushpi told us how an American missionary invited him to spent the night at his house in Peru. Fearing a faux pas more than death, Pushpi accepted—convinced he was going to be killed in his sleep. Sentence by sentence, Phil relayed Pushpi’s tale of stacking furniture against his bedroom door and keeping the room’s patio door open for a quick escape.

Having lived til morning, Pushpi went to the fridge and found a Spanish sign listing the foods inside. Scanning the words, he found “carne humano”—human meat. Telling the story on this night, he laughed in the soft way familiar to everyone with a radio around here. He was still working on his Spanish back then. He eventually realized the sign actually said “carne ahumado”—smoked meat.

Pushpi looked up from the fire, gazing through the night at the canvas movie screen hanging on a soccer goal 100 yards away. Noting that Jesus was delivering the Great Commission in Quechua and about to ascend, he took his cue. Thanking us for listening, he stood up from his folding camp chair and headed for the movie screen, where his assistant waited to flip a switch for the light bulb and burn away the darkness.

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Responses

  1. You’re awesome!

    Thanks for writing down your thoughts and heart. You’re an excellent writer with excellent observation skills and discernment of the important in what seems like the normal and routine.

    It was nice trekking with you. Peace. steve

  2. I felt like I was there with you. A good story.


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