Posted by: trevormeers | September 25, 2010

Beneath The Southern Cross

This post shares the official report Pastor Phil Winfield of Grace Church in Des Moines asked me to write after our missions trip to Peru in July. You tend to get tagged with such duties when you spend the trip scribbling notes by the fire. This will soon be posted on beside stories from past trips, and I’m honored to contribute. The photos come from Leah Fry, an excellent photographer out of Pleasant Hill. If you need a family portrait, look her up.

This piece is admittedly long for a blog, but I hope you stick with it. The tales from previous Andes Blanket travelers helped convince me to pack off to South America to try to do some good in the world. But the real revelation of the trip, as this report shows, was that it took going to the Andes for me to realize I was going about the work Jesus gave us exactly backward.

Even the stars are different here. In the east, above the dark line of the Cordillera Negra (the “Black Mountains”), hangs the Southern Cross, a constellation invisible from the Northern Hemisphere. It is one of a dozen signs that in three days of flying, bussing, taxiing and hiking, we have finally paused in a far, far place.

Although it’s June, we’re in the middle of an Andean winter, and even though we’re 10,000 feet up, the only snow is more than two vertical miles above us on the flanks of 22,200-foot Huascaran, Peru’s highest peak.

I instinctively touch the first passport of my life to make sure it hasn’t fallen out of the pouch around my neck (a habit it takes me two weeks to break back in America).

I lean against a wall of mud brick painted white, like scenery from an old Clint Eastwood Western. Townspeople sit before me in darkness, dimly lit by a film showing on a matching wall. The women and kids each form a small cone, squatting under their ponchos in the cold air, white eyes shining in dark faces beneath a hundred identical hats. The men are here, too, but they wait outside the light’s halo, watching from the shadows where village dogs growl at each other until someone throws a stone to quiet them down.

The film itself plays in a strange, intense language called Quechua, the most-spoken native language left on the planet. When villagers speak Spanish, I can pick out a few words, but Quechua is an utter mystery. (Although several of its words have reached America, including cocoa, jerky and puma.) Yet the film itself is reassuringly familiar. Shrinking into my coat against the chill, I watch a Man raise people from the dead. I see Him speaking to crowds on a seashore. I see Him nailed to a cross. The villagers watch, motionless, for almost two hours, and I wonder what they think of this story they may be hearing for the first time. Why did this Man do so much good for those He met? And why did they kill Him for it?

When the movie ends, I line up with 20 other gringos from Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Pennsylvania and stand before the villagers. While his assistant holds a single light bulb up as a stage light, a legendary local preacher named Pushpi begins to speak in Quechua. When he finishes, the head of each village family files by, and each gringo puts a leather-bound book in each hand.

I didn’t understand the film or Pushpi’s words. I can’t read the book. But they all tell the same story I learned from Flannelgraph pictures in American church basements when I was no bigger than the dirty-faced kids huddling under ponchos tonight. The Jesus Film teaches the same Gospel that I learned, that Pushpi preaches each night and that the Quechua/Spanish Bibles reveal. A Quechua farmer living on $3,000 a year if he’s lucky has little common ground with a white-collar American on a trek, but it is exactly the same story that connects us and can save us all.

Following the Ancients

In carrying that story to the people of the Cordillera Blanca (“white mountains”), I’ve come to see it as a newly vibrant gift I’m fortunate enough to help deliver. For a week, we trek along ancient trails connecting stony farm fields and villages on the mountain slopes. We draw water from irrigation canals predating the Inca empire. We walk footpaths beaten flat long before there was a United States. Every mile is Biblical imagery sprung to life. We pass people tossing wheat to separate the chaff. We see oxen laboring in the uneasy yoke of wooden plows on impossibly steep fields. We see workers drying bricks made ancient Israelite-style with straw and mud. We hear Pastor Phil Winfield, our trip leader from Iowa and former missionary to Peru, encourage us one morning by quoting Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings.”

As we move along the mountainsides, we give each person a gift (“un regalo,” as we learned to say the first day). The kids come running to get pencils, and we soon recognize the clever ones who quickly palm the pencil and ask for another. Along with the pencils, they get a Spanish Gospel of John. When we spot adults working in the fields, we go to them, wading through stalks of quinoa, jogging across plowed dirt and hopping stone fences to ensure each person in our path gets a copy of the Good News. One man accepts a copy of John, lays his plow flat and sits down to read in the dirt. I’m slow to follow our group on up the trail, and it’s not because of the uphill grind. I want to stay a little longer, watching a man so hungrily reading the Gospel, diving into it like his first meal in a very long time.

The religion that dominates these mountains is syncretism, a mash-up of Christianity and native beliefs. Dan, a linguist for Wycliffe Bible Translators, tells me that many Quechua claim to follow Christ, yet mix in prayers to mountain gods when they feel the need. Many preachers don’t even own a Bible, and preach from revelations drawn from dreams.

After a day of putting copies of God’s true revelation into people’s hands, Ryan from Iowa leads our group devotion. Many of us nod and feel our eyes grow misty behind our sunglasses when he says, “I want to spend every day like I spent yesterday.”

The Gringo Show

Each afternoon around 2 or 3, we follow switchbacks down a hillside into a new town. It’s hard to keep them straight. Every one is a collection of adobe houses with no glass in the windows, arranged wherever there’s a flat patch of ground, centered on the soccer field where we camp. Sometimes we pitch our tents on grass, but usually there’s only dirt. By the time we arrive, our group’s porters have unloaded our duffles from the pack burros and set up the canvas tent where we gather for rehydrated meals each evening.

We’ve barely dropped our backpacks before the local kids drift in. To them, gringos represent a visiting curiosity, not to mention pencils and those little red books about Jesu Christo. They stand near us, studying every task. Soon, they’re helping us set up tents and unroll sleeping pads, testing the softness by pressing with their knuckles. We take their pictures and show them the images on the back of the digital cameras, a game they’ll play for hours if you’re willing. Before supper each night, a soccer game breaks out—local kids versus gringos. Despite playing in bare feet or sandals, the kids trounce the adult visitors (including a marathoner and a guy who made it to an NFL try-out camp). Maybe it’s the altitude. Maybe it’s the chickens and burros wandering across the field. Maybe it’s growing up in a place where soccer isn’t just a thing to do, it’s the only thing to do.

After supper each night, our porters drape a sheet across a soccer goal and show The Jesus Film. We wait by the campfire until it’s over, then we tear into boxes of fancier, leather-bound Bibles and stand by Pushpi to hand them out. When we finish, we drift back to the fire, letting the native preachers Pushpi, Ade, Yepo and Rolando sing with the Quechua into the night.

On our first day in Peru, Pastor Phil made the trip’s structure clear. Although he led us here from America, this was the local pastors’ trek, not his, and certainly not ours. Gringos bring the novelty of their presence and the money needed to buy the Bibles and school supplies we hand out. But our role is purely supporting the local pastors who grew up here and know the culture outsiders can rarely penetrate. They pick the villages we visit, hire the porters, help translate the Bibles, preach the Gospel and follow up with new Quechua believers when we’re back in America.

By the middle of the trek, we begin to see that the trip’s biggest impact may not even be on the Quechua. Many of us may have come with the idea that we’d spend 12 days of our lives helping these people. But we are realizing that viewing our Peruvian experience as a 12-day event is like thinking a powerful book’s effect lasts only as long as you’re actually reading it. Just as the Peruvian pastors will keep working here long after we’re gone, God is just beginning to work on us. “God didn’t bring you down here to do a lot through you,” Pastor Phil says one night. “He brought you here to do a lot in you.”

School Days

We never feel our hearts more in His grip than in the mornings, when we visit village schools. In America, we fight to share our faith in public schools. In the Andes, principals gather their student bodies in the courtyards to stand in the mountain sunshine and hear Pushpi’s Gospel message and accept our gifts of school supplies and Bibles. While Pushpi addresses the kids, we gringos pull on foam jester hats and fill our arms with stuffed animals, toothbrushes and pencils. When we get the signal, we wade down the lines of kids, handing out the toys, the Gospels of John and the New Testaments. As I put a soft white bear into the dirty hands of each little girl the age of my own daughters, I think of the dirt houses these kids woke up in today. I want to stand with each kid, taking a hundred pictures of them with their toys and their Gospel of John. I’ve never given a gift so satisfying. But Pushpi is starting a new song on stage, so I keep moving to the end of the line.

In one village, the principal invites a few girls to come to the stage and sing for their visitors. As they sing in Quechua, they rhythmically step forward and back, the dirty hems of their yellow skirts swaying with the song. Twenty Americans hold up their cameras, catching it on video and applauding loudly at the end.

Only later does Pushpi share the girls’ lyrics with Pastor Phil, who passes the story on to us in English. It turns out they were singing of alcoholism and spousal abuse and suicide as an attractive ticket out. When the girls finished, Pushpi says, the principal was embarrassed that they sang this for the visitors, but what else do they know to sing?, he said. Then Pushpi gave the man copies of Christian songbooks and CDs for kids, offering them new songs. By Monday, the principal promised, the kids will be learning these songs and reading their new Bibles in class.

After five days of trekking, we add up the numbers. We showed The Jesus Film in five villages and visited five schools. We handed out 3,500 Spanish New Testaments, 3,900 Spanish Gospels of John, 400 Quechua/Spanish Bibles and 16 Proclaimers (electronic recordings of Scripture). We left $1,000 to help with publication of a kids’ Bible story book in Quechua.

Ade, the local coordinator of these treks, is always looking ahead to the next ministry, constantly innovating to keep up. This year, Pastor Phil was surprised to find electricity in almost every village we visited, a first in more than a decade of trekking. With radios in so many homes and so many gringos passing through, Ade says, some of the people aren’t as intrigued by our traveling shows. So he dreams up new attention-getters, like this year’s addition of a hiking musician who banged his drum and played his pipe as we walked all day, causing almost every villager to look our way and wonder what we’d be doing that night on the soccer field.

Lima’s Lights

After a shower and a night’s sleep in a Huaraz hotel, we board the bus and start the 10-hour journey back to Lima, a coastal city of 7.6 million. By mid-afternoon, we’ve traded the Andes’ startling blue skies for glimpses of the Pacific through the winter mist that perpetually drapes the coast. We spend a day in downtown Lima, eating at Burger King and drinking coffee at Starbucks between visits to the local outdoor market. The donkeys are gone, replaced by BMWs and motorcycles. We’ve returned to relatively familiar turf, but Peru has one more vivid lesson for us.

On our final day, Pastor Phil takes us on a small bus to Manchay, a sprawling slum on Lima’s edge. People with nowhere else to go have constructed a small city of plywood shacks plunked down on any open spot on the barren hills. There’s no more than spotty electricity, water and sewer service. The political promise painted prominently on the few walls is “Agua para todos”—“water for everyone.” The world seems to have loaded all its hopelessness into a truck, backed up to Manchay and dumped it out before squealing away.

My instinctive response to Manchay is pure gratitude for the life I have, but a question quickly follows. Why me? As we pass through Manchay and other desperate parts of Peru, Pastor Phil repeatedly demands that we ask ourselves why we should be born into middle-class American lives and all the privileges that come with it. And what are we going to do with such health, wealth and opportunity? Standing in the dusty villages of the Andes and the oppressive haze of Manchay, we all feel suddenly privileged, and suddenly very conscious of how little we actually serve the people around us back in America.

On our last night in Peru, we sit in a circle trying to put words to what the trip has taught us. There is as much looking ahead as looking back. Jess, a nurse from Nebraska, talks of the evangelistic work the native pastors are doing among the people they grew up with. Then she thinks of her own friends, family and co-workers. “I have a responsibility to them because I have a relationship with them,” she says.

Scott, an architect from Kansas, is focused on not letting the lessons of Peru slip away. “I’m praying that this trip won’t just be something I did once, but that it was when I changed direction.”

It strikes me that many of us are just now realizing that we’ve been going about Christ’s evangelistic mission in reverse. In Acts 1:8, He told the disciples to tell His story in an ever-widening circle, saying, “Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” While those of us on this trip have invested a significant amount of money, time and effort into reaching the uttermost parts of the earth, we often haven’t been doing all that much in the Jerusalems where we live.

The next night, we check mountains of luggage in with the airlines and scatter on various flights back to the States. As I press my head into a floppy airline pillow, my mind fills with images of snowy mountains and Quechua villagers and slums and ocean mist. I hear Pushpi singing and Pastor Phil reeling off maxims in his Memphis accent, urging us to get involved in people’s lives. “There is no impact without contact,” he reminded us one night. I peek at the movie screen in front of me and watch the flight map’s Indiana Jones-style line start tracing its way out of Lima, angling toward the north. Although we’re flying home, I can’t quite feel that we’re flying away from a job we’ve finished, but toward one we’re about to begin.


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