RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Pat Townsend admits she’s living outside her comfort zone.
Between the bugs, mud and freezing showers, Townsend, a missionary with the International Mission Board’s Masters Program, admits it could take her a while to adjust to life in and around the Amazon Basin of South America.
“The bugs haven’t been as bad as I anticipated,” Townsend, 56, says. “I’ve asked people to pray for me about the bugs.”
Townsend and her husband Mike, 59, left the comforts of retirement and their home in Mississippi to work among the southern Shuar people for two to three years. Fewer than 2 percent of these 15,000 people are evangelical Christians.
Religion for many southern Shuar blends worshipping spirits with Catholicism. Some Christian workers say that’s an all too common practice among indigenous people groups of South America.
“They will take some of the classic religion [Catholicism] and … then mix it with their own [animistic] beliefs,” says Russ Bare, who leads indigenous work in Ecuador. “And then you just get a hodgepodge of mixed-up beliefs.”
Couples like the Townsends are a godsend to Bare.
“I think it’s great that people with good health, in this part of their lives, would make themselves available to go to someplace like the Amazon Basin to reach a people like the southern Shuar with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
During their first days among the Shuar, the Townsends explored the territory. They took boat rides up and down the river to nearby villages and they hiked up to one of the waterfalls.
For the Shuar, waterfalls have an unusual purpose.
Evaristo, president of several Shuar villages, says many of his people go to waterfalls to take hallucinogenic drugs to see visions they believe will reveal more about their god or gods.
Fortunately, the southern Shuar live in areas where missionaries like the Townsends can reveal the one, true God to them.
Mike Townsend, however, admits it will take more than a missionary presence to change the hearts of the southern Shuar.
“For anybody to be successful with the Shuar, God will have to work [among them],” he says.
“The Holy Spirit will have to do some things for them to see and understand He is the true and one God. I trust He will do that.”
Shawn Hendricks is a writer for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board.