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Amid an ancient culture & its move to the city

EL ALTO, Bolivia (BP)–Kent Shirley sweeps his hand over the landscape of one-room, adobe-block houses checkerboarding the area like shoeboxes scattered across a fitting room floor.

“They build them wherever they can find a place,” says Shirley, Southern a Baptist missionary. “Some have bought the land, but most are squatters. There’s no way they can afford it.”

Kent and his wife, Elaine, work among the Aymara [i-MAR-uh], a people group living high in the Andes Mountains on the Altiplano (High Plateau) around Lake Titicaca. The Aymara spread across four countries, but the Shirleys work not far from the epicenter of Aymara culture near El Alto, Bolivia.

The Aymara is an ancient culture straining to find its place in a modern world. Antiquated farming practices and poor soil force the Aymara to search for hope in the city.

“More than 40,000 people a year are coming to El Alto looking for work because many of them are starving on the Altiplano,” Shirley says. “When they get here, they have no place to go. They set up plastic tarps … until they scrape together enough adobe blocks for a house. It is a sad situation.”

Yet, it is “a great opportunity. When the Aymara move to the city, they are open to new relationships,” the missionary says.

If conversions are to occur on a grand scale, it will happen through other Aymara Christians. “They understand the culture and speak the language in a way we never will,” Shirley says, “so we invest a lot of time in discipleship and training.”

The Shirleys originally accepted a different assignment, but while in language study the mission board asked them to work with the Aymara. Soon after their arrival in Bolivia, the Shirleys became strategy coordinators and now lead a team of church planters. The Shirleys believe a church-planting movement will begin through new and existing churches.

“We see many lay leaders and churches catching a missionary vision,” he said.

Of the 2.3 million Aymara, more than 2 million have no idea who Christ is. They are animists, worshiping Mother Earth and other natural elements.

“They feel they have to appease their gods or their crops won’t produce,” Elaine Shirley says. “They have no hope because they live in fear. It makes me desperately want them to see the truth.”

Kent and Elaine use chronological Bible storying to teach the Aymara about Christ.

“In using Bible stories, we have to address every element of what they believe,” Kent says. “We start with Job and show them God has command over all spiritual forces. We then go to the beginning of the Bible and lay a foundation for a biblical worldview, preparing the Aymara to understand the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is constant discipleship.”

It also is constant love. The Shirleys knew that sharing the gospel with the Aymara would be difficult, so they prayed the Lord would help them.

“When we found out we were going to work with the Aymara, we began asking God to give us a great love for these people,” Elaine says. “We want to see them through His eyes.”
Turner is an overseas correspondent for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, based in Panama City, Panama. Adapted from Missions Mosaic, magazine of Woman’s Missionary Union, SBC.