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Peru’s Aymara: Knowing but not believing

EDITOR’S NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions, Nov. 30-Dec. 7, focuses on missionaries who serve in South America as well as churches partnering with them, exemplifying the global outreach supported by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. This year’s theme is “GO TELL the story of Jesus”; the national offering goal is $170 million.

HUANCANÉ, Peru (BP)–On a mountaintop overlooking the adobe homes of Huancané, 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 Huancané where he meets with Rick and Kelly Martinez.

Rick, who hails from Miami, and Kelly, a native of Millington, Tenn., are Southern Baptist missionaries working to spread the Gospel and plant churches among the Aymara. Two years ago, the Lord used their witness to lead Mamani to faith. 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 Huancané, 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 and no Baptist presence, except for the Martinezes’ church plants. But unlike many of the world’s 6,000-plus 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 animistic heritage. The result was a syncretistic 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 entertainment 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.”

Juan Mamani is among the handful of Aymara who have come to that conclusion, as have Rueben and Luisa Toledo.

The story of the couple’s salvation began with a fast friendship between their daughter Edith and Rick and Kelly’s daughter Olivia. The girls met as toddlers when the Martinezes first arrived in Huancané and took to each other immediately. As their friendship grew, so did the relationship between Luisa and Kelly.

Soon the Lord placed a burden on Kelly’s heart to pray for Luisa’s salvation. Kelly repeatedly invited her to the women’s Bible study she led, but Luisa never came. Two years passed, and as Edith and Olivia continued to play, Kelly continued to pray.

Then one day, Luisa surprised Kelly with the words she’d been waiting to hear.

“I’m ready to study [the Bible],” Luisa volunteered. “You’ve been telling me we could study, and I’m ready now.”

“I was blown away,” Kelly says. “I knew it was the Lord really beginning to move in her heart.”

As Luisa became more involved in the Bible study, she began asking for prayer for her husband Rueben. A bicycle taxi driver in Huancané, Rueben had a reputation for drinking and was deeply immersed in the Aymaran festivals.

“She didn’t know all the right ‘Christian’ words, but what she was saying was that he wasn’t spiritually hungry at all,” Kelly says.

By the end of the study, Luisa had made a decision to follow Christ. The group now focused their prayers on Rueben. Within two months, he began to attend a couples’ Bible study with Luisa. As the Lord transformed Rueben’s heart, his skepticism melted away and he gave his life to Jesus.

What’s more, Rueben now believes God is calling him to become a pastor and lead Bible studies of his own. It’s a big step toward fulfilling the vision God has given Rick and Kelly for reaching the Aymara with the Gospel.

“We want to see as many churches planted among the Aymara as possible, but ultimately we want to get out of the church-planting role and into a mentoring and training role,” Rick says.

“My ultimate vision is to see Aymara going out with a heart for their own people. Once that starts to happen, I don’t think it will ever stop.”
Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board. To learn more about reaching South America for Christ, go to samregion.org. Gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering can be made at www.imb.org/offering to support the International Mission Board’s more than 5,300 missionaries worldwide, including Rick and Kelly Martinez.

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  • Don Graham