RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — A remote indigenous tribe in the Brazilian Amazon apparently has been destroyed following a possible assault by drug traffickers — a development that emphasizes the urgency of taking the Gospel to those who have never heard, according to Southern Baptist missions leaders.
First revealed to the world in February through stunning aerial images, the tribe — whose name is unknown — was protected by a government guard post. Survival International, a nonprofit organization focused on protecting the rights of tribal peoples, reported Aug. 8, however, that the post had been “overrun by heavily armed men” suspected to be drug traffickers.
Concern about the tribe’s well-being grew when a search by the Brazilian government’s Indian affairs department (FUNAI) revealed no trace of the tribe but discovered a broken arrow in a rucksack allegedly belonging to one of the traffickers. A FUNAI official said such arrows are “the identity card of uncontacted Indians” and described the incident as a catastrophe.
The news emphasizes the urgency of the Great Commission and should spur Southern Baptists’ missions efforts, said Tom Elliff, president of the International Mission Board.
“This event is another very chilling reminder of the urgent nature of our mission endeavors,” Elliff said. “We must reach out with the Gospel now, especially to the world’s unengaged, unreached people groups. Our Lord’s sobering reminder that ‘night comes, when no man can work’ is a call for faithfulness at a time when ‘the fields are white unto harvest.'”
Though the IMB had no work among this tribe (Brazilian law prohibits it), Southern Baptist missionaries are legally sharing the Gospel with indigenous peoples in some South American countries.
What’s more, the mission board’s “Embrace” initiative is bringing even more attention to indigenous groups in the Americas, challenging Southern Baptist churches to commit to evangelizing one of the world’s 3,800 unengaged, unreached people groups (UUPGs).
Roughly 300 UUPGs are found in the Americas, the majority of whom are indigenous. Some of these people groups are as small as five to seven individuals; others number in the tens of thousands.
Groups like the vanished tribe represent an even further degree of separation from the Gospel –- UUUPGs, people groups that are uncontacted, unengaged and unreached. Missions researchers identify between 50 and 70 such tribes in the greater Amazon area.
“The irony about it is that even though we live in a part of the world that probably has the highest evangelical rate on the planet, the negative extreme is that you have these people groups that have never been contacted,” said Terry Lassiter, who heads IMB strategy for evangelizing American peoples. “That’s really sad when you think that 2,000 years after the Great Commission we have people groups that don’t have the Gospel and haven’t even been contacted by the outside world. This is a whole new level of darkness.
“It breaks my heart and should break the hearts of any Christians to know that there are peoples like this that may have been exterminated — and they don’t have the hope of salvation,” Lassiter said.
Getting the Gospel to indigenous tribes is a daunting challenge, said Ryan Goodman*, an IMB missionary who works with indigenous peoples.
Many tribes live in remote locations far from roads, electricity, clean water and health care, often hidden in dense jungle, Goodman said. Reaching extremely isolated villages may take up to six days of travel from the U.S. Some tribes are nomadic and roam within large, government-protected reservations that tightly restrict access.
Language is another obstacle, Goodman added. At least 25 distinct languages can be identified in the area where he works. Barriers to accessing an indigenous tribe also may come from the people themselves; many fear and distrust outsiders after decades of exploitation and disease.
“If [civilization makes] contact with them in the wrong way, they could literally be dead in weeks because of diseases,” Goodman said. “That’s a huge conflict — we can go in and provide them with eternal salvation, but we could destroy them at the same time.”
Above all the physical challenges, however, the spiritual barriers may be the hardest to overcome, Lassiter said.
“These are peoples that have been in the darkness of the evil one for their entire existence,” Lassiter said. “From a human standpoint, the physical barriers seem very tough, but we know God has given us a Great Commission to go to all nations. It is the spiritual battle that has to be won first, and that begins through prayer and seeking the Lord in how to reach these people.”
*Name changed. Don Graham is a senior writer for the International Mission Board.