The gospel often travels faster than our customs and culture. Such is the case in the Northern regions of Argentina, among the Wichi and Qom tribal peoples, where JESUS Film showings have pierced patches of spiritual darkness. These tribal people form some of the few surviving South American Indian groups in Argentina.
Their history is one of tribal wars, fear, shame, and many gods. In the age of the Spanish conquest, these tribes were pitted against each other as the Conquistadors used them as a strategical advantage.
Because of their cooperation, their cultures survived although they were swiftly assigned to reservations in the swampy or dry regions of the north. Isolated and marginalized by the Argentine government, many people survived by living off the land.
It was not until the JESUS Film entered some of these areas that the Wichi and Qom began hearing - no, actually seeing – the gospel played out before them. The fear, mysticism, witchcraft, and loneliness began to dissipate as whole communities saw the love of a miraculous Savior in the words of the Gospel of Luke.
Yet, the JESUS Film team would only stay for a short time because the true authority of the tribal communities is the chief. It is the chief that would assign a pastor to shepherd these new converts. Time and time again, the chief, many times a new convert himself, would round up those shining souls that stood under the string of lights, and form a brand new Church of the Nazarene.
The challenge was not in forming the church but in finding the right pastor. So the chief would appoint the most respected and upstanding man in that new group of converts to pastor this newborn congregation.
Tribal peoples usually have trust issues when it comes to the government not only due to the historical oppression, but also because of very different infrastructural concepts. In Argentina, getting legally married includes a lot of paperwork, some administration costs, and long lines. The Wichi and Qom peoples traditionally see this as unnecessary. The same is true for birth certificates and identification numbers. Many of our older native peoples do not know how to read.
When the newly appointed District Superintendent Carlos Radi began visiting the isolated churches and church plants on the Native Peoples District, he was surprised to find a beautiful example of the New Testament church. Some congregations were so isolated that some of the pastors were even not legally married.
Most of these pastors had been with their wives for over 30 years and were great-grandparents, but they did not have legal marriage standing, and could not be given a district minister's license. Many spoke their own language and were very limited in their Spanish reading and writing. And, most did not know how to serve communion or baptize. What an incredible and complicated situation.
Carlos officiated at the marriage ceremonies of four pastoral couples in 2016. He has taught all of the pastors to serve communion and baptize, to form a church board with a treasurer, and elect ministry presidents. Now most of the pastors on the district have a district minister's license and there are two seminary extension centers with more than 12 theology classes given in 2016. The challenge is huge but so is the excitement.
In one of these weddings, the local pastor (the groom) was so admired and respected that over 500 people attended the wedding. An entire cow was killed and grilled for the reception because people traveled from many other communities for this meaningful event.
As Christ's gospel penetrates the Native Peoples District, we begin to see the holistic transformation this good news provides.
His gospel erases injustices of the past, forms new patterns of thought and custom, and renews a people long forgotten.
God has not forgotten them, and neither has the Church of the Nazarene.
Robin Radi is a global missionary with the Church of the Nazarene currently serving with her husband and three daughters in Argentina.