The power of the Incarnation to meet humans where they are and to change their culture for the better is no less true today than it was when Athanasius wrote his classic work in the third century after Christ. Take the story of Bruchko, for example, the brave young American missionary who crossed the road to a primitive jungle tribe and taught them to follow Jesus.
At age nineteen Bruce Olson felt the Lord’s calling to go to South America. He planned to enter the jungle near the Maracaibo basin between Venezuela and Columbia and evangelize the notorious Motilone tribe. No one who had approached the Motilones had ever come back alive. That fact, along with the fact that by any normal standards he was not prepared for the work, did not deter young Olson. He had not finished college, nor did he have any association with a mission organization. He had only enough money for a plane ticket to Caracas and a few nights’ stay in a hotel. Though very competent with Latin and Greek, he knew neither Spanish nor Motilone. What one could say about him is this: Like a true biblical apostle, Olson was utterly reliant on God, and his faith was remarkable. So were the results of that faith.
When he first arrived in 1960, the Motilones treated him harshly. One tribesman shot him in the leg with a four foot long arrow; another yanked the arrow out, causing excruciating pain as the arrowhead raggedly tore his thigh. They marched him for hours through the jungle and held him in captivity without food or water for days. He nearly died at their hands, but he remained true to his calling and endured. Eventually, he won their trust simply by living with them, by being close to them, by working, eating, laughing, and celebrating with them. He developed a deep friendship with a young native named Babarishora, whom Olson nicknamed “Bobby.” Olson loved the Motilones and their culture, expressed beautifully in their communal households, tribal festivals, sense of humor, and cooperative work.
He also saw their shortcomings. They had no agriculture, for example, which exacerbated times of food shortage. Any sickness fell to the care of the tribal witch doctor. They met most outside their tribe with violence. They had no literacy and therefore no sufficient means to communicate with people from Venezuela and Columbia, the two nations whose borders they straddled.
Those missing elements, however, were minor compared to something else Olson observed: in Motilone culture, concern for tribesmen outside of one’s immediate home was almost entirely non-existent. For example, between two homes within the same tribal village there was no mutual care. If one lacked food, the other provided no support; if sickness ran through the second home, the first took no measure to help. The lack of care for one another confirmed in Olson’s mind why God sent him to live with the tribe: He knew that they needed Jesus and his love as the source of love for one another. His abiding belief was that God had become man and by doing so had both revealed God to us and our humanity. Now, he waited for the right moment when the Motilones could hear and accept that God had become one of them—that Jesus had become a Motilone and wanted to show them a better way to live.
The young apostle learned their language. “Bruce Olson” became “Bruchko,” the Motilone version of his name. After fifty-five years of living with the tribe, he is still called by that name. He also learned the sacred stories on which much of Motilone culture rests.
Perhaps the most important story they tell is the one in which they “lost God’s trail,” which bears some similarity to the story of the Fall in Genesis. The Motilones believe that at some point in their past the tribe deceived God and, as a result, he left them. The loss was not total. They see him at work in the ordered labor of the ants, for instance, the life of trees and other elements of creation. They feel the loss most keenly at the time of death, when they hope their spirits will go to God “beyond the horizon” of the nearby mountains. If one dies at home, God allows the spirit to make that journey. If one dies away from home, there is little hope for this final ascent since it is too difficult to find “God’s trail.”
One day, Bruchko and Bobby encountered two tribesmen in the jungle. On behalf of a brother who had recently been bitten by a venomous snake and had died far from his home, they were desperately seeking God—one by digging a hole in the ground and shouting for him there, the other by climbing a tree and shouting from that height. Surely, their belief told them, God’s depth and height are such that the steps they can take to find him must extend below the ground on which they walk or beyond the treetops.
Kindly, with sympathy for their loss, Olson said he knew how to find God. The tribesmen listened intently. God has become a man, he explained, and that man is Jesus Christ. They were astounded. He continued by promising that Jesus would show them the trail to God.
One of the men had split open a banana stalk. The thin interior leaves hung outwards much like the pages of an open book. Holding up his Bible, and opening it so that the pages fanned like a series of leaves, Olson declared, “This is God’s banana stalk.” Because the words of Jesus are open to us in this “stalk,” he explained, we can find God’s trail there.
First Bobby then the others believed in Jesus. In the days and months that followed, Bruchko told them the stories in the New Testament. They began to follow the man in whom God had become incarnate. Eventually the faith spread.
And then a notable change in the Motilone culture developed. In unprecedented ways, they began to care for one another: Where before there was no mutual concern between homes, now each reached out to help another. There had been no tradition of adoption in Motilone culture. When Bobby adopted an orphan boy named Odo, he set a new standard among his tribesmen. The Motilones even took the dramatic step of taking the Gospel on the road. Up to this point, they had only related to other tribes as if they were enemies. Worse still, they were known as the most violent tribe in the jungles between Venezuela and Columbia. Now, they traveled to the nearby Yukos tribe and shared the stories of Jesus. Miraculously, the Spirit enabled them to speak and others to understand, despite the fact that the tribes spoke different languages.
To build on their newfound culture of Christian love, the Motilones sought education and added to their ability to serve. The study of agriculture meant they could produce more food for themselves and for their neighbors. The study of medicine meant they could spread healing within their villages and beyond to settlers and other tribes in the regions nearby. Today the Motilones have a network of schools and a team of college-trained teachers, doctors and farmers providing much needed services. Tribesmen have studied the law as well and have served their people by mediating disputes with outside parties and by representing the Motilones through elected office.
All of this was accomplished because a young man from Minnesota crossed the road—in this case, the span of much of the western hemisphere—to live among a primitive tribe. He stayed with them, ate and worked with them, befriended them, and waited on the Spirit for the right words and the best opportunity to share with them the Gospel. It was not so that they would become like him, a North American. Of course, they have subsequently learned in Western schools and mastered Western arts and sciences; and many of them dress now as we do. None of that, however, is at the heart of what Bruce Olson’s mission was.
His mission was to love the Motilones and, out of that love, bring them the Gospel. He brought the Gospel in language and stories that they could understand. The effect was decisive. The Motilone culture changed. They love one another better than before, and they love their non-Motilone neighbors. Because Bruchko awakened the Motilones to the good news that God has become one of them, they have found God’s trail and walk that path in love and wisdom.
Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.
You can learn more about more about Bruce Olson and the miracle of the Motilones in Olson’s autobiography, Bruchko.
All images used in this post courtesy of www.bruceolson.com.