Reaching Mexico's Unreached, Unyielding Indigenes

April 20, 2017

A traditional village festival in southern Mexico.
A traditional village festival in southern Mexico.

In an area of southern Mexico that for centuries has shielded itself from all foreign influence, including the Spanish conquest, a tribal villager who decided to follow Jesus quickly met with hostility from family and friends.

The animist villagers in southern Oaxaca state reproached Reynaldo for abandoning the cosmology of his ancestors – a worldview in which trees, rocks and other elements of nature were imbued with volatile spirits.

"In many cases I didn't even know why I was doing the animist rituals, except 'to not anger the spirits,' and a life full of doing that never fulfilled me," he said before being baptized recently. "Now I've decided to follow the Lord whatever the cost."

His resolve has helped bring his parents to Christ, as well as his wife and children. Four other people from his ethnic group, undisclosed for security reasons, were baptized along with him at a celebration that included the Lord's Supper. For these impoverished people, remembrance of Jesus' broken body and shed blood could involve whatever food and drink is on hand – pieces of corn tortilla or crackers, bottles of soda or grape juice.

At the service the new leaders of the church were commissioned by the laying on of hands, including Reynaldo, who committed to helping the new pastor of the church, Pedro. The congregation of 20 people, including children, was saying a partial goodbye Mariano, the indigenous missionary who had spent 11 years establishing and nurturing the church.

"We told the local village authorities that Mariano now will only be three days a week in the community, and that going forward he will support the local leadership from outside so they can grow and get stronger," said the director of the indigenous ministry that trained and sent Mariano.

Church members were not the only ones to feel the loss, the director said, as Mariano had worked and invested himself in the community as a whole.

"The sadness of the local authorities was evident," the director said. "They said that Mariano had earned their trust, affection and the respect of the community."

Keenly aware that tribal people who live much as they did 500 years ago will not respond happily to new notions, the ministry helps enable indigenous missionaries to find a place for themselves in communities as carpenters, bakers and the like, or providing dental care or social services, said a representative for Christian Aid Mission, which assists the indigenous ministry.

"These are people that have resisted Western influence for 500 years – to reach them, it takes an average of seven to 10 years," he said. "You have to give your life to the work, and eventually you'll be accepted by the community, and they'll give you some land to work and a place in their society."

The ministry, which focuses its efforts exclusively on unreached people groups, has trained 20 indigenous missionaries working primarily in Oaxaca, with others in Jalisco, Nayarit and Guerrero states. Some of the workers help the ministry leader give training to 10 to 12 people for six months, and those 10 to 12 then learn hands-on as apprentices to an indigenous pastor for several months. Of these, some God will call to adopt a community in which to plant a church.

Mexican shrine.
A shrine in southern Mexico may mix animist beliefs with iconic deities.

Oaxaca is said to be the most ethnically diverse entity in the world; in one 36-square mile area of the state, more than 200 languages and dialects are spoken. Half of the indigenous language-speaking people in Oaxaca do not speak Spanish. The indigenous missionaries either know or learn the tribal languages in order to build relationships and share the gospel in villagers' mother tongue. They then translate portions of Scripture from Spanish to the tribal language.

Having begun 21 years ago, the ministry thus has three primary areas of service: Training missionaries, sending them to unreached people groups and providing counsel and support to 30 other indigenous pastors.

The process of such faith communities taking root in hard soil was displayed the day that Reynaldo was baptized.

"That day it was a blessing to lay hands on the local ethnic leadership, and we also baptized five new believers, celebrated Communion, and prayed for children," the ministry director said. "It was beautiful to hear testimonies of people who were baptized, of how the Lord had revealed Himself in their lives."

Among those baptized was Reynaldo's mother, who spoke of how she had suffered nightmares that continually woke her at night.

"She told how some months ago we prayed for her, and God freed her from the nightmares," the director said. "She also commented that God showed her that she should listen to the Word of God and learn from Him, so that she has dreams from God."

The new pastor, Pedro, came to Christ with the aid of a dream. He had first heard the gospel at a church he came across while traveling to a city for his work. Hearing it in Spanish, a second language for him, he did not understand much of it. Some bit of it stayed with him as he continued with animistic beliefs and practices, the director said, and then God showed him in a dream Mariano's house and the indigenous missionary's name.

"God told him he should believe what Mariano taught him because it was the true way to God," the director said. "That was how Pedro sought out Mariano, and he began to disciple him. Pedro was the first Christian in the village."

Transferring trust in pagan rituals to trust in God was a process for Pedro, as it is for most tribal people, he said. For example, in Pedro's community, villagers are accustomed to putting a red ribbon on all children, animals and plants less than a year old to ward off malevolent spirits, and to protect them from the "evil eye" (illness), the director said.

"When they see someone not do this, and that nothing bad happens to them, it begins to break the animistic belief," he said. "But it's necessary to spend much time with them, teaching them, so they can see the life of a Christian is a life of obedience to God, and that in leaving animistic practices nothing bad happens."

To help indigenous missionaries to meet needs, you may contribute online using the form below, or call (434) 977-5650. If you prefer to mail your gift, please mail to Christian Aid Mission, P.O. Box 9037, Charlottesville, VA 22906. Please use Gift Code: 150EOM. Thank you!