Weary travelers stand alongside a river somewhere in South America's Amazon Basin.
After three hours of trying to maneuver upstream by motorboat to a remote village, a group of International Mission Board missionaries grudgingly accepts the realization that the journey for that day has ended. Shallow waters, exposed rocks, tree limbs, and a rough current that nearly capsized the boat won't allow the group to go any farther.
Score a victory for the Amazon.
Thousands of miles of dense jungle create a daunting "wall" for those wanting to take the Gospel to this area. For some of the people groups in remote areas, their only hope to hear about Jesus is through faithful Christians praying the Gospel message will reach them.
"A lot of people don't realize how big the Amazon Basin and the jungle really is," says Terry*, an IMB missionary who leads work among indigenous peoples in portions of South America.
"It covers a huge area the size of the United States," adds the Texas native. "You have massive areas where there are no airstrips, no roads. The only way to get there would perhaps be by helicopter or boat."
More than four hundred people groups — roughly 26 million people — live in the Amazon Basin. Of that number, 270 people groups are less than 2 percent evangelical Christian with no IMB missionaries living among them. In addition, about eighty-five people groups survive completely isolated, deep in the jungle.
"We know they exist," says Terry, pointing out some of these groups only have been spotted by satellite.
"We know very little about them — except they live in primitive situations. They're (understandably) suspicious of outsiders."
Two key factors keep these groups unreached by the Gospel. The government prohibits missionaries from having access to them. And most of these groups live in areas considered too dangerous for outsiders. Dangers include guerilla fighters, hostile tribes, poor flying conditions, crumbling or nonexistent roads, and unpredictable waters.
Over the years, many missionaries have lost their lives attempting to take the Gospel to these isolated peoples. One of the most well-known incidents occurred in 1956 — recounted in the 2006 movie, The End of the Spear — when a group of Huaorani Indians in eastern Ecuador killed Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and their missionary jungle pilot, Nate Saint.
But not all was lost among the Huaorani.
"When [those five missionaries] died, it really raised up a host of prayer warriors [who] began to pray for the Huaorani," says Russ Bare, another Texas native and IMB missionary who leads work among indigenous people in Ecuador.
"Today, we have many Huaorani believers. There is power when God's people pray."
Penetrating the Corners of the Basin
More than fifty years later, prayer is still needed if the Gospel is to penetrate the isolated corners of the Amazon Basin.
Missionaries continue to explore ways to reach Amazon peoples. One option is training local believers to go into the remote areas; another involves sharing the Gospel with those who venture from their isolated villages into cities or areas along the rivers.
Some indigenous believers endure persecution to share their faith among their people. Pablo*, who leads a church among his Kogi people, works with a missionary to translate portions of the Bible into his language. Christian workers estimate there are only one hundred believers among the eleven thousand Kogi, who are located in remote areas of Colombia.
"The Kogi live a sad life," Pablo says. "It's just full of fear. They're never really at peace."
The Kogi spend their lives seeking to pacify the spirits by offering payments for everything they do — whether they are cutting down trees or harvesting crops. Pablo says some of them wonder, "If I don't make this payment, what's going to happen? Will my child die if I don't make the payments correctly?"
Life for the few believers also has been difficult. Some Kogis have threatened the lives of Pablo and fellow Christians. Still, these believers continue to share the Gospel among their people.
"[The Kogi] see a big difference in our life," Pablo says. "[They] have lived in fear, (repeatedly) paying the spirits and not seeing any results. And when we tell them Jesus has paid all for us, they really like that."
Not all, however, are happy with indigenous people like the Kogi turning their lives over to Christ.
Many anthropologists and government organizations don't welcome change among indigenous people. Warning signs or government officials guard protected territory in some areas.
"They don't want them to hear the Gospel," Terry says. "The government, a lot of times, sees indigenous peoples as museum pieces — something they can show. They are actively against indigenous peoples being educated...having choices."
The only way many of them will be reached is through prayer, Terry stresses.
"Baptists have been working in South America for 150 years, and ... I would ask them to pray that God [will] open [these people's] hearts to understand who the one and true God is through Jesus Christ."
For more information about missions in the Amazon Basin, go to samregion.org. To learn how missionaries are carrying the Gospel throughout the world, go to the commissionstories.com or imb.org Web sites or call the International Mission Board at 800-999-3113.
* Names changed or last names removed for security reasons.
Finding a Home Amidst a "Hodgepodge" of Beliefs
by Shawn Hendricks
Pat Townsend admits she's living outside her comfort zone.
Between the bugs, mud, and freezing showers, Townsend, a missionary with the International Mission Board's Masters Program, admits it could take her awhile to adjust to life in and around the Amazon Basin of South America. But she's getting there.
"The bugs haven't been as bad as I anticipated," Townsend, 56, says. "I've asked people to pray for me about the bugs."
Townsend and her husband, Mike, 59, left the comforts of retirement and their home in Mississippi to work among the southern Shuar people for two to three years. Fewer than 2 percent of these fifteen thousand people are evangelical Christians.
Religion for many southern Shuar blends worshipping spirits with Catholicism. Some Christian workers say that's an all too common practice among indigenous people groups of the South America region.
"They will take some of the classic religion [Catholicism] and ... then mix it with their own [animistic] beliefs," says Russ Bare, who leads indigenous work in Ecuador. "And then you just get a hodgepodge of mixed-up beliefs."
Couples like the Townsends are a godsend to Bare.
"I think it's great that people with good health, in this part of their lives, would make themselves available to go to someplace like the Amazon Basin to reach a people like the southern Shuar with the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
During their first days among the Shuar, the Townsends explored the territory. They took boat rides up and down the river to nearby villages, and they hiked up to one of the waterfalls.
For the Shuar, waterfalls have an unusual purpose.
Evaristo, president of several Shuar villages, says many of his people go to waterfalls to take hallucinogenic drugs to see visions they believe will reveal more about their god or gods.
Fortunately, the southern Shuar live in areas where missionaries like the Townsends can reveal the one, true God to them.
Mike Townsend, however, admits it will take more than a missionary presence to change the hearts of the southern Shuar.
"For anybody to be successful with the Shuar, God will have to work [among them]," he says.
"The Holy Spirit will have to do some things for them to see and understand He is the true and one God. I trust He will do that."
Day of Prayer and Fasting
The unreached peoples of the Amazon Basin are the focus of this year's Day of Prayer and Fasting for World Evangelization, which Southern Baptists will observe May 11 (Pentecost Sunday).
You can use this article as you pray that day or at other times. You also can order a new DVD from the International Mission Board. It contains multiple resources for use by churches, small groups, and individuals, including a video profile of the Shuar people and virtual prayerwalking through the Amazon Basin. To order the DVD and other free resources, visit imb.org/dayofprayer or call (800) 999-3113. To learn more about how to reach the unreached peoples of the Amazon Basin — and other peoples of South America — visit samregion.org.
Shawn Hendricks is a member of Grove Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, and a writer for the SBC International Mission Board.