‘Imperialism,’ cry the Marxists; ‘ethnocide,’ cry the anthropologists.
Fifty Americans penetrating remote jungles, winning the confidence of the Indians, changing their customs and religion.… Such a scenario makes for conflict, even in Venezuela, the most democratic of Latin American countries.
In its latest attacks against New Tribes Mission workers in Venezuela, the national press has deployed its full arsenal. Lurid headlines in virtually all of the country’s newspapers accuse the missionaries of intelligence activities, coercion, sabotage of natural resources, imperialism, and ethnocide. These are worn accusations, almost clichés, but in the last few years they have arisen more often. “Every time this comes up it’s a little worse,” said Wilfred Neese, a second-generation missionary who represents the Sanford, Florida-based mission before the Venezuelan government.
The recent furor began in November of 1978, with the release of a short documentary film, Yo Hablo a Caracas (“I Speak to Caracas”). The film featured a Maquiritare Indian, identified as the “chief” of his tribe, who had worked with New Tribes missionaries for nine years and was now allegedly denouncing them as imperialists. It has won a prize as best short subject film.
But critics say the film is seriously flawed. The Indian spoke in his native language and people fluent in both the Maquiritare and Spanish languages called the “translation” a “script.” Also, the Indian’s tribe—which has no one chief—later censured him for cooperating with the filmmakers. The film was shown in the Venezuelan Congress, in schools, and public forums. It brought about four separate investigations: by the Congress, the state of Bolivar (where many of the missionaries live), the attorney general, and the army. As one newpaper understated, “Yo Hablo a Caracas raised some dust.”
The congressional investigation committee, which posed the greatest threat to the missionaries, was headed by Alexis Ortiz, a co-writer of the Yo Hablo a Caracas “script” and a representative of the Movement Toward Socialism party. Ortiz, one of a tiny minority of officials who want to oust the missionaries, could not persuade the majority of his colleagues to his point of view. On July 14, after months of investigation that included a trip into the jungles, Ortiz annouced his resignation from the committee. In his resignation speech he accused the Congress of catering to the evangelicals to prevent loss of their half-million votes.
“For now I think the battle’s won,” the president of the Evangelical Council of Venezuela had commented a week before Ortiz resigned. As council head, Luis Magín Alvarez has played the role of advocate for New Tribes since the investigations began. Of the seven congressmen on the committee, he said five strongly supported the mission. “We have their word,” he stated. “We have nothing to fear from the government.”
But circumstances may change. Venezuelan newspapers, which tend to be anti-American, continue printing only the attacks on missionaries (most of them made by anthropologists). As a result, the average person appears to have absorbed one idea from the headlines: the missionary is the villain. A group called Movement for an Indigenous Identity is gaining popularity.
Against this backdrop, New Tribes and the Evangelical Council are holding weekend seminars across the country to educate the national church and to work out strategy before there is another attack and probe by the Congress. “Never before has the Christian church here been so unified as over this issue,” said Neese. Church leaders see the issue as a conflict between proponents of religious freedom and a minority with antithetical, Marxist interests. It is a battle they plan to keep fighting.
“The problems I have with the New Tribes begin with their name,” one Venezuelan businessman said. “Why do they have to use the word ‘new’? It grates against one. It brings up the image of them changing the indigenous identity, of making new tribes, well, of colonizing.”
This sentiment, which represents the “gut” objection of many Latin Americans, is probably inescapable, given the way a mission such as New Tribes works. Its missionaries, who have been in Venezuela since 1946, go into the most remote areas of the country, looking for “tribes that are new to the gospel.” They build airstrips in the crevices of the mountains and jungles. They hang their hammocks among the Maquiritare, the Panare, the Yanomami, and set about learning each language and coding it into symbols. They introduce medicine, modern tools, the Venezuelan flag, and eventually the Bible.
Neese winces at the phrase “changing culture,” but he realizes that this is what the missionaries are doing. “The anthropologist, the doctor, the missionary, the nurse … anyone by walking into a village immediately brings change,” he said. He acknowledges missionaries have made mistakes in the past and in some cases were clumsy in imposing their culture, but he says now they are sensitive to the issue and show it by their work.
James Bou, director of the mission in Venezuela, wrote in a magazine article, “Our idea was not to take the indigene to civilization, but to take to him those aspects of civilization, adapted to his needs, that would benefit him in his personal and communal life.” The missionaries thus introduced the machete as a quicker way of cutting down a tree than by setting a fire around its base. They brought dentistry tools to replace two sticks to knock out teeth. They brought bilingual education (the indigenous language and Spanish) to ease the inevitable transition as Venezuela develops its interior. When people accuse them of forcing the Indians to wear clothes, missionaries bring out their pictures of naked indigenous Christians.
The missionaries do aim to change the Indians in one key aspect: religion. In an article in the Daily Journal, Venezuela’s English-language paper, a UNESCO-funded anthropologist, Dr. Leslie Sponsell, wrote that religion is the “glue” of culture, so that no matter how well-intentioned they were, the missionaries were disintegrating the indigenous culture of the Amazonas.
Neese sees anthropologists’ objections as purely pragmatic. “The Indian culture changes when the gospel comes in—as the Indian changes,” he said. “And when the culture changes, the anthropologist can’t write his thesis. That’s the problem.”
Alvarez, of the Evangelical Council, grows impatient with the argument over culture. He said that since New Tribes has worked in southern Venezuela, the missionaries’ teaching of hygiene and nutrition has increased the Indians’ life span. “To preserve the culture at the expense of sacrificing the people is inhumane,” Alvarez declared.
The missionaries teach the gospel within the cultural framework when it does not contradict Scripture, said Neese. As an example, he cited the Maquiritares—75 percent of whom are now Christians—who already have a concept of a single, benevolent god, Wanaadi, and the missionaries set about to teach the attributes of Wanaadi in more detail. But other tribes were more animistic, believing everything was infused by evil, impersonal spirits; with them the missionaries had to start from scratch.
The newspapers accuse the missionaries of spreading the gospel by coercion. One of the biggest waves of adverse publicity came when a Venezuelan linguist announced that the New Tribes translation of the Bible into Panare manipulated the Panares by accusing them of killing Christ. “The translation does say, ‘The Panare killed Christ,’ ” Neese said. “But what the linguist didn’t say was that in the Panare language, the name of their tribe is the same word they use for people. To them, that says, ‘The people killed Christ.’ ”
Some accusers have said the real job of New Tribes is not to teach the Bible at all but to infiltrate the region and spy for the U.S. government. Without naming any sources, most of the newspapers stated that the missionaries had connections with the CIA and U.S.-based multinational corporations, and that during World War II and the Korean conflict they supplied the American army with minerals from the Amazonas Territory. They add that the 15 airstrips built by the mission represent a threat to national sovereignty.
Neese denied the espionage charges and said that the mission has gone to such lengths to disassociate itself from the U.S. government that it would not even contact the American embassy in Venezuela when the pressure was on to have the missionaries expelled. He said New Tribes has always worked through the Venezuelan government—that missionaries report regularly to the Venezuelan authorities and include in their reports any suspicious activities in the region. “The best security in the Amazonas is the New Tribes Mission,” Neese said.
The latest investigations have supported the mission’s contention that since 1946, when New Tribes and Venezuela signed the agreement identifying the territory in which the missionaries could work, the enemy has not been the government, but a minority within the government. Alvarez said the opponents were Marxists who themselves wanted to control the territory for subversive activities. The Marxists want “a declaration of independence for the region” so they can supply the Indians with guns and have access to Brazil and other Latin American countries, Alvarez believes.
But, he said, the Amazonas Territory is part of Venezuela, and the missionaries only help to make it more so. They teach the indigenous peoples Spanish and introduce the concept of patriotism. Their schools and health facilities are turned over to the government. In this “satellite century,” Alvarez said, especially with recent oil discoveries further in the country’s interior, it is inconceivable that undeveloped areas can remain isolated.
“We are preparing the Indians for the oncoming culture,” Neese affirmed. He said that in Puerto Ayacucho—a town on the frontier of “civilization”—the Indians were being engulfed too quickly by the Venezuelan culture: now they not only have no identity of their own, but have learned prostitution, drunkenness, and thievery. “I’m just thankful for those who have gotten to know the outside world through the gospel first.” he said.
The front-line fighter for New Tribes in this battle has been the Evangelical Council of Venezuela, an interdenominational organization to which the mission belongs. The council has risen to the challenge to claim the right to freedom of religion. Representatives of the evangelical group have attended every official meeting on the issue. They have lobbied in government and collected an impressive list of supporters. They have spent more than $12,000—money donated by churches—on paid advertisements to counteract what Alvarez called “lopsided” journalism.
Venezuelan Christians are not unanimous in their support of missionaries, of course; Alvarez occasionally encounters opposition from nationalists within the church. “I remind them, ‘In the first place we’re Christians, in the second place we’re Venezuelans,’ ” he said.
Alvarez is fiercely supportive of American missionaries, but given the complicated accusations, he thinks the best long-term solution would be for Venezuelans to take over the New Tribes work. Although many Indians have become missionaries to their own tribes, so far only one couple from the developed area of Venezuela is training to minister to indigenous peoples. If the churches could recruit more national missionaries, the issue would be focused on freedom of religion instead of foreign sabotage. “We won’t give up the right to reach the Indians for the gospel,” Alvarez said.
Anglo and Hispanic
El Paso Churches Help Bridge the Border Gap
The muddy trickle separating El Paso, Texas, from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, has been characterized as too thin to plow and too thick to drink. For thousands of illegal Mexican immigrants, the Rio Grande River has been a wet, sometimes precarious, crosswalk. They have seeped into congregations of every denomination represented among El Paso’s 500 churches.
Anglo-Hispanic congregational mixes are the norm throughout El Paso, and church growth has been greatest among evangelical bodies. The large Southern Baptist Spanish Publishing House is located here.
Most local Hispanics are Roman Catholic. The El Paso-centered Catholic diocese includes 7 southern New Mexico and 11 west Texas counties. Nearly 75 percent of its 300,000 Catholics are of Hispanic origin, and about 90 percent of this Catholic population reside in El Paso.
Despite the Catholic predominance, Protestants increasingly are giving funds and support to Hispanic social action groups in the community. The 10-year-old Trinity Coalition intends to “empower individuals, families and groups … in new awareness to the emerging Hispanic community,” said director Manny de La Rosa.
The coalition, begun originally by the United Church of Christ, has a $390,000 annual budget. About $35,000 of that comes from the UCC, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, and Baptists; the balance comes from state matching funds. Trinity’s staff of 13 carries out an “in-home delivery system of human services,” which include children’s day care, chore services for senior citizens, and family reunification programs for new immigrants, said de La Rosa.
“The old style of ministry and missions was colonizing, in effect, at the expense of the oppressed,” he said. “The church was concerned only with preaching and teaching, not healing … and not facing the sociological realities.”
Because of its location, El Paso has become something of a testing center for church ministries that reach out to both the documented and the illegal newcomers.
Susan Buell, an Episcopal priest and divorced mother of three, is organizing a school for 6- to 12-year-old children of undocumented and monolingual families. “Often times they think I’m a nun,” said Buell, adding that the erroneous assumption helps in relating to Hispanics who are used to nuns being involved in education. The goal of the school is to teach “enough English to children so they can go into the public schools,” she said. Her involvement draws little local Episcopalian support, said Buell, noting hers is “a conservative diocese.”
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is putting together an immigrant advocacy program modeled after the highly successful U.S. Catholic Conference on Immigration (USCCI), which was established in 1924 to handle family reunification during post-Mexican revolution years.
AFSC program director Al Velarde said the USCCI last year was directly involved in obtaining 1,138 new immigrant visas, and represented 233 people in Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) deportation or exclusion hearings. He said the USCCI also made nearly 12,000 referrals to other agencies.
Of his own group, Velarde said, “We’re here to assist anyone in coming legally to the U.S.” His organization has gained the respect of local government officials. “Whenever we feel a law is wrong, we try to change it at the top,” he said.
Velarde is pleased that churches increasingly are getting involved in immigrant issues, but he believes future confrontations between church and state on immigrant matters are “unavoidable.”
The awkward church-state relationship is perhaps best evidenced at El Paso’s Centro Vida Church. Pastor Joe Salcido and Hispanic followers broke from a large charismatic congregation three years ago when “the Spanish people were beginning to outnumber the others and were resented for it.” Starting a new church with only a few dollars and members, the church now has a $200,000 annual budget and rents a building within “a stone’s throw” of the Rio Grande, said Salcido.
The church “works with about 1,000 people from all levels of life,” he said. Salcido rented the downtown Juarez bull-ring for a four-day crusade last year that he says produced 1,500 converts a night. “We’re not looking to an American gospel, we’re looking to Jesus,” said Salcido.
He admits having illegals in his congregation. “I know they’re there. We reached them through our radio program.” Meanwhile, U.S. Border Patrol agents frequently perch on Centro Vida property. With binoculars, they scan the river and opposite bank.
“The Lord gives us divine silence,” smiles one Centro Vida member.”
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