But the Quechua people want to worship in their own culture, without foreign organizations.

The slight Peruvian looked like a remnant of the Incas. Leathery and stooped by arthritis, but with a bearing that bespoke wisdom, don Victor was telling some Ecuadorian teenagers about the exploits of their ancestors.

“Don’t you know you are descendants of great men?” he asked.

Several heads shook “no.”

“The Incas built great cities. Their empire reached from Chile to Colombia.…”

“What grade did you graduate from?” interrupted an impressed high schooler.

“Primary,” stated Victor, “But I read. You should know these things. Buy books.”

Conversations like this made a learning experience out of the Second Meeting of Indigenous Leaders. Quechua church leaders from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru met recently for four days in Majipamba, Ecuador, where they attended afternoon seminars on indigenous music and culture.

Meetings at night, open to the public, featured several hours of music, as well as impassioned preaching. Before going home, the Bolivians and Peruvians visited churches in four other provinces. The Peruvians held an open air service in the famous Saturday market of Otavalo.

Sophisticated North Americans might have found the conference setting simple, even primitive. Majipamba’s adobe houses are just now being replaced by concrete block, and one yields the right-of-way on the dirt sidewalks to sheep and pigs heading out to pasture. The meetings took place in a huge tent, which was provided by the local Quechua church association. The seats were thick layers of dry grass brought in from above the tree line.

But few onlookers would have labeled the conference dull. The Majipamba event signaled a growing communication and leadership among indigenous church leaders. (Some Quechuas dislike the term “Indian.”)

The 19 Bolivians, 30 Peruvians, and many host Ecuadorians had plenty in common. They represented the 14-million-strong block of South Americans called Quechuas and found unity as descendants, if only by conquest, of the once-proud Incas.

The Quechuas today are divided by national boundaries and into various language dialects. One estimate identifies 24 Quechua dialects in Peru, 8 in Ecuador, and one each for Bolivia, Argentina, and Colombia.

The term “Quechua” refers to “green valley,” probably that of Peru’s Apurimac River where the Quechua tribe originated. The Incas had conquered this tribe, and then imposed its Quechua language on their empire. The Ecuadorians today call themselves “Quichuas,” and the Bolivians and Peruvians go by “Quechua.” (In this article, the spelling “Quechua” includes both groups.)

Article continues below

Following the Spanish conquest 450 years ago, the Quechuas fell under the domination of landlords who often treated them as beasts of burden without souls.

Protestant missionaries worked for years among the Quechuas, but could not seem to break through. Gospel Missionary Union (GMU) worker Julia Woodward spent 50 years in Ecuador’s Chimborazo Province. When she left in 1952, she attested to counting on one hand those Quechuas who would be in heaven because of her witness.

But recent decades evidenced a Christian awakening among the Quechuas. The fastest church growth came among the Chimborazo Quichuas, among whom Mrs. Woodward spent seemingly fruitless years. Today there are 10,000 baptized believers and an overall worship community of at least 20,000.

The Bolivian and Peruvian Quechua churches also are growing. Trained pastors and leaders are one of the greatest needs today, and that is one reason for leadership gatherings such as the one in Majipamba.

Many Quechuas prefer to form their own church organizations. They will work alongside, but preferably not within, white-dominated ones.

This isn’t a racist stance, said Manuel Naula, legal advisor for the two-year old Ecuadorian Federation of Indigenous Evangelicals (FEINE). Instead, he said, years of Quechua subjection to whites inhibits them in white-run organizations. Quechuas, at least for now, feel more comfortable in their own organizations.

Today, the Indigenous Evangelical Association of Chimborazo has 7,600 members (all baptized believers who pay an entrance fee). It runs a savings and loan, a transportation cooperative having 100 vehicles, the former mission-owned radio station, and many spiritual and vocational training programs.

GMU Ecuadorian field director Henry Klassen cites early turnover to Quechua leadership as one of the biggest factors in the Quechua church’s growth. (He also cites the mission’s early use of schools and medical clinics, Christian radio, Quechua Scriptures, and church conferences that gave believers a functional substitute for the drinking feasts common in Quechua life.

Another big drawing card has been the indigenous gospel music. This music is composed by Quechuas themselves and then performed by groups in native garb and with native instruments.

The evening meetings in Majipamba featured plenty of music, and the biggest night drew in 5,000 attenders. They packed the tent, spilling over outside the door flaps. The body heat warmed the cold 11,000-feet-high mountain air so that condensation dripped from the canvas ceiling.

Article continues below

But no one seemed to mind, as skilled conjuntos (music groups) from each of the three countries sang and played their drums, guitars, reed pipes, and mandolin-shaped charrangos. Long arms pushed tape recorders toward the platforms, and the local Quechua radio station carried the programs live.

The events at Majipamba trace back to 1976 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and a meeting of the Latin American Theological Fraternity. Those in attendance voiced concern that efforts be made to communicate the gospel within the culture of Latin America’s indigenous groups.

The idea led to separate Christian gatherings of Quechuas in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Quechua leaders from the three countries then met together for the first time in 1979 for an international music festival in Ayacucho, Peru. There they elected a six-member committee that planned the Majipamba conference Most of the initiative has come from the Quechuas, themselves.

The people who came to Majipamba seemed glad they did. They elected a new Andean Quechua-Quichua Committee to plan a third such gathering. Its president, Fernando Quicaña of Peru, possibly summed up their sentiments, when he said, “Once we had a single language and culture [Inca]. Unfortunately we lost it.

“But thanks be to God, through the gospel we are once again united.”

JOHN MAUST in Ecuador

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.