If Clyde Peters could visit the Peruvian Amazon today, he would not be able to believe his eyes. The pioneer Seventh-day Adventist mission pilot who flew over the Ucayali River in the Amazon jungle in northern Peru in the 1960s would be surprised to find how much the Adventist Church has grown in the area.
The city of Pucallpa, “the gateway to the Amazon region,” has around 75 Adventist congregations. In five of them, most members belong to one of the 14 indigenous tribes along the banks of the Ucayali. Some indigenous members are third- and fourth-generation Adventists. Most of these developments can be traced back to the mission service of Peters and his family.
Seeds of the Gospel
At La Selva Adventist church in Pucallpa, bilingual indigenous teacher Charito shares her memories with visiting Maranatha Volunteers International and regional church leaders just a few days before Christmas 2022. Charito grew up in an isolated jungle community upstream on the Ucayali and eventually moved to Pucallpa to attend college.
“Grandfather loved fishing along the Ucayali,” Charito, who belongs to the Shipibo-Conibo peoples, says. She repeats a story her parents have told her many times. “Grandfather would spend weekends on his boat, looking for the tasty paiche and other fish.” But after he got to know Jesus and the truth of the Bible, grandfather changed his habits, Charito says. “Now he would leave early on Friday and come back in the afternoon with fresh fish, which he would prepare for our Sabbath meals.”
Those were the humble beginnings of the Adventist message among the indigenous communities of the Ucayali. Peters’ sacrifices included being rescued from the river by the local residents after his overloaded plane landed in heavy rain and began to sink. His mission adventures eventually became a book.*
Even today, reaching some of the small communities in the Amazon jungle requires a 24-hour trip, first by ship and then by motorboat. Some Adventist teachers still cover that distance several times a year to teach the children along the river.
Mission to the City
When Charito, Eunice, and others finished high school in their native jungle villages, they decided to move to the city of Pucallpa to attend college. Without money or relatives in the city, many of the indigenous students would pitch a makeshift plastic tent in an empty lot just to be able to pursue their studies. “It was a tough life,” Charito says, “with no running water, sanitary services, or the most basic comforts.”
Even at those difficult times, Adventist students began to share their beliefs with their indigenous classmates.
Since those hard beginnings, the government stepped up to increase indigenous representation at schools in the area. Nowadays, the National Intercultural University of the Amazon in Pucallpa caters to students from at least 14 indigenous regional tribes. Government residences provide a comfortable bed and essential services to indigenous students for just 1 Peruvian Sol (about US$0.25) a month.
The improvement of services also helped the local Adventist indigenous community to grow. “Now, many indigenous students from different tribes attend our church services,” Charito says. “Not all of them are members.”
A Growing Church Community
La Selva church members now see a wonderful opportunity for mission in the area. Fourteen years ago, members raised funds to build their current church building. But the building needs to be improved if they want to keep growing. “We want to bring more people to Jesus,” Charito says. “But we need an upgrade to our facilities if we want to invite more students to worship God and study the Bible.”
Maranatha Volunteers International, a supporting ministry of the Adventist Church, has partnered with Adventist church leaders in northern Peru to help build or rebuild scores of churches in 2023. There are many challenges because Maranatha does not receive funds from the organized church, and projects depend on private donors. Also, there are logistical and practical considerations.
“Every step, every project has to be carefully planned,” Maranatha Peru country director Elmer Barbosa explains. “If you are planning to support the construction of 100 church buildings, even a relatively small, thousand-dollar modification to each project would require Manaratha to come up with an additional $100,000 donation.” But the prospects are promising thanks to the commitment of many donors and the synergistic work with Adventist Church leaders.
“There’s a mostly untapped mission field in the local university,” Charito says. “We are willing, and we are ready to reach out and invite more indigenous students to our services. A new church building will certainly help. After all, it’s about bringing more people to the kingdom.”
* Wellesley Muir, The Man Who Jumped Off Clouds (Hagerstown, MD: Review & Herald, 2000).