To Every Tribe

Pursuing mission on the world’s largest river island.

Rafael Acosta, Tocantins Mission, Brazil
To Every Tribe

August 9 is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. According to the United Nations, there are approximately 370 million indigenous people in the world, living in 90 countries. They speak a majority of the world’s 7,000 languages and make up about 5,000 individual cultures. Indigenous people adhere to cultural traditions that are, at times, vastly different from the dominant societies surrounding them. Recognizing this, Adventist missionaries are increasingly learning how to share the Gospel message in those unique cultural settings, as is the case in Brazil. ~ Adventist Review Editors

Sitting in a ravine while fishing, children watch small motorboats called “voadeiras” sailing by on the warm waters of the Araguaia River. The small boats carry a group of nine volunteers, who will spend 365 days in Bananal Island, home of the Carajá tribe, in the state of Tocantins, Brazil.

Native kids drop their bamboo fishing rods and run towards the visitors to welcome them by saying “awire” (“hi.”) The scene is repeated every time a new One Year in Mission (OYiM) project team arrives at the region to assist people living along the riverbanks with evangelistic and outreach initiatives.

There are several villages scattered around the island, which with its 7,400 square-mile (19,000 square-kilometer), is bigger than the US states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

To get there, you must travel by ferry and then drive through long stretches of bumpy dirt roads to reach the city of São Félix do Araguaia. In this city, there is a dock from where boats can take you to the reservation entrance.

As the boats approach the island, the horizon reveals the rudimentary village architecture. Their houses are made of logs, clay, and straw, called “retôs.”

For volunteer, Ítalo Franklin it was his first time. Born in Brasilia, the Computer Engineering student decided to move away from the rush of the Brazilian capital and offer computer and technology classes to the natives. Away from home, Franklin realized that something beyond the landscape would change. “I found out that this is where I should be,” he said. “It will be a great transformation in my life. I think just good things will come out of it.”

The Heart of Brazil

Tocantins is geographically located in the center of the Brazilian territory. It is the reason it is known as “The Heart of Brazil.” It was in this region that the Adventist message began to spread among the natives. In 1920, the church began its first efforts to reach native Brazilians in the Araguaia with the arrival of Alvin Nathan Allen. With experience in missions such as those he launched in Peru and Bolivia, the US pastor opened doors for missionaries to work among the Carajá natives.

Currently, volunteers assist the Carajás who live in coastal communities of the ecological sanctuary. On a normal work day, they walk approximately three kilometers between paths with lush landscapes just to get to the villages. Major operations are focused in Santa Isabel, near the island center. There, they hold health fairs, offer assistance, give Bible studies, and participate in local church activities. The group also offers tutoring services, as well as English, Spanish, and computer classes for children at the community school.

“They asked for help because they cannot understand and write Portuguese well,” said Bianka Fernandes, the team leader on the island.

A Different View of Missionaries

Perhaps due to the way Brazil was colonized, missionary presence in native villages caused some to become prejudiced. Historian Ubirajara Prestes Filho, however, believes that this vision has changed. “Today it is understood that those who must say whether they accept the presence of missionaries are the natives themselves,” he said. “They are agents of their own history and must be respected.”

Prestes Filho explains that before, anthropological studies emphasized only the problems of evangelization from the idea of acculturation. “Studies, however, have analyzed how different indigenous groups have received, incorporated or adapted the Christian faith,” he said. “As far as the missionaries are concerned, anthropology has also analyzed the changes happening in churches after getting in touch with the natives.”

Prestes Filho emphasized that “today anthropology understands that the indigenous people are active agents of their history. Of course, abuses practiced by some denominations are noticed by scholars on the subject. But I believe there is more respect today.”

The way Tocantins Native Ministry leader Arôvel Leonay understands evangelization in the villages reinforces this point of view. “Missionaries need to convey the message in the native language so that they can understand it within their cultural context,” he said. “The purpose is not to change the culture of the natives, but rather their vision of the gospel.”

More Volunteers Needed

As the Adventist message is spread among the natives, the people’s needs are greater, and hence the need for more volunteers to serve.

Take the Fontoura village, for instance.

According to tribal chief and director of the school José Hani Karajá, his community does not have any missionaries. A mathematician and environmentalist, Karajá is an alumnus of Central Brazil Adventist Academy. He thinks Adventist missionaries could make a significant contribution to recover cultural values overshadowed by a westernization of native villages. “We urgently need a missionary in our village, who can work with the young people and help us,” he said.

Rafael Acosta, Tocantins Mission, Brazil