Smoke from a Thousand Villages (Part 2)

This is part two of a two-part article. See part 1 here.

The Challenge of Reaching Indigenous Oaxaca

The fragmentation and isolation of Oaxaca’s indigenous population creates significant barriers to the spread of the Gospel. But besides these barriers, there are many other factors that make the task of church planting here extremely difficult.

The most obvious is the difficulty of the indigenous languages. Learning the indigenous language—the “heart language”—of the people we’re trying to reach is vital to accurately communicating the gospel to them.  This is especially true since the isolated, unreached villages that we target almost exclusively use their tribal languages for every day communication (even if they know Spanish).  Because these languages trace their roots to ancient, Pre-Columbian tribal languages, they have no affinity to the North American and European languages that we’re familiar with, making them extremely “foreign” to us. For example, the vowel-abundant, tonal Mixtec spoken in one village where we work sounds more like a Southeast Asian language than Spanish.  (Here’s what it looks like in written form:  Á xîni-un ndáa ndo’ó kití kúú-a.)

Added to the difficulty of the language is the distinctiveness of the culture found here. Because these tribal groups have lived in relative isolation for centuries, they have maintained many of their ancient customs and ancestral traditions.  These customs and traditions often vary from village to villages, with neighboring villages often having distinctive rituals, belief systems, superstitions and even clothing. Life and culture in these villages seems foreign—even to those of us who feel very comfortable and “at home” in Mexican culture.

Another complicating factor is the political atmosphere of indigenous Oaxaca. Centuries of oppression and abuse from foreign invaders, rival tribal groups, and the Mexican government have resulted in people who are often reclusive and highly suspicious of outsiders.  Land wars and other disputes are a constant source of conflict and violence. In 2010 we conducted a medical clinic in a village where, just the week before we arrived, a 12-year old boy from the village had been killed by a neighboring village because he was planting corn on land claimed by that village. Frequent distant gunshots throughout our visit served as a constant reminder of the conflict we’d stumbled upon.

But the biggest factor is, undoubtedly, the spiritual one.  Mexican Indian religion is syncretistic, blending elements of folk Catholicism and ancient tribal animism. One of our church planters recently showed me a video he recorded earlier this year of his Mixtec village’s shaman making an animal sacrifice—complete with an altar, the sprinkling of blood, and ritual dances. The sacrifice is made each year at the beginning of the rainy season to invoke the favor of “El Señor de La Lluvia,” the “Rain God.” Ironically, the name they’ve given to their god is “St. Mark”—a striking example of the syncretism that has taken place between animism and Catholicism.  The resultant spiritual darkness is evident. These tribal villages are strongholds of demonic presence and oppression, making the introduction of the gospel particularly difficult. The Enemy does not surrender his territory without a vicious fight.

Earning the trust and favor of people whose lives and histories are stained with violence, hardship and spiritual darkness is not easy.  But by God’s grace, headway is being made. Jesus came to earth precisely to reach these kinds of people: “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned” (Matt 4:16).   Please pray for us as we seek to take the gospel to Mexico’s indigenous population who are, to borrow again from Moffat’s words, “without Christ, without God, and without hope in this world.”

Note: Photo by Jonathan Herrin

3 comments to Smoke from a Thousand Villages (Part 2)

  • Joe Hernandez

    Great article, AJ. Miss all of you and praying for you.

  • Julie Larsen

    Thank you for the update and information. These along with your newsletters give us a glimpse of what you are experiencing and aide us in praying specific needs. Praying you feel encouraged and re-energized this week as you put on the full armor. Love you guys!

  • Nathan Forbes

    Thanks for taking the time to write and inform us of the details of what it looks like to minister to the people of Oaxaca.

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