This is an article from the September-October 1994 issue: Money & Missions

The Tarahumara Penetrating a People Through Prayer and Adoption

The Tarahumara Penetrating a People Through Prayer and Adoption

"God versus Satan! The Tarahumara people had the contestants right, but little else! According to one of their legends, Satan is God's older brother. One day the two decided to create human beings. But God's creation was darker than the devil's; these were the Tarahumara people of Mexico. The whites and mestizos were made by Satan. The legend told how God and Satan had those they made run a foot race, each betting on his own creation. When the Tarahumaras lost the race, God was so angry that he declared they would always be poor while the devil's people would be rich."The above quote from the February, 1991 Global Prayer Digest was part of the fourth story focused on the Tarahumara in this powerful little prayer magazine that is giving Satan fits all over the mission field. The results are nothing less than spectacular. Read on . . .

Running From Darkness to Light

The congregation, under the ministry of indigenous pastors Ventura and Silas Leon (who are father and son) , would spend two and a half to three hours in praise, prayer and preaching. Many of the faithful had traveled five and six hours to attend the service. (The Tarahumara are known internationally as marathon runners. They routinely hunt a deer by chasing it til it drops.) Nonetheless, traveling for hours up and down needle-sharp mountain peaks for miles is still a long journey. They had come to celebrate their new-found freedom in Christ and wanted to allow plenty of time to fellowship, and feast on cobisi (a corn gruel), tonari (goat stew) and other favorite dishes with their brothers and sisters in Christ before heading back to the remote mountain villages in which they live.

The believers had gathered on a patio outside of a house, where formerly ritual animistic ceremonies had been held. Traditionally the Tarahumara worship Father Sun (Onoruame), Mother Moon (Iyerame), and a host of spirits which they seek to appease, along with Onoruame's troublemaking brother, Diablo.

They now have dedicated the patio, where a shaman once chanted and the people had danced for long hours in hopes of keeping disaster at bay, to the service of the One True God. In fact, according to Erik Powell, Mexican branch director of the NGM Indian Tribal Outreach (formerly, Navajo Gospel Mission), who has just returned from a visit among the Tarahumara, many of the new converts have come from spiritually dark backgrounds, including a female shaman and many others who were deceived into an involvement with witchcraft.

A People Movement Begins

As the worship service continues, a Tarahumara man in his mid-30s comes forward to thank the pastors for having led him to Christ some eight months before, and for having ministered to him. To the delight of the Leons, the Indian, Jesus Jariz, has a request: he feels God would like him to be baptized, and he wants to know if they would perform this ceremony for him and thirteen of his family members and neighbors. He shared that he was already beginning to shepherd this tiny new flock of believers.

"There is definitely the real beginning of a people movement here. We are seeing more and more extended family conversions and clusters of growth. There is good native evangelism going on now," Powell said, citing as an example a village chief who had responded to an invitation from local believers to accept Christ as his Lord and Savior.

"They're on fire for God and leading many friends, relatives and neighbors to the Lord left and right. These are people who are really at the core of the Tarahumara culture, such as the chief and the female shaman. Because of this many others are saying, 'This is the church for me.' They are realizing that they can be fully Tarahumara and fully Christian at the same time."

These breakthroughs are in startling contrast to the situation that existed a mere dozen years ago. A church survey done in 1982 showed that after 60-70 years of work by Mexican evangelists, American missionaries, Wycliffe workers and others there was only one struggling and persecuted congregation of some 15-25 discouraged believers. Powell commented, "There were some conversions, but the results were slow and there was a good deal of regression. There was also persecution by non-believers. One pastor had to leave his house because stones were being thrown at it."

Powell recalls how discouraged he and other workers felt a dozen years ago, after conducting the survey and then finding a log cabin filled with 2,000 New Testaments which Wycliffe Bible Translator Kenneth Hilton had laboriously produced while living among the Tarahumara from 1941-72. "Mice were eating them, they were weather damaged...I thought what a shame that very few were using them after that 30 year effort Hilton made to see that the Indians had God's Word in their own tongue." However, at last count, Powell said, at least 500 of the Tarahumara have now become active, witnessing New Testament believers who gather in churches constructed of logs or in the open air in at least 15 distinct congregations. In addition, strong Christian activity has been identified among an additional 16 villages as believers spread the Good News to their extended families among the Tarahumara, whose total population is estimated at somewhere between 50-70,000.

Massive Prayer Lights a Fire

The dramatic change in the Tarahumaras' response to the Gospel, he believes, can be attributed to several factors, according to Powell. Foremost in importance is the amount of prayer which has been focused on the conversion of this tribal people over the past decades, with a notable boost occurring after stories about the Tarahumara appeared in the September 1984 and February 1985 editions of the Global Prayer Digest.

Since those issues came out, Powell noted, many thousands of believers have petitioned God on behalf of the Tarahumara, and the results have been dramatic. "After prayer, major changes began to happen. There has been a significant increase in the number of new outreaches and workers: and from a mere handful, we have definitely seen dramatic growth in the number of conversions as well, after the articles were published.

The timing of the two Global Prayer Digests dovetailed perfectly with another initiative of NGM Indian Tribal Outreach. Powell relates that, "Some time earlier they had asked Campus Crusade for Christ if they could translate the Jesus Film into Rarumari. They said 'Sure, we'll give you the script and you can translate it yourselves.' We didn't realize this was the first time this had been done--we were guinea pigs. We did the work in Mexico, recorded the verses, put in the soundtrack. We premiered the film during Easter Week in 1985, to the amazement of the Indians, most of whom had never seen a movie, at the church.

After that first showing, coupled with the prayer generated months before in the Global Prayer Digest, the Tarahumara started turning to Christ. Discouraged Christians were becoming encouraged," Powell recalled.

Powell stressed that "many years of good, hard work"had been done to achieve the exciting results currently observable. "What is happening today is a result of prayer and tremendous sacrifice on the part of pioneers who have labored in this field since the 1920s. They invested their lives," he said.

One example of this was the translation Hilton had worked so hard to produce for Wycliffe. It became extremely useful when the soundtrack for the Jesus film was originally dubbed for the Tarahumara. It has since come to the attention of those who worked on the adaptation that the particular dialect which was used is by no means the only language spoken by the tribe. In fact, within the central and eastern sector of the population as many as four distinct dialects are spoken, and the Tarahumara who live west of the Copper Canyon speak a language which is not even understood by the others.

"Despite all the exciting progress that is being made for the cause of Christ among the Tarahumara," Powell cautioned, "much prayer is needed for the grassroots movement to continue. People movements in the early stages need to be bathed in prayer." Prayer continues to be generated by the Global Prayer Digest with two more articles (February, 1989 and February, 1991) adding noticeable increases in the numbers coming to Christ. These prayer showers from the Global Prayer Digest were powerful boosts, but sustained, committed prayer was needed to undergird the efforts of the missionaries on the field.

Adoption Keeps the Fire Burning

In the last few years this much needed regular prayer coupled with sustained giving and other types of assistance to the missionary efforts have come from churches that have adopted the Tarahumara partnering with NGM Indian Tribal Outreach to see the church firmly planted among them.

Powell shares how encouraged he is by The Chapel, a church of 7500 in Akron, Ohio, which prays for the Tarahumara at least one Sunday morning a month. The church adopted the Tarahumara about 5 years ago. They publish a weekly prayer sheet for missions, as well as a monthly prayer guide and newspaper for its congregation. "Updates on the Tarahumara are given regularly to keep the tribe in the members' minds and encourage regular prayer," relates Bob Snyder, the Missions Pastor. The congregation has also committed itself to make a significant financial contribution each month to NGM Indian Tribal Outreach.

In addition to regular prayer and giving, the church has sent several work crews on short term missions, including medical, construction and ministry teams. All of this has resulted in one couple at the church becoming full time missionaries with NGM Indian Tribal Outreach. Pastor Snyder has also accepted an invitation to serve on the board of the mission.

Two other churches which have adopted the Tarahumara are the Bethany Lutheran Church in Pueblo, Colorado, and the Christian Church of Cogan Station, Pennsylvania. Both are praying for and financially supporting missionaries working with the Tarahumara.

One member of the Christian Church in Cogan Station has made contributions to drill wells for the Tarahumara to the tune of $750 per well, seven or eight times over the past few years, according to Missions Pastor Bill Young. "We're really excited about doing this. It's so important," added Louise Conover, who, with her husband Ed, formerly headed the missions department. She explained, "Six out of ten kids used to die by the age of five, but because of the well water fewer children are succumbing to the fatal illnesses that used to be transmitted by the water." With a similar focus on the dire physical needs of the Tarahumara, one young woman from the congregation spent a month working among them taking blood samples at a medical clinic. "Meeting these physical needs has not only opened the hearts of the Tarahumara to the Gospel, it has also been a good way to get into the area," Powell said, referring to medical, educational and other types of care missionaries have extended to the Tarahumara.

More Prayer Makes the Fire Hotter

As adopting churches continue praying, God confirms His Word and the work of missionaries with signs and wonders. Since virtually all tribal peoples like the Tarahumara have a simple faith in a supernatural God, He responds with miracles as a matter of course. For instance, Powell recounted, one pastor, a young man in his 20s named Alfredo, had been diagnosed as having tuberculosis (TB); the disease was documented by an X-Ray taken in a government-run clinic.

"Alfredo was converted a month later and was immediately healed. During some follow-up work a month later he was pronounced free and clear of all traces of TB, which was again confirmed by an X-Ray. These people's traditional religion is based upon health and well- being, so naturally they expect God to meet those same needs. They just assume He will move in supernatural ways," Powell remarked.

In addition to prayer for confirming miracles, missionaries to the Tarahumara are requesting prayer for:

  1. The new translation and adaptation work that Wycliffe is beginning, which will also include a New Testament in other dialects, based on Hilton's excellent previous work.
  2. For protection against opposition, both spiritual and political, as many special interest groups, both secular and traditional religionist in nature, are rushing in to try and abort the progress of the Gospel. The leaders of the Chiapas Indian uprising are trying hard to stir up the Tarahumara against the government.
  3. For wisdom to sensitively help identify and train Tarahumara church leaders who will truly create an indigenous expression of the Church of Christ that will be very relevant to unsaved Tarahumaras.

USCWM staff member Jim Meyer recently was in Chihuahua with Erik Powell videotaping their Tarahumara work and mentioned how deeply impressed he was with the skill and sensitivity of the NGM Indian Tribal Outreach missionaries. Doubtless their missiological insight and expertise are also a factor in the progress of the Gospel among the Tarahumara. Another powerful aspect of the NGM Tribal Outreach among the Tarahumara is their cooperation with an indigenous mission agency called Sociedad Misionero de Mexico which was founded by a Mexican NGM staff member Alfredo Guerrero.

Although most of the recent church planting breakthroughs among the Tarahumara have been through the excellent work of NGM Indian Tribal Outreach, other missions who have recently begun work are YWAM and New Tribes Mission along with recent efforts by Mexican missionaries from the Baptists, Presbyterians, Foursquare, Assembly of God and Methodists.

Most of the evangelical growth is occurring in the central and eastern parts of the Tarahumara lands. As far as is known, only a few small Christian churches exist in the western area, and they are thought to be rather weak and not of an indigenous nature.

"There are major cultural and ethnolinguistic differences between the two groups. Even their world view is quite distinct," Powell explained, noting that prayer is also needed for the Gospel to penetrate the hearts of those Tarahumara who - like their countrymen across the deep gorges - grow their corn and beans and tend their goats and sheep in scattered communities sprawled throughout this southwesternmost section of Chihuahua, a mere 200 miles from where the borders of Mexico and New Mexico meet. Hopefully soon we can feature their story in the Global Prayer Digest for a massive prayer focus on them as well. Let's pray also that churches will adopt the Western Tarahumara soon and that they too will meet the Savior who was the Sacrifice that all their sacrificed animals point to.

Now that you've read about the powerful breakthroughs that occur by praying through the Global Prayer Digest, join the international army of prayer warriors who are partnering with the Holy Spirit to finish the task of world evangelization. You may request a sample copy on page 54. We're sure that you've been deeply stirred by reading about the mighty acts of God among the Tarahumara. Now you can see them on video. They are featured in dramatic color footage on the second Global Countdown 2000 video of the Adopt-A-People campaign. Why not let your church or group see what God is doing among them and other people groups through this beautiful video? See the announcement on page 50. For more information about adopting the Western Tarahumara or an unreached people group in some other part of the world write:

Adopt-A-People Campaign U. S. Center for World Mission 1605 Elizabeth Street Pasadena CA 91104


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