When this day began, I was in Lima, Peru. Now I am sitting in my den in Conroe. That’s rather remarkable, I think.
For the past nine days, I have been part of a small team (along with Sara Hassenger and Kaylee Martinez) from FBC who participated in a mission trip among the Quechua people of Peru. We were there to assist Russ and Sherry Fleetwood, IMB Missionaries from Conroe, in hosting a youth retreat. I wanted to get some thoughts down in print while they are still fresh on my mind, because this has been quite a trip.
When we think of Peru, we tend to imagine Llama-covered mountains. But there are some very distinct areas of the country. Lima, the capital, is a huge (roughly twice the population of Greater Houston), modern city. Much of the coast of Peru is a desert. There is also a substantial region that is jungle. And then there is the mountainous region, including Pomabamba, a small town in the Ancash region in the center of the country, where we spent most of our time.
In Pomabamba (which means “Cougar Plain”) and the Ancash region, nearly all of the population are Quechua. There are at least 3.5 million Quechua in Peru, along with millions more in Ecuador and Bolivia. They speak various forms of the language that was once used in the Inca Empire, although the Quechua were around before the Incas. The Quechua who we met were mostly farmers, living hard lives off of the land. They tend to be small relative to Americans; I only saw one or two men who were as tall as me. But as Russ told us, they are tough, resilient people. Several times, I saw tiny, elderly Quechua women carrying on their backs loads that were larger than themselves. Small towns like Pomabamba are built around a main plaza that sits in front of the Catholic church building. They have a few restaurants and businesses, along with locals who sell fruits, vegetables and other stuff in the street (one guy tried to sell Russ and me a bag of Guinea pigs). But they don’t have the conveniences you and I take for granted. There are no fast food spots. A grocery store is smaller than most of our living rooms, with items crammed onto the shelves, and a few barrels of rice, grains and vegetables. Pomabamba has a hospital, but it’s not well-resourced. Serious medical issues require a seven-hour long trip to Huaraz. Most of the residents don’t have cars; fortunately, there are now buses that take people to Huaraz and beyond, but the roads are not paved, and the trip is a hard one (more on that later).
Life in Pomabamba is different from life in the US in so many other ways:
–The Quechua love their potatoes. They should; after all, the potato originated in Peru, and they have thousands of varieties. The typical Quechua diet is full of starch; most meals are served with potatoes AND rice. The Atkins diet would have a tough time catching on in Pomabamba (of course, the Quechua would have a hard time understanding a culture so affluent, we lose weight on purpose).
–We ate twice at Mesa Rumi Restaurant in Pomabamba. The first time, I had Loma Saltado, a traditional Peruvian dish (Roasted beef and onions over fried potatoes, with rice on the side). Quechua get most of their liquids in soup, so when you go to a restaurant there, they won’t bring you a drink unless you ask for it. They also don’t like cold drinks, so your beverage will be lukewarm unless you ask for it “helado.” (One member of our team told us that she has served Coke to Quechua friends in her home, who then asked to heat it up in the microwave).
–Many Quechua women, especially those in the country (called Campesinos) dress in a traditional way: Brightly colored, layered clothing (a T-shirt and sweater on top, pants covered by a skirt on bottom), and hats.
–Animals are allowed to roam free in much of rural Peru. If you take a trip, you will have to pause several times for cows, pigs, sheep, horses, donkeys, and more dogs than you can count. Sometimes, these animals are being herded by a Quechua man or woman; but often, they are simply roaming.
–Traffic laws are more like guidelines in Peru. I’ve lived most of my life in the Houston area. I have learned to drive offensively, if you will. But Peruvians make the most aggressive Houston driver look like an old lady out for a Sunday drive in her Town Car. I lost count of the number of near-wrecks we had, all the fault of drivers who ran stop signs or red lights, were in the wrong lane in a blind curve, or cut in front of us without warning. In Lima, a city of over 10 million, it was even worse. So if you drive in Peru, keep your eyes on the road and be ready to use your horn.
–Truthfully, not many laws are strictly enforced in Peru. People put speed bumps in front of their homes without permission. Businesses in town often set up signs that block the public sidewalk. Quechua men routinely relieve themselves by the roadside, in full view of passers-by. On the other hand, the people are incredibly polite and friendly. The drivers may be aggressive, but I saw no signs of the road rage so prevalent here.
–Even though it is technically summer in Peru, the temperature in Pomabamba never got higher than the high sixties when we were there. There was virtually no humidity (even though it’s the rainy season), and I never broke a sweat, even when playing soccer. There are no poisonous snakes, and no cockroaches. The natural beauty of the place is stunning. This paragraph alone will make some of you want to pack your bags and move here immediately.
Oh, one more thing: I didn’t see a single Llama. Not one.
Russ and Sherri Fleetwood
Russ grew up at First Baptist. He met Sherry at the Baptist Student Union at the University of Houston (which is where I met my wife, as well!). The Fleetwoods have been Pomabamba for 14 years, recruiting and equipping Quechua men and women to lead home Bible studies to spread the Gospel. Although most Quechua, like most Peruvians, are nominally Catholic, church attendance is very low, and knowledge of the Gospel is almost non-existent. Evangelical Christianity has grown substantially in the time the Fleetwoods have been in Pomabamba, but they have found that many of these professing believers have very little Scriptural knowledge. Many pastors don’t preach the Bible, instead “preaching” about the latest dream they had. Their religion tends to be very works-based. So along with helping new people come to saving faith, the Fleetwoods also see their role as teaching professing believers how to study Scripture.
Kaylee, Sara and I took an early flight to Lima from Bush Airport (we left my house at 5:30 AM–huge thanks to Jim Hassenger for driving us). With a stopover, we landed in Lima at 8 that night…but our trip was far from over. We were met at the airport by Daniel, a Peruvian friend of the Fleetwoods who would help us get to the bus station. Daniel teaches English at a school in Lima, so he was the perfect guide for us. He helped negotiate a cab ride for us (actually two cabbies had a pretty heated disagreement over who would get the fare), and made sure we had our bus tickets in hand and luggage stowed.
Our bus for Huaraz departed at 11:30 PM. It was surprisingly comfortable, with fully reclining seats and plug-ins for us to charge our phones (I was picturing something out of the movie Romancing the Stone). But the road was rough and curvy, and I didn’t get much sleep. We arrived in Huaraz in the morning, where Russ was waiting for us with his pickup. He took us to a hotel in town, where we had breakfast and met Lisa and Amy, missionaries based in Lima who would help us lead the retreat. We then made the long drive from Huaraz to Pomabamba, picking up the final member of our team, Jose Marco, along the way. That drive winds around mountain roads through a pass that exceeds 15,000 feet elevation. The last three hours of the drive are on an unpaved, single-lane road that hangs precariously over the cliffside. Perhaps due to my lack of sleep, I wasn’t ready for the altitude, and I felt pretty miserable. We arrived at the Fleetwoods’ house on Tuesday night in time for supper. Fortunately, my altitude sickness had passed.
Wednesday, we drove to Jatun Era, site of one of the house churches the Fleetwoods work with. From the road, we walked up a steep, narrow trail (the sun had already set, so we had our cell-phone flashlights out, and stepped carefully). The church met in a small, tin-roofed structure with pews made of planks balanced on logs. There was a table up front and a tractor-supply calendar on the wall. A kitten roamed the room as we sang songs in Spanish and in Quechua. We split into two groups; the men went outside with Russ and me, while the women stayed inside with Sara, Kaylee, Amy, Lisa and Jose Marco (the older women are less likely to know Spanish, so we left Marco there to translate everything into Quechua). In our time with the men, I spoke (with Russ translating into Spanish) about God’s purpose for our lives. We shared about grace; Marco had told us there is no Quechua word for grace. Fortunately, we both felt they understood that grace is a gift of God, and our salvation cannot be earned. One of the young men asked me for my advice to them on building a church. It was a fruitful meeting, although I must confess (based on the laughter I heard coming from inside the building) I think the women had more fun.
Thursday we spent preparing for the youth retreat. We also helped the Fleetwoods with a yard sale, which gave us a chance to interact with local people. Friday morning, the retreat began. We ended up having fourteen teenagers (we would have had fifteen, but one young girl got sick). We found these kids to be extremely polite and easy to please. Russ told us that Quechua churches don’t have youth or children’s ministries, so any focused attention on them is welcome. Our goal for the retreat was to practice Bible storying–a technique in which a Bible story is shared several times, with a game or activity to reinforce it, and questions to make sure the students got the main point. The theme was Para mi, vivir es Cristo, y morir es una ganacia (“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” Philippians 1:21). I was first to share my story: The story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. I had memorized the story in Spanish, which is WAY out of my comfort zone. But the kids listened well, and answered all my questions correctly. We sang Spanish-language worship songs, played games and did crafts. We went to bed that night good and tired.
Here are some pictures of the kids:
By the way, one story from that first day that stands out: At the start of the retreat, Kaylee asked the kids a series of questions to “break the ice.” One of her questions was “What is your favorite holiday?” One young girl answered, “Father’s Day.” Russ later told me that this was particularly moving. The girl’s father suffers from crippling arthritis and has a tough time providing for their family. He feels judged by the other men in the area, because he can’t do all that he would like to. Yet to this girl, Father’s Day is her favorite day of the year. Even as I type this, I’m getting a little teary-eyed thinking about it.
Saturday, we rented Teatro Obregon, a small theater in town, so we could play volleyball and soccer in between Bible lessons. Speaking of Bible lessons, I need to share a word about Jose Marco, who was there to translate our lessons into Quechua. The kids are all fluent in Spanish, thanks to the education system, but Quechua is the first language they learned. It’s what is still spoken in their homes. When Marco spoke, you could see the kids engage with him in a way they didn’t with the rest of us. He was speaking their language, yes, but it was more than that. He is a well-read, highly knowledgeable preacher of the Gospel who has a deep passion for the discipleship of his people. I enjoyed him tremendously. Actually, I am very grateful for every member of the team. Kaylee, who is only nineteen and is an intern in our student ministry, really shined. She organized games, hung out with the girls during break times (not surprisingly, the girls were drawn to her), and went the extra mile in so many ways. Sara had done the complicated logistical work to get us to Peru, and she led in the crafts as well as teaching a Bible story. I was glad to have someone with her international experience and fluency in Spanish, as well as her wisdom and maturity. Lisa and Amy were both incredible, too. They brought so many good ideas and knowledge about the Quechua. Combined with Russ and Sherry, they gave us the encouragement and confidence to do what we would have otherwise felt ill-equipped for.
Sunday, we wrapped up the retreat by 4:30. Most of the kids had walked to the retreat (trips that took several hours), but it was raining, so members of our team took them home. Kaylee was able to meet some of the parents of the kids, and exchange tearful goodbyes.
Monday, we started the long journey home. We took our time driving to Huaraz, stopping for a picnic lunch at 15,000 feet, later for a hike near what seemed like the top of the world, and still later for ice cream (although I must say…Peruvians need to import some Blue Bell). We took the same overnight bus back to Lima that night. Tuesday, we had all day to see Lima. Our experience there was quite different than in Pomabamba. Lima has all of the conveniences of home, including American restaurants. The people dress in modern styles and tend to look more European than the Quechua. Many times in the nicer sections of town, it struck me that if I didn’t know better, I would have thought I was in Houston. We went downtown, saw the Presidential palace and other government buildings, ate some great food by the seacoast, and briefly toured the ruins of the wall that surrounded Lima in the 17th century.
Our flight back to Houston departed Lima at 12:50 AM and landed here at 6:20. I had slept well the entire week, thanks to the Fleetwoods’ hospitality (and in spite of their neighbors’ rooster, who got cranked up every morning at 5), but the last two days of travel were so hectic, I was grateful for my nice, quiet bed when I got home.
What Will Stick With Me
The kids we met will stick with me most of all. Although they were very shy, they also impressed us with their intelligence and kindness. This generation of Quechua has great potential. Even though they still live in what we would consider primitive conditions (some don’t even have electricity), they are much more likely to finish secondary school and go on to advanced studies than their parents or previous generations. Pray that as they interact with the world in a way Quechua have never done previously, they are drawn closer to God, not pulled away from him. Pray that they will become leaders in their communities, who start house churches that spread God’s love, and lead their people to a better standard of living to God’s glory.
During the trip, I kept thinking about how hard it was to get to Pomabamba. And yet I was glad I had come, because if not, I never would have met these people. We tend to live in such a small, self-contained world, only interacting with the people we want; it is good to see that other people live in places we never consider, and they matter to God just as much as we do. Russ and Sherry have lived in this isolated spot for fourteen years, forgoing conveniences that we take for granted, simply because God loves the Quechua. It occurred to me that Jesus traveled a much longer and more treacherous road than I had: Leaving Heaven behind, emptying Himself of all divine privilege and prerogative (Philippians 2:5-8), becoming poor like us (poorer than any of us Americans, in fact), facing the rejection of His people, and dying for us on a cross. Why? Because we matter to God. We were worth it to Him. We still are. Quechua or Americans, rich or poor, Republicans or Democrats, rule-followers and rebels…God loves us all, and He’ll go to the very depths of Hell to save us, if we’ll let Him.
So if we call ourselves His followers, people need to matter that much to us, too.