“…[Y]ou will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
– Acts 1:8
In 1997, Roy Seals, a long-time friend of mine who was then serving as the South American director at a Baptist missionary organization, invited me to accompany him to the Venezuelan rain forest to visit an American missionary; Clint Vernoy, his wife and their four children, who were living among a tribe of Yekwana Indians in the village of Chajuraña.
I immediately did the spiritual thing—I asked my wife for permission—and she being a graduate of Tennessee Temple University with a degree in missions gave her blessing.
It was an eye-opening trip to say the least. After arriving in Puerto Ayacucho on the border of Colombia and Venezuela, we hopped on a Mission Aviation Cessna 206 and flew 90 minutes due east into the jungle, landing on an airstrip of sorts—a long, well-manicured clearing that the Yekwana had hacked out of the jungle with machetes—and on which I learned that only days earlier, they had killed an anaconda so large, it took four of them to carry it back to their village.
We spent five days with the Vernoy family, taking part in various activities that included swimming in the Chajura river, accompanying a group of Yekwana in canoes on a hunting trip, a fishing expedition for three-foot long worms in the river bottom and a village-wide feast to honor us on our last night.
One evening, while resting in hammocks in the Vernoys’s hut, Roy said, “If you think this has been a great trip, next year we are planning on hiking through the Andes Mountains in Peru to take portions of Scripture to unreached Quechua.”
A year later I found myself hiking on the Santa Cruz trail with both Roy and Clint and two-dozen other guys from the States on what became my first Andes Trek. We walked for six days, camping at altitudes above 13,000 feet, at one point crossing the continental divide at Punta Union (15,675 feet). Two dozen burros and their arrieros (burro managers) carried all of the heavier gear. We stopped in several villages along the way where we were able to hand out portions of Scripture in both Spanish and Huaylas Quechua, the local dialect.
When it was over, I was physically exhausted. Back home I stepped on the bathroom scale and realized I had lost ten pounds. I promised myself I’d never do this again.
Fortunately, God is patient with our foolishness and has a sense of humor. Two years later I was back in Ancash County, Peru, hiking on a different route with a different group of men and women from the States. On this trip, our hosts were now regularly featuring a nightly showing of The Jesus Film in the Huaylas Quechua dialect in every village where we camped. We also had more books of the New Testament translated to hand out including the Gospel of John.
Over the past 23 years I have trekked through the Peruvian Andes on Bible distribution treks a total of 19 times. I have come to know and love the group of dedicated, full-time missionaries and evangelists who live in Huaraz and make this ministry possible year-round. The ministry has grown from when we had sparse portions of Scripture in just one Quechua dialect to now having completed translations of the entire Bible in the three dialects spoken in this region.
The guide who led us on that first trek in 1999—Adelid Yanac—was so moved that a “group of 25 gringos from the States” cared for his people, he surrendered for full-time missionary work shortly thereafter and has led every trek since. He married Rachel McDonald, a Wycliffe missionary who had moved from Ohio to Huaraz to teach the MKs who were there with their parents assisting in the Bible translations. The Yanacs helped form a local Quechua evangelistic organization, AWI, (Alli Willaqui—the Good News Association) which has largely taken over the work of Bible distribution and evangelization.
In June 2022 I was privileged to introduce a group of nine Palm Beach Atlantic University students to this ministry. It had been a dream of mine to one day be able to do this.
We flew from Miami to Lima where our bus was waiting for us in the parking lot at the airport for the 8-hour overnight ride that would take us along the Pan American Highway at sea level, then climbing up the highway that snakes through the Cordillera Negra, topping out at the Conococha Pass at 13,350 feet until beginning its descent to Huaraz where we arrived early the next morning.
After spending two days to acclimatize in Huaraz, and a third day in Chacas, a village on the other side of the Cordillera Blanca, we boarded another bus and set out for Conopa Alta in the northern Conchucos valley where we would spend our first day doing missionary work.
Almost immediately after we arrived, curious locals began to filter into the field at the end of the village outside a school building where our tents had been pitched. A soccer game broke out: It was PBA vs. Peru—at 11,350 feet! (Miraculously, we won!) A Group of musicians showed up playing traditional Quechua tunes. We all danced until it was time for dinner, our chef having whipped up an amazing three-course meal in a tent no larger than 150 feet square.
That evening the entire village came out to our campsite to watch The Jesus Film in the drafty, school building. After the movie, one of the AWI evangelists spoke to the crowd. Another played music on a harp and sang a folk tune in the Quechua’s native language. Finally, it was our turn. I spoke first in Spanish, explaining who we were and why we had come to Peru. Then one by one, the rest of the group introduced themselves. Two students spoke Spanish. Adelid translated for the rest into Quechua. Then Conopa Alta’s mayor spoke, thanked us for coming, and finally called the names of the adult members from each family who then picked their way through the crowd to the front of the room and were presented a Bible by one of the students. “Qué Dios le bendiga!” (May God bless you!) we all said as we placed a copy of the Bible into each person’s hands. “Muchas gracias!” Was the reply, accompanied by joyful expressions on the faces of all. The meeting ended shortly thereafter. Exhausted, we turned in for the night.
After breakfast the next morning we departed on foot for what was to be a seven-hour hike; first down into the valley below us on a steep gravel strewn trail then up through a mountain pass approaching 13,500 feet where we paused—some four hours later—for lunch and to take in the spectacular view. We continued down the other side to the second village on our circuit, Yegua Corral where that evening, we repeated the program. The next day, after another grueling seven-hour walk, we arrived in the village of Carhuacasha where we repeated the program for a third time and subsequently the next evening in the village of Ocshapampa.
We gave out approximately 450 Bibles in those four villages to a people group that God loves as much as He loves you and me. The Quechua had never seen a copy of the Word of God in their own, heart language. This is the work of real, pioneering evangelism. It is a step in fulfilling the Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” (Matthew 28: 19-20).
The students that went on this trip were moved by what they witnessed. Who can tell what the ultimate impact will be in each of their lives? In years past I have seen how this trip affects its participants after they have returned home and reflected for a time. Some have gone on to become missionaries, pastors or Christian school educators. Others returned year after year to Peru with me—several a half-dozen times—participating in treks along a different circuit every year. Others were impacted from simply having spent a week in the Developing World, their perspective about life altered by a renewed spirit of gratitude for their own lives. Others said they “left their demons in the mountains.”
We can talk about missions, teach our students the importance of missions, pray for missions and support missionaries financially and that is all good and necessary. But doing missions—becoming a missionary even if only for a short term—is another activity altogether.
We went to Peru in obedience to the Great Commission to work alongside the Holy Spirit in His work of effectual, eternal change through the power of the Written Word. Our immediate blessing was this simple act of obedience—right being its own reward. Whatever else God chooses to bless our group with in the months ahead remains to be seen. If the past is any indication, I expect greater things.