On a wide tributary of the Peruvian Amazon, there’s a place called Aurora. Established on 243 jungle acres, Aurora is a tribal training center, equipped to host leaders from some of the most remote indigenous villages in the region. To come here, most will travel for days, hungry for the biblical tools they’ll receive.
On an early February morning, Arnaldo Caúper and Raul Vaquiuahua descended the high river bank from their village into the tall grass along the water. One steadied the boat for the other until both were aboard their wooden peque peque.
The Holy Spirit had come to their village, but they didn’t have access to the Scriptures. When a group of evangelical linguists arrived last year from Pucallpa, Peru, Arnaldo and Raul were saved. Raul had lived as a drunk, often neglecting his family to run around with his buddies. When he heard the good news about Jesus Christ, he was overjoyed and immediately began to share what God had done for him.
The men knew they needed Bibles but didn’t have the money for them. Iquitos, the nearest city, was many days away, and though they were willing to travel, only Spanish-language Bibles would be available there—nothing in Capanahua. Still, they persisted. Every Sunday for a year Arnaldo invited neighbors to his house for what they called a “reunion” of the linguists’ visit. And each week they reminded themselves of the teaching they’d heard and encouraged one another in prayer.
Then a pastor Arnaldo met along the river invited him to Aurora. The invitation, spread by word of mouth throughout the river basin, promised training for Christian leaders. Not only would the instruction last for several days; there would also be indigenous-language audio Bibles and a film about Jesus, which was stuffed into a backpack-sized projection system, ready for travel to the villages. Arnaldo and Raul eagerly set out on the eight-day journey to the center, stopping at nightfall to sleep in villages along the way.
As indigenous leaders like Arnaldo and Raul arrived at Aurora, a collection of people from the American Bible Society, Renew World Outreach, and In Touch Ministries were still en route from the United States, on a flight to Lima, Peru. They were brothers and sisters in Christ, working together to strengthen the local church throughout the Amazon basin. In addition to backpacks fitted with the mobile Jesus film, they brought solar-powered Messengers, Torches, and micro SD cards from the In Touch Messenger Lab. These audio devices come pre-loaded with the Bible in Spanish and six indigenous languages plus sermons from Dr. Charles Stanley.
After two flights, a bus ride, and a 90-minute trip along the river, the missionaries pulled to shore in a 19th-century steamship now powered by a diesel engine. Waiting and watching from the shore of Aurora was a long line of believers from the Urarina, Yine, Asháninka, Cacataibo, Matsés, Juni Kuin, and Capanahua tribes. They raised their cellphones and snapped photos of the new arrivals as a boatman hurled a thick rope to the grass. When the passengers crossed to dry ground, they were enveloped by a happy circle of Peruvians.
Two decades earlier David Palusky, founder of Renew World Outreach, and his wife Stephanie came to this region, looking for the Urarina—a people group unreached by the gospel. When the couple met and connected with the tribe, they discovered a receptive people, eager to have the Scriptures in their heart language. But as the Urarina and other indigenous people were exposed to Bible stories, Palusky discovered they didn’t have a context for many of the images—they had never seen a door or a road, a donkey or a manger. So Palusky set to work adapting heavy reel-to-reel Jesus film projectors into a more mobile format. Now that the Urarina could see these images for themselves, many received salvation in Christ. Then as Messengers and Torches arrived, new believers sat together, playing the Scriptures and discussing them.
It was after many years of visits to the region, traveling up and down the brown water tributaries, that David Palusky noticed a piece of land for sale and wondered, Why not buy a piece of property and invite the people to come? It took three years of paperwork with the government, but by 2009 they had the land to build a screened-in training center, lodging, bathrooms, and a working kitchen so that the local peoples could come for instruction in any number of disciplines, and especially the Scriptures. And thus Aurora found its genesis.
A few hours after the old steamship’s arrival, the people gather in Aurora’s training center for introductions and a time of worship. Palusky stands before the group and tells the story of the early days with the Urarina. “We met way out in the jungle,” he says, pausing at intervals for his Spanish translator, “with a screen and a projector. And your leaders said, ‘You bring us the Word of God, so we can bring it to other people.’”
Then he held up the Torch, a yellow device bent at the top like a hook. “This is the Bible in audio. Solar-powered. At night it’s a light, a lantern.” This tool is the thing Arnaldo and Raul traveled along the river to retrieve for their village. They sit forward in their chairs, ready for the moment when they can hold the Torch in their hands. For a year they managed to have church without the Scriptures; now, here is a resource that will give them God’s Word and, going forward, change everything.
“How many of you have cellphones?” Palusky asks. Most in the room raise their hand. “All of you have trouble charging them. But this,” Palusky says, raising the Torch, “will charge your phone now. It will put the Bible on your phone. We’ll show you how to put the Bible on your friend’s phone. And from your friend’s phone to the next village and their friends. And you’ll hear it in the language your mom spoke. Amen?” All around the room, men and women who live days apart from each other break out in applause, looking to one another with smiles and happy eyes.
These leaders, from a half-dozen Amazonian tribes, represent men and women who rely almost entirely on oral learning. Their villages have been spiritually hungry, and the Torch is like a storehouse of food to fill this longing.
In the morning Marcos Costa, the director of Aurora, is up early, eager to talk about the future of the church in Peru. Trees bend over the tributary, and the dark water creases as the fishing boat floats through patterns of sun and shadow. “We have a big animal called sachavaca,” he says, referring to what is more commonly known as a tapir. “A very heavy animal, difficult to find. It reproduces at a very slow pace.” Twigs and broken leaves bubble up alongside the boat as it drifts quietly through the water, and a wild bird in the distance makes a plopping sound like a drippy faucet. “We want a church everyone knows, more like a rabbit. Everyone can see a rabbit. Every two months they give birth to 8, 10, 12 babies. This is what we want: a rabbit church.”
There are 36 indigenous groups in the Peruvian Amazon. Twenty-eight have been reached by the gospel, but Marcos says the good news of Christ has not penetrated very deep within these communities. His goal is far greater than seeing these visiting pastors return to their community to plant and nurture a church—the goal, rather, is to generate a church-planting movement. Not in 10 years, but now. “Starting today: to go from this river, jump to another river, and another, and then deeper to the mountain.”
Later that day Vicente Arahuata Manizari is outside the long double-doored breezeway intended to discourage tropical mosquitos from getting into the training center. He’s a Urarina pastor, one of several invited to Aurora a year ago for the very first distribution of the Torch in Peru. Vicente planted a church called Nuevo Peru in his village, and then he planted Nuevo Pueblo in a second village. He’s pastoring both congregations while discipling a younger man, Antonio, to take over.
Vicente played the Torch, and Antonio came to Christ. Though he’s 38 years old, Antonio doesn’t know how to read. Vicente wonders aloud if it’s better to spend his time discipling his friend or teaching him to read. He tries to do both. There’s time to talk as the two men travel together, taking the Torch to places that have never heard the gospel. They play about 20 minutes of Scripture for the villagers and then ask them questions about it: “What do you like? What don’t you like?” Then they explain the gospel. “I’m very grateful for the Torch,” Vicente says. “It makes my job a lot easier.” And after finally arriving home in the evening, he sits up in the darkness, listening to Dr. Stanley’s sermons with the light from the Torch illuminating his feet and hands.
Just up the path is Eugenio Arturo Martinez, a Juni Kuin pastor, who wears a green patterned bandana across his brow. His tribe has had many challenges—drunkenness, violence between men, and the practice of witchcraft. But 11 years ago, when his daughter was terribly sick and undergoing a second operation, Eugenio had a dream about Jesus Christ. Once his daughter recovered, Eugenio became a believer. He, too, had been prone to drunkenness and womanizing, but as he trusted God, his whole life changed. In his village, there was nothing but a dead church and no one to disciple him. His old friends tried to get him to pick up again with them, eventually chiding him for being “one of those Christians.” But he found himself unashamed of the gospel. At the urging of his parents, he began a work to revive the church in the village.
Last year he was invited to the Torch distribution, and as he’s listened to Dr. Stanley, he has learned much that he can share. He uses the device for his morning devotions, and then he goes from house to house, ministering to many in his village before breakfast. He gathers small listening groups and, with the push of a button on the Torch, tells a story. He asks the group questions, and the responses give him a platform from which to share about the wonderful, transforming power of God.
At the close of the Aurora training event, the tribal leaders head to the waters, each carrying a backpack stuffed with all the components of the solar-powered Jesus film. When they return home to their villages, they’ll host an open-air showing of what’s likely the first movie their people have ever seen. Each group also received 20 Torches and several dozen micro SD cards, loaded with the Scriptures and In Touch content.
And though they are rich with treasures for their community, these leaders know that their peque peques won’t remain tucked along the shore for long. That’s because they’ve promised each other to fan out along the tributaries to show the story of Jesus. Then they’ll begin Torch listening groups and plant churches in the hundreds of villages throughout the region.
Finally, as Arnaldo and Raul push away from the shore of Aurora, their eyes see past the eight-day journey to the faces of their families and friends, excitedly awaiting the Bible. The men have talked about how, when they get back, they’ll show the Jesus film right away. Many eager hands will help them unpack the pieces, which will probably scatter on the ground in disarray before they can be rounded up and carefully assembled. But then, as the sky darkens and God’s story lights up the night, Arnaldo and Raul will look on, grateful to God for sending human messengers to reach them.
Photography by Ben Rollins