The Tarahumara Indians of north-central Mexico present a beautiful case for the power and validity of creation evangelism in a cross-cultural setting. To illustrate this, we must first understand who these people are, along with an understanding of their present day world view.
This indigenous group lives high in the mountains of the Sierra Madre at elevations of 6,000-8,000 feet. Nestled in the valleys and canyons, these people have managed to maintain a unity and diversity from the Mexican settlers while speaking their own language. Their indomitable spirit has been evidenced over the last 400 years since the days of the Spanish Conquistadors and Jesuit priests who sought to claim them for the Roman Catholic church. They are proud of who they are, because they alone are God's people. According to their traditions, God, and his older brother, the Devil, set about to make man. God took dark clay and formed the Tarahumara, breathing into them the breath of life. The Devil took white clay and formed the white man (all non-Tarahumara). However, in spite of all his efforts, the Devil could not make his clay dolls live. He then asked his brother to give them life. This legend explains why they have been so mistreated by the white man. The white man cannot be trusted. He is evil, and will be punished by God in the end. They, on the other hand, are the true children of God to whom all mankind is indebted.
Their witch doctors and shamans all claim to have had face-to-face encounters with God -- an old Tarahumara spirit-being who will demand sacrifices of goats, chickens, squirrels, or cows, as well as plenty of their corn beer, called tesqaino. All this is offered symbolically at the cross to their god, who comes to eat and drink with the Tarahumara people. If these sacrifices are not performed, the world will face destruction by either water, snow, or drought. Since only they perform these sacrifices, they view themselves as saviors of the world. They view their god as a rather old god, because our sun is an old sun. Nor is this god the only god that has existed because other suns have come and gone, and more are coming in the future. Our sun is therefore perceived as father god, and the moon their mother, making them the children of these deities.
When the Jesuit priests came preaching of God, seeking to convert the heathen to the Catholic Church, they brought the teaching of Mary and Joseph and the virgin birth as the central doctrine in establishing the worship of Mary. With the coming of church teaching, their paganism and deification of celestial bodies was given substance. The Tarahumara quickly incorporated these Biblical names, creating a syncretism of paganism and Christianity. Soon their sun god became Joseph, and the moon, Mary. Mary's child, Jesus, became the first true Tarahumara. Today, the witch doctors claim to cure by the power of the spirit of Jesus. To complicate the matter, the early stories told by the Jesuit priests included creation and the fall of Adam and Eve.
One may ask, "What's wrong with that?" Interpreted correctly, nothing. However, we must remember that all communication is filtered through the cultural grid of the hearer and given meaning accordingly. In the case of the Tarahumara, all evil originates from the Devil. When told of Adam and Eve and the subsequent introduction of all evil into the world, Adam and Eve were assumed to be the first children of the Devil, from whom originated all the non-Tarahumara. The forbidden fruit that was eaten in Eden was believed to be a bitter variety of apple that grows in the mountains where they live. Their total lack of understanding of world geography causes them to place the Biblical happenings within the boundaries of their known world.
Taking all this into consideration, and this is only a skeletal explanation of their world view, what method of evangelism would be effective in unraveling this syncretism? How could we possibly reinterpret for them the Biblical account? How can the church planter reshape their view of God, and add to it all the essential characteristics of His holiness, righteousness, mercy, and love?
First of all, as a church-planting team, we committed ourselves to a thorough investigation of their culture and a fluent grasp of the language before any evangelism should take place. We felt convinced that only through the medium of their own language would they listen -- a fact later testified to by the people themselves. Six years after moving in with the people, we were finally ready to begin actual evangelism.
First of all, however, we had to establish our credibility, that we, being non-Tarahumara, could communicate to them truths about God. Their exclusive belief system required that we first establish common ground from which to build. That common ground was in the creation of the world. We knew that in explaining creation, we would thereby expand their concept of God. We cut out dozens of quality pictures from National Geographic and acquired a 12-volt slide projector. We carried with us an inflatable globe of the world and explained to them, little by little, the concepts of distance and time. Building on how much a Tarahumara man can walk in a day, we projected this concept over weeks, moons, and years. We took them up to the North Pole -- to the land of ice and snow -- where the summer sun does not set. They at first thought I had to be talking about another sun, but because we could personally testify to the changes of the sun over the globe, they tried to comprehend this new truth. We took them to the ocean, a body of water so big it would take many moons to walk across. We showed them pictures of the many sea creatures. The black people of Africa fascinated them. "Where could they have come from?" they asked.
Throughout these sessions we kept exclaiming about the greatness and power of God. Through careful questioning, we caused them to consider their own ideas regarding origins, helping them understand that only One who has been there could accurately tell about the creation of the world. This led to the introduction of the Word of God. We explained that God had communicated with men thousands of years before, who in turn wrote down His message, and that only through hearing His message could we know the truth.
But here our barrier was in the concept of numbers. Just by saying "thousands" doesn't mean they will grasp its dimension. To help explain this concept, I picked 1000 pine needles and carried them around in a bundle as I taught. Once they visualized 1000 years, they could understand more easily the age with which we were dealing. I asked them, "Can you remember the names of your great grandparents?" None could remember. "It wasn't written down for us like they do today." Their reply revealed the need for a written record in order for there to be accuracy. From here we could explain that in God's word the names of people who lived 5000 to 6000 years ago are still preserved for our knowledge. At this point we came to appreciate in a new way the reason for the Biblical genealogies, for in them is preserved a beautiful link to the present -- a standard of measure easily verifiable.
This approach piqued their curiosity. When asked if they wanted to hear what God had written, they wholeheartedly agreed. Thus began our first phase of evangelism. Once again, where did evangelism begin? Not with Matthew, but with Genesis. As we considered each day of creation, we would show slides, National Geographic pictures -- whatever helped them comprehend the immensity of this world. We spent a lot of time explaining the fourth day when God created the sun and the moon. Now they had to separate God from the sun, and see the moon as just another lump of dirt placed in the sky to serve as a light and a keeper of time. The pictures of the lunar landings and close-ups of the moon made these celestial deities become to them the creation of yet a greater God than they had ever imagined.
Being a people intimately aware of nature, the explanation of the fifth and sixth days of creation was impacting. By showing pictures of all the different animal species found in the world, their appreciation for the greatness and knowledge of God grew. When we came to the creation of man on the sixth day, they became excited, because in their own traditions God made man from the dirt and breathed into him life, and now we were verifying this through the written account. They had never heard of the woman having come from the man's side, but this truth gave them understanding. When we came to the seventh day, they finally understood why people set aside one day a week to rest from their labors. Up through this point, the Tarahumaras were growing in appreciation for the greatness of God. However, when we came to the first man and woman, we knew that great care would need to be taken in order for them to identify themselves as children of Adam and Eve, and not as children of Mary and Joseph and Jesus.
Once again, we felt that the key lay in the establishing of a common ground. As we went through the account of the Fall, they recognized the story of evil entering into the world through the eating of a forbidden fruit. What they hadn't heard of, were the consequences of this act. All through these lessons, we did not use the names of Adam and Eve, but simply called them man and woman. As we discussed the elements of the Fall, we continually reminded them that the same consequences affected all men -- Indian and non-Indian. They identified with the difficulty in growing food, the constant battle against weeds, thorns, and thistles. The women could see that the pain of child birth affected the white woman, as well as themselves. Death was explained as a universal consequence for disobedience. As they understood that all the consequences of the first disobedience were universal, they were able to agree with us that all men must have come from the same stock.
This, however, caused them to ask the question, "Then where did we come from?" "Why are there so many differences in people?" To this we were able to answer, "God wrote this down, and soon we will find out how God divided up mankind and gave to each of us our language." It was finally, at this point, that we gave the names of Adam and Eve. Realizing the conflict this would create in their minds, we were quick to explain that Joseph and Mary and Jesus are all part of the history of mankind. "You will find out, when they enter into the story, but you must wait," we would say. God tells us the whole story from the foundation to the roof, but we must build slowly, learning each story in its proper time.
This is the beauty of the revelation of God. Each precept is built upon a preceding precept. If we fail to understand one, the structure is weakened. The systematic, unfolding revelation of God from Creation to the Cross becomes a powerful tool for dispelling darkness and leading men and women to the feet of Jesus.
* Mr. Dale Taylor is a missionary with New Tribes Missions.