In their ancient belief-system, the Quechua people of Peru’s Apurímac (ah-poo-REE-mak) region considered the breathtaking Andes Mountains and other phenomena of nature to be gods. So it makes sense that in the Quechua (KE-chwah) language, the Apurímac River—from which the region takes its name—means something like “the god who speaks.”
To the ancestors of today’s Quechuas, the river and its surrounding mountains talked. Part of this “speaking” was likely the Apurímac River’s noisy, torrential plunge some 4,500 metres from its source to its end, along a 350-km course.
Today, another kind of “speaking” is echoing well beyond earshot of the churning Apurímac River in south-central Peru. God’s Word is radiating quietly but effectively from the capital city of Abancay, along narrow, zigzagging roads and foot trails (and even via the airwaves), to isolated villages in deep canyons and on steep mountain slopes. These life-changing words are for the high-altitude dwellers of this stunningly majestic area, the Eastern Apurímac Quechua people.
God is speaking through the efforts of AIDIA (pronounced “idea”). That’s the Spanish acronym for a church-based organization known in English as the “Interdenominational Association for the Holistic Development of Apurímac.”
AIDIA is a Wycliffe Canada focus-area partner staffed by pastors, other church leaders and many volunteers from the major Apurímac evangelical denominations. They are translating and promoting use of the entire Bible for at least 200,000 Eastern Apurímac Quechua speakers in churches and communities scattered among the rugged highlands of Peru.
Leading the effort is AIDIA’s director Luis Cervantes (pictured above), a 40-year-old pastor, husband and father of two.
“It’s our vision that through the various ministry departments of our organization, we would see an impact of the Word of God in people’s lives,” Cervantes explains. “There’s simply no use having the Word of God sitting there and people’s lives just continuing as normal.”
The Trouble with Normal
“Normal” life is difficult in the Apurímac region (a government administrative “department,” something like a province in Canada).
Apurímac is one of the poorest areas in Peru, with two-thirds of the people considered impoverished. Most Quechuas are farmers who raise crops and livestock that provide meagre incomes. Basic services such as clean water and sewage treatment are rare in communities isolated by rugged distances and limited transportation.
Almost all Quechuas would consider themselves Catholics, explains Cervantes, but they have little knowledge of Christian teaching or doctrine, since the Catholic Church functions in Spanish, where it functions at all. Many still cling to old beliefs that the mountains are gods, needing to be appeased with sacrifices.
Cervantes cites government census figures as he stresses the spiritual needs of his Quechua people. There are 3,255 towns, villages and communities in Apurímac. Only 252 have a church.
“About 3,003 communities are without a church—unreached,” he says. “One district, for example, has 20 communities—villages and hamlets. How many churches exist within that district? Not even one!”
Apurímac’s population has a lower percentage of evangelicals than the national average—for one major reason. Until AIDIA’s work in recent years, there has been a lack of God’s Word and other Christian materials in Eastern Apurímac Quechua, the people’s heart language.
In response, AIDIA is focusing on a half-dozen ministries, including: translating God’s Word, promoting literacy, developing church leadership, producing audio/video Scriptural materials, encouraging children’s Sunday school and camps.
Careful About S-o-o-o Many Things
Spanish may be Peru’s most dominant language, but it is not used much in day-to-day Quechua life, says Cervantes. “Normal communication in the home is in Quechua.” According to the census, it is estimated that 21.7 per cent of the Apurímac population have never been to school and are therefore monolingual Quechua speakers.
But those with a very limited grasp of Spanish are much more numerous than indicated by the official figures. When it comes to using the Bible, the vast majority of Quechuas simply can’t understand God’s Word well enough in Spanish. Bibles have been available for years in neighbouring languages such as Cusco Quechua and Ayacucho Quechua, but are not similar enough to meet the needs of Eastern Apurímac Quechua speakers.
In 2006, six Quechua pastors from the three largest evangelical denominations trained as translators and, headed by Cervantes, began translation of the New Testament into their mother tongue.
Team member Felipe Valenzuela, an Assemblies of God pastor, remembers how he and the others preached before working on the translation.
“We would often go out into the countryside to teach. Right on the spot, we would literally translate from the Spanish Bible to people in Quechua. At the moment, this didn’t seem too hard to us.
“Then we started learning what was involved in Bible translation,” recalls Valenzuela. “In reality, it was not as easy as we thought. We realized that you had to be careful about s-o-o-o many things to make sure what Jesus wanted communicated was going to be clearly communicated. At that point, we really started valuing the Scriptures in the mother tongue and understanding the importance of it.”
The translators acknowledge that it was challenging in the beginning to work together, coming from different denominations and perspectives. But they have persisted, doing draft translations and talking through them verse by verse. They have drawn on insights from Wycliffe’s David Coombs, who is the exegetical consultant on the Bible translation project, working remotely with the team from California.
“Little by little,” says Valenzuela, “we began to gel, and now I am quite content and happy.
“I’ve learned a lot through it. I was pastoring a church at the same time, and as I prepared sermon messages, I began to realize I had committed a lot of errors in the past [using a Spanish Bible].”
In April of 2013, the first of 8,000 printed New Testaments in Eastern Apurímac Quechua became available at a dedication ceremony in Abancay. The Scriptures are serving as a vital, life-changing tool for believers and pastors alike.
Understandable and Life-changing
Cervantes says God’s Word, coming in accurate, natural and clear Quechua, will only deepen and expand the impact the gospel can have among his needy people.
Alcoholism plagues many people in the countryside. Many husbands verbally and physically abuse their wives and children, and hold them back from attending school.
“When people receive Christ, they stop drinking; then they stop beating their wives and children. Their children start going to school. And at the same time . . . they suddenly start working their fields like they should be.
“You’ll observe that when you enter a community where the majority of the people are Christians. Their fields are green and lush, and their houses are in better condition. It’s an observable difference.”
The translation will also help battle the influence of cults in the area that are misleading Quechuas who have a shallow grasp of God’s Word.
Currently, the translation team is working hard—at a pace of more than 2,900 verses a year—to translate the entire Old Testament and combine it with the existing New Testament by 2022. Those Scriptures are also sure to penetrate deeply into the minds and hearts of the Quechuas, whose culture shares many traits with that of the Old Testament.
Miriam Unzeute is early evidence of that. The 24-year-old nursing student in Abancay is the first person exposed by the team to newly translated Old Testament text. Three or four mornings a week, she listens as a team member reads her a draft translation, so she can give feedback about how understandable it is. Asked what Old Testament stories in her Quechua mother tongue have impressed her so far during her checking sessions, Unzeute enthusiastically and thoroughly recounts the post-exodus experiences of Moses, the Israelites and God. But is she not familiar with all this in Spanish?
“I had heard it,” she replies, “but it is different now. I understand it more. Sometimes when people would read the Word before [in Spanish], we just couldn’t understand it. This is so much more intelligible. . . .”
Reading for Self-esteem and Truth
For the many illiterate Quechuas, AIDIA—the only organization promoting literacy in their language—is providing a unique opportunity to grow as individuals.
“Helping them to learn to read and write is helping them to incorporate themselves into the wider society,” explains Cervantes. “Quechua speakers often feel inferior when they come into the city here. They are treated as less. In our literacy classes, it’s not just about the actual act of reading and writing, it’s also about lifting their self-esteem and how they value their language.”
And, of course, the ultimate goal is to equip the Quechuas to read the Scriptures in their own language.
“The arrival of the New Testament has had a big impact on many, especially the sisters [women] who have had little training in reading,” says Cervantes. “Many of them who have bought their Bibles now are beginning to read more and more. Some of these sisters have bought Bibles even though they don’t yet know how to read, thinking that they are going to be able to get their kids to read it to them.”
Kids were a major reason Noemí Rojas joined AIDIA to co-ordinate its literacy program, which is also staffed by her four “facilitators,” who help her train and guide many volunteer teachers.
“I always had been taught since a child that I should be teaching others,” she says of her Quechua church upbringing. “I always had this desire . . . to teach others, particularly children, the Word of God.”
Though she was literate in Spanish, Rojas first had to take AIDIA literacy classes so she could learn to read and write in her Quechua mother tongue, a widespread need among her people.
“The big thing is that people just don’t know how to read—and read the Word of God,” says the passionate, 25-year-old single woman.
Many people may come to their churches with a Bible in hand and they can actually sound out the words of the Bible in Spanish. But they have no idea what they are reading.
“They are not reading with understanding,” explains Rojas.
Youngsters to Seniors
To change this situation, AIDIA works through evangelical pastors to set up literacy centres in their churches, for Christians and non-Christians alike. AIDIA staff train volunteer teachers to run the classes.
“The majority of these volunteer teachers are actually leaders and pastors in the community,” explains Rojas. But “God doesn’t have limits and often uses young people and even children to do the teaching.”
Bible-based materials are used in three levels of classes, with students ranging from three-year-olds to those who are 60 or more, says Rojas. Quechuas often come to literacy classes with no schooling, including middle-aged women, who she is thrilled to see grow in their skills and become formal leaders in their own churches.
“Our main goal as of late has been to open up literacy centres at 42 different churches,” she says. “Our goal is to see a thousand students at any given time in the program.”
This past fall, nearly 800 people were taking classes in 38 literacy centres.
Having put their hard-working hands on farm tools all their lives, some older Quechuas have enough trouble holding a pencil, let alone learning to read. So AIDIA has added orality classes into its program.
In the village of Huascatay, for instance, Pastor Buenaventura Rojas leads an orality class of 12 people. Like other class leaders, he uses the “Wordless Book,” filled with pictures to help students memorize Scripture stories in Quechua and then retell the Bible stories to evangelize others.
“They had always heard these teachings,” says the 64-year-old with a well-lined, National Geographic face, “but when I teach the story, we end up memorizing the text that goes with it and people will ask me to keep expanding and teach more about it. They are very excited about learning.
“It’s the images here that really spur them on and help. That’s how they are learning; it’s through the pictures.”
This AIDIA-inspired new ministry is fuelling this driven pastor, who gave his life to serve God after recovering from a serious illness. “I came to the Lord when I was 49,” Rojas says, “and I will serve Him until I die.”
Developing Church Leadership
While pastors like Rojas may have passion, unfortunately many in the countryside don’t have much formal training.
“I don’t have an exact number,” says Cervantes, “but my quick estimate is that 95 per cent of leaders and pastors have never gone to seminary or Bible school. Because they have very little preparation and training, you end up having so many errors entering into their teaching.”
These leaders are compelled to shepherd churches because of the Quechua tendency for the Christian community to simply make them pastors, explains Cervantes. Untrained rural pastors do their best but often teach unbiblical ideas.
AIDIA is beginning to train pastors and other Quechua church leaders to use God’s Word in their language to build their understanding of basic Christian teaching. While AIDIA now holds regional workshops for groups of leaders out in the countryside, it started the effort with two, week-long events in Abancay for those in neighbouring communities.
“In the two groups, something pretty interesting happened,” recalls Cervantes. “I never had a chance to teach a single page of my teaching materials. Within five minutes, they started raising their hands and asking questions.”
The questions kept coming—for five days: What are the attributes of God? Who is Jesus? When a Christian dies, where do they go? Where do non-Christians go? Aren’t the Jehovah’s Witnesses just other brothers and sisters in the church? What are the prerequisites and roles of a pastor?
“Probably 80 per cent of the pastors in the countryside don’t meet any kind of biblical requirements for a pastor,” adds Cervantes, who pastors a local church in Abancay. “Many of them could be living with someone common-law. They might be separated from their families.”
Jesus Loves the Little Children
Separation, of a sort, also exists within Quechua churches when it comes to children. Many Quechua believers have not seen kids as an important part of a congregation; they associate the church with adults.
“Because churches never had anything like a Sunday school program,” explains Cervantes, “what happens is that during church, kids remain out shepherding the flocks and the cows.”
His eyes moistening with concern, Cervantes says AIDIA launched its Sunday school and Christian camp program, recognizing two things: that the Quechua Church’s future is its children, and that childhood is a crucial time to learn about God.
Those concerns also drive Rocío Villegas, a young female AIDIA staffer, who serves as facilitator of the children/youth program, working with a core of youth volunteers from Abancay.
“She’s doing an excellent, excellent job,” says Cervantes. “She was able to . . . train various Sunday school teachers and then they were able to open their Sunday school programs in each of their churches.”
Through their efforts, Quechua-language Sunday school programs started in 30-plus churches this past year, and several youth camps were held for kids under 15.
“I see that the local church is beginning to take ownership for doing something . . . for the children in their churches,” says Villegas. “We hope it will become routine for churches to do more for children.”
Heard and Seen
Back at AIDIA’s translation and training centre, it has become routine, as part of the Eastern Apurímac Quechua language emphasis, to produce audio and video materials to strengthen individuals, families, small groups and churches.
With leadership from audio/video specialist Cirilo Vásquez, AIDIA has recorded and distributed audio and video versions of the Quechua Christian song book it published. It has also recorded two versions of the New Testament. One is for Hosanna’s hand-cranked/solar-powered Proclaimer audio-player, which is used by Scripture-listening groups and has actually helped plant new churches. The Genesis video is coming next, to accompany The "JESUS" film, that was dubbed into Quechua a couple of years ago.
Sometimes the widespread popularity of their products catches AIDIA staff by surprise. Probably the best example is a half-hour drama film in Quechua, filmed in just one day by Vásquez and a team of Christians from various churches. It tells the story of an abusive husband.
“Almost everybody that watches it says: ‘My husband does the same thing to me,’ ” explains Cervantes. “So that’s why people leave crying—they so identify with it.”
The video ends with a call to receive Christ as a first step to dealing with such marital problems.
Walking with Us
Despite their progress and successes, AIDIA ministries are stretched to capacity. God’s speaking has not been heard clearly in many, many more isolated Quechua communities.
To achieve AIDIA’s strategic goals, translator/Pastor Valenzuela says it is crucial for Canadian believers, through Wycliffe Canada, to stand with AIDIA.
“We are very thankful for the help we’ve gotten from them,” he says. “We know that many are praying. We know many have been supporting us financially, so the work of God in this part of Peru can continue to grow and extend the kingdom of God.
“We Christians, we are one in the body of Christ, in whatever part of the world, and we need one another,” adds Valenzuela. “With their prayers and with their offerings, they [Canadian Christians] are walking with us.
“That’s what it is to do missions.”