Clouds of dust swirl behind a sturdy white truck as it chugs up a narrow, winding road high in the Andes Mountains of Peru. Inside, at the rear of the 30-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser, a quiet, young Quechua woman takes a cramped, bone-rattling six-hour journey from Cusco to a small village in the mountains. Joni [YON-ee] Carbajal is likely thinking often about her husband Luis, and the numerous separations they must endure as she travels to remote towns and villages. It’s part of the price the 28-year-old pays to serve with ATEK, Wycliffe’s partner organization in South Peru that helps individual Quechua believers and churches engage with Scripture in their mother tongue.
This time around, the entire road trip will take four days—but Joni appreciates the “luxury” of travelling the entire distance in ATEK’s ancient truck. Often, to reach many of the small communities she visits regularly, she and other ATEK staff must travel part way by bus and then walk for hours through the dusty hills.
As she arrives in the village of Jalcca [HAL-ca], Joni’s thoughts naturally turn to an upcoming late-afternoon Bible class for kids organized by Wilfredo, one of the many Sunday school teachers she has trained and continues to mentor.
Waiting and serving
Before Joni began working with ATEK in 2006, she studied nursing for a short time but then decided to transfer to a local university and focus on education. In between, she was looking for work when an ATEK employee invited her to apply for a secretarial job with the small organization.
Still single, Joni brought her resumé with her when she visited ATEK’s office in Cusco, but director Fredi Quintanilla was away. In the months that followed, the two found it difficult to sync their schedules for Joni’s official job interview.
While waiting for an opportunity to meet with Fredi, Joni heard that an ATEK worker was preparing to visit some rural communities to treat children with intestinal parasites.
“He was responsible to go and train pastors how to properly dispense some pills,” Joni recalls. “Because of my nursing background, I asked if I could help.”
Joni ended up developing a simple training program for Quechua parents and others, on how to treat intestinal parasites. Then a few months later, she volunteered to help Amy Hauschildt, an American volunteer dentist, to run ATEK-sponsored dental clinics in a few Quechua villages.
“Meanwhile, I was still waiting for ATEK to respond to me about being their secretary,” says Joni. “I think four or five months had gone by, and I helped here and there with health-related projects and preparing educational booklets.
“Through all this time, I was looking for work elsewhere.”
Joni kept busy at her church, too.
“I had always wanted to teach children but I didn’t know how to teach them well. So I contacted a pastor, and he put me in touch with a young man who was working with the kids.”
The young man’s name was Luis Alberto. The two soon “hit it off” and were married in August of 2010.
Joni finally met with Fredi, and began her work with ATEK by evaluating the effectiveness of the organization’s literacy program. Over time, her job evolved into her current role as a trainer of Sunday school teachers and other church leaders. Besides overseeing 15 teachers working in 13 rural churches, she has mentored three Quechua teachers to oversee all of the Sunday school programs and children’s camps.
To date, Joni and her teams have worked with upwards of 100 Quechua churches that provide Sunday school programs for more than 5,500 kids.
Because she has confidence in the teachers she has mentored, Joni now has some time to develop a training manual for reaching and discipling Quechua youth.
“I see a great need right now for us to be working with adolescents and teens,” she says. “Those that are 13 or 14 years old are embarrassed, especially the boys, to still associate with the children. Once they get to that age, they drift away from the church, but the girls tend to stick around more.”
In 2014, Joni began training youth leaders in various communities, but sadly, she recently had to drop that activity from her job description because of budget cutbacks. (To donate to ATEK, visit atek.wycliffe.ca)
“Funds just didn’t stretch far enough,” Joni says, “so we stopped doing that and now focus solely on the children.”
Pressed on All Sides
Joni’s energy seems to know no bounds. Despite her many responsibilities at ATEK and elsewhere, she also manages to attend Bible college classes two days a week in Cusco.
“I’m teaching church leaders and pastors all the time,” Joni says, “and I realized I can learn more by doing these studies.”
Although Joni has a clear sense of direction now, that hasn’t always been the case.
“In the beginning, when I was working with leaders, I really didn’t feel good about it. I felt like I wasn’t in the right place. At that point I remember asking God, ‘Help me to find exactly what I need to do in ATEK—my place.’ It was at that point I began working with children, even though I didn’t really have experience. I learned, and people taught me along the way. It was hard and pretty tiring, but I knew there were so many children that needed to know the Lord.
“What encouraged me and gave me strength was just the dream of seeing Quechua men and women involved in teaching children.”
Joni says she still feels uncomfortable at times, especially the first time she visits a church.
“In some churches, it’s unacceptable for a woman to teach men,” she explains.
Although Joni can’t do much to change long-held attitudes held by some men in positions of authority, ATEK challenges Quechua pastors, elders and Sunday school teachers to mentor and encourage young leaders of both sexes.
While dealing with some male leaders is difficult, one of Joni’s hardest trials is being separated from Luis Alberto.
“I just got married four years ago, and it’s hard leaving my husband,” she says. “Sometimes I can be away two or three weeks out of the month.
“Another challenge,” she says softly, “is the times that I have to walk alone in the mountains for so long and so far.”
Despite such hardships, Joni perseveres. Her vision for ministry even extends beyond her people, to encompass other language groups in Peru. Somehow, she finds time to volunteer with a ministry that helps equip children’s workers and youth leaders throughout the country.
“People are participating from the jungle areas and from other parts of the mountains,” Joni says. “We want to see many more like myself, from many different organizations, enabled to train other Sunday school teachers . . . so that the Word of God will be taught to children throughout the country.”
As for her work with ATEK, Joni is encouraged to see more and more Quechua churches catching the vision for ministering to kids.
“In the places where we’ve gone,” she says, “the children’s ministry is a lot more organized. In many of these places, it no longer depends on me or on ATEK to function, because my vision has always been to train trainers. I’ve been able to leave people behind who are going to follow up and continue to teach the children in their communities.”
Furthermore, when training Sunday school teachers and camp leaders, Joni and her ATEK co-workers always include lessons on how to lead kids to Christ. In a recent children’s camp, 77 Quechua children indicated their desire to follow Jesus.
Centuries before Joni Carbajal was born, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news . . . .” Perhaps, before penning the well-known words recorded in Isaiah 52, he saw people like Joni in his mind’s eye.
Though she often grows weary of leaving her husband to traverse the steep, dusty trails of the Andes Mountains, Joni’s sacrifices have not gone unnoticed by her Saviour—and their impact will last for eternity.
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