At the Conococha Pass over 13,000 feet. The sun rises in the eastern sky.
Finally, almost 24 hours since leaving Panera Bread, the bus pulls up at the Wycliffe Language Institute in Huaraz, a small campus belonging to Wycliffe Bible Translators headquartered in Orlando, Florida. Here, we’ll spend the next two days acclimatizing for the 5-day trek that will cover more than 30 miles and take us as high as 15,000 feet.
Phil Winfield is the brainchild of these annual treks through the Andes. He now pastors Grace Church in Des Moines, Iowa. But as a missionary in Peru’s capital city, for 13 years, he was—and still is—very much involved in a variety of different ministries aimed at all levels of society; from the wealthiest decision makers running the country to the poorest outcasts in Manchay, a squatter’s settlement on the outskirts of Lima where it is estimated almost a quarter of a million people live in the most horrible squalor imaginable.
In 1998, just before his son Phillip was to leave for college in the States, the two of them embarked on a father and son trek along the Santa Cruz trail, a well-traversed 50-mile circuit through the Cordillera Blanca that includes two passes approaching 16,000 feet. They went for the adventure but God had another idea. What they encountered along the way were Quechua villages; Cashapampa, Colcabamba, Vaqueria and Yanama. There were no churches and many of the people had no concept of Christianity. Winfield’s missionary heart was stirred. He vowed to return with a larger group of men who would be willing to bring Bibles to these people in their own language.
Wycliffe Bible Translators, USA is part of an international association of Wycliffe organizations dedicated to seeing God's Word become accessible to all people in the language that speaks to their heart. In its 70-year history, Wycliffe has been involved in more than 600 translations, representing greater than 77 million people. Today Wycliffe consists of more than 6,000 personnel working in partnership with expatriates and nationals worldwide. Information courtesy of Wycliffe.org
A year later, Winfield’s vision was realized. 25 men walked the Santa Cruz trail accompanied by several guides and over a dozen burros. They took with them various portions of the Bible translated into both Spanish and Quechua by the Wycliffe Translators. I was privileged to be among that first group of trekkers. It was a physically challenging hike and when it was over I remember saying to myself, “That was nice but I won’t be doing that again any time soon.” But I couldn’t escape from the images: The faces of children, filthy in some cases, with runny noses, deep, wheezing chest coughs and clothing so tattered you wouldn’t let your dog use for a bed. Over the next five years I returned four times.
Each year interest in the treks increased. Groups have become larger and in some years several treks were held to accommodate everyone. In 2001 we began nightly showings of “The Jesus Film.” Hundreds of Quechua often showed up, some walking miles in the darkness to see a movie—a foreign concept in itself in many villages in the Andes where there is no electricity.
It’s August 4 now. After two days to acclimatize, we leave the Wycliffe Center in a small bus for the trail head. A truck leads the way carrying the heavier gear. For what seems like an interminable amount of time, the two vehicles struggle up a narrow dirt road that takes us up to a scenic overlook high above the city. The bus driver seems to be playing chicken at every switchback, seeing how close he can come to the edge without driving off into oblivion and killing us all. He’s not of course and those who are on their first trek grip the backs of the seats in front of them tightly. Admittedly, even for a seasoned rider like me, it is somewhat of a white-knuckle ride and everyone’s adrenal gland gets a good workout.
Mercifully, after an hour, we stop. We have arrived at the end of the road. From here it’s all on foot for the rest of the week.
Fifteen minutes passes and suddenly a horse whinnies in the distance. And then, from around the bend, we are met by our arrieros—the burro managers—who will transport our gear for the duration of the trek on their burros and horses, leaving us only to carry our small day packs. They smoothly transfer everything from the truck and we’re ready to walk to the first village, Purucuta, about 3-1/2 hours away.
About an hour into the walk, Adelid Yanac, our Quechua guide who also serves as a missionary with Wycliffe points to a stand of trees on a distant hillside. “That is my father’s farm,” he explains. “A decade ago when the Shining Path ruled these mountains, my father told me they would ride up to his farm and announce they were conducting a meeting. If you didn’t show up for the meeting, you ran the risk of being murdered along with the rest of your family.”
From 1985-1990 the Shining Path—a terrorist group (known as Sendero Luminoso in Spanish) was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of indigenous Quechua in the Andes region of Peru. The group’s leaders are rotting in jail cells now but the memory is still fresh in the minds of many Peruvians and some worry about a resurgence.
In June, Peruvians elected a new president, Alan Garcia who was the country’s president during the Shining Path’s reign of terror. But Mr. Garcia was successful at convincing a majority of Peruvians that he is no longer the leftist he was 20 years ago. His opponent whom he defeated, Ollanta Humala was viewed by some as a Shining Path sympathizer. Mr. Humala’s father had clamored for the release from jail of the terrorist organization’s leaders. In a Wall Street Journal column written in March, Mary Anastasia O’Grady wondered if Peruvians would choose another path. She wrote of the disquieting effect of Papa Humala’s comments on Peru’s currency and its stock market but then explained: “The son immediately distanced himself from his father's rhetoric, but in the light of the candidate's own extremism, the country's history of left-wing military rule and the current Shining Path resurgence, Papa Humala's plea on behalf of a terrorist leader was disquieting.”
We’re 15 minutes from Purucuta when Yanac turns and asks me if we can stop here and set up camp in an open field near a small, adobe building the locals use as a community center. “We will walk down to the village and invite the people to the movie tonight,” he explains. “And there’s water here.” It’s a beautiful spot with the full panorama of the Cordillera Blanca in the eastern horizon. We’re exhausted. No one argues.
Camp 1 Outside of Purucuta. The building to the left with the
While I am setting up my tent, Yanac walks over and explains in hushed tones: “This was the very building where the Shining Path held meetings a decade earlier. There may be people who come tonight to see ‘The Jesus Film’ who were at those meetings.” “Will I be able to interview any of them?” I ask. “I doubt any will be willing to speak out in public but we will ask,” Yanac replies. I ponder the contrast: We will be sharing a message of hope—offering a chance for a new life—in the same building where messages of fear and death may still echo in the ears of those who will come later that evening.
The Jesus Film is the most widely-distributed, translated film in history —Originally distributed in 1979 by Warner Brothers in theaters nationwide, the two-hour "JESUS" film is not only the most widely-distributed, but also the most translated film in history---with more than 900 separate language translations and more than 6 billion exposures globally, topping Oscar greats Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, The Lion King, Titanic, and The Wizard of Oz. The Jesus Film Project penetrates the most remote, dangerous places on earth through a massive logistical operation involving hundreds of staff and volunteers who tote generators, makeshift screens, and portable projectors to film showings, often to people who have never heard of Jesus and some who have never seen a film or TV. Information courtesy of JesusFilm.org
By 8:00 o’clock the small community center is packed with almost 100 Quechua. Their response to the movie was predictable; virtually all made commitments to become Christians. After the movie, we all introduced ourselves in Spanish, sang three songs; one in English, another in Spanish and finally, one in Quechua and then passed through the crowd, handing out New Testaments and bags of candy and gifts to the children. Then the members of the Quechua Evangelical Association who accompany us every year; Pushpi, Yepo and Timoteo, spoke to the crowd and prayed with them.
Morning comes quickly in the Andes. It’s like someone flips a switch and both the lights and the heat come on at once. We eat a hurried breakfast of fresh pancakes our cook prepared for us and then pack up our gear. Just before filing out, the community leaders return to show their gratitude and extend an invitation to the missionaries to conduct bi-weekly services. A woman gives us a gift of a huge sack of fresh potatoes that will be turned into French fries later that evening to accompany the lomo saltado our cook has planned for dinner.
Santa Catalina is the next village on our itinerary. I already know it’s going to be a long walk at high altitude but just how long, I am not sure until Yanac stops to ask a Quechua woman working in the fields. “Woooooooo!” She exclaims, which means the same in Quechua as it does in English. Loosely translated—“You Gringos are in for a grueling walk.” And she is right. For the next three hours, we walk, climbing slowly higher until we ascend above 13,000 feet where we continue to walk for another three hours. The wind is blustery across the high-altitude pampas but it competes with a blazing sun to make it rather pleasant—for some. For those struggling with altitude sickness, it is a difficult day.
Shortly after 5:00 p.m. we arrive, setting up our tents in a grassy field adjacent to a concrete play area on the outskirts of Santa Catalina. We’ll repeat the same program tonight, and in the next two villages on our route: Santa Cruz de Rurek and Dos de Mayo. In each place the results are similar—rapt attention to the movie followed by an almost unanimous response to its message.
It’s August 9 and we’re back on the bus for the 8-hour return trip to Lima. Our flight leaves for the States at 11:00 p.m. meaning we’ll arrive at Newark early in the morning the next day. As the bus retraces the route we took only 8 days ago paralleling the Cordillera Blanca I gaze transfixed out the window at the nevados in the distance, wondering if this will be my last trip to this enchanted place. “Are you saying goodbye to the mountains,” Asks Lourdes Parra, who is sitting next to me. This is Lourdes’ second trek in two years. A Peruvian, she has a special love for the Quechua. “Why do you look so sad?” She presses gently.
James, the half-brother of Jesus Christ wrote in the New Testament book that bears his name, “Has not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith?” It is a rhetorical question and I see the answer played out again and again in the Andes Mountains in Peru every year.
Jesus said the fields were “white unto harvest” but the laborers were few. What He meant was there would always be people ready to respond to the Gospel if only there would be enough disciples willing to go and share the Good News.
That is why I return year after year to the Andes and why I find it so hard to leave.
At the Conococha Pass I catch a glimpse of the Cordillera Huayhuash in the distance. It is in this mountain range where the village of Inca Huancanca lies. The Inca cried centuries earlier here—and I join with them whenever I think of this place where the message of hope is so readily embraced by so beautiful a people. n
Gregory J. Rummo is a syndicated columnist. Write to him at GregRummo.com. Additional information about these treks through the Andes and the Andes Blanket Project can be found at AndesBlanket.org.
The Andes Blanket, Copyright 1999-2010 Grace Church