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Treasure in the Sierra Madre

A Pioneers team brings health care, literacy and the gospel to an isolated tribe in Mexico.

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Matt Green

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Published on 

June 2, 2015

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Serving among the Tarahumara

In the beginning, God created the Tarahumara, and the devil created the Mestizos.

So begins a story told by the Tarahumara. This people group is scattered throughout the canyons and mountains of the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico—within 150 miles of the US border.

One day, the devil came and asked God, “Who is stronger, your creation or mine? Let’s have a race.”

A passion for long-distance running is not only reflected in Tarahumara folklore. It may be what the tribe is best known for. Some are said to be able to run more than 100 miles without stopping.

The Mestizo and the Tarahumara ran, and the Mestizo won. That’s why, today, the Tarahumara is poor and must run for the rest of his days.

The legendary race’s outcome sheds light on the Tarahumara’s perception of their place in Mexican history and the world. Displaced from the verdant valleys of northern Mexico by Spanish conquistadors, the Tarahumara fled into the canyons and mountains of the Sierra Madre. Like the buried treasure in Jesus’ parable, this group of 120,000 people has remained hidden from the outside world for centuries.

Overcoming physical and spiritual isolation

Reaching the tiny settlements connected by a spider web of footpaths, learning the language and finding culturally understandable inroads for the gospel have proven daunting for Christian workers.

With the permission of the Mexican government, Pioneers* built a clinic staffed by a multicultural team composed of skilled medical professionals, pilots and literacy teachers from Mexico, Germany and the US. In a city about five hours’ drive away, another team reaches Tarahumara who have left the Sierra for work or medical care.

The Tarahumara religion combines traditional animistic beliefs with Roman Catholic traditions adopted from Spanish priests who built missions in the Sierra Madre in the 16th and 17th centuries. Witch doctors are key figures in the community. People seek them out for assistance in both physical and spiritual concerns.

“As Oswald Chambers said, for us, prayer is the work,” Beto, a doctor at the clinic, explains. “It’s more than just part of our strategy. It’s actually our first step in the strategy. Our hope is that, as we pray, He will use little people like us to do great things in the Tarahumara.”

The importance of language learning

One member of the team, Billy, teaches a Tarahumara language class to missionaries working in the city.

“I can count on one hand in the last 500 years the number of missionaries who have learned the Tarahumara language,” Billy notes.

But that is all changing. Billy hopes that missionaries equipped with these language skills will be more effective in sharing the gospel with the Tarahumara. And that, ultimately, will lead to a church led by Tarahumara.

“We want to work ourselves out of a job,” he explains. “I would love to see, in 10 to 15 years, us not needed here anymore because there is a church of Tarahumara people reaching out to other Tarahumara people.”

Their history is a sad one, another teammate, Gabi, admits. “But I think God has allowed all this oppression and all these sad stories to happen to them because He has a bigger plan, a bigger story that He is about to reveal.  I want to be here to see that. I crave to see God’s glory displayed among this people group. He’s already working, and I see it a little more every day.”

*Ameritribes missionaries built the clinic. In 2009, Ameritribes merged with Pioneers.

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