Prologue Amazon Basin 1970
I watch as the old Indian makes his way across the open area toward me. He is
naked except for a loincloth that is held in place by a leather string around his waist. A lifetime of exposure to the sun has made his dark skin coarse and left his face a web of wrinkles. In his hands he carries a stained canvas satchel. The careful way in which he handles it makes me know that it is valuable to him.
As he approaches I stand to my feet. He stops before me and speaks solemnly in a language I do not understand. The first thing I notice is the dark stains on the canvas, and then my eyes are drawn to a leather patch that is stitched to the flap between the buckles.
Although the leather is old and stained, there is no mistaking the initials carved into it. In an instant, I am taken back to a night more than twenty years ago. It is raining, and the drumming of the rain on the corrugated tin roof of the mission house is all too familiar. The rainy season is just beginning, and the thought of being trapped inside for weeks on end is nearly more than I can bear. My sister Helen, who is four years older than I am, is reading a book by the light of a kerosene lamp.
Unlike me, she is an easygoing child. Nothing seems to bother her.
I am more like my father, who is intense and sometimes impatient. As far as he is concerned, life is serious business and must be lived with due sobriety. He comes from Puritan stock, and the generations that have separated him from his ancestors have done nothing to dilute their genes. Tonight he is muttering under his breath as he hastily stuffs supplies into packs for his trip into the interior. Already there are two large bundles beside the front door, and a third one is nearly finished.
The table is covered with supplies—rice, beans, coffee, smoked meat, bandages, medicine, and other medical supplies. My mother is helping him pack by checking things off of a long list as he stows them away. On more than one occasion, this careful attention to detail has meant the difference between life and death. In the jungles of the Amazon Basin a person seldom gets a second chance.
Although Father likes to pretend that these forays into the interior are routine, they
are not. Danger lurks everywhere. Travel is treacherous, especially during the rainy season. In addition, there is the ever-present threat of accident or illness, not to mention the hostility of the Amuacas.
So why does he insist on going? Why does he risk leaving his wife a widow
and his children without a father? There are at least two reasons for every trip. One is foundational, and it never changes. My father is nearly consumed with a desire to take the gospel to those who have never heard. As far as he is concerned, no risk is too great if he can but preach where no one has ever preached. The other reason varies with each trip, but it nearly always involves some kind of emergency.
Tomorrow’s trip was occasioned when an Amuaca Indian stumbled into the mission compound more dead than alive. Using a combination of Portuguese and Indian dialects our indigenous workers were able to determine that his village had been stricken with a killing plague. Knowing that penicillin often opens the door for the preaching of the gospel, my father immediately began making preparations.
I listen as he carefully outlines the route he intends to take. It makes little sense to
me, but my mother seems to understand. She is very supportive, but even I can tell that
she is more than a little concerned.
According to my father, the stricken village is located four or five days upriver in
an area previously unreached by any missionary. In response to my mother’s concern
he acknowledges that the trip will be grueling. Battling against the current of a rain-
swollen river will be exhausting and make for slow going, not to mention the very real
possibility of a flash flood now that the rainy season has set in. Still, it is the only way.
Trying to go through the jungle on foot would be impossible.
Having carefully closed the third pack, my father sets it beside the other two near
the front door. Putting on his spectacles, he draws the kerosene lamp close and
reaches for his Bible. Without being asked, we all cease what we are doing and give
him our attention. Following a prepared reading schedule, he turns to today’s passage,
Isaiah 43:1-3, and reads aloud:
But now thus saith the LORD that created thee, O Jacob, and he
that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee. For I am the LORD thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour.
Although I am only seven years old and find much of the Bible hard to understand, even I cannot miss the significance of this passage given the present circumstances. Tears are glistening in my mother’s eyes, and even my father looks pleased. Taking her hand, he says, “The Lord has spoken to us through His Word. No matter what dangers I may face, he will see me safely through.”
After a brief prayer he bids my sister and me goodnight and sends us to bed. For
some reason I cannot sleep, so I slip out of bed and make my way to the doorway that opens on the kitchen. A flimsy curtain serves as a door, and I pull it back the tiniest bit in order to peer out. My mother sits in a chair, her face in the shadows cast by the lamp. My father is moving about, gathering a few personal items for his trip. As I watch, I see him wrap his Bible and a leather-bound journal in an oilcloth and place them in his canvas satchel.
Carefully he buckles the flap closed before reaching for my mother’s hand ...