Russ Bare and his wife, Kyleen, spent a total of twenty years as Christian missionaries in South America. After the first seven years in Venezuela, Russ’ father became very ill and they returned to the States to help care for him. Then their youngest daughter came along as an unexpected gift, and they were beginning to realize that their missionary days were complete.
But, again, God had other plans for the Bares. A missionary couple and longtime friends came through to visit and invited Russ to work on his team in Ecuador. Russ replied, “Steve, God has given me a passion for tribal people. If I were to go back, it would have to be among them.” Steve said, “I am meeting with my boss in Seattle in a couple of weeks. Why don’t you come and explore the possibilities?” The invitation wasn’t taken very seriously by Russ at that time. But he received a letter from Steve’s boss, inviting them to Seattle. So they went, met them and were connected to the people who were leaders in the areas of tribal people, and a few months later were appointed as missionaries to Ecuador.
God drew Russ’ heart toward the tribal people of South America during their first seven years in Venezuela. He was working with a certain Indian people in a state in Venezuela. Dr. Calvin Morris, president of the Maricabo Bible Institute and Dr. Paul Seal, who taught medicine at The University of Zulia, had both been working with the Yupka people. Paul was to be out because of back surgery and encouraged Russ, “I have wanted to go and research a village who are said to be cousins of the Yupka, and haven’t been able to. You are working close to where they live. Why don’t you go and see them?”
So Russ went and found them to be a small people group of approximately 120. He began telling Bible stories with the help of an interpreter. These people had never had contact from missionaries and Russ was blessed to witness the first ever converts from this tribal group to Christ during this time. “From then on I knew that is what I was called to do,” Russ says.
I asked Russ about the Catholic Church’s influence in South America. He said, “South American Catholics are increasingly ‘social Catholics’ and ‘family Catholics,’ not unlike many Southern Baptists, where it’s just a family thing. To be something other than Catholic is to go against the family. Their culture is a shame-based culture where the family influence is huge. You just do not shame the family.”
He continued, “They do things in family groups. If you try to reach the children first, it usually does not work. The object is to reach the men, the leaders, not through the children. If you can reach the men, you’ve got the whole family.”
“There are areas that are very, very staunch Catholic,” Russ explained. All over South America the “Virgins” are prevalent in the communities. Villages are true to their “Virgins” and they are worshiped as sort of a transfer from Mary worship.
“One day we were going door to door witnessing and sharing the Gospel from the Word of God. A lady we were talking to replied, ‘The Virgins and what they say mean more to me than the Word of God.’” In frustration Russ said, “How do you deal with that? I never figured it out.”
As I spoke with Russ, our conversation became focused on spiritual warfare. He tells me there is much evil and worship of the spiritual darkness forces in South America. The educated and sophisticated of our world many times pass this off and reason around it. But Russ says it is very real and he has seen it firsthand. He was speaking at a church in Plano and addressed this issue. Afterwards, a lady commented that is simply superstition. Russ replied, “Well, if that’s what it is, I guess I’m superstitious now after seeing what I have seen.”
Russ returned to South America recently to lead a seminar for the teams using “storying” techniques from the book of Joshua on spiritual warfare. “That is the greatest thing they need,” Russ emphasized. “When you go into the enemy’s territory and he’s had them all their lives, he doesn’t give them up easily. There are spirit worshipers and it is a very dark spiritual climate. The enemy has power and the people are held in spiritual blindness and fear. But God can do more in one moment than all our plans and struggles.”
One man that another IMB missionary had used to help him translate Bible stories was very well versed in the Bible and knew the passages well. But he would not accept Christ. This missionary said, “He is a good man. We didn’t know why he refused our invitation. We asked him, why don’t you receive Jesus? He replied, ‘That’s OK for you. You have protection around you. But if I accept Jesus the demons will kill me.’” Russ went on to explain, “They can see in the spirit realm that the believers in Christ are protected from the demons. This is not uncommon.”
Once Russ was in the Southern Ecuador jungle with a short term missionary. His Spanish was awful and he simply talked to everyone he met about the Gospel of Christ. They were driving and looking for some villages that were reportedly in the area. They passed a sign that said, “Bienvenidos” (Welcome). So knowing there was a village there, they turned and upon arrival at the village, they met Carlos.
For an hour and a half Carlos told his story. His father was a witch doctor and he was the second to the youngest son of ten and chosen to be the next witch doctor when his father was gone. As he considered what it would mean to be the next witch doctor he said, “I felt like I was selling my soul to the devil.” Being curious and desperate for truth, he talked to and tried some of every group that he could – Catholicism, Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals, etc. Russ said, “He was the most confused young man I had ever met.”
The he said, “My wife got sick. People had always paid my dad to heal them, but he could not heal my wife.” He was very upset and had spent all his money in this quest. One day, in a nearby town, he stepped off a bus and, in frustration, randomly asked a lady, “Where do you go to get healed? I’ve been to all these others…” She said, “All those are fake and just want your money. Only Jesus Christ can heal.” Carlos said, “I got back on the bus, went home and prayed that Jesus would heal my wife, and He did!” Russ said, “We knew right then that God intended us to meet Carlos.”
This opened the door to share stories from the Bible for Russ’ team. Carlos and his wife are active Christians, sharing their faith with others, and they have started two other churches in nearby communities.
Many of the missionaries are in small, remote areas where there are unreached people groups. Most of them do not read and it is impossible for the missionaries to learn all the various languages. So, Russ’ team developed a strategy to teach the bilingual locals Bible stories so they can relate them to their people. They taught them four stories from Mark 4 and 5 – Jesus calming the storm on the sea, casting out demons in Gadara, healing a woman and raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead.
During the discussion time with these men, one shared, comparing Jesus’ miracles to what they see, “This is what our people need! I’ve seen witch doctors that seemed to have power over nature and make things happen that could not be explained any other way other than a power beyond themselves. I’ve seen witch doctors with power over the spirit world of demon possession, and control over demons and witch doctors that heal sicknesses. But never has a witch doctor ever raised anyone from the dead. Our people need to hear this.” The other men in attendance all nodded their agreement.
These are the spiritual challenges that Russ and his team faced daily, in addition to the physical rigors of living in remote jungle areas. We in the States need to be reminded that the majority of the people in this world do not enjoy the comforts that we are so blessed with. And it is certainly humbling to be reminded of these wonderful men and women that sacrifice everything to take Christ to the world.
Russ explained that it would be eight or nine hours to the closest of his team members. To travel to one particular missionary couple’s home would take an eight-hour drive, spend the night and then a nine-hour drive over a 16,000-feet high mountain pass to the valley where they lived. Another couple gave up successful careers in America, had three small children and were nine hours from the nearest road. Their youngest contracted amoebic dysentery and was air lifted out just in time to save her life.
These people are bringing many to faith in Christ, in areas where there were no believers at all. Russ said, “That’s fun! It’s a small scale compared to many church planting movements where thousands come to Christ. But, you know, I’ve never seen a footnote on the Great Commission that says there has to be thousands. It does say all people. Even if it is one hundred, we must figure out a way to get it done because it is the Lord’s command.”