In the summer of 2010, Mark Shafer visited the Shuar community of Nunkui to take school supplies to the small rural elementary school. Although his team had been invited and asked by some of the villagers to help the community by bringing school supplies, Mark’s visit was met with stiff resistance by the village patriarch, Antonio (name changed for privacy). An angry Antonio made it known that Mark was not welcome.
Nunkui is located on the edge of large petroleum fields that border extensive tracts of rainforest in the far reaches of the Orellana Province in the Amazon Region of Ecuador. The Shuar people who live in Nunkui left their homeland in southeastern Ecuador to colonize this area when roads were built to drill for oil in the 1970’s. Prior to the inroads of the oil companies, this part of the Ecuadorian rainforest had been home to the Huaorani people. Nunkui is one of fifteen communities in the Orellana Province that were founded by the Shuar colonists in the 1970’s. These colonists and their descendants now number about 1,500 in the Orellana Province.
The Shuar people can be very proud people and wary of outsiders. They are suspicious that outsiders will steal their water or cheat them out of their land. Many also view the evangelical faith as a threat to their culture and way of life. This was why Antonio was up in arms over Mark’s visit to his community.
However, deep inside their hearts, the Shuar people in these communities have a hunger to know God and to know his Word. Like everyone else, they have a void in their lives that only Jesus can fill.
In the years following 2010, God opened doors for missionaries to visit neighboring Shuar communities to Nunkui. Mark, Ulises, and Jim Zoschg began visiting those communities. They shared the gospel and discipled believers. They also met and developed relationships with many other Shuar people in this area, including people from Nunkui. During this time God was working in the hearts of the people in Nunkui.
Soon, Antonio also had a change of heart. As the leader of Nunkui, he extended an invitation for them to visit Nunkui and teach about how they can know God through a personal relationship with Jesus. Jim began to visit Nunkui with Shuar students studying at the Ninawachi Mission School.
Last year, Jim was traveling back to the mission school when he saw Antonio and one of his two wives (the Shuar people practice polygamy) alongside the highway, about 5 hours away from where they lived. He pulled over and invited them to ride with him, since the road to Huaticocha was on the way back toward their village. On the trip Antonio opened up to Jim. He shared that his wife Maria (name changed for privacy), who was traveling with him, had left him for a while and was wanting to separate from him. During this time that she had been away, she had been unfaithful to him with another Shuar man with whom she had been staying.
He told Jim that he had married her as a young man and then a few years later, had also taken her younger sister to be his “wife.” He confessed to treating Maria badly during their marriage. He would often get drunk and physically and emotionally abuse her. He said that in God’s eyes he realizes now that this was sinful. He said that he had invited Jesus into his life and was repentant. He wanted forgive Maria and to take her back as his wife, since he was legally married to her. He wanted to support her sister and the children that he had with her financially, but to no longer live with her as a second wife, because that was sinful. He planned to build another house apart for them. He shared that his second “wife” was in agreement to this if Maria decided to come back.
Jim counseled them both. Maria shared about how hurt she was from all of the abuse over the years. Jim told her that if she invited Jesus into her life, he could help her to forgive and put love in her heart toward Antonio. He could help to heal the scars in her life. Soon they arrived at Huaticocha, and the visit ended too soon. Antonio and Maria had to continue to travel by bus so that they could get back to their village before dark.
It was obvious that God had put them in Jim’s path that day. The encounter far from their village was more than chance, it was a divine appointment and the opportunity to steer them towards Jesus. Maria returned to Antonio for a week or so and then decided the pain caused in their relationship was too great. She decided to leave permanently. Jim visits Nunkui when he can, but not nearly as often as he would like to. Antonio shares with Jim that he hurts for his children who miss their mother, especially the youngest ones who don’t understand why she left. He still occasionally struggles with drunkenness. But he isn’t the same Antonio who kicked Mark out of Nunkui seven years ago. He has a softer heart. He hungers to know Jesus more. He wants his children and the rest of Nunkui to know God. It is evident that God is working in his heart, and wherever she is, God is working in Maria’s heart, too.
There are 65,000 of the Shuar people group in Ecuador. About 0.5% Shuar have professed faith in Jesus. Four Shuar students graduated from the Ninawachi Mission School in December, and two more graduated in February. Currently, one of the Shuar graduates, Delia Ujucma, and her husband Daniel are serving in another Shuar village neighboring Nunkui and have contact with the families in Nunkui. We are praying that in the future we will be able to raise up more Shuar missionaries at the Ninawachi Mission School to be able to send to Nunkui and the surrounding Shuar communities to evangelize, disciple, and plant churches.
There are many “Antonios” among the Shuar people, people who on the outside have hard hearts, but who deep inside have a hunger to know Jesus. We are hoping that through the Ninawachi Mission School we can raise up missionaries to spread the good news of Jesus among this people group in Orellana and in the Shuar homeland.