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Building churches in the Amazon jungle

Posted: August 1, 2008 7:52 p.m.
Updated: October 3, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Sandra Baker knew her trip to the Amazon jungles of Peru would be an exhausting experience.

Joined by her husband, Tim, and 17-year-old daughter Amanda, Sandra spent nearly 20 days of July adapting to life in the Amazon jungles of Peru, which meant travelling the rivers on a barge, sleeping in hammocks and getting bitten by mosquitoes.

"It was an eye-opening experience," the Stevenson Ranch resident said.

But the Bakers did not spend time in the jungles alone.

They were joined by 20 other worshippers from the Newhall Church of the Nazarene during a mission trip to the villages of Peru organized by Pastor Greg Garman.

Garman said the trip is typically an annual one among church members who share the goal of connecting with Christian churches in the Amazon and building new ones for the villagers.

The trip has a personal meaning for Garman because he was raised in the Amazon by his missionary parents.

"My folks have worked in the Amazon jungles of Peru for 44 years," he said.

The couple still lives in region, specifically in the Loreto district.

"I have always desired to stay in close contact with the work we have done in Peru," he said. "I go back every year, often leading groups down there."

Garman estimates he's been traveling to the Amazon for nearly 25 years.

In addition to building churches (New Naz built two churches during their July trip and have established nine over the past decade), Garman said the church organizes concerts for the native people.

Garman, who has served at the New Naz for 14 years, said the team travelled to "remote, isolated places."

For many of the villagers, Garman said it was their first time seeing "white people."

"The two places we went, it was the first time any outside foreigners had come to their village," he said.

While the senior pastor said there are many places that have a strong population, the villages are often smaller and are home to around 2,000 Peruvians.

There are no roads or major airports in the Ucayali region, making barges and boats are the predominant form of travel. Communication was also an experience as Garman said Spanish is spoken by the people but the tribe known as Agua Runa has its own language.

One barge the group used carried 300 people. Other times, the New Naz members utilized small canoes to get to the various villages.

During their stay, the team built two churches from materials, including cement, lumber and roofing materials, they had brought and raised money for on their own.

"We ended up leaving with a pretty nice building ..." he said, noting that the structure included an aluminum roof, which was a big change for the people who typically build with thatched leaves.

Garman said the church does not intrude on the villages, but rather visits the villages after the natives have established their own Christian groups.

"We never want to build it so they can come," he said about the churches. "We want to make sure they are ready for us."

Although Garman is familiar with the lifestyle of the Amazon people, around two-thirds of the church team had never been to the Amazon, just like the Baker family.

"I've never been in a Third World country," Baker said. "It was shocking in some ways to see how much poverty there really is."

However, Baker said the village lifestyle is different because even though the villagers don't have much, "money is not an issue."

With that, she realized that their lives can be much more difficult in some ways but in other ways a lot easier.

"It's a paradox in terms of how they live."

Meeting the Peruvians also proved to be an experience.

Baker said her daughter Amanda and other travellers have light hair, which was intriguing for the villagers.

"They kept wanting to touch the girls hair and play with it," she said.

Despite the struggles of the trip, Garman believes the travels to the Amazon are necessary.

"We obviously can send money," he said, later adding, "But it helps them visualize that church is bigger than what they can see."

It's a thought Baker realized too.

"For us, it's easy to imagine that the church is bigger than us. We know there's different denominations," she said.

However, after her mission trip, Baker said she began to understand that the villagers can't always see past their own village or small region.

"They don't see the world the same way we do," she said.

Despite the differences, Baker sees similarities in how the New Naz and villages worship, whether it's through singing songs or sharing stories.

"It was a fun thing just to see that connection being made," she said.


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