Archive: Methodist Apostle in the Land of Lightning

Archive: Methodist Apostle in the Land of Lightning

Archive: Methodist Apostle in the Land of Lightning

By Harold Spann
Pastor, First United Methodist Church, San Augustine, Texas


These days, it is rare to find a Methodist church excited about world missions. Recently, Mrs. Porter Brown, head of the Board of Missions, sadly admitted that missionary success stories are few and far between. But the “vision glorious” has not entirely disappeared. One outstanding example is found in San Augustine, Texas. Here Methodists have reversed the anti-missionary tide, and support a daring and creative program of salvation-centered world outreach. – Charles W. Keysor, Editor

It is a long way from the comfortable home of a banker in St. Paul, Minnesota, to a communal dwelling where the whole village lives under one roof on the banks of the Rio de Oro (River of Gold) in Colombia, South America. But this is the journey that Bruce Olson, 19 year old youth, made in less than a year’s time when the Holy Spirit spoke and he obeyed.

Christ had become thrillingly alive and real to Bruce when he was a sophomore in high school in St. Paul. One night alone in his bedroom, he slipped to his knees a seeking, hungering boy. He arose a short time later filled with joy and peace in the Lord Jesus. Not only did he receive Christ as his personal Savior that night, Bruce also dedicated his life to the Lord for the Christian ministry.

In 1961, he was studying ancient languages at the University of Pennsylvania. The Holy Spirit spoke with such urgency that Bruce yielded to His insistence that he go at once to some foreign field for missionary service. The call was distinct and clear that he should go to some aboriginal tribe who had never heard the Name of Jesus. Though he had not finished his education and was only 19 and without many funds, he bought a one-way ticket to Venezuela. He landed at Caracas with only $72.00 in his pocket – and the assurance in his heart that this was the first step on the road of God’s choosing for his missionary service.

What now? This was the question that confronted this boy in a strange land among a people whose language he did not speak. A $22-a-day hotel soon soaked up his meager funds, but God gave him a friend who took Bruce into his home. This friend introduced him to the Venezuelan minister of health, who employed him on the spot with a month’s salary in advance. In this job he helped to vaccinate Indians in the Oronaco River valley. He also attended classes at the University of Caracas, where he taught Greek to supplement his income and where he eventually received his university degree.

Confronted with the threat of expulsion from the country because of the lack of legal papers, Bruce was given another friend by God. This friend he met one day in a crowded sidewalk cafe in Caracas. The well-dressed gentleman who took a seat at his table and heard his story patiently turned out to be none other than the personal secretary to President Romulo Betancourt, President of the Republic of Venezuela. It was not difficult for him to help Bruce solve his problems with immigration officials.

During the few months he had been in South America, Bruce had heard of a fierce nation of Indians in the mountainous jungles along the Venezuelan and Colombian borders. From the early forties to 1960 they had wounded over 800 oil company employees. Sixty-eight of the workers had been the fatal victims of the Indians’ deadly spears and arrows. Bruce was somewhat shaken when God told him to go to these Indians, the Motilones. No white man had ever contacted the Motilones and lived to tell of it.

Less than a year from that night that he landed at the Caracas airport, Bruce Olson walked alone into the jungles of Venezuela in search of the dreaded Motilones. Night fell suddenly and a frightened 19 year old made his bed on leaves he had ripped from trees with his bare hands. In his excitement about entering the jungles he had forgotten a can opener. So he had to pound his sardine cans on a rock in order to suck the juice from the tins.

For three days he forced his way through the jungles. From the brow of a high hill on the fourth day he saw a little village below. Rushing down the hill, he shouted in Spanish greetings to the old men who came forward to meet him. He soon learned that they neither spoke nor understood Spanish. He tried Latin, Norwegian, and a few others, but they only laughed and flopped their lips at him in mockery.

A few days later, the chief and the young men returned to their village from a hunt, and Bruce found himself a prisoner of the chieftain and warriors who demanded his immediate death. These were not the Motilone but the Yucco Indians. His life was spared when the old men convinced their chief that he could not kill the white man who had learned to play the sacred tunes of the Yucca on his little flute.

By injecting penicillin into some of the sick children of the village, Bruce was able to heal them and to gain the trust and support of these Indians. After 6 months with the Yuccas he persuaded three of the more daring young Indians to guide him to the edge of the Motilone territory, still farther to the north in the jungle.

After four days on the trail, Olson and his guides were suddenly under fire by a barrage of sharp, four-foot arrows, sent singing through the air by the strong five foot bows of the Motilones. The three Yuccas began to run. One of them was hit in the arm, but kept on running. Bruce began to run too. Then he was struck deep in the thigh by an arrow. He fell to the ground and God spoke to his heart reminding him that he had come here for just this reason, to contact the Motilones.

Contact was made!

The Indians, five of them, stepped from hiding, their bows loaded and drawn. One of them ripped the arrow from his leg. Another demanded his death on the spot. An argument followed. Three of the five insisted that they take the white man to their chief rather than killing him. The three prevailed, and Bruce was carried a prisoner to the communal dwelling some miles down the trail.

Exhausted, he fell into a hammock (the only sleeping accommodations in Motilone land) and was allowed to sleep for several hours. He was a prisoner and treated much as a captured animal.

While with the Yuccos, he had drunk polluted water and contracted amoebic dysentery. He grew weaker by the day and finally realized that unless he escaped and got medical help he could not live. One moonless night, he slipped unnoticed from the house while the other 150 occupants were sleeping. Stumbling through the jungle blackness he came to the river nearby and began wading downstream. For 10 days, half delirious from fever and weakness he stumbled on, existing on wild bananas.

Finally he came to a colonist’s house on the edge of the jungle – to discover that he was no longer in Venezuela but in Colombia.

From Bogota, the capital of Colombia, he returned to Motilone territory by way of the River of Gold. He went upriver in a boat loaded with supplies. He made camp on the riverbank and placed gifts on a trail discovered nearby. A month passed. No sign of life and the gifts untouched. Another month and the gifts disappeared. He left other gifts. Then they disappeared, and where they had been he found several arrows stuck in the ground – a sign he had been warned to take seriously: it meant death!

He pushed a little farther down the trail and left other gifts. Then one day he found himself surrounded by several young Motilone men. Giving the Motilone greeting of the raised eyebrow and a smile, he found his captors smiling at him. They unloaded their bows and carried him to their communal house where he was given liberty and treated as a friend.

Again God had proven His faithfulness and reassured Bruce that He had called him to evangelize these people. Under the anointing of the Lord, he identified as completely as possible with the Motilones. They were impressed that the white man ate their food and went on the trail with them on their hunts. He ate monkey meat and even smacked his lips over the long, soft worms he ate with the Indians. He mastered the “art” of biting the head off the worms and sucking out the insides; of cracking large beetles between his teeth and sucking out their insides.

Beginning to learn a few words of their language, Bruce learned that they had a head chief in another of the villages farther into the interior. He asked to be carried to this chief. The Indians refused. At last they agreed and the long eight day walk on the trail began. Halfway through the journey, Bruce became violently ill with chest pains and nausea. One of the Indians asked how he turned his eyes to such a pretty yellow. He knew this was a symptom of hepatitis. By the time they reached the high chief’s communal dwelling, Bruce was too weak to walk. He had to be carried by the Indians. The chief took one look at the white man and demanded why they had not killed him. He ordered them to kill Bruce at once or the chief would do so with his own hands.

The Indians pleaded for his life, telling their chief that he could not kill the white man because he was sick. Motilones believe that if they kill. any person or animal dying with a disease, the Motilone will be cursed, and will never kill game again on the hunt. His arrows will break in midflight.

Despairing of living any longer because of his pain and weakness, Bruce one day heard the sound of a helicopter in the distance. The Indians were all frightened; they thought the copter was a great vulture coming to eat them. Bruce persuaded an Indian to carry him out into the clearing before the house and to spread his red plastic tent on the roof of the building. This the Indian did before he, too, fled into the jungle. The aircraft landed in the clearing and its two occupants one of whom, a medical doctor, loaded him into the craft and carried him back to civilization.

In two weeks God had healed Bruce sufficiently so that he headed back to the River of Gold and the Motilones.

This time the Indians received him almost as if he were a god. They believed that the great vulture bird had taken him away to devour him. And now here he was back, quite well and talking to them!

God has spared Bruce Olson from many deadly dangers, given him extraordinary wisdom, and blessed his work among these Indians. The Gospel has begun to bear fruit. Five years after the first contact, there was one real convert among the Motilones, a young man named Kobayra Bobarishora. “Bobby,” as he was nicknamed, was the son of the Indian who demanded Bruce’s death at the first contact.

But others are interested. Recently an Indian came from another village to inquire of Bobby if Jesus loved them too. When told that Jesus did, the Indian smiled and said, “Then I want to know all about Him.”

Within a few months the first Motilone will be teaching his own people to read and write. Soon the first health clinic and meeting place will be completed. Mule trails have been cut through the 2,000,000 acre territory and six mules carry supplies over these 95 miles of trail. Dugout canoes have been made and motors put on them to carry supplies from the edge of the jungles to the first communal dwelling. This summer, the second health clinic and meeting house will be begun. Soon the Gospel of Mark will be translated fully into the Motilone language.

Young Olson explained to the congregation of the First Methodist Church of San Augustine, Texas, in January of 1967 that his plan is to get the Gospel planted in the hearts of the people before civilization moves in with its vices and temptations.

This season, the Motilones will market their first agricultural products. And sometime this year dairy cattle will be brought into the territory for milk and meat.

In June four missionary recruits left San Augustine to share in the Motilone ministry. The four, Mrs. Myra Kennedy, Miss Carol Anderson, Rev. and Mrs. Tim Walker, are all from Texas. They will work for at least one year among the Motilones.

Unknown to most of the world, a quiet but mighty miracle of redemption has been taking place. The heavy weight of evangelizing this Indian nation has rested on the shoulders of one consecrated young man who risked all to be faithful to the call of God. Through the faith and obedience of Bruce Olson, a great light has begun to shine in another of earth’s dark places. Bonds of fear, superstition and hate have been broken from the minds and hearts of the Motilones.

To talk to Bruce Olson is to know the deep humility of his life and to savor the salt of his faith. To hear his story and witness his passion for the souls of this primitive people is to inhale in our twentieth century the fresh Christian air of the first century.