The country of Bolivia is today among the poorest in South America and among the poorest in Bolivia are the Ayoré Indians (pronounced Eye-O-Ray). They are despised, unprotected and relatively unknown even in their own country. God, however, knows every tribe and nation, and God knows and loves the Ayoré.
The Ayoré were originally a nomadic group roaming the bush in eastern Bolivia and northern Paraguay. They were notorious for their “kill or be killed” relationship with ranchers, settlers or anyone who dared invade their ancestral territory. In the words of Bill Pencille, one of SAM’s first missionaries to the Ayoré, they were “Like Ishmael in the Bible, ‘Their hand was against every man and every man’s hand was against them’”.
In the 18th century, Catholic missionaries attempted to establish a Jesuit mission among them, but the Ayoré disappeared into the jungle after killing the priests. In the 1930’s, SAM Missionary George Haight made a brief, peaceful contact, but was unable to establish continuous mission work. Then, in 1943, a group of Ayoré killed five New Tribes missionaries who were attempting to make contact. However, neither SAM nor New Tribes gave up. Aware of the inevitable encroachment of outsiders into Ayoré territory, these missions knew it was only a matter of time before bullets, disease or slavery would wipe out the Ayorés. With this in mind, the Missions developed mission-owned properties, which eventually became the Ayoré villages of today.
Then in the early 1950’s, God finally opened the door: South America Mission worked with the Ayoré for a number of years and established small, fledging churches in two villages. However, by the end of the 1970’s, SAM found itself lacking the missionary personnel to maintain a permanent presence among the Ayoré. Fifteen years later, in 1995, John Depue, a soon-to-retire SAM missionary, invited us to visit Poza Verde, one of the Ayoré reservations. Placido, though a Bolivian himself, was shocked by the living conditions of the people. His feelings intensified after visiting Barrio Bolivar, an Ayoré camp on the outskirts of the city of Santa Cruz. The camp lacked decent housing, water and even basic sanitation. There he was greeted with the sickening smell of cocaine paste being smoked by young people lounging on the muddy ground. Young women with empty eyes stared at him, and then turned away to offer themselves to a passing trucker.
The babies this lifestyle produced were left under the visibly inadequate care of grandmothers completely unprepared for rearing children under such conditions. Without trained leadership, the Ayoré church was dead. As a result of those first visits, Placido changed the focus of his life. He decided to dedicate his life to helping the Ayoré. Because of our work as medical doctors, we clearly saw the Ayorés’ need for physical as well as spiritual help. In 1995, while still in medical school, we began regular medical and evangelistic visits to Poza Verde and Barrio Bolivar. God placed an ongoing burden in our hearts.
Later that same year, God brought a spiritual re-awakening in the Ayoré camps and the Ayoré began to come back to their own native church. Today, the work has expanded to include many Ayoré camps and reservations, concentrating on villages where no other missions work. God has also raised up a group of Bolivians and Americans to help: Dra. Sandra, Dr. Raul, Lucy, Beverly Smith, Charles and Hannah McCall, Ayoréos- Benial , Rocio, and Sarόn – all of whom have a heart for the poor and for those not yet touched by God’s redeeming love.
The heart of this ministry is a passion to see Jesus transform lives as He did for Benial . Clearly the key to growth, strength and effectiveness in the Ayoré church is the development of growing, strong and effective Ayoré church leaders. To that end, the Ayoré ministry invests a large portion of its’ annual budget in leadership training. One way this is done is to send families to Ammi , South America Mission’s Indian Bible training center just over the border in Brazil. This school’s focus is on training Indian people in the Bible so they can return as witnesses to their own people. A core value at Ammi is discipleship, and we have seen wonderful results in those we have sent so far. Benial and his wife Leoncia, the first couple to go and graduate, live in Poza Verde and are in charge of the church there. They also participate in evangelistic trips to other villages where there are believers, but no trained leaders.
The heartbreak of the Ayorés’ situation naturally led to a holistic ministry. We believe that James speaks to us when he says that if someone is in need, and we do nothing about it, then our faith is dead. It is difficult to convince people of God’s love when they see that our needs and wants are provided for, but we have no interest in helping them get life’s basic necessities. Thus, healthcare, education and community development go hand in hand with evangelism, church planting and leadership training. Not surprisingly, the greatest needs are first healthcare, for the sick and the undernourished, then education so they can function in Bolivian society, and third, a means of livelihood so they can be self-sustaining. We seek to address all of these areas of real need as agents of Christ’s love.
The healthcare provided by the ministry includes basic medical assistance, aid with hospitalization, labs and medicine, counseling, and also training village health workers. We also help those who qualify to apply for free government health programs. Efforts in education are, unfortunately, very limited at present by a lack of personnel. However, we do provide aid in obtaining the documents and school supplies necessary for children to attend school.
Many Ayorés still only speak Ayoré and not Spanish. There is an urgent need for someone to work with the few Ayore teachers to help them become effective in bi-lingual education. At this time, most of the native teachers have less than a fourth-grade education and have only meager resources at their disposal.
Community development is our third goal. We encourage the women to pursue and expand the production of their beautiful traditional woven purses, which for many is an alternative to prostitution or begging. We purchase these bags to offer for sale at our ministry office and on this website. We also encourage visitors to the villages to buy these true souvenirs of Bolivia. However, this still doesn’t generate enough money to cover a family’s basic needs. Several agricultural projects have been successful, but have not yet proved to be sustainable and manageable by the Ayoré themselves. We continue to provide seed and basic assistance to those who have cleared land for planting.
We hope to partner with another mission in developing a sustainable project specifically designed to make the best use of the natural resources available to nomadic, hunter-gatherer groups on reservations. In order to see this part of the vision fulfilled, we will need people with skills in natural resources and environmental science. The Ayoréos we asked about this project showed an overwhelmingly positive response.
God has again opened a door to South America Mission, to make His glory known among the Ayoré. Please pray for that God will raise up the people and the financial backing to keep this ministry alive. And after you pray, we hope that you will commit yourselves to keep on praying for and giving to this ministry, for a people despised and rejected by men, but loved by God: the Ayoré of Bolivia.
The Ayoré Story
South America Mission (SAM) video about their ministry among the Ayore in Bolivia. The video is in two parts. Press the play button to begin playing it and learn more about Toni and Placido's Ministry among the Ayoré.