December 3, 2008

December 3, 2008

Greetings all! So… today we start our family blog. The purpose? To share updates, photos, prayers requests and answers, activities, etc. relating to our family – and mostly concerning the work here in Mexico among the Tarahumara Indians. 

Our motto is “All for Jesus” – that in this brief life, we might – by our thoughts, attitudes, words and deeds, do all for His glory and honor. And though we will always fall short of such a goal, by His grace, we aspire daily to serve Him, and His people, with our whole hearts. Lord, teach us how to love more, to lay our lives down, to humbly consider ourselves to be less than others so we can lift them up to You!

Flying to Santa Rita

Flying to Santa Rita

the Samachique cabin

March 23, 2009

Here are some pictures of the cabin we’ve been working on for 1 1/2 years. We finally moved in March 12th! Praise the Lord for His provision.

The "pharmacy" in our house in Santa Rita

The "pharmacy" in our house in Santa Rita

Water storage pila for Santa Rita we helped build

Water storage pila for Santa Rita we helped build

Basket making - Santa Rita

Basket making - Santa Rita

Worship meeting at our house - Santa Rita

Worship meeting at our house - Santa Rita

December 19, 2008

Living with  and Reaching the Traditional Tarahumara

by Tom Shank

The thoughts expressed below are relevant to dealing with the most traditional Tarahumara. Less traditional Tara. who have had far more contact with ‘chabochis’ (Mexicans/Americans) will generally be less resistant to change and the process of building trusting relationships with them will take much less time. Their world view will be at least partially Catholic and Mexican, so the seeds of the gospel will have at least some ‘soil’ in which to take root. They will have experienced various government programs, and thus be accustomed to attempts  from the ‘outside’ to help them. Therefore, utilizing such programs as Community Health Evangelism (CHE or ECS) in these villages can be profitable when heavily adapted to their particular cultural situation.  It would seem that about 90% of Christian mission work and ministry among the Tarahumara is focused upon these who have been at least partially assimilated to the Mexican culture.

Among the more remote and traditional Tarahumara, however, one deals with a wholly different dynamic. The men will have learned a bit of Spanish, but the women will be largely monolingual. Very few can read.  Their world view is thoroughly animistic and shamanistic. If there ever had been any Catholic contact, it has long since disappeared except for perhaps the thinnest veneer which surfaces in certain ceremonies. If government programs ever do reach them, they often fail due to the great effort it takes for the workers to maintain regular visitation in such remote areas.

For anyone who plans to work among traditional Tarahumara, it is imperative that they have a basic understanding of their religious world view. Without understanding where they are spiritually or cosmologically, it is more difficult to attempt to build bridges for them to a Judeo-Christian world view. There are some valuable written resources available, especially:


‘The Tarahumara Indians’, by Bennett and Zingg’ 1935 (out of print)

‘ Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre’, by John L. Kennedy, 1978

‘Raramuri Souls’, by William Merrill, 1988


To begin with, it might be helpful to make an artificial scale of one to five to determine the degree of ‘traditionalness’ versus assimilation of Tarahumara communities. There are, of course, many degrees in between these five. 


5. Assimilated Tarahumara – People of 75-100% Tara. blood but who speak only Spanish, dress western (women in jeans even), live as most mestizos, mostly literate, drive vehicles, etc.  Examples: Yoquivo, Aboreachi


4.  Bilingual Tarahumara – women usually wear dresses (at times traditional), men dress western; Mexican type homes, usually literate, many conveniences. Examples: Samachique, Basigochi


3. Semi-traditional – Men and some women speak Spanish, Women dress traditionally, some men dress western, some with loincloth, adobe houses with metal roofs, make some trad. crafts to sell; a few shamans, use western medicine, maybe some herbal; often have solar lighting, piped water, indoor kitchens

Examples: Aborichi, Coyachique


2.  Traditional – Most men speak some Spanish, very few women speak any, all women and most men dress traditional, houses are log, stone, or some adobe, some metal roofs, make and use trad. crafts; shamans, use herbal and western medicine; no school, no lighting, cook outside on campfire

Examples: Santa Rita, Wimayvo


1. Very traditional – largely monolingual, all traditional dress, primitive housing (huts, caves, no metal roofs), some barefoot, shamans, shun  western medicine; no school,  make and use all traditional crafts, no lighting, cook outside on campfire. Examples: ??


Although these characterizations focus largely on the material culture, one generally finds that the traditionalness of their world view coincides with the degree of resistance to their assimilation into the Mexican culture. At times, however, one aspect of dominant culture might be embraced, though only in part. For example, most traditional Tara. who have built Mexican style adobe houses use them only for sleeping and storage – they are usually bare of all furnishings. The transition has been made in terms of style of dwelling but the lifestyle remains unchanged, for they continue to sit and sleep on the floor.

  So what follows is an attempt to share what we have learned by working (at times, off and on), for 16 years with traditional Tarahumara.  We presently live part time in the remote, traditional  community of Santa Rita. Santa Rita is a 5 hour drive and 45 minute hike from Samachique. It consists of 21 households. The women wear traditional dress, and the men mostly wear loincloths. There is no solar lighting, no school, no road. Until we came, there were no outhouses; now there are 5. The people cook outside on open campfires. They mostly use homemade ollas as cooking pots and bowls, and baskets as food containers. For about 4 months of the year (the rainy season), access is usually impossible by normal 4 wheel drive truck – the alternative is a 6 hour hike uphill.

  Our prayer is that the following things we have learned over the years will assist others in their service to traditional Tarahumara (Matt. 18:12-14).




1. Genuine Relationships


The traditional Tarahumara have a huge, and justifiable, mistrust of everyone outside of their blood group. For nearly 400 years, they have been taken advantage of and lied to by ‘chabochis’. This term refers to whites, mexicans, all, in fact,  who are not of their tribal group. Over the past centuries, they have been practically enslaved by miners, driven off of their best land by soldiers and farmers, and to this day, receive little compensation for their crafts and labor. Traditional people have obviously resisted change, and nowhere is this attitude expressed more thoroughly than in their religious and world views. Spiritually, this characteristic is a stronghold upon them. Jesuit missionaries as far back as the 17th century bemoaned this fact, and the difficulty of leading them to genuine, lifelong conversion. This quality underlines the fact that any mission work among traditional Tarahumara is a very slow, long term proposition. It is not for the spiritually or physically weak.  

The successful presentation of the gospel is 100% dependent upon the presenter’s willingness to establish a relationship of trust with individuals in their villages. This process will take much time and effort, and there are no shortcuts. 

Over the years, the Mexican government (at various levels) has developed numerous programs designed to help the Tarahumara. Through such programs as Opportunidades, Pro Campo, Progresso, etc., the government agencies dispense either money, food or construction materials to individuals and families. Unfortunately, at times political favoritism lends itself to opportunities to bless certain communities with everything from access roads to solar lighting systems while others are ignored. Many Tarahumara communities have become accustomed to receiving such aid to the point where it is an expectation, and one for which they are not terribly grateful – they are poor, and it is ‘owed’ to them. Even those in very remote communities have access to these funds and goods, for they can hike out to the population centers where they are delivered. These programs are a blessing to the Tarahumara, but not without some negative drawbacks. They tend to speed up to process of assimilation to Mexican culture. For example, about 10 years ago the government gave lamina (roofing metal) to many traditional communities, including Santa Rita. Within a year, the face of the village had changed considerably, as people built adobe houses to put the lamina on. Many replaced their traditional stonewalled, dirt-roofed houses with Mexican adobe structures.

Many short term mission works among them take part in and perpetuate not only such dispensas but also the welfare attitude which naturally results. Too often, evangelistic methods from an entirely different cultural context are used, which are like tossing seed onto solid bedrock. Any invitation to accept the gospel is seen as a cheap way to ‘get the goods’ – it’s even easier to raise a hand than what the government requires – obtaining a government I.D. card and signing on the dotted line. Face it – it is the quick and easy ‘fix’ which for the moment helps to alleviate some suffering, and upon returning home, mission visitors can report some supposed tangible fruit of their brief time in the sierra. However, such mission work is 99% illusion. With such an approach, the manifold causes of their suffering, poverty and especially spiritual bondage are never addressed and the words of the gospel are preached to the deaf.

The process of establishing a relationship of trust and genuine friendship with Tarahumara generally takes not weeks, or months, but years. They immediately question the motives of anyone who seems to show interest in them. Their long experience has been that ‘chabochis’ are always out to get something, be it land, gold/silver, water, or women. The children reflect what their parents are thinking and feeling – at first contact, they run from you as if you were a monster. 

However, if we as Christian ‘chabochis’ come to pass out dispensas (food, clothing, etc.), then many Tarahumara will shift into welfare mode. Some become so bold they will ask for anything and everything. The only way to go beyond either the benefactor/Santa Claus relationship or the suspicion-based relationship is to commit to the process of spending countless hours with them in their context and environment. 


At this point it is necessary to regress a bit to explore the communal sharing dynamic which is an important element of the Tara. culture. Every village consist of those who have less, or more, than their neighbors. There is an obligation for those who have to share with those who do not. Motherless or fatherless children will often eat with their neighbors, and even live with them for periods of time (especially if the father, for instance, is drinking a lot and beating the child). It is rather amazing how quickly some find out about new found wealth obtained by others. For this reason, many will try to hide their wealth from their neighbors.

This communal sharing is a survival mechanism in their culture. When seemingly wealthy foreigners (chabochis) enter the village and develop friendships with them, their natural tendency is to expect that person to also share equally of their wealth or goods. To not do so seems selfish. Needless to say, this causes a great dilemma for the outsider. To be sure, there is no easy solution. Jesus tells us to give without any thought of recompense (Luke 6:30). We realize though that to always do so will quickly replete all our our goods and not really help the people beyond the moment. Spiritually we must always obey this command in the sense that we are always ready and willing to give of the faith and life we have in Christ. The spirit of such giving will lead us to seek their advantage over our own, and thereby demonstrate to them the transforming love of Christ. 

Over many years of trial and error, we have found that it is best to almost never give money. However, just as one must give medicine in an emergency situation, so one might be prompted of the Lord to give some food for those in real need. A few meals will of course not offer a long term solution, but it just may, at the moment,  save the lives of some children.  If this becomes a regular feature in our relationship, they will most definitely expect it, and if one backtracks, then it damages relations, as they will think that you don’t like them anymore. We have established a barter relationship with everyone in which we give them a very good return for their crafts and labor. We pay retail value for their crafts, but  prefer  to trade food, fabric, etc. for their things instead of money.  In doing so, we make sure they are at the advantage. We try to always purchase or trade for the crafts of the widows or husbandless, so they can support themselves and their children. The only exception we practice is to give occasional ‘dispensas’ of food to the very elderly. Most often that comes out of our own pockets, though at times we obtain food from others, etc. We feel it is a way of honoring elders in the village, and in doing so they then have the opportunity to feel useful in helping to provide the family members with whom they live with food. By helping them with such basics as food, powdered milk and vitamins, they can be relieved too of some in their infirmities.



What is the nature of sin in the Tarahumara culture?


Just as we as individuals can and do have ‘besetting sins’ or strongholds, so a culture often has common, social evils which seem to lay at the root of their varying identities. Even among many traditional Tarahumara, the former social mechanisms that served to keep these sins in check are disintegrating. Although there is still, of course, a knowledge of social right and wrong, there are few mechanisms in place to verbally reinforce them in the context of the community and to enforce their rule. 

Personal Sin  

First of all, it is important to understand that among traditional Tarahumara, there is not really a concept of personal sin as we understand it from our Judeo-Christian world view. In fact, there exists no word which can be translated as generic, theoretical sin. When I have asked men their word for ‘sin’ (pecado), they have answered “Chati niwa’ ”, meaning to ‘do wrong’. One can do wrong against the the community, and break the customs, but there is not the concept that sin  can exist as thought, attitude and word. 

Also, their ‘theology’ is a confused mix of animism and Catholicism. Many believe that Jesus is Satan’s younger brother. God (Onoruame) has to be appeased by sacrifices, and the impression is He’s “out to get you” if He isn’t. Their semana santa (holy week) celebrations are a microcosm of their  cosmology. Dances and drama are peopled with Pharisees and (Roman) soldiers, and even Judas Iscariot, but there is no Jesus! 


Community government  

Older anthropological studies of the Tarahumara culture speak of the leadership of the local elders who bore several responsibilities which prevented and punished wrongdoing. Weekly or biweekly meetings were held during which the chief ‘governador’ heard of complaints and conflicts within the community. His task was to determine guilt, to admonish, to give counsel and correction, and at times, to punish  the offenders. He also regularly instructed the people concerning the perimeters of behavior, admonishing and encouraging them to obey the unwritten moral code which had been passed down through generations. His ‘sermons’ were aimed at reinforcing the traditional moral code and world view that had been received from their elders.


Today, this mechanism has largely disappeared in many villages, and to some extent, even traditional ones. Some villages have no ‘elected’ leaders, while others, if they do, they seem to have little power to discipline offenders. If there has been a serious offense (murder), the police from the municipality are told and get involved. Ejido leadership still functions to make decisions but rarely is there disciplinary action.



Marriages used to be submitted for the approval of both sets of parents. In many villages, they then approached a man in the community, the mayor, who helped arrange the union by communicating with each set of parents. He officiated at a marriage ceremony, and gave counsel to the newlyweds regarding their marital responsibilities.


Today, marriage among the Tarahumara is very loosely embarked upon and also easily terminated. Only on very rare occasions do they have a priest or government official perform a legal marriage. There seems to be little concept of a strong commitment for life to the partner. Parental approval usually is optional, not a must. Some “marry” as early as age 13 or 14. Basically a couple starts living together, period. At times, a man may actually kidnap a woman he desires, rape her, and force her to live with him. When a child is born, it is in her best interest to stay, as he is obligated to provide for her and the child. However, every village has women whose husbands have left for another woman or simply abandoned them for work, another location and whatever might lay ahead. She then has to depend on her parents, or at times his, to obtain food and shelter. The general cultural breakdown among the Tara. is perhaps most evident in this area of life.

Related to these problems is the matter of kinship relations. In this day, there has been a serious disintegration of cultural taboos in the area of marriage. Previously, the Tarahumara, as a rule, limited marriage as far as excluding the union of first cousins. This may have been a restriction established by early Catholic missionaries. They now freely marry. We have even seen half brothers/sisters ‘marry’ and have children. We also know of occasions of serious incest within families between parents/children and siblings. These relations are frowned upon, but there seems to be little or no social pressure or recourse to correct and discipline such actions. The role of the local governador in regularly legislating, counseling  and admonishing the community has diminished.  



The Tarahumara have always survived by subsistence farming. For centuries they have planted their land in corn, beans, squash and assorted other things. Their land has passed down through generations. Although there is no titled ownership of land, their land is extremely important to them – it is their life. 

Earning money to buy basics like flour, sugar, salt, coffee, and also fabric and tire tread for huarachis, etc. has always proved difficult. The ladies make crafts, such as baskets and belts to sell. The men have found some funds by working for meztizos – cutting and carrying wood, firewood, and doing other menial labor. Some Tarahumara in the sierra have done fairly well in  logging  work. Others choose to leave the sierra for a time (or good) to work in cities, orchards, etc. However, in the past ten years or so, growing marijuana and poppies has become the economic base for many Tarahumara, especially in the canyons. In this subtropical climate, if water is available, one can grow two crops a year. Dried marijuana is sold to meztizos for about 600 pesos (+ -56.USD) per kilo. In some villages, a majority of men are involved in this venture.

This illegal work at times results in conflicts which can lead to murder. It upsets the centuries old agrarian life, as many don’t even plant corn and beans, but rather concentrate all their energy on their drug crop. With a good harvest, they can easily provide food for their families, plus buy luxuries. Some even purchase trucks, which they have no clue how to drive. Mix drink with this fact, and some die, flying over the edge of the canyon. 

We have wrestled long and hard to figure out a way to wean people of this activity, but are few alternatives. We are, at present (June, 2007)  teaching and encouraging some Tarahumara men to make simple, rustic furniture from the native woods of the canyon. We hope to sell them at retail, eliminating middle men, thereby allowing the men to receive the full price.



Drinking homemade corn beer (Sp. tesquino; Tara. suguiki), is a regular component of village life. Beer is made to celebrate fiestas, to barter for work, or simply to have a ‘good’ time. Moderation of drink is rare – generally speaking, everyone involved gets plastered. It is at such times that much immorality takes place. Cultural taboos and moral restraints are lost in a drunken fog and fornication, fighting and even murder are only too common. For example, in our village of Santa Rita (21 households), in the past two and a half years, three young men have been killed during drinking parties. One killed his own brother, another, his first cousin. Another was killed in a neighboring village. Yet another young man with four children fell in his drunken stupor and was paralyzed from the waist down – he died within a couple of months. Burns, cuts and other accidents are frequent. Children are neglected during such drunken bashes, and go hungry and thirsty. We have noticed a pattern at the Samachique hospital that the week after Semana Santa, the pediatric ward fills to overflowing with children who are paying the price of their parents’ previous weeks’ indulgence – malnourishment, pneumonia, diarrhea, infections. Some anthropologists would say that the ‘tesquino’ culture is a legitimate cultural aspect of the Tarahumara, especially in that it serves as a means of barter. The reality is, their extremely high infant and child mortality rate is a direct result. One Christian Tarahumara man, who was previously a heavy drinker, when I asked him how many children he has had, said that seven had died young, and then identified the reason – “because I was a drinker then”.



Community Development: Programs and Projects


Most approaches at doing mission work among the Tarahumara focus on utilizing  programs that have a proven track record of success among other cultures. There are some wonderful ideas and things to learn in these programs, and some principles will apply to the Tarahumara. However,  in the more traditional villages at least, the real key to ministering and helping them is first of all through building trusting relationships. 

For years the government has come into such villages and attempted to start projects, but they often fail. The reasons are manifold, but usually include the following:


1. The government workers never go beyond a teacher/student mode of relationship with the people.

2. The difficulty of visiting remote villages and thus the rarity of visits often leaves programs unfinished, even barely started. Also, at times it seems the workers are not really interested in results. For example, over a year ago, 3 government workers, representing various federal and state programs, arrived and discussed a number of projects with the people in Santa Rita. On their second visit three weeks later, no less than 17 people accompanied them! This happened one more time. Then the rainy season arrived and they never returned. Nothing was accomplished, but certainly a lot of their budget was spent by bringing all the extra friends with them on their trips.  Following through with supplying materials for projects also usually suffers.

3. The people don’t really grasp the concepts and goals of the programs.

4. The projects never become “their” project, but are administrated and organized by outsiders.

5. The underlying problems and beliefs are never really addressed.


There is need for much community development among Tarahumara ranchos. The foremost physical problem is almost always an adequate supply of clean water. Teaching them to protect springs from defilement by animals is crucial. Also, simple lessons on the nature of water/food borne bacteria, virus, parasites, etc. is important. Teachings on the transmission of diseases, along with basic preventative techniques will alleviate a lot of suffering and save many lives. We have taught and modeled many health lessons and practices. But it is a rare household that embraces and practices all the lessons. Again, the issue of strongholds – to get them to voluntarily change is very difficult. Seeing lifestyle practices which directly result in the sickness and death of their small children is hard to take. For example, the fencing away from the house area of goats, pigs, and other animals would do much to prevent transmittable diseases. 

In 1991-92, I regularly accompanied Dr. Steve Seegers in clinic work  in Tara. villages. Out of 6 villages he regularly visited, one finally decided they no longer wanted western medicine. Santa Rita was also a difficult field, as the people would never come to us. After being there for a day, a man might take us to a house where someone was sick to see if the person wanted our help. Often times, they didn’t, but preferred the local cuarandero. Again – if we come as agents of change, we’d better be prepared to be refused.

If one is allowed to initiate programs and projects in a village, it is important that the local people are the ones who determine and prioritize projects. Facilitating such projects by hauling in materials, sharing insights for efficiency, motivating them and pitching in to work along side of them is very helpful. 

At times, though, they don’t understand (or rather believe) the concepts they are taught relating to health/disease, nutrition, etc. If they think so-and-so is sick – not because we say that he ate contaminated food, but because he had offended a dead relative, then one can see that the successful implementation of programs and projects (community development) is inevitably based on the transformation of their belief system. This becomes the real issue. And again, it is one in which one comes up against strongholds of great resistance. Centuries of viewing the world, and spiritual world, in a certain way has blinded their eyes to the real causes of such crises as sin, poor crops, sickness and death.


Sharing a Christian world view


It is totally meaningless to hand a Tarahumara a gospel tract and expect anything to result spiritually. If they can read Spanish, still the message will fall on deaf ears, as they have no basis upon which to understand matters like salvation, personal sin, redemption, etc. Such Christian concepts are foreign to their world view. 

Those of us who have come from a Judeo-Christian background take much for granted in that, even if one isn’t a Christian, yet our cultural context is a basic ‘soil’ upon which one can nurture the significance of the gospel message. For them, however, there is precious little that they can relate to spiritually from their world view. Fortunately there are a few “connections” which they can relate to from their perspective. They believe in one God, though He is associated with the sun and is often one of a pantheon of gods. Importantly, they do have the concept of substitutionary sacrifice. 

It seems the only way to effectively convey the gospel is to start in Genesis chapter one. This is a long process, but it is the only way that they will come to a solid  faith in Christ. They must learn (if they are willing to do so) an entirely different world view. Simple and fairly brief lessons that cover the basics of the biblical truth are essential for them to begin to eventually grasp that they are sinners in need of a Savior. The use of visuals is necessary, as they have trouble with abstract concepts and the use of symbols and figurative language. We are still novices in trying to determine the best methods to accomplish this task. Our approach in Santa Rita has been to hold meetings at someone’s house during which we taught both a health lesson and a bible lesson heavily adapted from the study book,  ‘Edifiquemos Sobre Cimientos Firmes’, by Rick Johnson. We’ve found the use of a white board and health tracts to be helpful. Since so few can read, pictures are the best way to demonstrate concepts and ideas. There are Christian concepts for which there are no Tarahumara words, so one must define and explain carefully the word/idea in Spanish. Of course, any ways in which one can use their own life experience to convey spiritual truths is beneficial.



Identification and Incarnation


As I have already stressed from our experience, we have found it best to concentrate on building close relationships with the people. The only way to successfully do this is to be consistent in visiting them and serving them. They must come to realize that you are not there to take advantage of them. As much as you can, enter into their world, try to see things from their perspective, walk in their sandals, so to speak. 

Jesus is always, of course, our perfect model. When He came to earth, leaving the inconceivable glories of heaven, he was poor and one of the sons of the small community of Nazareth. He very intentionally chose this life, this poverty, this ‘littleness’, so that He could relate best with those who would be most open to the gospel (the poor). In His perfection, He identified fully with humankind. Identification and incarnation – this was His method, His ‘philosophy’, His heart.

Identification means that we enter into their world, their culture, showing  respect to them and their life. It means, simply, identifying with them, becoming one with them, understanding them, suffering the things they suffer, experiencing the things they experience. Admittedly, we can only do this by degrees, for we must avoid committing their sins. Also, if we have families, we must take into account their needs. This principle can only be lived out in relative degrees. If one was alone, with no family, they could live in a cave, eat beans and tortillas daily, in effect, live as simply as they live. With a wife and children, however, their needs are paramount and identification will follow to the extent they are willing, and able, to exercise it. There are great advantages in living among them as a family. Barriers are broken down by means of the wife and childrens’ opportunities in getting to better know the women and children and thus in building trust. A wife, and children, who are willing to make the sacrifices inherent in living in traditional villages are a wonderful treasure – one with which I am blessed! So although we will identify with them imperfectly, to the extent that we do we will remove countless cultural and psychological barriers to our relationship with them.

Incarnation implies that we be Christ among them. There is no better way to witness of Jesus than to be so surrendered to Him and His will that we become clean channels of His life to others. It is a shallow mission philosophy which just encounters and ministers to them in the physical realm, be it helps, dispensas or projects, to improve their physical state. What is most needed, and much more difficult, is to come among them as sacrificial lambs (as much as possible) without blemish, just as Jesus did among us. Doing so enters and deals in the realm of the Spirit, and only through that can spiritual things be accomplished. As we are willing to get under them in order to lift them up to the Father through prayer, loving sacrifice and humble service, the unseen, mysterious working of God can take place in their hearts. We are each called to be His hands, His feet, His heart, to all we encounter. Again, we will always do so imperfectly, but to the degree that we can, we will reveal and manifest the reality of Christ, and His love, to the people. Walking in this manner will far supersede the ‘programs and projects’ approach, for again, it brings with it a spiritual dimension which allows the grace of God to enter into their world. All the works we can do and all the ideas we can share will never accomplish the transforming work of God. Only the intervention of the Holy Spirit can and will accomplish the goal of them being shaken to the depths of their being, resulting in that wonderful question, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). 

By analogy, one might say it is like our salvation: we are not saved by doing good works, but through a relationship with Christ. Good works, however, will be a result of this gift of salvation. And in reaching the Tarahumara, it is not done primarily by good works (programs and projects), but by a costly relationship. Then likewise, the works will play their secondary part. We are the sowers of the word, but more than that, we must be the seed too which is cast into the ground to die, for in so doing, the resurrection power of Christ can be released to bring new life for others. 

If God’s ability to accomplish anything depended totally upon us, then nothing would be accomplished. We will always fall short in manifesting His glory, His love, His patience. Our expertise at language and ability to convey His truth in just the right way to penetrate their hearts will be ever lacking. It is only by the effective working of the Holy Spirit that they will come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Cannot God’s redeeming love accomplish all things in reaching the traditional Tarahumara? Yes and no. There will always be those, usually the majority, who, in the  light of His truth love, turn a blind eye or maintain a hard heart (John 1:5). Loving the Tarahumara with His love will accomplish all it can, but one must realize that that might be little. 



It is important to briefly summarize some thoughts on the manner and method one uses to reach the traditional Tarahumara. Jesus commanded His apostles to go forth, baptize and make disciples. The only way to do that among the trad. Tara. is to be there for years on end, plowing, sowing, fertilizing, watering. Programs (CHE, ECS, etc.)that propose to enter their world, stay or visit regularly for a few months, sharing the gospel, perhaps baptizing a few, and then leave, are bound to fall desperately short of His expectation. For one thing, by experience, it might take a few years to discern whether those seemingly interested in the gospel are in fact being truly drawn by the Holy Spirit or simply ‘playing their cards right’ in order to gain something materially or relationally from the ‘chabochis’. Discipleship is THE essental element in raising up sincere Christians among them. Spiritually, they are extremely dull of hearing and are so thoroughly immersed in their own world view, with its plethora of superstitions, that it takes exhausting repetition to convert their world view, and hearts, to Christ. Likewise, to think that one can teach an interested man the basics of the faith in a matter of months and then send him forth expecting him to be properly prepared to teach others is an unfortunate, illusory dream. At the best, one will have sent forth a man such as was produced by the Jesuits centuries ago, who had a thin veneer of Christianity grafted onto a shamanistic, animistic world view. We see the fruit of such an approach ritually each Semana Santa celebration, where there are re-enacted shallow aspects of the Passion story, with Roman soldiers, Pharisees and Judas, but with No CHRIST.




Some Spiritual and Cultural Do’s and Don’t


First of all, remember, you are on their turf, in their world. “Be wise as serpents and harmless as doves”, as the Lord said. Be observant and sensitive as to what might or might not be appropriate. 

Try to learn the Tarahumara language. Being able to communicate in their tongue will do much to break down cultural and relational barriers. They will see that you are interested to enter into their world, and the effort it takes (huge!) to learn their language will do much to build trust. As we humble ourselves to learn from them, and make mistakes in the process, walls crumble.

When you visit someone, don’t jump right into the reason you came to visit. That is rude to them. Share small talk for awhile, then mention it.

Christian women that visit villages should wear a dress and be modest, not only in clothing but also in manner. Men and women should always be and act modestly in the village, never bold, loud and pushy. They are shy and modest when sober, as their handshake expresses – we need to be and do the same in their midst. In their culture, a woman never teaches a man, or has much of anything to do with the men. 

It is dangerous for a woman from the outside to be alone in a village, or to walk alone on the trails. Their women do not do it. Why? Because they know the dangers. Quite a number of Tarahumara men have stolen wives for themselves by kidnapping young women who were watching goats or carelessly alone. So it certainly isn’t wise for Christian women to be alone in such settings. One might consider this too – that they will be guilty of tempting the opposite sex.

Tarahumara women will freely nurse babies and expose their breasts in front of most  anyone. One should, of course, advert their eyes and not be shocked.

If you are offered coffee, pinole or food at a house, one should partake unless you have a good explanation to not want to do so. It is rude to refuse, and in doing so one disobeys Christ too! Just pray hard! Also, it helps if you carry a water bottle with you  – use your water for pinole.

When you have visitors to your home, it is good (but not mandatory) to share a cup of coffee, etc. with them. 

It is a bit rude to walk between a person and the fire. Also, try to avoid speaking too much English in their presence – they will think you’re talking about them (and maybe you are!). 

It is wise to not visit a home unless the man is also present. If only the wife is at home, make the visit short and stay outside. Any potentially suspicious behavior on our part can (and probably will) be blown out of proportion by the rumor mongers, so we must act beyond reproach in their midst.

It is best to avoid tesquinados. Some will practically force you to drink; others will hug you and show great emotion. And there could always be someone who is angry at you, and he may act on it. Knives are usually nearby….


There is little gained by sharing the Lord when a person is drunk, but at times it is then that they want to talk about spiritual things. So one has to feel their way through it. But don’t expect them to remember much the next day.

Be consistent and trustworthy. As much as possible, keep your word. A large part of building relationships with them is just this – honest dealings and integrity.

Show them respect. For example, I always stand when I greet a man. In shaking hands, one should, of course, not aggressively grasp their hand, but rather shake as they do – very gently, or even simply by touching their hand.

It is wise to not bring things to a village that express wealth or stir in their hearts a desire for such possessions. Keep things simple. We have always made it a rule, as much as possible, to not have anything in our home that no one else has in the village. Thus, we use kerosene lamps, an outhouse, built with materials they use, etc. 

If you are building a house, or doing any other construction project in a traditional village, it is by the far best to use the local labor force. It will help you get to know and bond with the people, plus they will have the opportunity to earn much needed money. To bring groups of ‘gringos’ into such a setting as a labor force will have much negative impact. Even when they have been taught some basics concepts, short term individuals are pretty brain dead when it comes to being culturally sensitive. It’s also like saying to the local men that they are incapable of doing the work. Also, build in a way and with materials that they use.

Do not take photos without their permission. Some believe that by doing so, you are stealing their soul. Offer to give them a copy of the photo – but be sure to give it to them! They love photos and will spend 10 minutes studying the tiniest details of pictures.

Be sure of one thing – there will always be people, often times the majority, that simple want to take advantage of your help. They will be upbeat, friendly, and glad to receive the benefits of programs and projects. But when it comes to attending bible studies, they are nowhere to be found. Their goal is getting, period. One must be patient and pray for their souls, that the Lord would quicken their hearts to see their need.

It seems at times that “news” in a Tara. village travels faster than internet RSS feeds. Along with news though comes rumors and gossip, some of which is so outlandish and absurd it’s actually comical. For example, early on in our living in Santa Rita, word got back to us that we were planning to move a bunch of gringos into the village in order to take it over. Later, the rumor was the Japanese were going to move to the sierra in great numbers and again, take the Tara. land. I have been accused of hauling great quantities of marijuana. When a child disappeared along the road from Creel to Guachochi, the word was that some gringos had kidnapped and killed her in order to eat her heart. So one must realize that they will be slandered and lied about – the problem is that many people are so gullible they will believe even the most far-out rumors.

Since Tara. tend to always say what they think you want to hear, they tend to not use “no” very much when asked to do something. They just don’t do it! Lying, especially “white lies”, are therefore the norm, or at least quite common. When you say “no”, to them, they think it immediately implies you are rejecting them or are mad at them. This is difficult, and it  is hard to convince them otherwise (of course, they won’t tell you they’re upset at you!). You likely will find this out through another person. So…..what to do? Be truthful yourself, and if you know you have offended someone, try to help them understand. This takes time and effort. The key is for them to come to the place where they know that no matter how they ‘perform’, you love and care for them. And only the Holy Spirit can truly do that in our hearts!

One has to learn to not expect a ‘thank you’ for what you do for them. For some reason, such things as giving them a ride or a cup of coffee always elicits a ‘thank you’, whereas most other actions and service voluntarily given do not. One year, after a very poor harvest, we were involved in distributing many tons of free beans to hundreds of people. Never once were the words ‘natetaraba’  or ‘chiriweraba’ uttered to thank us for them. So it is. But then that is not our reward. The ‘rewards’ of working among the traditional Tarahumara are few and far between, but the Lord Himself is our most blessed reward as one faithfully serves Him among them.

Hello world!

December 3, 2008

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