The Challenge of Brazil’s Unreached Peoples
By Ted Limpic
OC International, Brazil (Sepal)
Brazil, the largest country of Latin America, boasts the world’s eighth largest economy. The evangelical
church over the past twenty years has been growing at 3 times the rate of the population. Today, Brazil’s evangelicals number some 19 million, or approximately 12% of the population.
In spite of the tremendous growth of the evangelicals, Brazil is far from Indigenous Languages of Brazil
being reached. Within it’s vast borders there are some 258 Indian
""tribes which represent today one of the biggest challenges facing the """""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""evangelical church. """""""""""""""""""""""""""""""" """""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""The Sad State of Brazil’s Indians """"""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""Brazil’s Indian tribes are generally not large. Although there are some """""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""who have populations above 20,000 (Tikuna, Kaingang, Kaiwa), most """"are somewhere between 100-1000. The small size of most tribes "Each mark represents the "geographic center""of a language group"reveals a tragedy that has too often gone unnoticed. Many Brazilian’s """""tribes have been decimated by diseases contracted by their contact "
with the white man. Despite efforts by the Brazilian government to
provide health services in remote Indian areas, many tribes continue to Fonte: Wycliffe Bible Translators (SIL), 1993 Vers鉶 em Portugu阺: SEPAL (011-523-2544)TR-011see their numbers shrink as they succumb to pneumonias and
influenzas passed on to them unwittingly by civilization.
Added to this sad situation is the greed of farmers,
miners and cattle growers who often invade Indian
lands, by force at times, and wreak ecological
havoc as they burn the rain forest and push the
Indians further into the jungle.
Relatively few of Brazil’s government leaders care
about the Indian tribes. The Indians’ small
numbers, geographical isolation and lack of political
know-how generally mean that they are often
ignored when it comes to receiving government
help for better education, health supplies or
defining and defending the borders of their tribal
It’s no wonder then that in some tribes many
Indians take their own lives. With no hope for the
future and precious few who seem to care about their “present”, the suicide rates in some tribes are extremely high. The Different Kinds of Tribes
Not all of Brazil’s Indian tribes are alike. Besides the obvious differences of language and customs, there
are significant differences in how the Indians live.
? The Village Dwellers: Most of Brazil’s tribes fall into this category. The Indian tribe has it’s land on
which are many separate villages. Each village might have some 50-60 people who work together
in the hunting. fishing and raising of crops: corn, rice, manioc. Most villages are situated on or
near rivers. The tribes have their own chiefs, or sometimes a council of elders, who make the
? The “Protected”: In the Valley of the Xingu River there are some eleven tribes living on a reserve
that is protected by the government against incursions by ANY outsiders. While this has helped
preserve the Indians’ physical health, the government will not allow any missionaries to enter, even
when the tribes request it. And the chief’s of several tribes have made such requests.
? The “Portuguese-speaking”: Many tribes are now physically located near cities where the
influences of civilization have had their effect. Some tribes have become assimilated into Brazilian
culture. But others, though no longer speaking their native language, have maintained their tribal
customs, cultural values and world-view. The speak Portuguese, but remain culturally distant from
those that surround them. This is especially true in the Northeast region of Brazil where there
some 25 Portuguese-speaking tribes who have maintained their ethnic distinctives.
? The Uncontacted: As amazing as it might seem, there are still primitive tribes hidden in Brazil’s
jungles. Recently a friendly contact was finally made with a tribe called the Korubos. No one yet
has learned their language because the tribe is still afraid to maintain long-term contact. How
many more tribes are there? No one really knows. But there are reports of many.
What Indians Believe
Like the other indigenous peoples of the Americas, Brazil’s Indians are of Asian descent. According to
anthropologists and archeologists, there once were some 5 million Indians, but now there are only 360
Indian belief is basically animistic. They believe in the existence of a spirit world which interacts with the
natural or physical world. The shaman (or witchdoctor) serves as the mediator between the two worlds.
Indians believe that everything has life: even inanimate objects like water and rocks. Some tribes even
believe that certain spirit entities actually inhabit the water, rivers and jungles. Indian mythology, which
consists of a series of legends passed orally from generation to generation, serves to explain the various
phenomena of life: birth, death, the existence of good and evil, pain and suffering, as well as the origin of
The relationship between the spirit world and the natural world is so close that the origin of disease or
illness is always considered to be spiritual. Whenever someone becomes sick, for example, the witchdoctor
is called upon to make peace with the spirit that has caused the infirmity. The same is true with such
activities as hunting, fishing, and raising of crops. It is necessary to not break the established taboos in
order to please the spirits and guarantee success.
The Advance of the Gospel
Missionary work among the Brazil’s Indians began in 1913. Until the early 1980’s, most of the work was conducted by foreign missionaries (New Tribes, Wycliffe, and others). How far has the Gospel advanced
over these years?
We can rejoice in several key areas.
? In eight of Brazil’s tribes there is an established evangelical church where the leadership has been
passed into the hands of it’s own native leaders and native pastors. Today several seminaries exist
for training Indian pastors, and several tribes they are now sending out their own missionaries to
? In one hundred tribes there is an active work going on by evangelical missionaries. Some are in
the beginning stages of learning the tribal language. Others have translated significant parts of
Scripture into the language and are evangelizing and planting churches. Still others are training
native leadership and getting ready to pass the leadership into their hands.
Despite the good news of what the Lord has already done, the challenge of the unfinished task is daunting.
Nearly half of Brazil’s tribes are still without any evangelical missionary presence. Can they
hear the Gospel in some other way? Sometimes yes. The 25 tribes of the Northeast which speak
Portuguese have the best chance to hear the Gospel. But for the remaining tribes (more one hundred) the
opportunities are greatly reduced due to their linguistic and geographic isolation.
The Translation of God’s Word
We see a similar situation when we inquire into how the translation of Scripture has gone over the past
years. There is much to be thankful for: 34 tribes already have the New Testament translated into their
language, and in 49 tribes there is translation work currently in progress. But there is much to pray about:
at least twenty-nine Indian tribes definitely need their own translation (no other language is similar enough)
still do not have one verse of God’s Word translated into their language! There are another 107 tribes
whose situation needs further study, but many of these will certainly need their own translation as well.
Brazil’s Evangelical Church Although in the past much of the work among Brazil’s Indian tribes has been conducted by foreign
missionaries, big changes are now happening. The Brazilian government no longer issues visas to
foreigners intending to serve as missionaries among the Indian tribes. So, the young evangelical church of
Brazil must take an even more active role in reaching it’s own Indian tribes.
Brazilians have already been very involved for many years. New Tribes of Brazil now sends out some 150
Brazilians to the tribes, joining those sent out by the Brazilian Baptist Convention (30) and some 20 other
agencies. In all, some 500 Brazilians are already serving as missionaries among Brazil’s Indian tribes.
But the potential is so much greater. In Brazil today there are some 70,000 evangelical churches. Plus,
there is a growing missionary movement. Back in 1987 a huge Ibero-American missions conference was
held in Brazil. Since that watershed event, the number of missionaries serving outside of Brazil has tripled.
We can rejoice that 13% of all Brazilian cross-cultural missionaries are serving in the 10-40 Window.
However, the number of Brazilians serving among the Indian tribes has remained static. Back in 1989
some 500 Brazilians worked with Indians. Today there are still only about 500.
That’s why new efforts are being made to help the Brazil church understand the great needs represented
by Brazil’s Indian tribes:
? A special edition of an Adopt A People Manual has just been published which highlights the
challenge of Brazil’s Indians. Together with a set of prayers cards and transparencies on the
Indians, this “Indian Awareness Kit “ is now being used in churches around Brazil
? New cooperation among the Brazilian mission boards and agencies which work with Indians is now
helping to better strategize and deploy resources.
? Some national initiatives like “Brazil 210” will be including all of Brazil’s Indian tribes as target areas
in their effort to mobilize the Brazilian church in fulfilling the goal of seeing a healthy church
planted in every community of Brazil by the year 2010.
The Challenge of the New Millennium
Certainly there are other people groups within Brazil which are very needy: the large Japanese and Chinese
immigrant communities, the Gypsies, and especially the 2 million Muslim Arabs represent key challenges.
Also there is the challenge of the Amazon river dwellers, some 5 million, who speak Portuguese but are
separated from the Gospel primarily due to their geographical isolation.
stNevertheless, as we move into the 21 century we pray for the Lord to move in mighty ways to complete
the unfinished task represented by Brazil’s Indian tribes.
The challenges are great::
? The jungle can intimidate many with it’s isolation, dangers and disease
? The tribal populations are small, so it’s a labor of special love and divine compassion
? Language learning can be a intimidating task requiring patience and perseverance
? The government and secular sociologists do all they can to discourage missions work
But we know that our Lord is greater. And His desire is to redeem precious lives from EVERY “nation, tribe,
people, and language”.
Interceding with the Father
As we look to the future, may we rejoice for what the Lord has already done, the fruit of many years of
sacrificial service. But may we also be interceding for what He yet desires to do …
? Pray for the Brazilian church to catch a greater vision for the urgency of reaching the remaining
? Ask God to bless the cooperation among Brazil’s mission boards and agencies and cause it to
? Pray for more Brazilian young people to become inflamed with a passion for the Indians and be
willing to face the challenges of reaching them
? Intercede for the Brazilians who train new missionaries, especially the specialized courses offered in
linguistics, anthropology and jungle survival.