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The Story of San Sebastian

The Story of San Sebastian

San SebastianGuest post by Marty Davenport

The remote villages of the Amazon River are a completely different world from what we are used to. There are not any comforts and conveniences that we expect in our daily lives. You won’t find any of the electrical conveniences that we enjoy, or the plumbing, or automobiles and very little communication with the rest of the world. Eating, drinking, cooking, bathing and transportation are done from the resources of the river.

My first mission trip to the Amazon was in August 2007. My life has never been the same since I witnessed with my own eyes how little these people have and how hungry they are for the gospel in this isolated area of Brazil.

It was in July of 2008 on my second trip to the Amazon that we were introduced to Pastor Elmer Lessa (pronounced Elmay). Pastor Elmer is the Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Parintins, which is a city of approximately 100,000 on an island that is on the Amazon River. Pastor Elmer has continued a remarkable legacy started by his father as the church was founded and planted under severe persecution from the Catholic Church in 1952.

You may wonder why a church would persecute another church but that’s what happens when the church becomes involved in politics and its leaders begin seeking their own financial gain. The Brazilian government is the owner of most of the land on the river but the responsibility of caring for the land, the animals and the people has been administered by the Catholic Church or The Assembly of God Church.

The churches went to great lengths to insure that each village had a building in the village as a symbol of power. It is confusing to see the pictures from our mission trips and see that there is a church building that stands in plain sight as you are traveling on the river but there isn’t anybody there giving the gospel.

Pastor Elmer has a heart for the people in the remote villages of the Amazon. After he started the church in Parintins he began the organization Amazon Christian Mission (ACM). The primary focus of ACM is to partner with churches that are primarily from the United States to help reach the villages and the indigenous people groups on the river through short term mission trips. ACM is a Signature Partner with Idlewild baptist Church.

It was on that first trip with Pastor Elmer that we visited the village of San Sebastian for the first time. Like many of the villages on the river this village had an old run down church that was built many years ago that is seldom ever used.

We were very surprised when we arrived at San Sebastian, we had seen a few villages on our two trips to the Amazon but we had never seen one in such a sad state, the place was very dark. The people in San Sebastian were spiritually empty and hopeless and as we looked around at the condition of the village it reflected how the people felt. There was so much trash scattered all over the place that it was difficult to imagine living in these conditions.

Our team immediately began to pray, it wasn’t the typical prayer for a productive day of Vacation Bible School or men’s and women’s ministry, we needed some wisdom on how to work here since we didn’t feel that our usual ministry plans were really what was needed in this situation.

As a team we decided that we would do something to help them feel loved and also help make them feel better about their village. We spent almost the entire day doing clean up and picking up trash. By the middle of the afternoon we had piles of garbage bags filled with trash that went well above our heads.

We made a big difference in the physical appearance of the village and our actions made a big difference in the emotional and spiritual condition. We believe that God used our desire to serve as a catalyst to winning the trust of the people. They saw that this group of church people cared, we had met a physical need and that opened the door to talk to them about their spiritual need.

I like to describe my experience with San Sebastian like watching the old classic movie “The Wizard of OZ” which starts in black and white until Dorothy opens the door to Oz and it is full of color. The transformation was that dramatic. They had never experienced the attention and love that we had demonstrated to them. They were willing to listen to our message and they were open to share their story with us.

They told us that they had been caught in the middle of a battle between the Catholic Church and the Assembly of God. There was such a dispute by the two denominations over who would care and provide for the village that both had abandoned them. It is sad to see the religious battles and the exploitation of the people that occurs by the church and the government.

On my second visit to San Sebastian in March of 2009 I followed the normal practice of going to the village president and asking for permission to bring our mission team on shore. With tears running down his cheeks he said to me that they have been waiting for us to come back and tell them more about Jesus.

While we were on the boat for lunch in San Sebastian, my wife Christina noticed four speedboats that pulled alongside us with 11 men and 1 woman. They wore uniforms with some type of official insignias and they had rifles on the boats.

We knew the Catholic Church had a strong hold on that particular area of the River even though San Sebastian had been abandoned. Our fear was we were in trouble with the Catholic Church and they were going to claim this village belongs to them and have us run off.

Our Amazon Outreach representative and translator for this trip was Felix. He left us on the boat and went on shore to talk with them and to inquire as to why they were there. After a while I was concerned as Felix went further into the village with them instead of returning to the boat.

I left the boat and caught up to Felix to find out what was going on. As he began to tell me that everything was okay he began to cry. Through his tears he explained to me that the uniformed men and woman were employees of the State of Amazonia and they were here to perform inoculations on the Water Buffalos.

Felix indicated that it was so interesting, but also very disturbing that the government cared more for the health of the animals than it did for the people. Knowing the original condition of the village and the condition of the people it was very difficult to understand. As I saw the twelve of them resting in the shade I told Felix it was an opportunity for us to share the gospel with them.

Felix helped me introduce myself to them and after some small talk to ease the tension I told them why we were there. I told them that we were there to assist the people and share the Gospel with the village. Even though most of the twelve did not look like they were interested they did give me the courtesy of listening.

They told me they had been on the river for 30 days and still had 15 more days to go before going home. As they traveled up and down the river they stopped at each village that had a presence of Water Buffalo. They explained that they were pretty exhausted and certainly ready to go home. The last 15 days could not come fast enough for them.

As I turned the conversation toward sharing the gospel with them I mentioned to them that of all villages they could have been at on that day it was no accident that God had placed them at San Sebastian on the only day that our team was to be there as well. That really got their attention and pretty soon it was obvious that the Holy Spirit was working. I shared the Gospel and prayed with them and they had all indicated that they prayed with me. They appeared to be a different group of people after that.

One young man stepped up to me and with tears in his eyes stated that he was a Christian and had asked Jesus in his heart many years ago but had not been living the way he should. He also indicated that he was deeply depressed as he was on the river and surrounded by people that were not Christians. I shared with him that God says we are supposed to be the salt of the world and I encouraged him to be the salt where God had placed him.

It was amazing how we witnessed their excitement as we shared the good news that they had never heard before. Before we left they made us feel like “rock stars” as they all wanted pictures with Felix and I. God was all over that shaded area in sunny San Sebastian that afternoon. What a privilege to see Him at work through our willingness to share with these men.

I left San Sebastian thinking that this was the most significant thing I would see at this village. I would soon find out I was wrong.

This post will be continued. Find out in the next post how God is continuing to work in San Sebastian and why this village has a special place in Marty’s heart.