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Winter in the Amazon: 3 Union students take the gospel to the jungle

John Winfree, Casey Kidd and Josh Smith spent three weeks along the Amazon River in January teaching the gospel to villagers in Peru.
John Winfree, Casey Kidd and Josh Smith spent three weeks along the Amazon River in January teaching the gospel to villagers in Peru.
Related Resource(s): 12 GO teams to minister during spring break

JACKSON, Tenn.March 18, 2011 – Casey Kidd, Josh Smith and John Winfree didn’t have many disagreements during their recent stay in the Amazon. But they did have one area of conflict.

“The only thing we argued about was when to eat the gummy bears,” Kidd said.

While Smith and Winfree wanted to eat the treat early in their stay, Kidd wanted to save them for later. They solved the dispute by spinning a knife. The knife pointed toward Smith and Winfree, so the gummy bears were quickly devoured.

Gummy bears and knives were part of only a small amount of supplies the three Union students took with them on a January trip to Esperanza, Peru, a small village abutting the Amazon River. Other Union University students spent the month ministering in a variety of other places during their winter break. This week, over spring break, Union will send out about 130 students and leaders on 12 teams that will spread the gospel around the nation and the world.

For three and a half weeks, the three Union students in the Amazonian village hunted for food, cooked over a fire, bathed in the river, purified their drinking water and lived in a hut – sacrificing almost all modern amenities as they spoke the gospel to those without Christ.

They planned the trip in the fall. Kidd, who had been in a nearby area of Peru before, recruited Winfree and Smith to join him on his return trip. A missionary with whom Kidd had worked previously help them arrange their visit to Esperanza.

“It’s not your typical trip,” Smith said, because the main cost was airfare, since they lived in a hut and hunted for most of their food.

To get to the Esperanza, they took what they could best describe as a “floating barn.” Packed closely next to people, animals and luggage, they rode for more than six hours from a larger town in Peru to the sprawling village.

When they finally arrived, they settled into their temporary home, hanging hammocks in a jungle hut with mostly-open sides. It, too, was similar to a barn, they said, or a shack on stilts. Children from the village swarmed the hut whenever the Union students were there — coming as early as 6:30 a.m. and staying until sundown, Smith said.

The team’s goals were to train a potential pastor and teach the gospel to villagers, but the trio soon realized the pastor knew only a false gospel.

“We spent a week and a half with him teaching him the gospel, but he continued to hold the belief that salvation was by works,” Smith said. The man quit showing up and the team did not see him for the rest of its stay in Esperanza.

“We also found there were no other believers in the village,” Winfree said. Though two or three other villagers claimed to be Christians, their lifestyles didn’t reflect their faith.

So they shifted their focus, and for the rest of their stay the three students worked to build friendships with the villagers and to teach them the gospel. Because the huts were spread out in Esperanza, they could only spend time with a few families per day.

Manual, their translator, was a great benefit to the ministry work, Smith said, because he had been a pastor 15 years previously and knew the Bible.

The Amazon River runs through the middle of Esperanza, like a highway running through a town. Traveling required mastering the art of moving carved-wood canoes through the river, the most popular form of transportation in a village that had no cars. Winfree admitted it took him a while to learn how to manipulate the canoes well.

In getting to know the villagers, God opened doors to share the gospel, Smith said.

One day, a man they called “Lucho” took them hunting. During their time together, he asked them to share something about the Bible, so the students did. Then Lucho asked them to share the message with his family. The students were more than willing.

“It was really cool because we had just been reading in our team Bible time about Cornelius and Peter,” Smith said, referring to the story in the Bible where Peter is invited to share the gospel with Cornelius’ family. “We were able to clearly and effectively communicate the gospel.”

In addition to going to people’s houses during the day, each evening they went to the one-room school house to tell stories from the Bible and ask the audience follow-up questions. In 16 days, they had told stories from Genesis to the resurrection.

After teaching each night, the students played volleyball or soccer with the children on the soccer field next to the river.

As their time in Esperanza continued, the list of new foods the students ate increased.

The Amazon River was teeming with life. While traveling in canoes on the Amazon, they caught piranhas and heard a river dolphin. They also caught other fish, their main meat.

“We did not see any alligators except for one,” Winfree said. “We ate him.”

Hunting also yielded other new foods for them to try. They hunted, cooked and ate monkey, a jungle rodent and an animal they couldn’t identify.

“It was a monkey that looked like a cat,” Kidd said. “Pretty nasty.”

The Union students all got skinnier, but everyone stayed healthy.

“Our supplies started to dwindle, but we saw the Lord provide for us in pretty interesting ways,” Winfree said.

They prayed about their need for food in the last week of the trip. Not long afterward, Smith realized he had the ingredients to make “some good pancakes,” Winfree said. Later, when they were going to eat cereal bars for dinner because they didn’t have any meat, a villager gave them fish.

After spending weeks living alongside the villagers, they exchanged gifts with them and began their return to the United States. Though they had not seen any conversions to Christianity in their three-week stay, they had planted seeds.

Kidd, Smith and Winfree each said that though people visit villages similar to Esperanza to preach the gospel, few stay long-term.

“There is a huge, huge need for discipleship in these villages, and for people to spend years in a village — to disciple the people correctly and to train them so they can go share the gospel themselves,” Winfree said.

“I want to live in the jungle long-term,” Kidd said. Both Smith and Winfree also plan to pursue ministry work upon graduation.

After exchanging gifts with their friends in the village, the students once again boarded a “floating barn,” even more crowded than the first. This time, it was a grueling 10-and-a-half-hour trip to the next destination on their path home.

By Samantha Adams (’13)

Related Resource(s): 12 GO teams to minister during spring break
Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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