Eight men walked toward a ridge in the Venezuelan jungle bordering Colombia. Seven were Yuko Indians. The eighth was Bruce Olson, a tall 19-year-old, very blond American. "Beyond that ridge is a Motilone village," the Yukos told him, "and we'll go no farther. They would kill us."
Then, tense, the Indians stopped and raised their heads as if to sniff the wind. Without warning, in one frantic motion, they raced pell-mell back the way they had come. Bruce, confused, began to run with them, tripped on some vines and fell on his face, while a long arrow ripped into his thigh.
Encounter with the Motilones
The Motilones archers didn't kill him but took him back to their village. For a month he lay in their communal house, suffering from pain, infection, fever and diarrhea. No one seemed to care whether he lived or died. The men laughed while they poked him with arrows, to see him flinch. Only one Indian showed him kindness, a man with a distinctive laugh and a scar by the side of his mouth. From time to time he brought him food from his hunting.
As Bruce lay on the floor of the hut, he thought about how he had gotten there from his comfortable home in Minnesota. "Tall, spindly, and nearsighted"1 he didn't enjoy sports and hadn't had a lot of friends; but he loved books, and especially languages. His family were traditional Lutherans, but at fourteen Bruce had had a profound spiritual experience while reading about Jesus in the New Testament. Hungry for peace with God, he offered a simple, honest prayer. "Jesus, I've read about how everyone who encountered You was satisfied …Please Jesus, let me know You. Make me new."
That experience led him to begin attending a different church with a friend, which one year sponsored a missionary conference. The messages challenged his intention of becoming a linguistic professor and he felt that God wanted him to go to Latin America as a missionary, very soon.
Finally wearing down his parents' objections with his persistence, in 1962 at nineteen years of age he found himself on a plane to Venezuela, with one missionary's name, no concrete plans, and little money. Adventures followed, including a sense of call to reach a Stone Age tribe on the Venezuela-Colombian border called the Motilones whose only contact with outsiders seemed to be through their long sharp arrows and their deadly aim.
After a month of convalescence, Bruce both survived his wound and recovered enough strength to escape and was able to make his way to Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. There, the call to the Motilones powerfully came to him again, and courageously he returned for another attempt. Laying out presents on a trail he knew they used, he waited. And waited. For two long months, he waited for some response. Finally six Indians suddenly appeared, with bows bent. But this time they didn't shoot their arrows. He noted that one of them had a distinctive laugh, and a scar by the side of his mouth. They invited him to follow them to their village.
Over the next four years Bruce lived in the long house with the Motilones. He went on hunts with them, learned to fish with a spear, and ate their food. In spite of his linguistic gift, it took a long time to learn their language. He made friends, especially with a young teenager, Bobaríshora, whom he called "Bobby" for short. They called him Bruchko. He began to introduce medicines that helped to heal some of their diseases.
One day he came across an Indian warrior, crushed in sorrow over the death of his brother from a snakebite. The hopelessness of the man pained him deeply, but also gave him "a shiver of excitement". It was for this very reason that God had brought him to the jungle, had saved his life, and given him contact with these very people. While talking with the warrior he learned that many, years ago, a false prophet had made the Motilones promises which led them away from God. "We left God and followed the prophet. We were deceived. We no longer know God", the warrior told him with deep sorrow. Another man joined the conversation and related a legend that made Bruce's hair stand on end. "A tall prophet with yellow hair will come to us carrying banana stalks. Knowledge of life and God will come out of those stalks, and God will show us the way back to Him."
Here stood a tall potential "prophet" with yellow hair, but what about the banana stalks?
One of the Indians walked over to a nearby banana tree, cut off a section, and tossed it toward Bruce. "This is the kind of banana stalk God can come from," he said. It rolled at their feet. A Motilone swatted at it with his machete, accidentally splitting it in half. Leaves still inside the stalk, waiting to develop and come out, started peeling off. Lying at the base of the stalk, they looked like pages from a book.
It didn't take Bruce long to show them the pages from his Bible. "This is it!" he said. "I have it here! This is God's banana stalk." Bruce now had their attention. He began working on translating the New Testament into their language. However, he continued to struggle with how to communicate the gospel to them.
He then remembered another Motilone legend of a warrior who wanted to help ants build a better home. But being so big and unfamiliar he only frightened them. So, quite miraculously, he had become an ant, and guided them in building their home. Bruce used this legend to share how God had become a man to help us understand him.
Walking on Jesus' Trail
Bobby, of all the Motilones, was the most responsive to Bruce's friendship and teaching. One day he asked Bruce, "How can I walk on Jesus' trail? None of us has ever done it. It's a new thing. There is no one in the tribe to tell how to do it."
"Bobby," Bruce said, "do you remember my first Festival of the Arrows, the first time I saw everyone gathered to sing their song?" He nodded. "Do you remember that I was afraid to climb in the high hammocks to sing, for fear that the rope would break? And I told you that I would sing if I could have one foot in the hammock and one foot on the ground?"
"And what did you say to me?"
Bobby snickered. "I told you that you had to have both feet in the hammock. You have to be suspended."
"Yes," I said, "You have to be suspended. That is how it is when you follow Jesus, Bobby. No man can tell you how to walk his trail. Only Jesus can. But to find out you have to tie your hammock strings into him and be suspended in God."
Two days later, Bobby returned to Bruce with a big grin on his face. "Bruchko," he said, "I've tied my hammock strings into Jesus."
Over the next few months Bobby began to give evidence of Jesus working in his life. Among other characteristics, "he became less proud. When he visited other homes, he accepted food immediately instead of forcing himself to go without it to demonstrate his strength, as he had done before."
Then during the next annual Festival of Arrows when individuals would engage in singing contests, sharing news, experiences, and stories, Bobby accepted the challenge of an older chief. Through the night he sang about Jesus. "He has walked our trails," Bobby sang, "He is God, yet we can know Him by walking in His steps."
"The two hundred members of the communal home listened intently. Everyone wanted to hear more about Jesus. Bobby's song was repeated at other Festivals of Arrows. The message of Christ was spreading to other Motilone tribes." A moment of change had come.
Later, the Motilone Christians composed a song. Here are some of the words:
I walk on the trail of life experiences to the horizons.
No evil spirit can threaten me or take me from the security I know in Jesus.
I am suspended in Jesus through my expression of faith.
Story and quotations taken from Bruchko and the Motilone Miracle by Bruce Olson with James Lund. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2006.