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ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - Evangelical missionaries are planting churches in a remote Amazonian tribe — while an Italian Catholic missionary order boasts it has not baptized a single indigenous person for 60 years.
The Yanomami people practice infanticide, shamanism and ritual cannibalism, but Italian missionary Fr. Corrado Dalmonego insists that the indigenous community could "help the Church to cleanse itself of schemes or mental structures, which may have become obsolete or inadequate."
In July, the Joshua Project, an evangelical ministry that encourages pioneer church-planting among every ethnic group with "the fewest followers of Christ," reported that 10% of the Yanomami now profess Christianity.
The Yanomami are an ethnic group of 20,000–30,000 indigenous individuals who live in the Amazonian rainforest on the border between Brazil and Venezuela.
The Joshua Project report urged Christians to "pray for the Yanomami people to find Jesus to be far more precious than any religious institution or cultural practice" and noted that 2% of the indigenous people were evangelicals.
The report noted that although evangelicals had translated portions of the Bible and audio resources into the Yanomami language, "there is a need for Christian believers to go to them, earn their confidence and lay down their lives for these people whom Lord Jesus loves."
In contrast, according to a history of the mission authored by Dalmonego and published in 2019, the Italian Consolata Missionaries who pioneered the Catrimani mission among the Yanomami tribes in 1953, began by asking themselves, "Why disturb the Indians?"
Father Corrado is assisted by Sisters Mary Agnes Njeri Mwangi, Noemi del Valle Mamaní, and Giovanna Geronimo as part of the Consolata missionary team in the Catrimani Mission.
The Catholic mission's refusal to convert the indigenous people is commended by Davi Kopenawa, a Yanomami environmental activist and practitioner of shamanism, who is fiercely critical of evangelical missionaries for preaching "the fall of man" and "his need of salvation."
Rejecting conversion of the indigenous people as a "colonial" model of evangelization, Dalmonego argued that the Church needs to "pay attention to how indigenous peoples live community life, social relations, leadership organization," by adopting a model of "prophetic dialogue."
"I think that this presence in the Catrimani mission, along with many others, is a prophetic presence for the Church, which has listened to the peoples, a presence that continues to be criticized or misunderstood, accused of omission," Fr. Dalmonego laments.
The priest cites Davi Kopenawa for commending the Catrimani Mission and not destroying the culture or condemning shamanism. Ironically, Kopenawa was educated by the New Tribes Mission (now Ethnos 360).
"I believe that this reflection can be addressed to the Church as a whole, also as a missionary paradigm, an experience of the gospel," the Italian priest remarked.
The Yanomami can help the Church to "defend this world" and to "build an integral ecology" by "establishing bridges between traditional knowledge and the modern, ecological knowledge of Western society," Fr. Dalmonego observes.
The Church is enriched "by research done on shamanism, mythologies, different knowledge, visions of the world and visions of God," the Consolata missionary stresses. "On the one hand, this can be branded as syncretism or relativism," he admits, adding, "We do not own the truth."
Conversely, evangelicals are winning converts by adopting a more traditional model of evangelism.
In 1962, Marg and Wally Jank from the New Tribes Mission settled among the Yanomami people as evangelical missionaries. "By God's grace, I was able to write down the Yanomami language for the first time and then to teach the people to read and write their own language," recounts Marg.
"Later, my son Bobby and several newly saved Yanomamis joined me in the work of translating the Bible into the difficult Yanomami language," he adds.
Established in 1943, ten years before the Catrimani mission, the NTM founders declared, "By unflinching determination, we hazard our lives and gamble all for Christ until we have reached the last tribe, regardless of where that tribe might be."
Brais, a Yanomami convert who is now an evangelical pastor among his people, says he is facing opposition from witch doctors because young men no longer want to join their ranks.
The pastor is challenging his fellow tribesmen to abandon cultural feasts, rituals dealing with the dead and traditional attitudes towards women. "We need to begin to really change in these areas where we have heard God's Word speak to us," Brais preaches.
The new model of mission adopted by the Consolata missionaries was a topic of discussion at the 2019 Amazon Synod, where participants from the Amazonian region also discussed the widespread defection by frustrated Catholics who were leaving for evangelical churches.
"I have never in my life baptized an indigenous [person], and I also do not have the intention of ever doing so," Bp. Erwin Kräutler, an Austrian missionary to Brazil, boasted at the Amazon Synod.
In his response to Dalmonego's praise of the Yanomami tribes, Catholic researcher José Antonio Ureta highlights the practice of infanticide as "one deeply rooted 'tradition' among the Yanomami."
"The mother carries it out when she moves away to give birth. She can then either welcome her newborn or kill the child by burying it alive," Ureta wrote. "If twins are born, only one is allowed to live. If the two are males, the weaker one is killed."
Ureta also pointed to "ritual cannibalism" among the tribe, which takes the form of a collective and sacred ritual funeral where the corpse of a dead relative is cremated, and the bone ash is eaten after mixing it with paste made from the fruit of a palm tree.
"They believe that the deceased's vital energy lies in the bones and is thus reintegrated into the family group," he explains.
"The Consolata missionaries at the Catrimani mission can sleep in peace," Ureta concludes. He expresses his doubt as to whether Pope Francis will reproach them for not baptizing any Yanomami in 53 years. Ureta adds, "Perhaps they should become apprentice shamans and take a course on Yanomami rituals by Davi Kopenawa."