TRIP TO PERU
Imagine three Californias and you visualize the size of Peru, where people already lived busy lives when Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees. The Incas were its best-known inhabitants, ruling and thriving from approximately 1,200 A.D. until the Spaniards slaughtered Tupac Amaru, the last Inca ruler, in 1572. This is the land of Machu Picchu (“ancient peak”), the lost city of the Incas, and Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake at 12,725 feet. Peru, like Roman Gaul, is divided into three parts. Along the Pacific lies the desert coast, where one also finds most of the major cities. Moving inland, a traveler encounters “La Sierra,” the majestic highlands of the Peruvian Andes. Beyond that lies the dense Amazon jungle, which constitutes half of Peru.
Mark Lanier (my Christian lawyer colleague and employer) and I are here on business, and our destination is coastal Talara, a desert oasis and petroleum town approximately 700 miles north of Lima and about an hour’s drive south of Equador. Halfway between Talara and the border lies the port of Cabo Blanco, where was filmed the movie version of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” Talara’s water supply is piped 25 miles from Rio Chira and is not suitable for drinking. We fly Aero Peru — as comfortably as sardines in a can — from Lima to Piura, a town of 324,500. Founded in 1532, Piura is known for its folk dances and black magic. There we rent a Hyundai and drive two hours up the Pan-American highway, a two-lane paved road and the major South American motor route, to Talara. That takes us through Sullana, a desert shantytown with more than 150,000 inhabitants.
We complete business a day early. Aero Peru has no empty seats from Piura to Lima, so we eagerly grab available tickets on a lesser-known alternate airline. Boarding time arrives and a ramp falls down from the plane’s rear, as if to drive a jeep inside. We climb aboard. The inside is almost totally dark, with maybe four windows and two small lights. No overhead compartments. No interior ceiling or walls. Just bare metal fuselage. As we strap in, we notice writing on the metal beside us — in Russian! Soon the two propellers of our Antonov cargo-turned-passenger plane are spinning and we head into the clouds. Mark and I were discussing divine sovereignty when we climbed aboard. The next two hours test the strength of our convictions that our lives are truly in God’s hands and that nothing can take them before he is ready.
Midway through the flight, two pretty Peruvian girls appear in starched uniforms, one bearing cardboard boxes with some type of sandwich and a cookie, the other carrying a tray of open-top plastic cups filled with what looked like yellow-green Kool-ade. They perform their job with as much dignity and pride as any counterpart on Continental or TWA — but we say “No, gracias!” to the proffered meal. The fault is not the food’s but the narrow tolerance-range of our North American digestive systems. This is not a time to experiment with the new and unknown.
It is night when we reach Lima. We descend through the clouds to what looks like eight million lights, and touch down safely at Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chavez. For many of our fellow-passengers, it was a typical airplane ride. We thank God for our many blessings, which are wholly undeserved.
TRIP TO PERU (2)
It is a veritable Garden of Eden, the Spanish conquistador reported to the folks back home. Thanks to irrigation, Lima, the Peruvian capital city Francisco Pizarro founded in 1535, might still claim that title. Purple bougainvillaea bespeak a royal heritage.Yellow amancaes, red cannas and resplendent orange blossoms which I cannot identify disguise the coastal desert beneath this city of eight million souls. The city shivers from May until October under a damp cold mist the locals call the “garua.” But this is November and today the sun beams down from a clear blue sky.
Traffic lights abound in Lima, but many are broken and the rest are largely ignored. Cars, taxis and dilapidated buses seem to compete at every intersection with carts, pedestrians and ever-present covered vehicles that resemble Chinese rickshaws but with three wheels and a tiny gasoline motor. Drivers toot horns constantly in this capital the size of New York City, and assert their position by stepping on the gas. Surprisingly, we see not one collision during five days in Peru.
And the children. Everywhere children. Preschoolers to teens, all hustling to survive — selling chewing gum, trinkets, or a cloth swipe across your windshield — entrepreneurs born to abysmal poverty the likes of which one would search long and hard to find anywhere in the United States. Half of all Limenos live in shantytowns, sprawling conglomerations of rush-matting huts. Electricity, running water and sanitation facilities are luxuries many of these Andean migrants will never know at home.
But they can go to the Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas, across the square from the Palace of Government, and many of them do. The Cathedral, filled with golden altars and crucifixes and plaques commemorating the saints. God owns the world, they understand, and heaven as well, and he deserves all the opulence mankind can muster. Ninety-two percent of Peruvians are Roman Catholic and many cannot read or write. The Cathedral is their architectural parable, and its stained-glass windows proclaim, however rudimentarily, the eternal Kingdom of God. Even amid the non-biblical traditions and the musty superstitions of the centuries, God who sees the heart still receives the devotion of each individual soul which prays in repentance to the man those crucifixes portray, which entrusts itself without claim of merit to him who conquered death and ascended to heaven for sinners around the world.
TRIP TO PERU (3)
“Christianity,” someone says, not talking to me. I look up instinctively from my seat on this Continental Airlines 757, its two Rolls-Royce engines translating 87,000 pounds of thrust into a soft purr. We are cruising at 39,000 feet toward heaven inside this mighty bird — its wingspan almost half a football field in length. More than six miles below, the desert coast of Peru unwinds like a dusty ribbon along the blue Pacific. Across the aisle from me, Mark completes a crossword puzzle with quick dispatch. We flew to Peru last Wednesday on business. Now it is Sunday, and we are bringing home a treasure of wondrous memories permanently woven into the fabric of our respective souls.
I peep over the seat in front of me, where a 30-something father with a kind face gently reads a book on Christian manhood aloud to his preteen son. After a while the lady sitting beside them strolls back through the cabin. I step up to talk while she is gone. “Promise Keeper?” I guess. The father smiles affirmatively. “Are you from Houston?” No, he is not, Steve Ross tells me, as he introduces me to 11-year-old Jorden. Steve proclaims the gospel in the Amazon jungle of southern Peru, he says, where he and his wife Julie moved in 1990 under the umbrella of South American Mission. Jorden was four years old then, and Ashley was six. Benji and McKenzie, born later, have always lived in Peru.
Steve grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, I discover, the Jerusalem of American evangelicalism, and we quickly identify several mutual acquaintances. Among them is my friend Dr. John McRay, who teaches archaeology at Wheaton Graduate School, and whose son Rob preaches for my home congregation in Houston.
Steve tells me about his ministry of teaching Bible school and planting churches deep in the Peruvian jungle — a verdant world inhabited by piranhas and the mantona, a red-tailed boa constrictor that grows to ten feet long. The Shipibo-Conibu tribe of indigenous people live there as well, men and women created in the image of God. Like the apostles before them, and countless confessors, saints and martyrs since, Steve and Julie carry the saving light to the nations. They enjoy already the distinct reward of watching God deliver a people group from spiritual darkness which most of us can scarcely begin to imagine. The “brujas” or witches still control the souls of many in this ancient and beautiful land, a country where even many city-dwellers bypass physicians to consult a “curandero” or healer for potions or charms when illness strikes a family member.
Six hours later, our plane is descending into Houston. We bless each other in Jesus’ name, Steve and I, and exchange our addresses, 3,000 miles apart. This Lord’s Day encounter in the sky has encouraged and enriched my own faith. What a bond unites the worldwide family of God, I think. What love we share for the Father who loved us all first! What love the Spirit of God pours into our hearts for his other children!