March 30, 2011 § Leave a comment
Olson, Bruce. Bruchko. Seattle, Washington: YWAM Publishing. 1995. 208 pp. $10.00.
“This is why God had let me live. I was there to tell them where they could find God. Perhaps this was an opportunity that God had arranged. My body tightened at the thought of having a chance to share Christ after five years of waiting. Yet it seemed too much to expect. Inside I was praying (139),” recounts Bruce Olson on his first opportunity to share the gospel with the Montilone Indians. Olson has worked with the Montilone Indians for more than 30 years. His work among the Montilone Indians is considered by many to be the fastest example of development that has ever occurred among a tribal people. Bruchko, Bruce Olson’s name given to him by the Montilone Indians, is the story of God’s work in and through his life to reach the tribe. The purpose of the book is to garner continued support for the cause of Christ among the Montilones.
Rejected by mainstream mission boards, Bruce Olson was still obedient to God’s call on his life. Leaving the comforts of Minnesota and traveling to South America, he spends his life in the jungle along the border of Venezuela and Colombia with the Montilone Indians, living as a witness of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross.
At fourteen years old, Olson wanted to know God. His conversion experience occurred when this verse in Romans began to make sense to him: “If thou shalt… believe in thine heart that God hath raised him [Christ] from the dead, thou shalt be saved (29).” Brought up in a Lutheran home, Olson struggled with finding a church that preached the gospel, finally ending up in an interdenominational church. His regular attendance at this church brought many trials from his parents who did not understand his break with their tradition in pursuit of authentic Christianity. Bruce states, “I was discovering that the cross of Christ meant more than joy and peace. It meant suffering, too – suffering that was necessary to bring a later hope (38).” Breaking tradition, pursuing the cross of Christ, and suffering to bring a later hope would become recurring themes throughout Bruce’s life.
At sixteen, Olson’s church held a missionary conference. Olson remembers thinking, “Listen, God, these missionaries are ridiculous…they wear tennis shoes in the pulpit. Their prayer letters aren’t even written in decent English. And their theology. They’re always talking about hell and damnation. Where is their love for the people they’re living among? They’re failures, Lord. They can’t make it in normal life, so they go off to be missionaries (41).” Gradually, God changed Bruce’s heart to where, by the time he was nineteen, he couldn’t escape his fascination with the people of South America. He applied with a well-known mission board in Venezuela. Though rejected by the mission board, God called Bruce to Himself, to follow Him to South America. Olson was called to Venezuela to work with the Indians, but his early time there was spent learning Spanish and reaching out to the Venezuelan nationals in Caracas.
Through a conversation, Olson heard of the Montilone Indians who lived in a wild jungle area on the border between Venezuela and Colombia. He knew in his innermost self that God wanted him with the Montilone Indians. However, before Bruce was able to spend an extended period of time in the jungle with them, God brought him into contact with various Indian tribes to carry out His purposes. God had Bruce spend three weeks with the Orinoco Indians to see how mission work was not to be carried out. The Orinoco Indian converts were taught to dress in Western clothing and to sing Western songs. Bruce remembers asking himself, “What does the good news of Jesus Christ have to do with North American culture (54)?” God had Bruce spend about one year with the Yukos Indians so that the Indians could become people to him, caring for him when he needed help, teaching him a valuable lesson not to judge a people before you really understand them. Bruce’s first few encounters with the Montilone Indians were cut short by God to protect Bruce from imminent danger and to get him medical attention. During these first few visits Bruce was shot in the leg by an arrow and contracted hepatitis. Through all this, Bruce remained obedient to God serving as a go-between, as God’s messenger to the Montilones, and as a source of God’s good news.
Bruce became discouraged after spending nearly a year with the Montilone Indians and still having only a very limited vocabulary. Around this time two small miracles occurred. The first miracle was that he made a friend named Bobarishora, or “Bobby”, who would become his pact brother. The second miracle was his discovery that the Montilones had a tonal language. These miracles brought him into an intimate fellowship and rapport with the Indians that would allow the people to hear the gospel. Advancements in healthcare, agriculture and education were all introduced in a way that built on things the Montilones already knew and the Holy Spirit was at work preparing the Indians for the presentation of the message. In his fifth year Bruce had the opportunity to make Jesus known to Bobby and a few others; Bobby was the only one to start walking with Jesus. At the Festival of Arrows, the only time of year all Montilones gathered together, there was a singing contest that involved relating legends, stories and news of recent events. These contests could last up to twelve hours. Bobby was asked to participate and was able to share the gospel of Christ for fourteen hours. That night a spiritual revolution swept over the people and the Montilones accepted Christ. The book ends by detailing some personal tragedies that Bruce Olson endured after the Montilones accepted Christ and it tells how God broke down the individuality and stoicism that prevented them from caring one another and even used the Montilones to reach other Indian Tribes in their area and throughout the world.
Bruchko paints a picture of Bruce Olson that casts him as a visionary who discerns God’s call strongly. The call resonates with him, convicting him to the point that he must be obedient. The story of Olson’s life is both a vivid and humorous tale discussing his victories and defeats, ultimately showing his comfort with the story God has written with his life. The prologue states that Bruce had a “conviction that God had a plan totally unlike conventional mission techniques for evangelizing remote and unreached native peoples (7).” This story serves as a case study for Bruce’s conviction of unconventional mission techniques using the immersion of a messenger, go-between, or missionary in a culture to live modeling the gospel and contextualizing the gospel to reach the people. Even though his testimony stands on its own merit, it would be satisfying to readers if, in the epilogue, the biblical texts that he used to support his conviction and reasoning for these unconventional techniques were shared, discussed and supported.
The main purpose of the book was to tell of God’s work among the Montilone Indians and to seek people, money and prayer to help further their cause. Bruce writes from the viewpoint of Jesus desiring to be all things to all people and that the gospel works best when contextualized to a point that it can be knit into the fabric of extant culture. This viewpoint is convincing because of the great works God has done among the Montilones; the way the gospel was spread contrasts with the work that was done with the Orinoco Indians, who were encouraged to change their culture. Overall, the book is filled with insights and anecdotes inspired from the Holy Spirit. A few of the Spirit-filled insights were: leaving gifts on the trails for the Montilones to find when trying to reestablish contact with the Indians and using a microscope to show the witch doctor that disinfectants killed the germs when her chants did not.
Although Bruchko is a comprehensive story of Bruce Olson’s life, further information is needed to clear up questions that the book leaves. It would be edifying to know if Bruce was ever able reconcile his relationship with his parents. It would also be beneficial to read if he believes that all missionary work should be done independently, and, if so, what role a mission board should serve. It would also be helpful to know how Bruce would have responded if God did not provide the opportunity to share the gospel with the Montilones in his lifetime. Would he have considered his work a success? How would he have continued his legacy? It would also be rewarding to know what he might do differently if he were starting out today, and how the technological advances that have occurred in the past thirty years would affect his ministry.
Bruchko has few gaps, the biggest of which are theological in nature. More than once the Montilone legend is shared about the prophet who would come carrying banana stalks and that God would come out of those stalks. Bruce Olson fulfills the prophecy when they realize that the Bible pages look like the inside of a banana stalk, but he never really clarifies whether he believes he is a prophet. On numerous occasions he contextualizes the gospel using Montilone lore such as using the word for “becoming like an ant” (141) for incarnation, but he never clarifies where the line is drawn. It would also be good for the book to have shared some theological issues that the people faced as they matured spiritually and as they translated the bible and how those issues were resolved. Anti-establishment and anti-traditionalism are the only biases overarching the book; these are contrasted against the backdrop of true Christianity being an unconventional call to obedience and suffering.
This book should be read by anyone considering working with remote or unreached native peoples and for anyone who has been rejected by a mission board and still feels a call to go. This book would also profit mission board trustees to see alternative techniques for conducting mission. Finally, this book could enable indigenous refugees to see the benefits of adapting to North American culture, while emphasizing a need to keep their heart culture.
Bruce Olson’s story is a challenging testimony of obedience to God. Olson’s knowledge and experience in unconventional missions, linguistics and contextualization create a unique and helpful account that will be applicable to future cross-cultural missionaries. This work has stretched me in thinking about discerning God’s call and submitting to his commands. I will meditate on the perseverance exhibited by Olson as he struggled to adapt to life in a foreign culture, and the patience he demonstrated waiting for the perfect opportunity to share the gospel. The book’s demonstration of the ability of God to empower a people to care for one another, work together and work with others impacted me. The creative approaches to solve potential social conflicts, inspired by the Holy Spirit, will also be useful in future endeavors into cross-cultural settings. Olson’s work provokes questions that allow us the opportunity to think through God’s potentially unconventional call He may have in our own lives.