I was so hurt and disappointed the last time I was in the Chaco I promised myself I would never return. That was just a few short months ago. Little did I know events were already set in motion, which would change the way I see everything forever.
The phone rang jerking me out of a deep sleep, and I fumbled around on the nightstand to find the source of the unwelcome interruption. With my eyes still closed I grunted, “Hello” trying not to sound like I was still in bed.
“¿Hermano Santiago, eres tú?” “Brother Santiago, is that you?”
“¿Si, quien es?” “Yeah, who is this?”
“This is Alberto. How are you doing?”
I slid out of bed, and stumbled as fast as I could manage toward the living room so that my wife could try to go back to sleep. “I think I am alright,” I said in Spanish, “It’s still pretty early here.”
“I’m sorry for calling so early. I have to go to work soon, and wanted to let you know something really important is about to happen out in the Impenetrable. You should be there. There is going to be a big reconciliation meeting between the Native American tribes and the gringos. The gringos want to formally ask forgiveness for all of the atrocities that have been committed against the Indians by the Creoles and the Europeans.”
We talked for a few more minutes before Alberto had to go to work. He insisted that it was important for me to come. The meeting was scheduled to take place on September 12, 1998.
That was only a couple of weeks away, and I didn’t see how I could afford the trip. I had already tried to do something down there, but it had failed miserably. If someone else could do something, then more power to them. I thought to myself, “What does that have to do with me anyway?”
I got dressed and headed over to my office a little earlier than usual. After all I was already awake. The windshield of my car was drenched with dew, and the early morning coolness made me wish I had worn a long sleeve shirt or brought a jacket. I knew it would warm up later, but the chill in the air was enough to remind me that really cold weather was just around the corner. Frost would soon need to be scraped from the windshield almost every morning all winter long, and I was not looking forward to that.
Until recently my family and I had lived for seven years in northern Argentina and Paraguay. I had gotten used to living in a tropical climate, and did not feel entirely at home yet in North Carolina even though I was born there. I swung by the post office to pick up the mail, then the drive through window of a Bojangles for a sausage biscuit and a large coffee. I needed a significant jolt of caffeine.
My part of the office, which I shared with Pastor Byron must have been designed for a receptionist, because you had to pass through mine to get to his. It was a windowless space, but nice enough with grey walls, white trim, and commercial grade carpet. The building had central heating and air-conditioning, and was always perfectly comfortable like every thing else in the USA. It still smelled like fresh paint, and not a sound from outside penetrated the well-insulated walls. I also felt well insulated from the outside, and a little claustrophobic when I was in there.
When I sat down at my desk my first priority was the coffee, and that loud smelling sausage biscuit. One of the things I had missed most while living in South America was American style breakfasts. A spicy sausage patty on a hot southern style biscuit washed down with with strong coffee seemed like a gourmet’s delight to me. So it took a few minutes before I focused my attention on the mail.
One large manila envelope was postmarked in Miami, but had a return address from Resistencia, Argentina. Inside were several pages of detailed information about the reconciliation meeting Alberto had just called about, and a hand written note from another friend insisting that I come quickly. I thought, “Okay, this is starting to be a little troublesome.”
Then I cranked up my computer and found three or four emails from different argentines. Each one had the same message; come quickly, it is important for you to be at the reconciliation meeting. “Was this some sort of conspiracy? Had they all plotted and planned to bombard me with this stuff on the same day?” An internal argument was now seriously underway.
“I said I wasn’t going back. My presence will have no effect on these meetings. They don’t need me. I’ve got nothing to do with this. It’s easy for them to say that I should be there, but none of them offered to pay for my plane ticket.” This went on for some time before I started losing the argument.
I picked up the phone, and called my travel agent. “Jackie, can you see what the price would be for a flight down to Resistencia? I don’t want you to book the ticket yet. Just see if you can get me there for a decent price by the eighth of September. Then call me back with a possible itinerary and what it would cost. I’m praying about attending a meeting down there, but I’m not even sure if I should go.”
You see, by the 1800’s the Native American tribes and descendants of European colonists in South America had already been in conflict for centuries. Both sides committed atrocities, but the Native Americans almost always were on the loosing end of the battle. As Europeans continued to emigrate and new generations of their descendants were born, these white men had an insatiable appetite for more and more land.
Right in the center of the continent there is a large geographical region known as the Gran Chaco. This area had for generations been understood to be the domain of the Wichí, Toba, Mocoví, and Pilagá tribes, but the encroachment of the settlers and farmers was inevitable.
Tribal traditions say that many of their leaders and shamans realized the whites would soon possess all the good land. They decided to curse their own territory so that if the white man did take it, it would never yield up its fruitfulness to them. There was also the hope that if the land was unfruitful, the white men might not want it. The tribes came to the conclusion that even a cursed land would be better than no land.
As the settlers advanced toward the center of the Gran Chaco, they encountered an area where everything had a thorn, or a stinger, and so little rain fell that they could not grow crops. Trees with six-inch thorns grew in the middle of dried up riverbeds where fish used to swim. Even the few remaining Wichí and Toba could not hunt and fish as successfully as they once had, but at least they did have somewhere to live.
Then on September 13, 1884, the Argentine government passed a decree, which openly stated all Indians were to be either killed, driven out of the country, or subjugated as forced laborers. Benjamín Victorica was appointed commandant of the army’s expeditionary force in the Chaco. He was given complete authority to eliminate the Indian problem by any means necessary, and open up the territory for civilization.
The few remaining tribes resisted with stubborn tenacity and even the land itself seemed to fight against the army’s advances. The soldiers began to call the region “El Impenetrable” because they could not penetrate or dominate it. Many attempts were made to expel or eliminate all the Indians without success, but many lives were lost on both sides of the conflict.
Distrust, bitterness, and racial hatred were the fruits of these misguided polices. As late as the 1920’s and 30’s there were armed conflicts and massacres that took place in the Chaco, with each group blaming the other. The pools of bitterness deepened as the waters of the rivers continued to dry up.
As I sat at my desk and prayed about whether I should go or not, I realized that it was my own disappointment and feelings of failure that were making the decision difficult. A few months earlier I had been invited to minister at a youth conference down in Resistencia.
During that conference I had a night vision of people going into the heart of the Impenetrable with their hands raised in praise and worship. Then it was as if I was wheeled back to get a more expansive view of the group and saw an inverted tornado begin to form with the larger part of the funnel cloud swirling around the worshipers. The smaller point end of the funnel began reaching higher and higher toward heaven until it penetrated a layer of white clouds and began to suck liquid gold down toward the earth. The liquid gold flowed down over those who had their hands raised toward heaven. Then the whole area around the worshipers was inundated with a rising tide of liquid gold that began to flow out in all directions toward the horizon.
I interpreted this as a call to take a group of the young people who were at that conference out to the heart of the Impenetrable. Our plan was simple; find a place to stay and go worship the Lord with music and songs of praise non-stop for twenty-four hours. We would pray that God would pour out the blessings of heaven over the entire region.
When I shared this with several local pastors they thought it was a great idea, and we began to organize an expedition. They knew of a ministry that was operating a Bible Training School to prepare Toba and Wichí leaders to be a pastor in a little town called Nueva Pompeya. It was located at the geographical center of the Impenetrable. I said, “New Pompey, man we are going to have a volcanic explosion of blessings at this event.”
The next morning I went to a pastor’s home to begin making plans for our trip. As we were talking his phone rang. It was someone we both knew calling from way down in Buenos Aires to share a dream he had the night before. It was very short and simple, but also very clear. He had seen me standing in front of a sign that said, Nueva Pompeya. The caller asked if there was a town with that name in the Chaco, and if the local pastor happened to know how to get in touch with me.
Well, what a coincidence. I was standing right there. So we talked for a while, and I shared about the plans we were making. He believed that his dream, and the fact that it was so easy to get in touch with me, were confirmations from the Lord concerning our plans. That was all I needed to hear so we contracted for a bus that could carry about forty-five young people, bought food and water, etc.
Just two days before we were scheduled to leave, the pastor who was helping make all of the arrangements, called me into his office. He had bad news. Another Church group had initiated a lawsuit against the ministry that was going to host us. None of the local pastors in Resistencia would now release their young people to participate in the event. It might seem like they were taking sides between the two churches.
All my plans fell apart. I was utterly heart broken, confused, devastated, and angry. I called my travel agent and had her change my return flight back to the USA for as soon as possible. I didn’t care how much it cost. I just wanted to leave. I was finished.
Just as I was about to leave for the airport, the pastor from the Bible Training School in Nueva Pompeya showed up. He had driven seven hours through the night just to talk to me before I left. He apologized for everything that had happened, and told me his version of the misunderstanding, which had precipitated the lawsuit between the churches.
He also said that I should be careful. A very powerful warlock had seen me coming in a vision to disturb the spiritual atmosphere over the Impenetrable. The pastor said, “This man is putting curses on you, and your family, to keep you out.”
I thought to myself, “This guy is as crazy as a cockroach. I am just not into that kind of stuff. I don’t want to have anything to do with him, or any warlock, or the Impenetrable. I am so out of here.” I was glad that I could legitimately cut that conversation short, and head out to the airport to make my escape.
Now, just a few months later, here I was sitting at my desk in North Carolina, praying about going back. “Am I just a glutton for punishment? Lord, is this really what YOU want me to do? I am willing, but I would rather not…” The phone rang again interrupting the debate I was having with the Lord. It was my travel agent.
“Jim, I found you a ticket to Resistencia that will get you there on September eighth, but the catch is I have to buy it today to get a good price. Do you want me to put it on your credit card?”
I paused for just a moment, and then said, “Okay, go ahead and buy the ticket. Thanks for all your help Jackie, you’re the best.”
I hung up the phone, and immediately began to see a moving crystalline distortion overtaking my peripheral sight in both eyes. Within less than thirty seconds I couldn’t see anything except a cloudy translucent movement that was making me feel very dizzy. I couldn’t even see my own hand in front of my face. I thought, “Oh my God, I am going blind. What’s happening to me?”
After several minutes of rubbing my eyes, shaking my head, and hoping my vision would return, I reached for the phone to call 911, but I knocked it onto the floor. I tumbled out of my chair, crawled around until I found the phone, rolled over onto my back, and realized I was hyperventilating. I had witnessed others having panic attacks, but never thought I would have one. I placed the phone on my chest, tried to slow down my breathing, and began to rehearse what I would say to the 911 people.
I wondered out loud, “Could this have something to do with that warlock in the Impenetrable?” Then my office door burst open.
To be continued…..