A 30th Anniversary “God Story” from Bolivia
Buckle in as FIA Bolivian Team Leader, Gary Ferch tells us a white-knuckled adventure of endurance that led to the building of El Misionero (a medical riverboat that has been used to bring healing and hope to thousands in Jesus’ Name)! Thankfully, not many FIA-hosted trips are as eventful, but it does go to show that God’s people are willing to do “whatever it takes” to assist in frontline Gospel work!
In 2007, a team of 17 volunteers signed on to bring the vision of Bolivian Pastor Saul Peralta to life. Pastor Saul had a dream to see the Gospel go deeper to unreached tribes along the Amazon River Basin through a medical outreach ministry. But to accomplish this, he needed a boat. Our team was slated to begin construction on El Misionero, a boat equipped to carry teams of medical personnel and supplies worthy of traversing the mazes of Amazon tributaries to reach those in most need.
The team had landed without issue in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and were waiting for their next flight to Guayaramerín, the staging ground for the project. “No flights are permitted. The indigenous people have burned their fields and terrible winds have turned the jungle into gigantic brush fire,” explained Enoel Suarez, a partnering national pastor who greeted us. Smoke filled the air, reducing visibility to less than a mile.
We were given three options: wait to see if flights opened up, go home, or go by bus to Guayaramerín (600 miles through savannah and jungle to avoid the fires). The team voted unanimously to go by bus. We would question that decision in the week to come, but we had committed to helping Pastor Saul and were ready to do “whatever it takes” to help bring the Good News of Jesus to these unreached groups in the Amazon jungle.
A Bus Trip to Remember
The trip started nicely aboard a tourist bus to Trinidad, Bolivia. After sleeping on the floor of a missionary’s house, Enoel took us to the outskirts of town where he handed out surgical face masks. He offered us no explanation, but grinned and bid us farewell.
No commercial bus service was transporting beyond Trinidad, but a local driver offered us a ride in his dilapidated school bus. Combating temperatures in the 90’s, the open bus windows also allowed dust from the dirt roads to billow in like a cloud. The reason for surgical masks was no longer a mystery.
We eventually arrived in San Borja, the last vestige of civilization for the three days of travel ahead. The local pastor, Fidel, warned about possible dissidents blocking the road ahead. Although a few eyebrows were raised, our “whatever it takes” commitment caused us to soldier on.
While driving at night to avoid the terrible heat, our bus blew a tire. With no spare, we waited hours until a passerby helped us obtain a new one. We were finally making good time until we stopped for a bathroom break in the bushes.
Loading back on the bus, we found it wouldn’t start! The battery was dead. We waited a couple of more hours while a local farmer sold us a battery he had at his chaco (colloquialism for farm). Off we went again.
No One Passes
The next day we came to a roadblock five miles outside the large town of Riberalta thrown up by the political dissidents we had been warned about. “No one passes,” they said. Our leader talked for an hour to these very happy but drunken men until they agreed to let us pass, but only carrying our personal luggage.
Once at Riberalta, Pastor Saul advised us that the town was completely surrounded by dissidents, but a guy with a farm truck could take us down an old jungle road at night to skirt by unnoticed—“he hoped.”
It was a very dark night and the canopy of jungle trees made it even darker in the back of the truck. We couldn’t be sure, but it seemed something was falling from the trees. “Whatever it takes” now meant flicking off spiders raining down from above! We covered with a tarp and continued onward… until we came to a tree cut down across the jungle trail.
It was 2:00 am, and soon flashlights descended upon us from all directions! Pastor Saul told the incoming mob that we were volunteering to help the poorest of Bolivia by building a missionary medical riverboat. After much debate, they said we could pass if we carried our own luggage out to the main road.
The Lord Provides
Weary and worn, we started walking only to be met by local believers who caught word of us and came to our aid! They carried our luggage and offered us food and water. We all broke out in a chorus of “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the earth hear His voice.” As we were singing, lights on the road indicated that a big, air- conditioned tourist bus was drawing near. The lone driver opened the door and said, “A roadblock has turned me back to Guayaramerín, 50 miles from here. I’ll drive you there if you want.” I don’t believe there was a dry eye among us.
Building The Medical Riverboat
We arrived at our destination, several days late, but a tighter-knit group would be hard to imagine. The next day, we started building the hull of the riverboat from the ground up—a vessel 53 feet long and 14 feet wide. Through the boat, several thousands of villagers have since been helped medically and heard about a God with such great love that He was willing to do “whatever it takes” to reach them—even if it meant sending His only Son to die to bring eternal life.