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One Thousand Conversions In One Night (Part 1)

By Albert Widmer

     This article was originally published in the July 18, 1942 issue of the “Pentecostal Evangel.”  Permission to reprint this article was granted by the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center (www.iFPHC.org).

     In these days we hear a lot about heroes:  war heroes, sports heroes, heroic explorers, and so on.  But little is heard and little is known of the heroic pioneers who preach the Gospel in faraway lands, missionaries unknown by all, sacrificing all.  Today there are many heroes in the heart of Africa, in the primitive villages of India and China, in the monotonous deserts of Mongolia, the small towns of Siberia and the uncivilized regions of South American jungles.

    In South America there are brethren who have given their lives to God for the salvation of the Indians.  Among these is an elderly Norwegian missionary, Birger Johanson (Anglicized as Berger Johnson).  For twenty-eight years he has given his life and strength in the evangelization of the Indians of the Gran Chaco, a region which extends from the Argentine provinces of Santa Fe, Salta and Jujuy, clear over to the Andes mountains, Bolivia and reaching up to the gigantic jungle of Mato Grosso of Brazil. 

Birger Johanson’s Story

    Brother Birger relates the following:  “When I came to this region [in the early 1900’s] there were no trains nor any roads.  There was a continual strife between the white men and the Indians. The white men for some unknown reason, persecuted the Indians, who were forced to recede farther and farther toward the interior of the Gran Chaco, taking vengeance as best they could, stealing the cattle and killing as many as did not manage to escape.  Evangelizing the Indians seemed almost impossible.  A missionary ran the risk of being assassinated at any moment.

    “Under these conditions I labored twenty-four long years without seeing any results among the jungle Indians.  Only a few Creole families and some civilized Indians accepted the Gospel.  I suffered terribly, both physically and spiritually.  At times I wanted to abandon the Indians and work as other missionaries and pastors do in the cities where there was every comfort.  But a voice kept saying to me that in the future it might be possible to reach the savage jungle Indians through the civilized Indians and so I decided to stay on.

    “About three years ago, accompanied by some believing Indians, I went to visit the Mataco Indians, at the headwaters of the Pilcomayo River.  On both banks of this river, whose waters are salty, I found large encampments of the Mataco Indians, and on the Bolivian side I found a part of the Toba tribe.  When I arrived I set to constructing a mud hut and began visiting the malocas (villages), making friendships and holding meetings at night.  These were attended by two thousand Indians seated on the sand on the banks of the river, listening to the Gospel interpreted to them by their own civilized brothers.

    “After some months of work, during which we served as nurse, doctor, everything in fact, we had seen no change nor any interest on the part of the Indians.  They never even asked any questions about God.  They only accepted my services in treating and curing their wounds, and even this with some suspicion.  In view of this lack of interest I finally announced to them that this would be the last week that I would be among them, because I wished to return to the Mission station in Embarcacion, and that there was nothing else to do but let them die as their forefathers – without hope.

    “On the last day, Sunday, at night, when we had the last meeting, I explained to them that never more would they see my face, because they had shown no interest in the things I had taught them during those months so full of hard work.  The moonlight lit up every face.  I prayed the last prayer.  My heart was so burdened I thought it would burst of sheer grief.  All of a sudden I opened my eyes and noticed that an Indian of the Toba tribe had come to the front, and I noticed too that tears were streaming down the faces of some seated there.  

    “During twenty-four years of living among the Indians never had I seen any of them shed a tear.  This Indian standing there put his arms over his breast and cried in a loud voice, ‘Joneni jallaganec lecochiyalu!’ (‘Lord, divine, have mercy on us!’)  He repeated these words many times, increasing in intensity.  Within a few minutes the whole multitude was standing up, repeating frantically the supplication.

    “The Mataco Indians followed the example of their Toba neighbors, and all together about 2,000 were calling out frantically.  I got so impressed and so touched that I didn’t know what to do.  I threw myself on the ground and cried so emotionally that I can’t explain it to you.”

    (To be continued)