Since 1961, missionary Bruce Olson has labored for the gospel of Jesus Christ among the Motilone Indians deep in the jungles of Colombia’s high Catatumbo region. But today Olson’s most exciting missionary work still lies ahead.
In the past thirty years, Olson has founded bilingual schools, medical clinics and agricultural centers among the Motilones. His Christ-like humility and work of service to the Motilones has earned him the status of a tribal member. Indian chiefs throughout the region representing 50 tribes and half a million tribe members look to Olson with great awe and respect. He has become a friend of five Colombian presidents; has spoken before the United Nations; and has received educational awards from the Colombian government. Although he completed college only through correspondence schools, his work on translating the Scriptures into the native Indian dialects has earned him honor among linguistics scholars.
Nineteen-year-old Olson first travelled to South America with only a one-way plane ticket and $70 in his pocket. A young person with a deep burden for Colombia’s hidden people, Olson set out in in search of the Motilones: a fierce, primitive tribe that no white man had ever encountered and lived. Olson’s adventures in Colombia brought him face to face with the Motilones when he was shot through the leg with a three foot arrow. He was brought as a prisoner to their camp to recover. “Bruchko” – the name the Indians gave him (the Motilones were not able to pronounce Bruce Olson) – eventually won over the hearts of these tribal people. Today the Motilones are almost universally converted to Christ.
Three years ago, Bruce Olson was kidnapped in the mountain jungles of Colombia and detained for nine months as a political prisoner by communist guerillas. Hoping to win him as a valuable communist leader, the communists attempted to indoctrinate him through daily political dialogues. “Papa Bruchko” – as they called him – became a source of fascination among the young recruits in training. Many of them began to join Olson in prayer and Bible study. As many as 60 communist guerillas eventually gave their lives to Christ. His refusal to join ranks with the communists earned him death threats and he narrowly escaped execution by a firing squad.
Fearing the reprisal of a united war effort of 50 jungle tribes, the guerilla leaders released Olson in the summer of 1989. The Indian tribes of Colombia had united against the guerillas in a war-pledge to defend Olson’s cause if he was executed. The unity of the Indian tribes behind one white man was unprecedented in Colombia’s history.
After his release, Olson found that he had become a national hero in Colombia. In the major cities, articles demanding Olson’s release had appeared almost daily in the newspapers. Olson’s courageous stance against the guerillas was one of the key factors which inspired the common citizens of Colombia to take a bolder, tougher stance against the drug cartels.
Since this time, the openness of the Indian tribes of Colombia to the gospel has become phenomenal. Many tribal leaders have requested that Olson begin to set up clinics, schools and agricultural centers. Some tribes have asked specifically to be taught about Jesus Christ. Olson reported recently: “In August, I was among the Cogi Indians in the mountains adjacent to Santa Marta. I baptized more than 40 adult believers. Several Motilone pastors accompanied me.”
In America, the story of Bruce Olson’s captivity brought unprecedented financial support for the work of Christ among the Motilones. For 28 years, Olson had operated with no official sponsorship, relying on only the contributions of friends, but when Charisma magazine ran a two part series: “Bruce Olson’s Nine Month Colombian Captivity” (November & December 1989), donors gave $100,000 to help “Bruchko” continue his humanitarian efforts and evangelism among the tribes of Colombia.
In addition to providing clinical supplies, scholarships and agricultural development, Olson has built several centers for the Motilones. In a recent letter, Olson explained the uses for one of the structures he is building: “Our Tibú Community House of Twelve Cultures, which we have named in Motilone: ‘Axdobaringcayra,’ is well on the way to completion. … The house will provide lodging for visiting Motilones. Tibú is the principal port of commerce for the growing tribal economy and it is the seat of government. Here we will organize Colombia’s first native language regional newspaper and house staff personnel for the northeast Colombian indigenous cultural publications.”
The cultural center he is now building will be a base from which to reach many of the tribal groups of Colombia. Olson reports that he still needs about $60,000 to complete this center.
Bruce Olson and the Motilone believers are the key to fulfilling the Great Commission in this area of the world. Jesus Christ has commanded us to go and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20). Many of the nations – referred to by missiologists as the ETHNE, or “peoples groups” – in this area of Colombia are completely unreached with the gospel. We have an exciting opportunity to reach half a million people who have become miraculously open to the gospel in the past three years.