Chapter 2 - Climate, People and Customs

Chapter 2 - Climate, People and Customs of Venezuela

“And He said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature” Mark 16:15
The southern extremity of Venezuela is about 60 miles from the equator which runs through northern Brazil. At sea level there is very little variation in the temperature of between 80 - 95 degrees all year round. The high humidity in most places makes the continuous heat oppressive, but in the higher elevations the atmosphere is much more moderate. After crossing the coastal range the seasons are more regular; the dry season beginning about the end of December until April, and then the wet season intermittently for the rest of the year. The dry season is more favorable for series of Gospel meetings, especially those held under canvass, when attendances are not hindered by rain-storms. The tent has the advantage of being better ventilated than a permanent building, and in places where it is necessary to use gasoline lamps the temperature is much higher than when electric light is available. In one village where we rented a native building with inadequate ventilation, on account of numbers attending, we first had to hold a meeting for children, then later a meeting for adults. With such a crowd of children inside, although the boys only wore short knickers, their bodies were shining with the perspiration in which they were bathed. We later purchased that building and made more and larger windows and doors for the added comfort of those who attended. In due time the assembly was formed there.

THE PEOPLE AND CUSTOMS

The original inhabitants of Venezuela were South American Indians. With the discovery of the new world there was an influx of Spanish and other European colonists. These latter needed laborers for their plantations so they imported African slaves. With the abolition of slavery 120 years ago racial distinctions ceased and intermarriage and out-of-wedlock unions have resulted in a nation of citizens of all shades of skin and temperament, and enjoying equal rights. Many of those with African forebears have prospered in business, or occupy important positions in the political and industrial world.

When the emancipation of slaves was decreed, many of these fled to the jungles and other malarious regions to escape being molested, and were satisfied with a primitive form of life, growing bananas, sugar cane and other crops which flourish in the freshness of jungle soil. Although nominally Roman Catholics, their form of religion is very debased; immorality and intemperance flourish amongst them. One religious feast that they adhere to more than any other is that of “St. John the Baptist”, celebrated June 24th of each  year. A small image of their “saint”, placed on a table supported on a man’s head, leads the procession. Their favorite chant as they march and dance is “St. John got drunk; I will get drunk too; so as we go, we go on well.” They make frequent stops at corner stores where they imbibe strong drink. The writer once witnessed a devotee arriving at his garden gate early in the morning after an all night carousal, who calling to his woman said: “Maria, bring me water quick or I’ll kill you.” His throat was so smarting with liquor that he craved water. Poor man! What would it be like to go straight to hell, where there is not a drop of water, after a night of impious carousal?

Even a great percentage of cultured people are slaves of idolatry. The patron “saint”, or guardian of Venezuela is called “the Virgin of Coromoto.” Tradition says that an Indian on the plains, going home from the temple service, found a tiny “virgin and child” image on the ground, which he believed to have come down from heaven. He took it to the priest, but next day it had disappeared and was found a great distance away. This was considered a miracle so a special shrine was built for it, and this became a leading attraction to pilgrims. People go there by bus loads and wily priests are always inventing new ways of speculating with the people. One of them wrote up the history of that “virgin”, telling of the many miracles done by “her”; another had a lot of medallions made with the image of this “virgin and child”, in gold, silver and aluminum, according to the purse or religious pride of the buyer.

Once a year this “virgin” has a “birthday”, when it heads a great procession through different towns, escorted by military and civil officials, with army air planes circling above and a band playing religious music.

Thank God! The Gospel is still the power of God unto salvation to all who believe, and many who once participated in the processions of “St. John” and the “Coromoto”, have now, like the Thessalonians, “turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God, and to wait for Ths Son from heaven.”

It is truly wonderful what a transformation takes place in the life of a person when Christ comes into his heart. Upon returning to Venezuela once from our furlough our ship was to be in port till late at night, so we had time after the evening meal on board, to walk up to where the Gospel hall was located. As we left the ship and walked along the wharves in the semi-darkness we had to pass groups of tough-looking dock laborers, roughly clad and many of them with hard-lined countenances which did not inspire confidence. Upon arriving at the Hall, the saints had just finished their prayer meeting, and we couldn’t help noticing what kindly and cheerful expressions were seen in their faces; it was clear that they had been with Jesus and learned of Him.

On a certain occasion prior to the epoch of buses and cars, I wished to start out after the night meeting on an 18 mile stage of my journey on foot. I was told that the brother who offered to accompany me and carry my heavy bundle had once committed murder. It was a dark country road to our destination, and as we left at midnight we were on the road till daybreak, but I had the utmost confidence in my companion whose heart had been changed through believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. That man went on faithfully to the end of life’s journey.

GETTING TO KNOW THE PEOPLE

When a new worker arrives in Venezuela he might almost wish that he had the gift of tongues to be able to start in right away, but after living amongst the people for a few years he realizes that the time spent in learning the language on the field has not been lost, as he or she at the same time is getting to know the people and their idiosyncrasies. A delicate matter with a Venezuelan is his sense of dignity, and to offend his dignity may cost the offender his life. A man may be a liar but don’t accuse him of lying or you will offend his dignity; he may have stolen something, but don’t call him a thief or you will offend his dignity. On one occasion when I was preaching in a jungle village, a traveling tinsmith was present. At the close he came to see if I had any work for him to do. Our carbide lamps needed soldering so I told him to come in the morning. When he returned it was clear that he had been drinking. I gave him money to buy materials and food, and added a word of kindly counsel not to buy strong drink. Unwittingly I had offended his dignity by even insinuating that he would do such a thing. A little later he came back with a revolver and pointed it at my head, but the Lord saved me and “a soft answer turneth away wrath.” He quieted down and did the work.

RELIGION OF THE PEOPLE

Roman Catholics in Venezuela can be divided into three groups:

1) Those who sincerely believe thct Rome is the “holy mother church”, and that all outside of Rome are heretics. This class is not easy to evangelize as it is composed mostly of women, known here as “beatas”, many of whom rise early every morning of the year to attend the first mass. They have a sanctuary of their “saints” in their home, illuminated by lamps or condles. They are very faithful to their religion and often actively oppose the entrance of the Gospel to the town where they live. When the preaching begins in such places, men will attend but very few women. However, after the fruits of conversion are seen in the lives of men who were previously slaves of drink and other vices, such women begin to get their eyes opened and are ready to take in the message of the Gospel. As those in this group are mostly men and women of conviction, when they eventually become part of an assembly they are noted for their steadfast and consistent lives.

2) Those who are Roman Catholics for convenience sake. Many of them admire the teaching of the Gospel and respect believers for their godly lives, but they prefer “the religion of their fathers” as it gives them more latitude. In defending his manner of life, one peasant used a homely comparison. The “sons of the soil”, when they leave for their cultivated fields at a distance from their homes, carry with them a gourd full of water, called a tapara. This man said that during the year he went on filling the tapara (with his  sins) and at the year end he went to the temple to empty it into the ear of the priest, who pronounced the usual formula: “I absolve thee.” So he went away to fill up his “tapara” with the sins of another year and to repeat the same procedure. When the Gospel is preached in the power of the Spirit, this brings such persons to repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ: “For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” Luke 19:10. There are many trophies of God’s saving and keeping grace amongst this class of people.

3) The third class are those who are Roman Catholics because they have never known anything else but that religion. They “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” until the light of the Gospel reaches their benighted souls. Such was the case with Cornelius, Lydia and the Ethiopian eunuch. How grateful such people are when the messenger of the Cross proclaims to them such a great salvation, as free as the air we breathe and all of grace! We have known whole families who have come to know Christ when the Good News has reached the unevangelized regions of this country. The missionary or pioneer is well repaid in such cases for his labors and abnegation in taking the gospel to the “regions beyond.”

ENDURING HARDNESS AS A GOOD SOLDIER

A missionary from another field once paid us a visit and we arranged a schedule for him for meetings in some of the assemblies. We took him in our Ford car to one place where the Christians had a chicken stew ready for us. Our visitor afterwards commented on this, saying that we were certainly in a “land of clover” as compared with his field of labor. But he spoke rather prematurely for he was to see the other side of things. The brethren of Santa Rosa in the backwoods were anxious for him to visit them. I questioned whether he could endure such a trip but he was very enthusiastic and told me he had climbed a mountain once before breakfast. So we decided to go and the first stage of the journey was easy by bus. Then we left the highway to follow a donkey trail, and friends had arranged to meet us with a horse for the visitor and a donkey for the baggage. As there was no sign of this transportation, we left the baggage in a safe place and started off on foot expecting to meet those who were coming to get us. My companion got weary so I tried to persuade a donkeyman on the road to rent us his donkey for my companion to ride on but as he considered the bulky load involved, he declined. Finally along came the brethren with a pony and donkey, so our brother could continue the trip on horseback. As we plodded on in the heat of the day the visitor complained of thirst and weariness, so I pushed on ahead to a cottage where I was able to get a hot drink ready and buy some coconut candy. Then I retraced my steps to take the good news to the weary one. I discovered that the pony was played out, unaccustomed to such a heavy load, and it was almost a case of having to carry the pony! I had been thinking of that verse:
“Thou therefore endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” When I told my missionary brother what I had been thinking of, he abruptly replied, “It is simply ridiculous!” The warm drink cheered him up and we both continued on foot until we came to the parting of the ways. We had the option of crossing the river and taking a round about route through the village, or we could take a short cut through a cocoa plantation. He chose the latter alternative because it was shorter.

We had to get through a barbed wire fence and, as it began to rain, we were soaked. There was a narrow trail up the mountain, with a gulley beside it. The brother suddenly lost his foothold and slid into the guIley and had to be helped out. Then he stood still and said: “It’s a good thing that my wife doesn’t know what has happened to me,” and then he told me that he suffered from his heart. From thence on I got behind him and did my best to push him up the hill. When we reached the top I asked him if he could eat a sandwich which I had reserved for him. He said he was hungry, and started to eat, but he had no saliva and could not swallow, so I felt sorry for him. We were then confronted with another difficulty. The owner of some cattle had fenced off his lands with barbed wire 5 feet high, which crossed the trail we were following. The only thing to do was to climb over the top as the strands were close together and very taut. He was a heavy man for such a task but I helped him over. We reached the settlement after dark and were wet through but our baggage did not arrive until sometime after; so we sat by the fire in the native kitchen, warming ourselves and drying our clothes. We spent a happy weekend with those saints, who were converts from the third class mentioned above.

On the Monday morning when we were returning, the horse on which the visitor was riding came to a place where the rains had cut a ditch right across the trail. The horse stood there on the brink undecided what to do. My friend, rather nervous, dismounted; so I jumped on to get the horse across. With a little persuasion it jumped to the other side, but alas! the saddle and bridle were tied up with rotten string and as the horse jumped, the bridle, saddle and rider all came sliding over its head and landed on the ground. It was an amusing affair and the visitor did not want to mount again until we reached level ground. We made good progress until he complained of thirst, so we stopped at a wayside cottage and found a sufferer from toothache. I decided to get my dental forceps out of the suitcase and relieve the sufferer. The lady of the house appreciated this kindness and had a cup of coffee ready for us. They grow their own coffee in those hills. We also took a glass of water and my companion started off before I was ready and was soon out of sight. I therefore took a short cut down a steep slope to a stream and up on the other side to catch up with him. He didn’t appear so finally I went back to see what had happened. It transpired that he had let his horse get too near to the edge of the trail, which was wet, so that it slid and rolled over a bank down to where a tree stopped it from going farther. The rider also rolled down but held on to the reins and was able to get the horse up to the trail again.

These experiences were indelibly impressed upon the visitor’s memory and gave him something to talk about for years afterwards.