Frank Laubach, famed “Apostle to the Illiterates” and Protestant mystic, made his first tour of Latin America in 1942, to promote his literacy program. While in La Paz, he stayed in the home of Quaker missionaries Howard and Julia Pearson. Quakers had been using his “each-one-teach-one” method in their own adult education program, so there was a natural contact.
As I was recently reading through the personal letters of Julia Pearson in the George Fox University archives, I came across a hand-copied section of a journal that Laubach kept while in La Paz. Pearson had probably asked his permission. It gives a fascinating impression of Andean Quakers in 1942, some 16 years after the founding of that very meeting in La Paz. Although Laubach writes in the third sentence, “There was nothing Quaker about it,” I beg to differ. The “strangeness” is cultural; the heart of the worship is profoundly Quaker. Following are excerpts:
“December 21, 1942
“Tonight I had a spiritual experience which will echo thru the rest of my life. It was the Aymara prayer meeting in the Quaker church. There was nothing Quaker about it. After a long talk—which I did not understand—by the Aymara pastor, the congregation knelt to pray. Every one prayed aloud at the same time. It began with a murmur; then women’s plaintive wails began to be heard above the rest and presently they could be heard weeping. I heard the terrible cry of the ages rising to God from broken hearts; and behind them I heard the bitter cry of anguish of all the illiterates in the world. The oppressed, the blind, the hopeless and I began to say, ‘Lord, aren’t you going to do something about these tragic people?’ I heard in my heart the answer, ‘I have done something. I have sent you.’ As I write these words, I am weeping with gratitude and resolve and pity and I think I understand better after this night’s experience how Christ feels…3 nights before Christmas
“December 24, 11:00 p.m.
“I am just home from the most fascinating Christmas program in my whole life. Over 300 Aymara Indians in this Quaker church gave a perfectly wonderful program. Their ordinarily poker faces were wreathed in smiles. I have never seen a more striking illustration of the power of the gospel to transform people than this evening’s revelation. One could almost tell how many months or years each person present had come under the influence of the gospel. Here were women with babes over their backs wobbling Indian squaw fashion yet shaking hands like dear sisters. I think the most unforgettable number was a song by about fifteen men and 8 or 10 women. One girl, daughter of a highly educated man, formerly pastor of the church, looked like a queen. Beside her stood young women, awkward, shuffling, embarrassed to the point of pain and yet beginning to enjoy Christian life.
“These Friends are working a modern miracle among the Indians of La Paz. The church is located in the center of the Indians. There are literally thousands swarming the streets so that an automobile has to creep along constantly sounding the horn. Perhaps because my heart is so much with these Indians, I feel that this Christmas Eve is the climax of my first visit to S.A.
“….This evangelical church of the Friends, wholly controlled by the Indians themselves, is far more strict than we are at home. They allow not even lipstick. Tonight as I write the Indians carousing in the street present a sharp contrast to these stern, puritanical Quakers!
“Christmas morning. ‘Friend’ Pearson woke me at 6:30 to enjoy their Santa Claus. It was delightful to see little Donald open the packages and hear him shriek with delight at every new surprise. He got many presents: drawing sets, a ship and torpedo boat which blows it up, a rotary printing press, puzzles, but the thing he loved most was a repeater pistol! He is out trying it on chickens now! Even being a Quaker does not take war out of the boy of nine.
January 3, 1943
“This afternoon I attended the Sunday meeting in the Quaker church in front of the house where I am staying. The pastor seemed very slow, awkward & shy. He talked about Paul’s doctrine of salvation thru faith. Two men came forward and knelt at the altar. Then all knelt and prayed aloud at the same time. I did as well as the rest. I think if I ever again have a mission church I shall start that custom. One fairly fells the presence of the Holy Spirit. Some of the women cried as they prayed. Then they all stopped by common consent and the two men at the altar arose and testified. One had an eye nearly gone, trachoma I suppose. As he testified to the free gift of salvation, he broke down and shook while he held his handkerchief to his face. Then everybody began to testify. I told them in Spanish about these wonderful days in the Pearson house, and the power of the Holy Spirit was so great in that meeting that I had difficulty in restraining the tears. When I had finished, the pastor translated my poor Spanish into Aymara. Here was a church full of people who did not depend upon the minister but made the meeting their own by prayer and testimony. It was marvelous to see the Spirit working in these humble people—marvelous and wholesome, a humbling experience for me…. I saw afresh what these words mean: ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts…for as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my thoughts higher than your thoughts and my ways than your ways.’ I had to sink my college education and realize that in God’s sight these simple people, true to their convictions, were better than I have been, were more highly esteemed than I was. I wonder why Jesus had not said, ‘How hardly shall they that have a college education enter into the kingdom of heaven.’… It was delightful to realize, here this afternoon, that God prized these dear illiterate Indians exactly as highly as he did me.
“The marvelous change he has wrought upon them is brought in relief—stark and unmistakeable relief—by the drunken carousers across the fence, one of whom is making hideous shouts. I am not blaming those drunken Indians. They find their pleasure in liquor—until they become intoxicated with the Holy Spirit. It will be one or the other.”