It was the discovery I had been working for, digging through the archives of these Bolivian Quakers. I held the file folder in my hand and grinned. Now I would at last be able to unlock the secrets, bring to light the hidden facts.
But as I looked closely at the folder, I realized that before opening it, I had to remove the small blocks of cheese that marred its surface. So one by one, I pried them loose, and the folder revealed its true form. It was a turret, part of a fortress intent on guarding its secrets from all foreign invaders. There would be no discoveries for me today. Thwarted. Again.
Then I woke up.
I think it’s time to come home. We’re now completing our eighth week here in La Paz, working in the files, interviewing people, wondering, searching, writing. I frequently wake up dreaming about some aspect of this project. Usually my dreams are more positive.
Yes, it’s time to come home.
One of the challenging aspects of this project has been finding written documentation in an oral culture. For the first years of the years of the history of the Bolivian Friends Church (INELA), 1919-1950, there are no written records from the Bolivian perspective. Early missionaries wrote home, but here in La Paz, the archives for those years don’t exist.
So we interview. Oral history, the collective memory of a people, is fascinating and a valid source of data. But it can also be a bit shakey. Poke the details, and they vanish, leaving residues of historic dust. When we bend down to poke around in the dust, tiny footprints hint of a path and bid us follow.
One of the dusty footprint paths we’re following has to do with the story of an Aymara man named Cruz Chipana, a leader in the community of Amacari on Lake Titicaca. Apparently he heard the gospel story and became a disciple of Jesus long before the Quaker testimony reached Bolivia. He built up a small group of converts who gathered clandestinely to talk about Jesus and pray. One source (whose grandfather was part of that group of secret believers) says they chewed coca leaves as a way to enter into worship. In 1924 when Juan Ayllón, the first Quaker missionary, visited this group, they were primed and ready to become a Friends meeting. Today they are one of the strongest Friends Churches in the lake district.
We’ve found four oral sources for this story, and while the common threads in the different versions encourage us with hints of truth, the details vary considerably. So we keeping looking and listening and asking and knocking.
Our constant prayer: “Lord, lead us to truth. Grant us the discoveries and insights that will not only give a clearer picture of the past, but that will also help supply your people with a vision for their future.”
Today we begin packing up our stuff, straightening and cleaning the office, making sure the scans are all backed up. Sunday afternoon we have our last team meeting. Our Bolivian colleagues remain behind to carry out the field research, while we go home to Oregon to scrounge around in the yearly meeting mission files and try to raise funds for the project. We’ll encourage each other via monthly Skype team meetings.
And we’ll keep praying for those fortresses to be brought down, for truth to prevail.