Dust puffs rise in the air with every step as Florencia Gobbi walks the long, dry gravel road. As she nears the cluster of ramshackle buildings, she is acutely aware that she does not belong here.
Even though Florencia (who goes by "Flor") is a native Argentine, to the indigenous people who live in this part of central Argentina, she is a huinca, or a white person, and the word literally means "thief." The term alludes to the tumultuous colonization of South America, when the Mapuche people lost most of the land they once freely settled.
Now, many Mapuche communities are located in northern Patagonia -- a region famed for its natural beauty. But ranches and ski resorts occupy the best land, most Mapuche live in the desert.
The spiritual condition of the Mapuche is also barren. Less than 4 percent are evangelical Christians, according to Serving in Mission (SIM), and many who claim to be Christians mix the faith with traditional Mapuche religion, including sorcery and ancestral worship.
Which is why Flor has traveled to this desert where she is considered an outsider.
She joins a mission trip with Vida Estudiantil, the name of Cru in Argentina, along with 80 Argentine students and professionals. The group divided into smaller teams, and Flor and 5 others visit a remote village called Malleo Community.
Though Flor will spend only 3 days in Malleo, the 27-year-old college student from La Plata (a northern city of 700,000 people) hopes to befriend many Mapuche -- not an easy feat considering the cultural and historical barriers. But Flor knows that the ministry will only be woven through the thread of relationships.
What Flor doesn't know is that today she will develop an incredibly significant relationship -- a thread that may even transcend her time in Malleo.
As Flor reaches the end of the gravel road, approaching a small crumbling house made of plaster, she claps her hands several times -- a doorbell of sorts.
A 19-year-old Mapuche woman, Claudia Canuillan, walks out of the open doorway, smiles shyly and kisses Flor on both cheeks -- a traditional Mapuche custom. Flor first met Claudia 3 years ago on a previous trip with Vida Estudiantil. This is her third consecutive trip.
Claudia has dark hair and copper-toned skin, almost opposite of Flor's light skin and brown hair, an obvious indicator of her Spanish and French heritage.
The 2 decide to walk to the nearby Malleo River, and begin chatting along the way in Spanish, a language nearly all Mapuche speak. Few Mapuche know the traditional language of Mapudungum -- evidence of a dying culture.
Flor loves to learn about such culture, and she has learned to speak several Mapuche words, as well as studied much of their history.
The Mapuche were among the first people to settle in the cone of South America; the name Mapuche literally means "people of the land." For 350 years, the Mapuche fiercely resisted colonization, but in the 1900s, the Spanish overcame them and forced them off their land and subjected some to slavery.
"The Mapuche have suffered a lot," says Carlos Canete, the director of the JESUS film in Argentina who started these trips 3 years ago. "When people come to them, they automatically put up their defenses."
Today, more than 200,000 Mapuche live in Argentina and 1 million live in Chile, but the people are a glimmer of what they once were, lagging in education and progress -- many Mapuche don't make it past the seventh grade and most don't have electricity.
By about noon on the hot January day (Argentina's seasons are opposite of the United States'), Flor and Claudia find a shady spot by the river, with rolling mountains as a backdrop. The current moves swiftly and splashes loudly over the river rocks, like unending ocean waves.
Last year, Flor read through the Four Spiritual Laws with Claudia, making sure she knew how to have a relationship with God. Claudia said that she understood, and a few of her family members also claim to be Christians. But Flor wants to help Claudia go beyond just belief.
Today Flor and Claudia study a discipleship lesson, Christian Testimony. "Do you ever talk to others about your relationship with God?" Flor asks.
Claudia stares blankly and doesn't respond, either out of misunderstanding or shyness -- Mapuche are often very timid and reserved.
"What I'm saying," Flor continues, "is that I really believe God has the potential to use you."
Flor is direct with Claudia, especially knowing the time with her is short. Mapuche are often familiar with Christianity, but many are simply not interested, or confuse it with their traditional religion.
A few years ago, Flor befriended a girl in a nearby community who served as the "holy child" for Rogativa, the Mapuche ceremony where the entire community gathers for 3 days to worship Ngenechen, the god of life, and Wekufu, the god of death.
Such ceremonies are common in Mapuche communities, though Christian churches are not. Only 11 of the 48 communities in the province where Malleo is located have churches. And the ones that do exist are often led by people who can't read, which adds to the doctrinal confusion.
As they sit by the river, Flor encourages Claudia, who can read and is in her first year of high school, to study the Bible with other women in the village, as well as visit churches -- the closest is nearly 20 miles away.
Nearby, a fly fisherman begins to sway his rod back and forth, flicking the tiny fly rhythmically, and then casts swiftly into the current. Only a few outsiders visit this community -- a few to buy Mapuche crafts, most others for the world-class trout fishing.
"I need to get ready to go to school soon," Claudia says, after talking with Flor for an hour. "But this is really important," Flor says, and they agree to meet again later.
That afternoon, Flor and a few other team members visit another family to show Magdalena: Released from Shame, an adaptation of the JESUS film set from a woman's perspective -- one of the many methods they use to tell Mapuche about Jesus.
While Flor was with Claudia, the rest of the team was busy playing games with the kids or chatting with the adults. The day offers little downtime.
Flor knows her summer experience could have been dramatically different. She was offered a few summer jobs, including one as a tour guide at a vineyard. She nearly accepted until she remembered her Mapuche friends.
"I can't explain why, but I just love them so much," she says. "It's obviously from the Lord."
When Flor first attended college, she was very skeptical of religion. Free spirited, she once hitchhiked her way across southern Argentina and read multiple books about Che Guevara.
She later befriended several women from Vida Estudiantil and eventually she
became a Christian. These women patiently helped her grow in her new faith. She wanted to be like them, to be a spiritual mentor for others.
And that's why Flor desperately wanted to see her Mapuche friends again. She signed up for the trip, paying the equivalent of $190 U.S. for the conference, plus the cost of bus tickets. She spent most of the 3 weeks sleeping in a tent.
Later in the day, Flor joins Claudia again at the river, this time with her cousin Patricia Neyculeo, 16. They pass around mate, a popular Argentine herbal drink, and the conversation again turns to spiritual topics.
"Do you have a relationship with God?" Flor asks Patricia.
"No," she says, sheepishly.
"Claudia, maybe you could share with her about what we were talking about earlier," says Flor.
And to Flor's surprise, Claudia takes over, calmly explaining her beliefs in Jesus, while Flor interjects with a few key questions.
The conversation continues for more than an hour. Soon the sun begins to set over the dry mountains, turning them a brilliant bronze while the river becomes mirror-like.
Flor asks Patricia if she would like to begin a relationship with God. She says "yes," and prays and commits her life to follow God.
"I now have eternal life," Patricia later says about the decision.
It is the third time Flor sees someone make this commitment during the 3 weeks. Over all, 126 Mapuche indicated decisions to follow Christ during the project.
Sitting with Claudia and her family later that evening, Flor begins to feel a twinge of sadness. Tomorrow she will be starting the journey home to La Plata, more than 20 hours away by car.
"I'm not sure if I'll ever see these people again," she says.
Despite the sadness of leaving, Flor is elated about the day, not just that Patricia accepted Christ, but because Claudia had a hand in it. "I would really love to see Claudia disciple others and lead them in their faith," says Flor. "Not just to lead people to Christ, but to lead them in Christ."
Even after Flor leaves, through Claudia, her efforts during those few days could easily continue and even multiply. As a Mapuche, Claudia can help bring the hope of Jesus to her people in ways that an outsider never can.
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