Bruce Olson

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Bruce Olson, 2014

Bruce Olson (born November 10, 1941) is a Scandinavian American Christian missionary best known for his pioneering work in bringing Christianity to the Motilone Indians of Colombia and Venezuela. He has written two autobiographical books, Bruchko and Bruchko and the Motilone Miracle.

Early life[edit]

Bruce Olson was born in 1941 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the youngest of two sons of Marcus and Inga Olson. His father was an investment banker, and his mother was a socialite. Olson learned Greek and Latin at an early age. At age 14, he experienced Christian conversion while reading the New Testament.

At age 16, Olson attended his first missionary conference at the church he began to attend after his conversion. The missionary speaker, a Mr. Rayburn, spoke of his work with the people of New Guinea. Olson felt that God wanted him to become a missionary to the Indians of South America.

In the fall of 1959, Olson enrolled in Penn State, transferring to the University of Minnesota a year later to study linguistics. In the meantime, he applied to several missions boards, but was rejected as a missionary candidate. In early 1961, at age 19, and over his parents' objections, Olson left college and bought a plane ticket to Venezuela. At the time, he spoke no Spanish, and had only a few dollars.

Shortly after arriving in Venezuela, Olson heard about the Motilone, a tribe living on the borders of Venezuela and Colombia that had been in the news because of violent clashes with oil company employees seeking to drill on their land. Olson felt a strong pull towards making contact with the Motilone.

Work with the Barí[edit]

Until the 1960s, the Motilone had little contact with the outside world. They believed in the existence of a single God and that evil spirits existed in the world. They also believed that God had rejected them for deceiving Him. A man named Sacamaydodji had come to them, claiming to be a prophet and saying that he could take them over the horizon to a better land. They left God and followed him, but eventually came to believe that Sacamaydodji had been a false prophet and regretted walking away from God. They had a prophecy that a tall man with yellow hair would come with a banana stalk, and that God would come out of the banana stalk.

With much difficulty, and after being shot with Motilone arrows, Olson began to live with the Motilone in 1962, learning their language and culture. For one thing, he discovered that "Motilone" was a Spanish name for the tribe, meaning "people of short hair." The Motilone call themselves "Barí," which means "people" in the Barí tongue. As he grew more familiar with the tribe, they nicknamed him "Bruchko". He began to see ways he could help them. The Barí were subject to the ravages of disease, food shortages during the rainy season, and contact with the outside world that threatened to destroy them and their way of life. Olson began his work by befriending the tribe's medicine woman, realizing that for him to bring cures to the people would undermine their traditional authority structure. During an epidemic of pinkeye, he watched the medicine woman chanting over the afflicted, asking God to heal them. Olson asked her about the cure, and she sighed, saying that she chanted, but God would not help them since they had deceived God. Olson went out of the house, and asked an old man afflicted with pinkeye if he could touch the corners of his eyes. The old man agreed, and Olson smeared some of the old man's infected tears into his own eyes. Olson quickly developed pinkeye himself, and went to the medicine woman for help. She chanted over him, but the pinkeye was not cured. Olson gave her some antibiotic ointment, and asked her to apply the ointment to his eyes while she chanted a new chant, saying that perhaps because he was an outsider, the old chant didn't work on him. Within a few days, his pinkeye cleared up. The medicine woman tried the new chant on others of the afflicted, with no results. Then she asked Olson for his "potion," and sure enough, when she applied the antibiotic and the chant, the pinkeye was eradicated. Her success elevated her status in the tribe and cemented Olson's bond with her.

Olson also formed a pact with a young man named Bobarishora, becoming adoptive brothers together. The two worked together, visiting many Barí villages and helping medicine men and women establish health centers, following the same strategy of introducing change through the village's existing authority structure rather than undermining it. Initially, some of the Barí wondered if Olson was the tall man with yellow hair from the prophecy, but as he did not carry a banana stalk, they decided he was not. One day in 1965, Bobarishora cut open a banana stalk, and the leaves inside splayed out, like the pages of a book. Olson pointed to his Bible and said, "This is God's banana stalk!" Olson recounted a Barí legend he had learned about a Barí man wanting to help a group of ants build a good home. Because the man was so big and different, the ants scattered in fear. Miraculously, the man was transformed into an ant, and was able to show the other ants how to improve their home. Olson used that story to describe how God became incarnate in Jesus and "walked our trail." Olson described the death of Jesus, and his resurrection, and told the Barí that the Bible tells the story of Jesus.

Many nights later, Bobarishora asked Olson how he could walk on Jesus' trail. Olson had difficulty explaining "faith" in the Barí language. Olson reminded Bobarishora of one of his first celebrations with the tribe, when he was afraid to climb into one of the high-strung hammocks loved by the Barí, to swing free and sing songs with the tribe. He had wanted to keep one foot on the ground, but Bobarishora had told him that he could only sing if he was fully suspended in the hammock. Olson said, "That is how it is when you follow Jesus, Bobby (Bobarishora). No man can tell you how to walk His trail. Only Jesus can. But to find out you have to tie your hammock strings into Him and be suspended in God." Two days later, Bobarishora told Olson, "Bruchko, I've tied my hammock strings into Jesus. Now I speak a new language." For the Barí, "language" is equivalent to life. Bobarishora spoke of having a new life suspended in Jesus.

Months later, at the tribe's Festival of the Arrows, a time of pact-making and story-telling, Bobarishora was challenged to a singing competition by an older chief named Adjibacbayra. Climbing into a single hammock, the two men sang alternating lines, and Bobarishora sang about how the Barí had been deceived by Sacamaydodji, but that Jesus had walked the Barí's trail to lead them back to God. The song lasted over ten hours, but the effect was startling. The entire tribe accepted the song about Jesus. Soon the song spread to other Barí villages, at other Festivals of Arrows. Within months, virtually the entire Barí people had accepted a contextualized version of Christianity.

Current estimates are that 70% of the Barí people are now Christians.[1]

As Olson's work with the Barí grew, he helped them establish a written language, schools, community health centers, and even to work with the Colombian government to protect Barí lands. As Barí young people began to be fluent in both Barí and in Spanish, they studied to become doctors, lawyers, and other professionals, but brought their expertise back to the tribe, using it from within their culture.

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