A Q&A with Jane and Jerrell Ross Richer
Jane and Jerrell work half the year with indigenous church leaders in the Ecuadorian rain forest, and half the year as mission workers and educators in the United States.
Q: As you split your time between two cultures, you often talk about it as "two-way mission." What does that term mean to you?
Jane: For me, it is a metaphor that helps me focus on the dynamic relationship that is mission. I am a person from the North being sent as a missionary to the South, yet each year when I return to the North, if I have allowed myself to be in relationship with people, then I come back changed. As I relate to people in the North, I share who I have become during my time in the South. And this goes both ways.
I think at the beginning I felt burdened by problems here in the North. The insatiable desire to progress, to improve, to make life better has brought us family breakdown, drug addiction, violent crime, suicide, and global warming. So I went to Ecuador in pursuit of wisdom, believing that our indigenous brothers and sisters could offer some guidance, some insight, some hope. And I imagined us returning to the North bringing "good news" from the South.
Q: When you facilitate groups visiting Ecuador's rain forest, what do you hope they remember when they return home? And how do you see their visits benefiting the local communities?
Jane: My hope is that those who come to learn will be awakened. That by visiting "the wildest place on earth," their desires and passions will be returned to their souls. That they will be passionately alert to the Temples of God being threatened in the world—the forests, streams, rivers, not to mention innocent lives and their own hearts.
When groups visit, unique opportunities for conversation happen. The visit from the Youth Venture group this past year is a good example. Their visit prompted us to invite a Shuar pastor to Zábalo. God used his visit, along with the energy of the North American youth, to bring members of the village together for three evenings of worship in a row.
Jerrell: The Ecuadorian rain forest is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. The indigenous group we are closest to, the Cofán (or A'I in their native language), are the guardians of about a million acres of primary forest. Their determination to protect the land from oil development, gold mining, and commercial hunting and logging have kept the area relatively pristine. By visiting the community of Zábalo, North Americans provide dignified work for the guides, boat drivers, cleaners and cooks that make their visit possible.
The people of Zábalo started the world's first community-based eco-tourism operation in the 1970s, but few people venture that far off the beaten track today. People of faith who travel to the village to experience a piece of God's creation in its original form and worship with those connected to this place, provide the economic lifeblood needed to sustain Zábalo's conservation work.
Q: How do you cope with life in the United States after learning how the predominant lifestyles (the consumption of oil, lumber, and rare metals and minerals) affect communities like the Cofán's in Ecuador?
Jane: If I allow myself to be trapped in the visible world, either in the United States or in Ecuador, and if I focus on nothing else, quite honestly, I become depressed. I cope by taking a leap of faith to believe there is a God and that this life will make sense one day.
Jerrell: In the book of Acts, the early church was known as "the way." In Spanish, it is translated as el camino, or "the path." I like thinking about it in this way because a path is meant to be traveled. It isn't always easy, but we can try to make conscious decisions to lower our impact on the earth and support marginalized peoples. While in North America, our family chose to live close to my work so I wouldn't need a car to commute. We moved into a house with solar panels to keep from using electricity produced by burning coal. Our family buys a lot of our food from local co-ops and community-supported agriculture projects. And, as followers of Christ, we know that God extends grace to us when we fail to do as much as we could due to cost, inconvenience or ignorance.
Q: When you think about your work, what do you consider to be your greatest challenges? What about your greatest joys?
Jane: For me, the greatest challenge and the greatest joy are two sides of the same coin, and that is relationship. Being in relationship with people from many different walks of life, paying attention, being alert, listening with compassion wherever I am, with whoever I'm with. It is very challenging, and it is life-giving.
Jerrell: Crossing cultures can be daunting at times. Learning Spanish and operating in a Latin American context is challenging enough. Venturing deep into the rain forest and living among indigenous peoples takes culture- and language-learning to a new level. There is no Cofán 101 class we can take, and I struggle to learn a non-Western language with no cognates. It's a good thing we are accompanied by our children. Their sharp ears and excellent memories give them a real edge.
As challenging as the work sometimes seems, it is also incredibly life-giving. Reading the Bible with people who have a worldview so different from my own opens up new insights and possibilities. My faith has been broadened as I consider how our indigenous sisters and brothers follow Christ in this unique context. My concept of who God is and how to live in relationship to our Maker has grown immensely. And it makes me realize what's really important—a daily walk with the One who created, redeems and sustains us all.
Jerrell Ross Richer helps orient the 2018 Ecuador Youth Venture group. Photo by Dani Klotz.