​The Ross Richer family in 2014. Back row: Sierra, Jerrell, Naomi and Jane. Front row: Jordan and Teresa.

By Jane Morrow
Wednesday, February 14, 2024

For nine years, the Ross Richer family — Jane, Jerrell, Jordan, Naomi, Sierra and Teresa — served in a unique form of two-way mission: They accompanied indigenous communities and churches in the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador half the year, and then returned to the United States where they were intentional about sharing in educational and church settings what they learn from brothers and sisters in Ecuador. In February 2023, Jane, Jerrell and Jordan Ross Richer returned to their former home in the village of Zábalo for the first time since the global pandemic.

They found many changes. The once small congregation at Zábalo Church had transformed into the whole village worshiping in the newly named Iglesia Evangélica Kansiañachu Tsa’khȗ (Living Water Evangelical Church). They also found increased threats to the Cofán people and their way of life. In addition to violent conflict with government and industry over natural resource extraction and few employment opportunities, organized crime and illegal drug trafficking had increased, making it unrealistic to carry out their plan for 2024 to organize Learning and Fellowship Tours to support a Zábalo ecotourism project.

This is an unfortunate consequence of the increasing demand for cocaine in North America and Europe and the movement of the drug from where it is produced in Colombia and Peru through Ecuador to global markets. Cocaine is not produced in Ecuador, but the small nation has become a main transit point for these illegal activities.

The Ross Richers, along with Mission Network workers Delicia Bravo Aguilar and Peter Wigginton, led Learning and Fellowship Tours 2017-2019 to Quito and the Ecuadorian rainforest. The tours were suspended due to the pandemic.

Below are photos taken by the Ross Richer family between 2016 and 2023. This photo essay is a companion piece to 'United in Christ,' which details the conclusion of the Ross Richers' physical presence in the Zábalo community.

Jane and Jerrell said living in the Cofán community in Zábalo, Ecuador, brought new understanding of the threats faced by Indigenous Peoples worldwide and they have broadened their work. They joined Mission Network partner The Coalition to Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery, an Anabaptist organization in the United States which works to break down structures that continue to dispossess Indigenous Peoples of their ancestral lands and human rights.

Jane and Jerrell feel called to use their gifts to facilitate balanced relationships with the Cofán people, as well as other Indigenous Peoples.

All photos were taken by Jerrell Ross Richer unless otherwise noted.


The sun setting on the Aguarico River — the main river of the Sucumbíos province — on the first day of the Ross Richer’s 2023 visit to Zábalo, Ecuador.


Near their home in Tena in 2016, Sierra, Naomi, Indira and Teresa are preparing chicha, a drink made from palm fruit that is a staple in many communities in the Amazon rainforest. The youth learned early to set aside the barriers of culture and language and to be resilient and resourceful by adapting to living in a remote environment. Photo by Jane Ross Richer.


When the Ross Richers met Hiter Yiyoguaje in 2016, few people in Zábalo were interested in singing hymns, reading the Bible, praying, or holding church services. Hiter, however, was determined to do so. Each Sunday, he faithfully swept out the little wooden church with the open-air windows and dusted off the chairs. He and his wife and children prayed and sang until the Spirit led them to end with a prayer.

In this photo, Hiter is alone in the sanctuary. An accomplished carpenter, Hiter is sitting on one of the new benches he made to accommodate people in the church.


In February 2023, Congregants gathered to worship at Iglesia Evangélica Kansiañachu Tsa’khȗ (Living Water Evangelical Church). The church, also known as Zábalo Church, has seen a dramatic increase in attendance over the past few years. The wooden building now sways with the weight of the whole village as they gather each Sunday morning to sing praises to God, give thanks to Jesus, and celebrate life together - united in Christ.


Church leaders (from left) Charles Yiyoguaje, who plays guitar and keyboard, Fausto Criollo, Hiter Yiyoguaje and his brother Carlos Yiyoguaje lead worship service at Living Water Evangelical Church. Hiter and his family were once almost alone in their faith in their community. He is now accompanied by three others who provide spiritual leadership to the Zábalo community and neighboring regions. They organize worship where they experience the power of God’s Spirit. They love their neighbors as themselves. They also honor their ancestors and are deeply committed to Bible study. Church members travel to communities up and down the Aguarico River holding all-night vigils, weeping with those who mourn, celebrating with those who are rejoicing and sharing testimonies of physical healings.


Jerrell presents a gift from his home congregation, Waterford Mennonite Church in Goshen, Indiana, to the leaders and congregants at Living Water Evangelical Church. The wooden cross was handmade by Waterford Mennonite Church member, Luke Voth. In the center of the photo is Pastor Hiter Yiyoguaje, his brother Carlos (at right) and his son Charles (at left). Photo by Jane Ross Richer.


Jerrell with Jhon and his son after the worship service in Zábalo. Jhon was initially skeptical of the church but is now part of the worship band, singing in front of the congregation with other younger members. Photo by Jane Ross Richer.


Members of the 2019 Learning and Fellowship Tour prepare to travel along the Aguarico River by motorized canoe. Pictured alongside the canoe are guides from Zábalo (from left to right), Felipe, Pastor Hiter, Randy and Ángel.

The group consisted of 16 participants from Colombia and the United States (Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Montana). They began the two-week immersion experience in Quito, learning about the ministries coordinated by Delicia Bravo Aguilar and Peter Wigginton and worshipping at Quito Mennonite Church. The group then traveled by bus and canoe from the Andes Mountains into the Amazon Basin, spending a week in the village of Zábalo and worshipping in Cofán, English and Spanish in the village church. The tour finished with an overnight visit at the Ninawachi Mission Institute, where Cofán students study alongside other Indigenous young people, including Kichwa, Shuar and Waorani speakers.


One of the highlights of visiting Zábalo was a day spent along the Zábalo River with Cofán guides. There are no human settlements along this river and the area provides pristine habitat for a variety of monkey species —Howler, Spider, Squirrel and Woolly — as well as many types of birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. This area was awarded a Quiet Park designation by Quiet Parks International due to the remoteness of the place and the absence of human-generated sounds.


Gathered for dinner inside the lodge with Cofán guides (from left) Randy, Shuara, Alfonso and Angel. Randy is the son of the first missionaries to the Cofán people and has lived his entire life in Ecuador. He married Amelia, a Cofán woman and, together with her brother Alfonso and members of the community, founded the Sararo Ecotourism project based in Zábalo. The food on the table is a sampling of traditional Cofán dishes from forest plants and animals.


Jane Ross Richer with Mariuxi Bautista and her son Caleb outside their home in Tena, Ecuador. Jane invited Mariuxi to speak to the girls and young women at a youth retreat in 2019. Mariuxi discussed respecting themselves and their bodies, as well as ways to deepen their understanding of God's love.


From left: Ender Mendua, Jordan and Ender’s brother Deivis Mendua at the Anabaptist Andean Encounter in Quito, Ecuador. Ender and Deivis are Cofán speakers from the village of Zábalo. Jane and Jerrell invited them to join them at a gathering of Anabaptists from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. A highlight for Jane, Jerrell and the boys was the series of plenary talks by César García, General Secretary of Mennonite World Conference. Photo by Jane Ross Richer.


In this 2020 video, Naomi reads in English the beautifully illustrated Cofán/Spanish book she co-authored with her mother Jane Ross Richer. An Ecuadorian Cofán friend Javier Aguinda and a Zábalo church leader Aurelio Bustamante provided additional assistance. She said the purpose of the book is to "help youth understand baptism and how it, as part of Jesus' call to discipleship, will change their lives."


Jane with (from left) sisters Kendra and Shayra Yiyoguaje and their cousin Betty Criollo at Kendra's home in Huaticocha, Ecuador. Kendra and Betty both studied at the Ninawachi Mission Institute, in Huaticocha. Betty was the first Cofán student there.


Jordan with Jaden Mendua relaxing in the hammocks in the house the Ross Richers called home in Zábalo. Photo by Jane Ross Richer.


Jordan and his friend Deivis perch in the rafters in the new home being built by Deivis' brother, Maycol. Several young Cofán men, including Maycol, have begun clearing patches of forest and building homes for their young families. This investment of time, money and energy is a positive sign that the youth of Zábalo are planning to spend their lives where their ancestors have lived for generations as guardians of the rainforest.

 

 

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https://www.mennonitemission.net/news/5036/A-family-two-way-mission-unites-them-in-Christ-with-brothers-and-sisters-in-Ecuador

​Jane Morrow is a writer and editor for Mennonite Mission Network.

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