NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Playing soccer and storytelling are key aspects of Naomi Ross Richer's life in Ecuador and at Goshen (Indiana) College. The energy needed for both has helped her persevere to create a book about baptism for indigenous youth in the Ecuadorian rainforest.
The inspiration for The Baptism Story — illustrated with her watercolor pictures — came from the friendships Ross Richer has shared since 2013. That's when Ross Richer, now a 19-year-old freshman majoring in sign language, began sharing soccer and faith with youth in Zábalo. Since she was 13 years old, she has lived half of every year of her life in this Cofán community in the country's eastern rainforest.
For six months each year, her parents, Jane and Jerrell Ross Richer, serve with Mennonite Mission Network in Ecuador as part of a two-way mission assignment. They live in Goshen the other half of the year, where Jerrell teaches at Goshen College, and where together they share insights from life with Cofán people in North American churches and other settings.
This past Christmas, Ross Richer returned to Zábalo with her family as a young adult volunteer with Mission Network. During this second half of her gap year between high-school homeschool and college, she sought to deepen her Cofán friendships. This included having time to hang out with friends, rather than having to focus on her homeschool studies; and supporting those who had begun to walk with Jesus through baptism, scripture study, and discipleship formation.
Reflecting on living in Zábalo as a family with teenagers, Ross Richer said, "People saw how we were not expected to go straight from childhood to adulthood. We had some years in between to figure who we were. We had time to explore things, and to study, rather than getting pregnant really young, like 14 or 15.
"Up to recent times, that was the norm in their village life, removed from other communities by a five-hour boat ride up the Aguarico River, and a three-hour bus ride to the nearest city."
The Cofán people protect large portions of rainforest and know their youth need opportunities to study and understand how their country functions in order to maintain this way of life. The Ross Richers have been able to support this vision with youth retreats and visits beyond Zábalo. Naomi´s friend, Betty Criollo, who was baptized in late January, is now studying at the indigenous Ninawachi Mission Institute, and a couple of her other friends enrolled in a program to complete their high school degrees.
With the baptisms, Ross Richer said she was inspired to start reading the New Testament in Cofán with her friends; and to create a watercolor book in the Cofán language that would help younger youth understand baptism.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, and neither one of those plans materialized. Her family had to move back to Goshen in mid-April, several months earlier than planned.
That sudden change, however, did not deaden her dream of creating the book.
She completed it this summer while quarantining and waiting for soccer practice to begin mid-August. Her goal for the short book, co-written with her mother, and with assistance from Javier Aguinda, a Cofán friend, and Aurelio Bustamante, a church leader, is to "help youth understand baptism and how it, as part of Jesus' call to discipleship, will change their lives," she said.
The book begins with the angel's announcement to Zechariah, and then Mary's visit to Elizabeth — who would eventually give birth to John the Baptist — with a watercolor picture set at a typical Zábalo-style house. The story and further illustrations depict John's baptism of Jesus and the call to repentance, to which people responded with their own baptism in the Río Aguarico.
After the January baptism service in Zábalo, Naomi Ross Richer decided to write a bilingual (Cofán/Spanish) book for younger youth. Her original watercolor pictures set the story in a setting similar to Zábalo, illustrating that the call from John the Baptist and Jesus for repentance, baptism and discipleship continues today. Photo by Linda Shelly.
Ross Richer said she is grateful for how her parents exposed her to another culture, because it enlarged her view of who God is, and how other people perceive God. This exposure was at the root of her wanting to accompany her Cofán friends on their spiritual journey.
"I am very grateful to my parents for having come to Ecuador, because it has shown me a lot of who God is," she said. "I learned that God works very spontaneously, that God is everywhere, and that we live in a big world. It's exciting to see people from another culture get excited about the Bible."
That excitement manifested in many ways, she said, including how people came knocking on their door to ask about the scriptures and to be prayed for when they were sick.
"That was a big step of trust for people," Ross Richer said. "I am hoping that this book will be my small part in helping the Cofán people to more deeply trust God, in their cultural context, on their journey."