by Enoel & Leisa Suarez
Enoel and Leisa (Bolivia and Canada) serve in evangelism, church planting, translation and radio ministry in Bolivia.
Imagine yourself on a large riverboat, travelling in the midst of a vast, winding waterway in the Bolivian jungle. You are on a mission to help the needy living along the edge of the Mamoré River, a tributary of the Amazon Basin. As you look around this tropical paradise, there are singing macaws, chattering monkeys, floating crocodiles and slithering anacondas. You hear a splash and turn to see a pink dolphin swimming by! Then, you look beyond the exotic wildlife and notice several small, remote villages scattered along the steep riverbank. The villagers spot you and rush out to greet you. Their clothes tattered and torn, they are humble and poor, yet they offer you their finest.
This might seem like a scene out of a movie, but it’s really just another day in the riverboat ministry the Lord has called us to. Every year, we set apart five weeks during the wet season to minister to needy villagers along several rivers in the Beni province of Bolivia. We take teams of volunteers from all over the world to provide free services, meeting both the physical and spiritual needs of these underprivileged people. Volunteers include doctors, nurses, dentists, veterinarians, pharmacists, preachers, musicians, translators, teachers, cooks and boat crew members. We assist over 30 villages with anywhere from five to 50 families resident. We help them by providing free medical care to men, women, children and even livestock. We offer free medication, clothing and shoes, Bibles, tracts and devotional books, and give outdoor sermons to reach the lost with the gospel.
Life on the River
What is it like living on a riverboat with so many new acquaintances? It is a once in a lifetime experience, something you might write on your bucket list. The riverboat is large enough to hold 25 people. The bottom deck is equipped with a kitchen, two washrooms, a dining area and even a sleeping area for men. The upper deck consists of two bedrooms: one for the medical staff and the other large bedroom for the women on the trip. Then, we have the rooftop where people enjoy going to sightsee or just to relax.
The first day begins with a wake-up call at seven in the morning, followed by a devotional. Next, breakfast is served and the boat docks at the first village. We begin our daily work with doctors and nurses treating the ill, pharmacists sorting and preparing medications, and translators assisting the medical staff. Other team members sort and hand out donated clothing to the villagers or give vitamins to the children. At noon, we enjoy a meal provided by the village. It can be beef, pork, fish – including piranha – or even alligator tail! The meals are generally prepared on board by the kitchen staff. Our cooks complete the meal with rice and a side dish. In the afternoon, we finish attending to the people. Then, we have free time to shower and eat a light supper. Evenings are enjoyed by all and consist of a church service, preaching or showing the Jesus video, and a children’s message. At the end, an opportunity is given to accept Jesus. We are encouraged by the positive responses to the gospel. Late at night, we board the boat to sleep while moving on to the next village.
We are encouraged by the positive responses to the gospel.
It is encouraging to see fruit from this ministry. Finally, after 15 years, we have seen two new churches established. A few churches have guides who are in charge of assisting, encouraging and maintaining the believers in their walk with the Lord. Others meet together in homes, sharing verses and songs of praise. These new believers need trained leaders to teach them the Word of God.
There are many stories to share. One of these took place on the second day of our last trip. Late in the afternoon, we noticed only a few houses near a river bend. I asked the captain about this and he said that only three families were living there. I wondered if we should stop there for just three families. We decided to stop and I went to see the people residing in the first house. A husband and wife appeared, and I explained who we were and what we were doing. They were happy to see us. The man said, ‘By the way, my neighbour’s wife has a toothache.’ I said, ‘Great, tell her to come to the boat because we plan to stay for just a few hours; we do not have more time.’ The man replied, ‘Are you not going to stay to preach to us tonight?’ I asked, ‘How many live here?’ He told me there were around 12. I paused in silence and the Bible passage Acts 16:6-10 came to my mind: Paul wanted to go on to other places but the Holy Spirit did not permit it – he then saw the Macedonian man asking for spiritual help. I asked him if everyone would come out to participate in the meeting. The man said that they would, and we decided to stay.
We held the service and at the end we presented the invitation to become a Christian and follow Jesus. We asked them to raise their hands if they had made that decision. Almost all of them did so! We rejoiced with them and gave those new converts Bibles, literature and books with lessons for new believers. I remained there teaching until after midnight, knowing that we would need to leave by early morning.
Nurturing New Growth
In the Bible we read, ‘for “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?’ (Rom. 10:13-15). These yearly boat trips have been profitable, many villagers have been saved; however, we noticed the need for their discipleship. For this reason, a decision was made to extend our annual riverboat mission trips into a permanent, full-time mission endeavour along the Mamoré River. In order to meet this goal, we created a committee of Christian leaders and commended a Bolivian couple, Manuel and Diana, to teach the Bible and disciple the villagers, whom we have been in contact with over the past 14 years. This full-time missionary family will be a great blessing! It is wonderful to know that the new Christians in these villages will be nurtured and have the opportunity to grow strong in their new faith.
In order to proceed with our plan, we have constructed a small boat that can enter shallow water to reach the villages, even during the dry season. The boat has been outfitted to serve as their home. This boat will cruise the river all year round so that the missionaries can oversee the villagers to address their spiritual needs. It is great to see the Bolivian believers step up to meet the needs of this family rather than relying on foreign funds. Some Bolivian nationals have already committed monthly support to assist with their basic living expenses.
When we began this ministry, we were not sure about the outcome. We had many questions. Would we find enough medical assistants, evangelists and helpers interested in this new mission? Would it bear fruit? Would the new believers survive without a strong leader remaining in the community? As human beings, we cannot see the end. We just take small steps of faith and trust God for the final result. The Lord does not ask us to have it all figured out. He wants our obedience to His call, and the end result is up to Him. The wonderful part is that this ministry has blossomed beyond our imagination.
- for the family of the former boat captain, who died from Covid-19, and others who have lost loved ones
- for good health for the team and our fellow Bolivians
- for the riverboat ministry, which will resume after the pandemic
- for the launch of a full-time boat ministry with a missionary family
- for peace in Bolivia and good governance.