Who was that flying high over a lake in Fouts Springs, California, happily experimenting with loops and snap-rolls she’d read about in a magazine, unaware that Ken Johnston, one of her Mission directors, was fishing down below?
How can one tell in a few short paragraphs the story of a young pioneer missionary woman who spent 55 years, not as a pilot, but as nurse, teacher, and Bible translator with the Yuracare people in the Chapare region of Bolivia?
“When I went to Bolivia the Yura didn’t exist for me, but since then they have been my entire life.” — Marge Day
Marge relates, “I was born in 1926 and grew up in the Minneapolis, Minnesota, area. I became a Christian when I was a senior in high school. One night, Paul Fleming, the founder of NTM, came to speak at my church and my heart was challenged to become a missionary to those who had never had a chance to hear the Gospel.”
After high school and a half year of Bible School, Marge trained three years with the Cadet Nursing Corps at the University of Minnesota, paid for by the military, and became an RN. But, before she headed to fulfill her obligated military service, the war ended. So instead, in the fall of 1949, she began her training with NTM.
“My parents and pastor were opposed,” Marge says. “People had a dim view of NTM. Five killed. The group was too new and radical.” But as she was leaving, not having thought of support, her pastor called and promised $50 a month.
During her nine months at Fouts Springs Marge met Jean Dye (another
NTM missionary – pictured here) who was on furlough from Bolivia. Her husband, Bob, and four others had been killed by the Ayore, a people group then hostile to outsiders.
“Little did we know that one day we would become partners,” Marge added. “In March of 1950, I flew to Robore, Bolivia on the DC3 named The Tribesman, which NTM had acquired to help transport its missionaries to South America.”
NTM was only working with the Ayore at the time of her arrival, but surveys had been done revealing a number of unreached groups—Yuracare, Chimani, Trinitario and others. Mel and Connie Wyma met the new missionaries, helped them get acclimated the first couple weeks in a new country, then Mel flew them two by two in his little single engine plane to the towns nearest these new groups. Marge and her partner Wanda Banman—with only a permitted 75 pounds of luggage each, including everything to set up housekeeping—were flown to the town of San Borja.
They rented a room, picked up the language out of necessity while making friends, and soon had a small group of believers meeting nightly. “But our hearts burned with the desire to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the tribal people who came into town from the river and peered at us through the open windows.”
The following year, at the annual NTM field conference, Marge again met Jean Dye, who was beginning a new work with the Yuracare but didn’t have a partner. They decided to work together in this new venture.
The Yuracare people live in small widely scattered family groups along seven main rivers and many tributaries in a hot and humid tropical setting at the eastern foot of the Andes Mountains. They hunt and fish for their daily food and raise small plots of yuca, corn, and bananas.
In the past, the Yuras sold jaguar, ocelot and crocodile hides to river launches and were always paid in alcohol… hence were notorious for drinking to excess, even the children. They had no written language, no medical care, and high infant mortality. They were not hostile and welcomed visits from the missionaries.
Jean, who trained with SIL and had developed an alphabet for the Ayore language her first term in Bolivia, heard about a bilingual speaker whose help would greatly facilitate learning the Yura language. Marge and Jean traveled several days by river launch and eleven days by dugout canoe—paddled and poled by six sturdy Yuras—to the headwaters of the Isiboro River where this person lived, taking with them supplies calculated to last one year.
The surprised Yuras offered them a thatch-roofed, pole-walled hut to live in. (No “facilities.”) They worked there with their language helper under mosquito netting—the bugs were fierce—isolated from the outside world for ten months. During that time they developed an alphabet and described the grammar of the Yura language. Then returning to civilization, they prepared literacy materials.
Over the next several years Marge and Jean visited 30 – 40 Yura communities evangelizing and teaching literacy. As it became obvious that it would be impossible to spend enough time in each place, they believed the Lord was leading them to begin a boarding school where children from scattered ports could be brought together and taught for several months at a time. Just before her first furlough in 1955, Marge purchased a small plantation an hour downriver from Todos Santos for $400.
In 1956, Jean re-married and Marge and her new partner Florencia Ferrel, a dedicated national missionary, worked together for the next 45 years. Marge and Florencia began ministering in the Todos Santos church on weekends and traveled back and forth during the week to the new property downriver—which they named Nueva Vida (New Life)—where they prepared to open a school.
Only four children came the first two-month term but as parents began to see how their children were benefiting by the classes in both Yura and Spanish, enrollment eventually reached 180 in grade one through junior high. Jungle was cleared and an airstrip and fifteen buildings were built, including classrooms, a dining room, girls’ and boys’ dorms, and, lastly, a worship hall seating 300.
Seeds of God’s Word were planted in the hearts of at least 1000 Yura children and many adults over the years. His Word shall never return void! The Yura church grew, though spread out in many small communities, as students went home over the years and taught their people. Some became pastors. Trained young people taught primitive back-river Yuras. One student, Inocencio and his family became full-time missionaries to their own people in a remote village.
Others who helped in Nueva Vida over the years were Bob and Joyce Wilhelmson, Bob and Shirley Smith, Bill and Jeannie Cutforth, Art and Toni Barkley, Roger and Eva Jean Dockum and Howard and Karla Moss. Many former students became the teachers. One of the nationals, Judith Mendez, continues in the Yura work today.
In the 1980’s, cocaine dealers flooded the Chapare area which had always been prime coca growing land. Even some of the Yuras began growing the plants that yielded such a huge monetary return.
After 40 years, the drug threat caused NTM to pull out their missionaries eventually closing the school. Marge had already moved to Cochabamba to complete the translation of the Yura New Testament and Old Testament passages relating to the chronological teaching. She regrets that her school was closed, but would she do it all over again? “Yes! In a moment!” is her reply.