Toba Spirituality

The Remarkable Faith Journey of an Indigenous People in the Argentine Chaco

Willis G. Horst



The Toba people1 are one of several indigenous ethnic groups living today, as they have for centuries, in the low-land Chaco region of Argentina.  With an estimated 50,000

members, they maintain a traditional relationship with their environment by hunting, gathering and fishing.

            The Toba present for us a remarkable example of a people whose unique spirituality has shaped their Christian experience.  Their particular path toward Christ has resulted in a

distinctively indigenous church, and a uniquely relevant theology worthy of being heard and respected.

            Toba spirituality, emerging in the church today, is not a formal, systematized, written theology, organized in terms of European traditions.  Rather, it is a spirituality that sees Jesus through Toba cultural glasses and that is lived out simply and practically in daily life.

            The religious experience of the Toba Christian movement teaches us that receiving Jesus Christ results in life and wholeness when Christ is authentically perceived and uncoercively interpreted from within one’s own worldview. 


Toba traditional wisdom prepared the way for embracing the gospel


            The one who does not share from the cooking pot

            will surely lose his or her way in the forest.

                                                            —Mocoví proverb


            Every human culture accumulates a body of wisdom that defines that which is considered to be the proper, or correct, way to live.  Each member of the culture acquires this wisdom as part of daily life.  Wisdom reflects what is considered to be “just the way things are,” dealing with appropriate human behavior and “correct” relationships of humans with regard to creation, to others, and to the transcendent.

            This wisdom is contained in and transmitted by a people’s myths, rituals, proverbs, dreams, celebrations, songs, religious liturgies, and popular adages repeated over and over again.  In indigenous cultures, wisdom is also passed along through the stories told by elders or “wise ones.”  

            Fundamental to the traditional Toba worldview is the concept of the universe as a reality cared for by its “owners.”  All of creation, as well as each of its parts, “belongs” to its owner with whom it maintains a relationship.  These owners are spiritual beings.  They are not owners in the sense of having private property; rather, they are administrators in charge of some part of the total-ity which the Creator/Owner/Giver has made and constantly renews for the use of all.  Thus, each area of “vital space” (forest, swamp, river, grassland, etc.) as well as each species of prey (or fruit or plant to be harvested for consumption) within that “space” has a spiritual caretaker.  Consequently, life depends upon adequate relationships with these owners or caretakers.  Life is understood as the struggle to maintain a state of tranquility, balance and harmony with all the created world and, above all, with the owners or guardians.

            For example, before going out to hunt in a particular open grassland, the traditional Toba hunter would pray, seeking the protection of the owner of that space as well as instructions as to where to go and how many specimens of the prey he is to be given.  If he doesn’t obey the instructions, especially by

taking more than he is allotted, he risks harm through illness

or death.  The interpretation given is that the hunter, by his disobedience, disrupts the state of harmony.  This is more than a simple violation of established taboos, since the real issue is the relationship with the owner(s) involved.

            The experience of Benjamin, a 35-year-old hunter who lives in the outskirts of the city of Formosa, clearly illustrates this relationship.  He is one of the few Toba in the city who still hunt rhea on a regular basis.  Fields are fenced and access to hunting areas are controlled by cattle ranchers.  In such a restricted context, Benjamin explains his success by referring to a “voice” he often hears before and during a hunt, giving him instructions:  “It’s as though someone is going along with me, even though when I hear the voice and I turn around to look,

I don’t see anyone.”

            Toba spirituality seeks for holistic health within this overall state of harmony.  Health is understood to be a spiritual state, and healing a spiritual process.  Illness is considered to be the result of actions that disrupt the desired state of harmony and tranquility, which is restored through spiritual “therapies.”

            In the context of the Toba extended-family communities, there are spiritual specialists who either have greater innate sensitivity or are able to develop more sensitivity toward communication with the spiritual owners.  These “power people” are traditionally the healers in Toba society.  They go through special “training” to prepare for using powers granted them by the spiritual owners for service to their community.  They dedicate their very lives to maintaining and restoring the state of tranquility, balance and harmony with the surrounding world.  However, these specialists may also choose to use the powers at their disposal for evil, inflicting harm on others.  This occurs with greater frequency in the modern context than has been the case traditionally, and causes intense internal conflict in many Toba communities.

            Toba traditional spirituality includes the following elements:


  • Integrality.  All of life and all of creation are spiritual.  The spiritual cannot be compartmentalized or segmented from the rest of life.  Every thing and every person stand in relationship with the “owners,” the spiritual beings and powers.    The Creator is Owner of all, the First and the Final Power, the Ultimate Giver.


  • Inclusiveness.  Truths that are complementary or even opposing are maintained together, included in the same overall unit.  Truth is cumulative.


  • Person-in-peoplehood.  Individuals find their reason for being through integration into the ethnic group or clan.


  •  “Roundness” of reality.  Cyclical repetition, the return, the circle, space and place, are some fundamental aspects of indigenous life.2 


  • Holistic.  Maintaining balance and right relationship with the spiritual and physical surroundings is a basic definition or condition of life.


  • Concrete action as an expression of faith.  Dreams are to be fulfilled.  One recognizes another person’s faith by observing behavior.


  • Reciprocity.  The harmony and balance of all things is maintained through a system of reciprocity at all levels, governed by well-defined rules and relationships.


            Much of the traditional Toba wisdom described here – already present in pre-Christian culture – provided the Toba people with a framework for comprehending and embracing the good news of Jesus in terms they could understand.



A powerful people movement among the Toba is born


            We heard that a powerful One (a god) had come

            down in the city of Resistencia, so we went – on

            horseback, mule, on foot, for days – sometimes

            suffering hunger or cold.  We went because we

            wanted salvation.       

                                                —Felipe Cabrera, Toba elder3


            The evangelical movement among the indigenous peoples of the Argentine Chaco began more than 60 years ago.  A few elderly Toba who witnessed the beginning of this movement among their people are still living today. 

            Following their fierce defense of the land against invaders for 400 years, the Toba had finally been defeated by military force in the late 1800s.  Their native healers did not have sufficient power over the illnesses brought by the conquerors.  A British missionary who has lived in Formosa province since 1932, says that in the 20 years between 1937 and 1957, the indigenous population of the province was reduced from 25,000 to 6,000 because of illnesses brought by the “whites” – as the non-indigenous intruders are known.  In those years, so many children died that the women’s cries of lament could be heard incessantly day and night in the Indian settlements.  Suffering and need were great.  Traditional leaders had lost their authority.  The streets of the city of Resistencia were said to be filled with “drunken Indians.” 

            As early as 1934, the first non-Catholic mission, the British “Emanuel Mission” was established in the Toba territory of the Argentine Chaco.  Within 10 years, three additional foreign non-Catholic missions began work with the Toba:  Go Ye Mission, Mennonite Nam Cum Mission, and Grace and Glory Mission, all three North American.  In addition, an increasing number of Toba heard the evangelical message in denominational churches (especially Church of God and Baptist) in frontier towns.  These efforts all helped set the stage for what followed.

            In the decades of the 1940s and 1950s, a significant religious awakening took place among the Toba.  Through contact with pentecostal preachers, especially John Lagar of the Go Ye Mission, the Toba began to believe in Jesus in large numbers.  Through physical healings they understood Jesus as a great power.  They understood that God loved, valued and accepted them as indigenous people, regardless of how they were rated alongside white society.  They were enabled to leave the vices to which they had resorted in their state of cultural disintegration.  Within a few years, thousands of Toba converted to Jesus and congregations of “believers” with local leadership sprang up in many of the communities throughout the Chaco. 

            This movement resulted in a revitalization of the Toba people, which permitted them to continue existing within the world of criollo (non-indigenous) civilization that was encroaching upon them.  Toba social leaders were among the first to support the religious movement, since they recognized in it the possibility of surviving the profound crisis in which they found themselves and their people.  As the movement spread, a novel evangelical religious expression took shape: 

the indigenous evangelical culto.

            North American Mennonites began work in the Chaco in 1943, with what could be described as a classical mission compound.  Following 10 years of activities that showed little fruit for their labors, and faced with a deep sense of frustration, Mennonite missionaries were, by 1954, ready for change. Through the guidance of missionary anthropologists William and Marie Reyburn, Mennonite workers closed the mission and began a creative, courageous missionary strategy designed to strengthen the fledgling gospel movement among the Toba.4  They turned their backs on denominational proselytizing, and dedicated their efforts toward Bible translation and pastoral visitation.  By encouraging religious autogestión (self-directed determination), in a few short years this ministry enabled leading Toba believers to organize their own autonomous church. 


“The church is like our Mother.  We love our Mother.”


            That’s why we celebrate the church’s anniversary

            every year.  The church is like our Mother.  So we

            bring gifts for her, we celebrate, we praise, we eat. 

            We love our Mother.

                                                —Luis Mendoza, Toba pastor5


            In the late 1950s, Mennonite missionaries and some of the Toba spiritual leaders agreed on the idea of organizing a totally indigenous church.  Today, the Toba attribute that idea to the Holy Spirit.  This seems to have been confirmed by the unusual birth and growth of an authentically indigenous church that came to be called the Iglesia Evangélica Unida (IEU), the United Evangelical Church. 

            Because the Mennonites supported the Toba in this important step by assisting with the legal process involved, they have had a special relationship with the IEU churches and its leaders that continues to the present.  Mennonite missionaries together with Toba leaders prepared the original handbook that pro-vided guidelines for the church life and structure of the new organization.  They deliberately left details vague and undefined in order to allow for maximum indigenous initiative in determining the future shape and theology of the movement.

            It must be recognized that as the Toba evangelical movement gathered strength and took on organizational shape, it achieved a legitimization not accorded to either their traditional spirituality nor to the Catholic faith.  This came about through the legal documents (fichero de culto) granted by the national government in Buenos Aires, a required authorization for all religious organizations that did not form part of the established Catholic Church, the official religion of Argentina.  Since these documents were not necessary for Catholic organizations, and because native spirituality did not qualify as an organized religion, evangelical churches were able to demonstrate written legitimization not available elsewhere.  These legal documents became powerful tools in the hands of Toba leaders as they sought recognition from local authorities.  In addition, at this stage of history, leaders of the defeated indigenous peoples attributed great value and power to written documents of all types because the oral nature of their culture had been thoroughly disparaged as worthless by the dominating Spanish culture.6

            Thus, an official government policy designed to curb the influences of non-official religions became, in effect, a great influence in just the opposite direction.  At first, through affiliation with missions or denominational churches from outside, and later through their own autonomous indigenous church organization, the possession of important legal documentation strengthened the Toba evangelical movement.  Although this legitimization was not among the motives for accepting the gospel in the early stages of the movement, it became an important factor in giving impetus once the evangelical movement became organized.

            Internationally recognized as one of the few examples in Latin America of a completely indigenous church, the IEU has come forth as a grassroots movement that developed its own leadership and organizational structure.  Today, this church is a member of the Argentine Federation of Evangelical Churches (FAIE) and of the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI).

            The movement has been very missionary from its beginning, with congregations forming wherever Toba settled to find work or traveled to sell their crafts.  The majority of the congregations are in Formosa and Chaco provinces in northern Argentina, with the official headquarters in Presidente Roque Sáenz Peña, Chaco province.  Congregations exist, however,

all the way from La Plata, nearly 800 miles to the south, to Salta in the northwest, to Paraguay near Asunción, as well as in Formosa, Chaco and Santa Fe provinces of Argentina. 

This growth is a result of the living testimony of faith of the indigenous people. 


The coming of the gospel among the Toba has broken down ethnic barriers and created a new family of faith


            The United Evangelical Church is today a multi-ethnic church.  Within a few years of its formation, congregations of other indigenous ethnic groups sought membership:  first Pilagá, then Mocoví, followed by Wichí churches, some Toba from Paraguay, a few Quechua-speaking congregations in the province of Santiago del Estero, plus fringe groups of non-indigenous criollos, campesinos (rural folk) and even gypsies. 

            The IEU is not the only Christian church among the several indigenous peoples of the Chaco, but it has gathered together the largest number of members.  However, since 1990, the original organizational structure has divided, giving form to four or five new denominations in addition to the official IEU.  While it is impossible to conduct an accurate census, estimates calculate between 10,000-15,000 active members in well over 200

congregations, which have resulted from the IEU movement. 

            Loyalty to the IEU as an indigenous entity has been expressed through the following theme song, which grew out of the early days of the movement and is still used today at anniversary gatherings:


                        We are

                        the United Church, the United Church,

                        the people of God.


                        We believe

                        in the promise of the Holy Spirit,

                        the Counselor.


Toba Christians are finding their way between the spiritual legacy of their past and the radical newness of the gospel


            To express their new faith, Toba leaders chose some forms and expressions from Pentecostal churches and some from their traditional religion.  On the surface, the IEU can easily be confused with pentecostalism.  Since pentecostalism is the closest parallel expression of Christianity in the surrounding non-indigenous culture, many Toba themselves accept this designation.  However, there are enough distinctively indigenous characteristics of the IEU to clearly differentiate it from the non-indigenous pentecostal churches.  

            For example, due to cultural factors, the IEU has largely adopted child baptism in spite of being aware of the practice of Mennonite, evangelical and pentecostal churches of reserving baptism for adults, or at least limiting it to teenagers or older children. 

            Another difference may be seen in the IEU church services in the expressions of religious ecstasy.  The Toba personality is extremely sensitive to altered states of consciousness.  Women are sometimes observed during a church service in a state of ecstasy brought on by heavy breathing with chanting (a technique of hyperventilation).  Such ecstasy often involves oblivion to surroundings, and occasionally results in falling to the floor in a state of unconsciousness during which a dream or vision is received.  Although the Toba recognize this behavior as something from their previous religious expression, by using the Spanish term gozo (joy) to describe this behavior to non-indigenous Christians, it is accepted in the context of pentecostal Christianity as a form of possession by the Holy Spirit.

            Because of the strangeness of some elements of IEU church services, many non-indigenous Christians consider the church to be little more than a pagan cult filled with superstitious practices carried out under the name of the gospel.  Others, upon closer investigation, consider the IEU a syncretistic Christian church, because of what looks like a strange combination of Christian teachings together with ancestral Toba beliefs and practices.  There are even those who, through ignorance, consider the IEU as part of a fundamentalist conspiracy with North American roots, imposed and managed by outside interests for the purpose of dividing and conquering the people!

            The IEU is, however, an authentic Christian movement of indigenous peoples living out its own spirituality.  This indigenous spirituality is expressed in an authentic form of the gospel inculturated in a people with a worldview quite different from that of Western-oriented churches. 

            Orlando Sánchez, a former president of the IEU and one of the Toba Bible translators, is a second-generation believer who has been preaching from the Bible for more than 30 years.  He participated in a consultation in Ecuador in 1986 on the Latin American indigenous contribution to Christian theology.  He has co-taught, in the bilingual teacher-training school in Sáenz Peña, a course on the history of Toba culture and thought.  Perhaps more than any other Toba, Orlando has reflected on the significance of the gospel for his people and just how it

is related to their previous spirituality.  In 1984, Orlando expressed his own convictions regarding the relation between Toba spirituality and the IEU with these words:7


            The IEU has its own authentic theology, which grows

            out of its own religious experience and from the

            Holy    Scripture.  The church is the center of life and

            interest in the community, given that the indigenous

            peoples have their own history, culture and language,                                  

            which is thousands of years old.  Their understanding

            of the universe and of nature as created, is their own. 

            All the cosmos and its laws are expressed in their life

            and are the very reason for their existence.


            When the indigenous person heard the gospel,

            it was good news.  It captivated his mind because

            many of the things that he already perceived by means

            of his own understandings and wisdom came into focus

and became visible.  Thus, the Christian faith and

 the Bible are expressed in a very strong way in

 the life of the indigenous peoples, and they define

themselves as pentecostals.  Ñim qad’ot (our creator)

 is one of the expressions used to refer to God.  It is beyond

doubt that indigenous people already had a notion of God

            in ancient times.


            Evangelization and the Bible did not destroy anything

            at all, such that for the indigenous the gospel has not                                    

been a process of brainwashing, but just the opposite.                                  

The spirit of the indigenous was freed through organ-

            izing their own church, where they themselves respond

            in their own way to the call of God.  The indigenous

            person is an individual with culture.  That culture is

            still intact.


            In this way, Orlando articulates both dimensions of Toba spirituality – continuity with the past and the radical newness of the gospel.  By keeping both of these dimensions together

as parts of the same spiritual reality, Orlando skillfully demonstrates the inculturation of the gospel, and the radically indigenous nature of their own church.


Worship is at the heart of the Toba religious experience


            In the book of Revelation a vision of the end times

            shows a large number of people of God worshiping  

together.  It says there will be many nations and

languages.  Since their activity is worship, it’s obvious

that what identifies them as distinct nations must be

            their style of worship.  It pleases God for us to worship

            in our own way.

                                       —Rafael Mansilla, Toba church leader

                                                and reservation administrator8


            The primary function of the church service in Toba spirit-uality is that of re-establishing the state of tranquility and harmony that is constantly being threatened by the interference of evil forces.  Throughout any service the question is repeatedly articulated:  “How many of you are contented?” or “Are you all contented, brothers and sisters?”  The desired goal is that sense of well-being that results from right relationships with all the surroundings.  Thus, reconciliation, healing and exorcism are important ministries in restoring damaged relationships.  Prolonged stretches of singing, strong preaching and forceful prayer are spiritual forces useful in warding off evil. 

            Carrying out the church service in an adequate way becomes the most serious activity of the believers.  They often refer to the culto, as well as to its different components, as “our work.”  In fact, one of the complaints of leaders of non-indigenous society is that the Toba spend so much time and energy in church services, they are neglecting their other social responsibilities.

            Regular church services are long, usually two to four hours, colorful, enthusiastic and bilingual.  Frequently, multiple expressions occur simultaneously:  dancing, audible prayer, preaching, ecstasy, children participating spontaneously, entering and leaving, moving about with relative freedom.  Singing is predominant in the informal liturgy, as well as being a favorite youth activity and entertainment outside of services.  Congregational singing expresses the collective lament of the people, and includes “praise songs,” a unique musical form of repetitive medleys based on traditional chant.

            Prayers are offered aloud, fervently and collectively.  In rural churches the pattern still observed for congregational prayers includes closing windows and doors.  Most

services include an extended time for healing, often as part of the final prayer.  The importance

of following correct ritual observance for effectiveness is seen especially in the liturgy used for the celebration of The Lord’s Supper.  During this ritual, singing is a cappella and songs are limited to certain hymns translated from English hymnals of the period and introduced by missionaries during the earliest part of the movement. 

            Local pastors and other church leaders are usually men, although women are frequently called on to speak.  Recently, women have organized themselves at local and churchwide levels, patterning activities after criollo evangelical churches in the area.  Men evangelists have a popular role in current church life, and often organize extended evangelistic “campaigns” that are referred to as movimientos (movements).  Evangelists are expected to be effective as spiritual healers, thus replacing traditional power-person healers within the church. 

            Large, seasonal, camp-meeting-style gatherings have a prominent part in Toba church life.  Birthdays, anniversaries and memorials are significant annual, festive events.  These larger meetings provide opportunities to share with relatives from a distance, and for the interaction of youth.  They are reminiscent of the traditional assemblies of several bands or groups for feasting during the annual season of abundance.  The sense

of well-being that results from these gatherings reveals their function as corporate healing services.  Ambrosio Peña, an elderly Wichí man, expressed this sense of well-being when he said to me early one morning at an IEU gathering as we got up from our blankets under a tree at the edge of the clearing,  I’m contented, and I dance well.”


Jesus Christ is, for Toba believers, the completion and perfection of traditional spirituality


            So many of the teachings of the Bible are similar to

            the teachings of the older Tobas.  When I remember

            the faith of the elders, I feel contented to be Toba. 

            Rediscovering their theology is like a perfume for me. 

            It’s just like a huge tree over us, giving off a fragrance

            which we are breathing.

                                                            —Joel Jara, Toba pastor9


            The spiritual worldview of the Toba is expressed in their wisdom.  This wisdom prepared the Toba to be able to perceive and receive Jesus.  The book of Hebrews in the New Testament gives us a paradigm of how Jesus is understood in terms of the Jews’ previous religious system.  For the early Jewish Christians, Jesus was seen as the superlative high priest who had come to resolve what they understood to be the problem of humanity – separation from God due to sin.  Similarly, the Toba recognize in Jesus the final solution to their problem – disruption of the tranquility and harmony of creation due to the actions of evil powers. 

            Through the gospel, the Toba found in Jesus One with power to restore wholeness.  The Holy Spirit was understood as putting each believer in direct relationship to the Ultimate Owner of the whole of Creation.  They recognized in Jesus the continuity and the perfecting of the spiritual presence that they already knew and experienced as an active force within their own culture, and with whom they were accustomed to relate.  Thus, in a very few years the majority of the Toba embraced faith in Jesus.

            The following testimony from José Sánchez Daanqui is an eloquent illustration of the relation of traditional Toba wisdom and the gospel.  Daanqui, an elderly Toba clan leader, had trained as a power-person in his younger years.  In middle age, he became a believer in Jesus.  From that time on, he experienced “persecution” by other powers who wanted to discourage him from following Jesus.  For Daanqui, the process of synthesizing traditional spirituality and present experiences of the power of Christ happens primarily in the context of the dream.  In Toba spirituality the dream is one of the primary spaces where communication with the transcendent powers occurs.


            Once while lying in the hospital deathly ill, as I was praying in the early dawn,

 I “saw” eight pi’oxonaqpi (power-persons) at my bedside.  I said to them, “What

are you doing here?  Why have you come to me, seeing there is no other name given to humans for healing, except the name of Christ?”  With that name, that word, they left.


Later in a dream, I was about to be hanged from a tall tree by “the man of this world.”  At the last minute a “light” rescued me, taking me up through the air at such a great height that I was afraid of falling.  Then the light spoke to me, “I am, I am the light of all humans who live on earth.  So the one who follows me cannot be in darkness.”  So I said, “Aaaahh, so it was the same Jesus Christ, since that’s what the Bible says.  Now I undestand.”  I looked back over my shoulder then, and the same person was still coming after me.  I said, “Now, what am I going to do?”  The light said,

“I’ll take care of you.  I put you into the very hand of God!”


            Afterward, ferocious animals came after me repeatedly. Each time I said to them,

“God is the owner of all you animals, because God is the one who made all the

            animals and humans – together.  So you belong to God and must obey him.” 

            With that, they left me alone!


Finally, there appeared to me a headless woman sitting on my sickbed.  Her voice came from her head that was hanging on the wall.  She seemed to represent death. I said to her, “God is fire, God is fire.  No one can touch where he is present.”  Then came smoke and when I looked, the woman and her head were burning.  They both burned up.  Thanks to God!  So then I got well, and I told the people, “God is fire, and no one can come close to him.”10


            The previous paragraphs illustrate how traditional Toba spirituality provides the categories for Daanqui’s understanding of Christ.  Each paragraph highlights at least one theme, which I summarize here in the order in which they occur:




  • Jesus, is the most powerful healer, restorer of wholeness (“the evil powers left”).


  • Jesus is the continuation of the light already present, light being a common theme in Toba dreams and traditionally a positive and powerful symbol.


  • An owner takes care of their “possession” if the relationship of reciprocity is maintained.  This may be done by spiritual mediators.  Animals as well as humans owe ultimate allegiance to their true Creator/Owner, and when confronted with that reality, they must submit.


  • Fire, another traditional symbol of power, may be concentrated in the Ultimate Owner, who has authority over all his creation.  The action of the Holy Spirit is also often referred to as “fire” in both Toba spirituality and in non-indigenous theology.


            The gospel came to the Toba in pentecostal clothes.  Such pentecostal forms as being filled with the Spirit, speaking in ecstasy, spiritual healing, praying fervently, repetitive singing, spirit possession, and exorcism were all forms that were easily understandable in terms of Toba wisdom.  Since there was broad coincidence between the two symbolic systems (traditional Toba wisdom and pentecostal), the Toba understood with little difficulty the significance of Jesus for their lives and that of their people.

            In this way the wisdom of the Toba culture prepared them to find in Jesus new dimensions of power, love and life: 


  • Power over the forces of death, harmful vices, illnesses, evil spirits; new power for survival.  Spiritual strength has enabled them to forgive their neighbor and to refuse to seek vengeance for the death of a family member.  Thus, the spiral of violence propagated by shamanic action is broken.


  • Love in the renewal of relationships in the family, community and with other tribes.  Understanding the love of Jesus has motivated more caring family relationships.  This new love also enabled them to love themselves once again, after their devastating defeat at the hands of the conquerors.
  • Life within the environment of the non-Indian world.  The new symbolic system permitted them to reconstruct their world and find themselves whole again in that new world.  Balance was again restored – if not wholly, at least in part – giving new life to Toba existence.  In addition, the new life that they were now experiencing in Christ, effectively energized some of the old cultural religious forms, such as prayer, dance and song, giving them significant functions within the new culto, the indigenous worship experience.






Self-respect, self-confidence and self-determination have come to characterize the Toba Christian movement


The spirit of the indigenous people was freed through organizing their own church, where they themselves respond in their own way to the call of God.  The

            indigenous person is an individual with culture.  That culture is still intact.

                                                                                           —Orlando Sánchez, Toba pastor


As a result of the military defeat by “Christian” conquerors, the Toba found themselves in an advanced state of cultural disintegration at the historical moment in which they heard the message of Jesus.  Not surprisingly, their initial reaction as early believers was to reject both the official religion of the conquering powers, as well as much of their own traditional religion, which they considered to have failed them. 

            With time, however, the Toba developed an alternative religious experience that permitted them to maintain their differentiation from the dominate culture, while allowing them to achieve the respect of the non-indigenous Christians around them by also being considered believers in Jesus. 

            The result of this historical process over the past 50 years has been the strengthening of Toba identity and the empowerment of the indigenous church.  The Toba experience the love and power of Jesus Christ in their lives.  They are fully in charge of determining and carrying out their own faith and religious practice.  Participating in the translation of the Bible (New Testament and, up to 1999, one-third of the Old Testament text completed) into the Toba language has contributed to the restoration of their sense of self-worth.  This religious self-

determination, together with other sociopolitical factors, has enabled them to recover their sense of confidence in being able to exercise choices that self-determination requires.

            The healthy effects of the gospel on Toba people and culture, strengthening self-identity in their struggle for survival,

can be seen in the following dialogue, recounted by José Mendoza, a Toba evangelist and youth worker, who lived in Lote 68, a settlement of more than 400 indigenous families near the city of Formosa:


            One time there was a man here in Formosa whom I’ll always remember.  He had money, a pickup, a large truck – he had everything.  But he marginalized the paisanos, the indigenous people.  Even though he gave them work, he looked for those who liked to drink and hired them.  When they began working, he gave them a bit of wine, and by the time they realized it, they were too drunk to work, so he took them home and got them again the next day, but never paid anything more.


            One day I was waiting at the bus stop to come home, and that man came up to me and   

             said, “You’ve been here awhile?”


            – “Yes.”


            – “Which bus are you waiting for?”


            – “The one that goes to Lote 68.”


            – “You live in Lote 68?”


            – “Yes.”


            – “Are you Indian?”


            – “Yes, why do you ask?”


        “Because I’m looking for peones (“workers”) and I don’t find any.  I need six or   

       eight, and I’ll have them work for bread and wine.”


        “And that’s all you pay?” I asked him. “Only wine and bread to those poor men?

       And what will they put on if they don’t even have a shirt and pants?  You won’t find

       that kind of worker anymore!”


            – “Why?”


            – “Because that kind of worker woke up and now lives in      Christ, and Christ lives in



            – “And just where did you learn that?”


        “From the Bible,” I told him, “and from my pastor.  My pastor lives in Lote 68.  If

       you want to know about it, you’re invited.  The door is open.  But those workers

       you hired for wine and bread, you won’t find anymore. They’re all believers now.”


            You know, when I told him that, it upset him.11



Finding a way to be both Toba and Christian is the major challenge that lies ahead


            Come stay with us, not for a short “cross-cultural

            experience” – make it a lifetime commitment; be

            good listeners; accompany us in recovering our

            cultural values, especially the language; teach the

            Bible in such a way as not to fracture the life-

            process of the indigenous people.

                                —Orlando Charole, Toba political leader12


            Younger Toba leaders are increasingly demonstrating their clear sense of confidence that indigenous cultural identity holds the secret to the future.  Milton Caballero, 50-year-old believer and community leader of a semi-urban Toba settlement, expressed his hope in 1996 in these words:  “We must try to make it on our own, and we must be strong in our own culture, because the civilized world has failed.  We know where civilization is headed, and it is useless.”13

            IEU leaders are convinced that Jesus Christ is the hope for the future.  Through their faith in Christ, they are transforming their own mythology.  This can be seen in the way they tell the history of the IEU.  They refer to the IEU as their mother, and the formation of their own church as their Exodus, with their church founder as something of a cultural Moses. 

            However, in the face of the globalization that the dominating Empire (world economy) is forcing upon all indigenous groups, the continuing survival of the Toba requires a redefinition of their own identity as both Christian and Toba.  This includes defining and articulating their own theology. 

            In 1996, Hugo Díaz, a regional overseer of the IEU, expressed a growing confidence among Toba church leaders

in doing just that.  Speaking at a study conference on indigenous theologies and discrimination, Hugo declared to non-indigenous church workers,  We no longer want you to come and teach us the Bible.  We want you to come and read the Bible together with us.”

            In this new moment in history, the indigenous church is indeed actively involved in the process of redefining Toba

identity.  Up until now, the methodology has not been that of developing a systematized written theology, but instead, a process that is coherent with their own spirituality.  Identity is being worked out through the development of their own religious forms and rites.  However,

these clearly demonstrate the ambiguity in the struggle to define their identity.  Will the Toba

continue to see themselves as evangelical, pentecostal believers who embrace more and more of the criollo culture, or will they define themselves

more and more as Toba believers?  Or will, perhaps, both of these occur?   The struggle is evident in the question raised by an elderly Toba woman following a congregational decision-making discussion:   “How can they show a video in the church service when we are searching for the power?”

            One of the areas that most clearly reveals the struggle for identity is the place given to the various power-persons in church life.  What – some are asking – should be the role and space given to the shaman as healer in the indigenous church?  What would be the Christology that theologically relates shamanism to the claims of Christ?  Can the two coexist? 

            Today, this theme is being considered intensely at all levels of the church.  However, rather than calling for official conferences at which written documents are drawn up to define doctrine, the struggle is reflected in the variety of forms and spaces given to shaman activity within the church service itself.  Some congregations allow recognized shaman healers to participate in prayers for healing during the service’s regular healing ritual.  Others prohibit shaman participation during church services, but allow or even encourage shaman healing if carried out at the healer’s home, which serves as a kind of professional doctor’s office.  Some churches allow power-persons to lead the praise marches and praise dances, while other churches prohibit their participation or limit them to non-leadership roles.

            The theological work that lies ahead for the Toba believers today has two facets:  (1) the continued re-reading of the Bible in the light of their own traditional wisdom and of present-

day reality, and (2) the reinterpretation of their own “Old Testament” myths, wisdom and sacred history in the light of Christ.  This process has already been going on for 50 years,

but today it is intensified because of the urgency for greater self-identity.


Toba spirituality can contribute to the faith of Christians everywhere


            But the people of that time weren’t like now.  In that

            time they weren’t united, each was only with their

            own culture, only with their own people; they didn’t

            mix with others because they were somewhat like

            enemies.  Now they are all mixed together – Toba,

            Pilagá, Mocoví, Wichí – by means of the gospel. 

            Now they are all united because of the gospel, they

            trust each other.  There wasn’t trust before.  Now

            because of the gospel, all accepted the same unity.

                                           —José Mendoza, Toba evangelist14


            Indigenous wisdom, like all human wisdom, becomes hope only when it reflects divine truth.  Or, stated from a Christian point of view, wisdom becomes hope only as it is submitted to and measured by Christ, who is the hope and finality of all

creation.  The wisdom of all cultures is perfected in the inclusive Christ, who respects and brings to completion what the Creator has already begun.  There is new hope only in turning life toward the True Life – the New Humanity in Christ – in turning toward the new heaven and new earth where each unique spirituality is finally given its rightful place. 

            In the concluding paragraphs of this piece, I will attempt to interpret, from the perspective of the broader Christian faith, the deeper significance of the Toba experience as it relates to Christ and to the worldwide church.  This significance I understand in terms of transformation and complementation.


Transformation.  The gospel affirms each person and the culture of each people as loved and valued by God.  Jesus Christ comes to validate and complete whatever true Wisdom is already present in any given culture.  However, since every culture is by its very nature a human product, no culture coincides perfectly with the kingdom of God in all its aspects. 

            There is, therefore, no such thing as a Christian culture, only cultures that include some of the recognized Christian values.  Wherever the kingdom of God is preached, the tension with the evils of the system – that which the New Testament considers the “world” – will become apparent.  This is true for Western, so-called “Christian” and post-modern cultures, as well as for indigenous pre- and post-conquest cultures.  Christ will engage every culture in a transformation process that questions all those aspects within that culture that are not life-giving, while at the same time enhancing all life-giving values present there.

            Toba spiritual leaders are aware of this tension and search for the best way to guide the transfor-mation process, as shown in these words of Rafael Mansilla, a Toba church leader and reservation administrator:


            We don’t want our culture to be destroyed, but neither

            do we want to revive all the beliefs and practices of

            our ancestors.  What we want is the “purification”

            of our culture, a selective process that makes survival                                   

            possible.  In that process the Bible is our guide.15


            The transformation process does not erase the uniqueness of the culture.  Rather, each culture is enhanced through its movement toward completion in Christ, who in this way becomes its hope. 


Complementation.  The Toba image of Christ can help Western and other Christians complete their otherwise limited experiences of Christ.  Although it is true that Christians still do not know what the complete image of Jesus Christ is going to be,16 we do know that it will include Toba spirituality.  Had the Toba never embraced faith in Jesus, or had their distinctive

spirituality been erased in the process, their contribution to the complete image of Jesus Christ would still be lacking.

            The Wisdom of God, which has already been revealed in each culture, is completed in Christ only by recognizing Christ in the “other,” in such a way that it is through “unity with diversity” that full salvation will come.

            We see glimpses of this understanding of complementation in the New Testament.  For example, the biblical author of the letter to the Hebrews recognized the incompleteness of the salvation of those who belonged to traditional Jewish spirituality, even though they were accepted by God because of their faith.  Thus, all the ancestors included in the long list of “heroes of faith” in Hebrews 11 are considered to be within the Jewish religious tradition, in spite of their diverse characteristics

(or perhaps because of them!) since they exercised faith.  “Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16 NRSV).  The author goes on, however, to say that “all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40 NRSV).

            In a similar way, we also stand in complementation with other culturally conditioned perceptions of Christ.  Only by coming together, while at the same time honoring our diversity, will we discover a more complete understanding of the salvation God offers.  As we contemplate faces of Christ perceived through other cultural eyes, rather than considering them

culturally limited, we might begin to understand them as culturally enriched.

             With the Toba and other indigenous spiritualities in mind, I offer this paraphrased inversion of the above truth expressed in Hebrews:  “God had provided something even better so that we would not, apart from them, be made perfect.”   The true Wisdom of God in Christ is hope for the future as it embraces each cultural face of Christ without erasing the distinctiveness of any.




1.         Ethnographically, the Toba belong to the Guaycuruan linguistic family. 

            They have been known by the name Toba since as early as the late 19th                              century, but in recent years, many refer to them as the Qom people –

            the term by which they designate themselves and which in their own

            language means simply “the people.”

2.         Ideas gleaned from a personal conversation with Helena Oliver in 1997.

3.         Felipe was a first-hand witness to the Argentine Chaco evangelical move-                          ment in the early 1940s.

4.         See William Reyburn, The Toba Indians of the Argentine Chaco (Elkhart,                           IN: Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, 1954).

5.         From a personal conversation with Mendoza in about 1992.

6.         See Pablo Wright’s unpublished dissertation, “‘Being-in-the-Dream.’  Post                                     Colonial Explorations in Toba Ontology” (Philadelphia, PA: Temple                          University, 1997), pp. 480-482.

7.         From Memorias del Gran Chaco, 2nd Part (1998), p. 197.  Translation my own.

8.         Personal notes from a sermon given by Mansilla in 1994.

9.         From unpublished notes presented at the second workshop on Indigenous Evangelical   

            Spirituality, Formosa,  Argentina (1996).

10.       From a personal conversation with Daanqui in 1997.

11.       From a personal conversation with Mendoza in 1992.          

12.       Recounted by Luis Acosta in a 1998 conversation.

13.       Personal conversation in 1996.

14.       Personal conversation in 1992.

15.       From unpublished notes (1996).

16.       See Anton Wessels, Images of Jesus.  How Jesus is Perceived and                           Portrayed in Non-European Cultures (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 174. 



Questions for Reflection and Discussion


1.  What most impressed you in this story about the movement of God’s Spirit among the Toba

      people of Argentina?


2.  What features of Toba worship did you find most intriguing (pp. 11-13)?  What parts differ

      most from worship patterns in your own congregation?


3.  North American Mennonites have worked alongside Toba Christians for nearly 60 years     

     without establishing a “Mennonite” church in the region.  How would you evaluate this     

     approach to ministry?  Is it, in your opinion, too low-key, culturally-sensitive, a little naive,

     a missed opportunity or, as Horst describes it, “a creative, courageous missionary strategy?”



4.  Some non-indigenous Christians, according to Horst, consider the Toba Christian  

     movement to be “little more than a pagan cult filled with superstitious practices carried out  

     under the name of the gospel” (p. 9).  What is your impression of the movement, based on

     what you have read in this booklet?


5.  There are many statements made here about the Toba’s  view of Jesus.  How do you

      understand these statements? And in what ways do they relate to your own experience

      with Christ?


        Toba traditional wisdom prepared them to perceive and receive Jesus.

        The Toba found in Jesus One with power to restore wholeness.

        Jesus Christ is, for Toba believers, the completion and perfection of traditional spirituality.

        Through physical healings, the Toba understood Jesus as a great power.

        The Toba’s experience of the love and power of Jesus Christ in their lives has contributed to the restoration of their sense of self-worth.

        The Toba image of Christ can help Western and other Christians complete their otherwise limited experiences of Christ.



For Further Reading


         “A declaration for independents,” Missions NOW [MBM  quarterly magazine], Summer 1998.


        BUCKWALTER, Albert, “Brothers, not Lords,” in Being God’s Missionary Community: Reflections on Mennonite Missions, 1945-1975 (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Board of Missions, 1975), pp. 39-45.


        HIEBERT, Paul G.; SHAW, R. Daniel; and TIENOU, Tite, Understanding Folk Religions: A Christian Response to Popular Beliefs and Practices (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999).


        LOEWEN, Jacob A.; BUCKWALTER,  Albert; and KRATZ, James, “Shamanism, Illness and Power in Toba Church Life,” Practical Anthropology (10) 6 (1965), pp. 250-280.


        MAST, Michael, “An Approach to Theological Training Among the Tobas of Argentina” (unpublished master’s thesis, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1972).  Available in the MBM library.


        MILLER, Elmer, “Shamans, Power Symbols, and Change in Argentine Toba Culture,” in American Ethnologist (2) 3 (1975), pp. 477-496.


        REYBURN, William,The Toba Indians of the Argentine Chaco: An Interpretive Report (Elkhart, IN:  Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, 1954).


        SHENK, Wilbert R., Changing Frontiers of Mission [esp. chapter 5, “New Religious Movements and Mission Initiative: Two Case Studies”] (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), pp. 59-68.


        TURNER, Harold W., “New Vistas, Missionary and Ecumenical: Religious Movements in Primal (or Tribal) Societies,” Mission Focus (Elkhart, IN) 9 (3) 1981, pp. 45-55.


        WESSELS, Anton,  Images of Jesus: How Jesus is Perceived and Portrayed in Non-European Cultures (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 1990).




Back Page


Toba Spirituality


The Remarkable Faith Journey of an Indigenous People in the Argentine Chaco

Willis G. Horst



Almost 60 years ago, Mennonite workers arrived in the Chaco with the hope of evangelizing the Toba people and establishing a Mennonite presence there.  But in less than 10 years, the missionaries turned their backs on this approach and embarked on a creative, courageous strategy designed instead to strengthen the fledging gospel movement rapidly gaining ground among the Toba.


The remarkable story told here by Willis Horst – himself an active participant in Toba church life for the past 30 years – is instructive to Christians anywhere wishing to engage in cross-cultural gospel communication.  Among the many lessons to be learned, writes Horst, “the Toba experience teaches us that receiving Jesus Christ results in life and wholeness when Christ is authentically perceived and uncoercively interpreted from within one’s own worldview.”


A bit unusual as a “missionary story,” the principal message emerging here has particular relevance to Christians around the world on a spiritual journey from the rich traditions of their past to the radical newness of the gospel.




Willis Horst and his wife, Byrdalene, have served in the Chaco

since 1970 with MBM, giving continuity to the Mennonite

missionary presence that began in 1943.  The Horsts serve as

coordinators of the nine-member international missionary

team in the Chaco.  Their ministries concentrate on strength-

ening indigenous churches through Bible teaching, and

integrating Native and Christian spiritualities.  


Mennonite Board of Missions

Box 370

Elkhart IN  46515-0370  USA