It was 4.00am and a small launch containing two men plied its way down the Amazon, keeping to the middle of the river to take advantage of the current.
The helmsman, wanting some coffee, signalled to Sandoval who was in charge of the engine. On his way to the galley, Sandoval slipped overboard, his companion oblivious to his plight.
Sandoval was not yet a saved man. He told me how he passed along the keel of the launch, the propeller narrowly missing his head. He tried to grasp the stern, but could not hold on.
He made no attempt to swim to either bank, more than a mile away. He looked up to the stars, he said, and thought how beautiful was the world he was about to leave. He quietly awaited death.
When no coffee appeared, the helmsman went to investigate. He had heard a splash, but thought it was one of the many dolphins.
Realising what had happened, he quickly turned the launch and began searching for a drowning man in the turbulent waters of the Amazon — a veritable needle in a haystack.
The only light available was from a torch. The launch passed near to Sandoval but he was too exhausted to call out. In the providence of God, the launch circled again — he was spotted and pulled to safety.
Later, Sandoval became a Christian, and could be seen reading his Bible by a smoky paraffin lamp in the early hours of the morning. He never went to school, but taught himself to read from the Bible.
In just over a year he had read half the Bible on his own. Desiring to serve God, he prayed: ‘If it be God’s will I want to dedicate all my activities to the work of the gospel, even though I don’t know anything. But wisdom belongs to God — everything is possible with him’.
He became my much valued travel companion, and together we explored the waterways to evangelise. This presented no difficulty, as the river folk would readily allow you to hold a service in their homes, even though it was often out of curiosity.
We made great use of Scripture Gift Mission Bible portions in Portuguese, selling Bibles to those who could read. Eventually we formed a base at the mouth of one of the smaller tributaries, called Ipixuna, where there was a small town by the challenging name of Tapaua (‘Ripe fruit’).
Some time later a self-styled ‘pastor’ arrived, saying he had come to work shoulder to shoulder with us. But he turned out to be a sheep-stealer.
Using persuasive and entertaining methods, he would tell his people: ‘Raise your hand and get your name written in the Book of Life’.
One of his friends visited his work, but he too suffered from decisionitis, and preached a DIY gospel. When he left he took a glowing account of the number of people who had responded to his appeals, but I know of none who remained firm.
The Scripture says, ‘ By their fruit ye shall know them’. The self-styled ‘pastor’ showed his true colours when later he left his wife to live with a mistress, returning to night clubs and tobacco.
How different was a member in our church who greatly encouraged us, rejecting a better paid job to remain where he could hear the doctrines of grace preached.
A Christian trader who used to visit us and attend our church, had an interesting conversion. He went to buy alcohol from a river merchant, but discovered that the latter was a Christian who offered him a Bible instead.
This he began reading, but was soon in difficulty over the animal sacrifices. Only after persevering did he come to Galatians 3:24 (‘the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ’) and understand.
The need for teaching doctrine is very great. A visiting pastor at a church service in N.E. Brazil waited through a two-hour ‘programme’ before his allotted preaching time of 10 to 15 minutes arrived.
For many, preaching of the Word is not a priority. Some churches do not even have a sermon.
In Sao Paulo a believing neighbour told my daughter she always went to bed fully dressed — because if Jesus were to return at night she didn’t want to go to heaven in a nightie!
Nevertheless, we thank God that the doctrines of grace are becoming known in many churches through the spread of good literature.
Through SEP (Selected Evangelical Publications) directed by Bill Barkley, and FIEL, directed by Richard Denham, many in Brazil have been given a great thirst to know the truth.