The Faith Healer
Shipwrecked and Enslaved
In 1527, Pánfilo de Narváez was sent by Spain’s King Charles V to explore a section of the New World the Spanish called La Florida, including not only present-day Florida but a large, poorly-defined section of what today is the southeastern United States. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was attached to this expedition as the expedition’s treasurer. They started out with a fleet of five ships and hundreds of men. After desertions, storms and shipwrecks, only 80 survivors washed ashore on Galveston Island in 1528, their leader Narváez having drowned in a hurricane. Of them, only 15 survived the winter of that year. The remainder, including Cabeza de Vaca, found themselves enslaved by native Americans. Of these, only four would one day return to Spanish domains.
Having escaped the tribes that initially enslaved him, Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions traveled westward through what we call today Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and then south along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Baja California before arriving at Mexico City after eight years of his arduous journey. He encountered many native American tribes, befriended them, ate with them, lived with them for periods of time and traded goods between them. For most of whom he encountered, Cabeza de Vaca was the first white person (European) they had ever met.
An Accidental Evangelist
What makes his story interesting is that Cabeza de Vaca was not a priest but nonetheless a devout Christian. After escaping his initial captors, he was asked by another tribe to help a man injured by an arrow. After removing the blade from the man’s chest, the Spaniard performed basic sanitization to help heal the wound. He then made the sign of the cross on his forehead, prayed for the man and the man recovered. Cabeza de Vaca suddenly earned a reputation among tribes as a faith healer. In addition. he found himself called into negotiations between warring tribes. He believed God sent him as an Ambassador of Christ to heal and bring peace to these people. He won favor with the tribes for both roles, and tales of him spread throughout the region so that, wherever he went, tribes welcomed him and the three other Spanish shipmates who traveled with him.
And along the way of his journey, he told the message of the God who died to save us. Many native Americans believed in Jesus from his messages. Just as important, these tribes viewed this “white man” and his fellows as friends who came to render aid to them and live in peace with them. Cabeza de Vaca was known as one who learned the ways of the tribes, learned to speak their languages, understand their traditions and beliefs, and work with them to heal and bring peace.
The Sad Part of the Story
But he could not bring peace everywhere he went.
When he turned south to reunite with Spanish territories in Mexico, an entourage of tribal people went with him. He was determined to now bring peace between the Spanish and the native peoples he had encountered and learned to love, and to tell his fellow countrymen of his adventures and how to live in peace with the land’s inhabitants.
Cabeza de Vaca and his entourage of native Americans came upon a Spanish expedition heading northward led by Diego de Alcaraz. But what they saw dismayed them. The conquistador commander left in his wake burning fields, slaughter natives, and ransacked villages, their surviving inhabitants tied up as slaves. Cabeza de Vaca pleaded with him to see these people as free children of God but he refused, enslaving even those believing natives who traveled with Cabeza de Vaca.
What we can Learn
Many lessons can be gleaned from this story: here is only one. You cannot share the Gospel with those whom you hate and despise. You cannot be an Ambassador of Christ to those whom you do not first take time to know, understand, listen to and respect. And a conquered people do not result in conquered hearts. The lure of the Gospel has never been in our arguments, armed crusades, manipulations or political caucuses. The lure of the Gospel is the power of God to bring healing and peace to broken hearts and disparate communities.
To God be the glory!