I do not remember our first meeting, but that encounter with Dr. Robert Wright was the most significant date of my life. He and my mother have impacted my life more than anyone else I have ever met, not simply because they are my parents, but because of who they are, what they believe, and how they have invested their lives in me, my brothers, the kingdom of God, and everyone they have encountered.
My father would introduce me to multiple cultures and subcultures in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Asia, and Europe. These experiences would forever shape who I am—how I live my life and how I am able to impact people from all over the globe. And, I cannot speak of my dad without including my mom, Rita. She has walked each step of the journey with him, in ministry and life.
When you meet a hero, you rarely realize it until later in life. As I look back, I see that I have been tremendously privileged – beyond words. I look forward to how God will continue to teach me through my parents in the future.
How It All Began
Robert Wright was born in Brockton, Massachusetts. When he was ten years old, the family moved to another part of the state, Hyannis, on Cape Cod. While living there, Robert came to faith in Jesus Christ during his senior year in high school. That commitment grew deeply, and led him to attend Providence-Barrington Bible College (merged with Gordon College), where he met Rita. Their commitment to serve Christ as missionaries was firmly established during the years of study at Barrington. They married in 1955. Shortly after graduation, they left for Brazil to serve among the indigenous population.
Robert and Rita, along with me—their nine month old son, boarded a ship in New York City harbor in the spring of 1957, and eventually docked in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The journey continued across Brazil and they began ministry with the South America Indian Mission in the interior state of Mato Grosso. Their initial ministry was in the city of Aquidauana, where they learned Portuguese and ministered among the Terena Indians and their churches.
Life for the next ten years would rotate between responsibilities outside of Cuiaba and Aquidauana. Those years were full of great learning and fruitful ministry as they served among the Bacari, Terena and Chavante tribal peoples, and Robert taught at the Aquidauana Bible Institute at Chacara Agua Zul.
During that time, the work specific to the Bacari people did not seem to produce a lot of visible results, but Robert and Rita persevered. Life was very remote, with transportation by horseback and ox carts. Mail service was once a month, from a Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF) pilot. Robert’s anthropological and ethnographic skills were honed on the front line working with many differing people groups. The following accounts reveal his sensitivity and evaluation of indigenization and adaptation to the cultures. For example:
- He observed the people did not take responsibility for the local church building. It had been built by the mission before his arrival. The mission built the building with the hope that people would then attend the services in the building, hear about Jesus and put their faith in Him. This did not readily occur nor did the indigenous people they feel a need to maintain the building. In discussions with the Indians he learned they would not maintain the building because they said the missionaries built it so they could take care of it. It was their building. He wrote to the mission, asking for permission to tear the building down and have a ministry based in the people’s homes. The mission did not respond readily thus he took this to be a yes and tore the building down. Eventually a letter came denying permission to tear the building down but it was too late!
- He also noted that all songs used in the services were imported. In discussions with the Indians, he learned that they did not write their own songs because he played the accordion. Since they did not play that instrument, they didn’t think they could have their own songs. One night on his way home, Dad “accidently” dropped his accordion in the river. Now the people would write their own songs.
- The custom had been for the missionaries to live outside the tribal village on their own mission stations. Dad saw this separation as a hindrance to advancing the Gospel. He believed missionaries should live among the people, so he secured permission from the Brazilian government to build a home in the village.
- These sensitivities led to greater fruitfulness.
Risk and Adventure
Robert and Rita did not shy away from adventure and risk in their missions work. For example, the Chavante Indians had been known as the “head crushers of Brazil.” Anyone who ventured into their territory would often be killed. One year, some of the Chavante came out of the jungle because they were dying of small pox. Mom and Dad, along with another missionary family, had great opportunity and influence in seeing many of these people come to Christ.
As part of their culture, the tribe had formerly practiced an interesting custom of gathering every night before going to sleep and dancing to appease the evil spirits. After they came to Christ, they asked if they could still dance, but now dance to Christ, ending the night in prayer. The missionaries thought that was a great idea, and it continues to this day.
Robert and Rita had a great burden for the unreached tribal groups which still existed in Brazil at the time. This passion would lead them to risk their lives in order to make contact with and “pacify” these groups so they could be reached with the Gospel. Robert made one such trip lasting 6 weeks to contact the Xicao people. The venture did not lead to an opening but many important lessons were learned and commitment to the work deepened.
During these years, there were reports of a tribal group attacking and killing people as they travelled on the roads or settled in a particular region of Mato Grosso. Robert and Rita, along with another missionary family, prayed about the situation and felt God had led the husbands to venture into the forest with some local Indians and try to make contact with this tribe so they could eventually hear the Gospel and come to Christ. They were gone for 4 weeks searching for them deep in the forest. Eventually contact was made with what were the Galleira Indians. In time a missionary family was sent to work among the people.
In 1967, Robert and Rita joined the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) and moved to northern Brazil. Their ministry began near the borders of Brazil, Colombia and Peru, in the village of Santa Rita, Amazonas, focusing on the Ticuna Indians. It did not take long for previous lessons learned in Brazil to be applied in this new region. For example:
- They always worked to learn the language of the tribal people.
- They observed that the Indians were basically indentured servants to the land owners. The land owners gave permission for the Indians to farm on their land, but the products were sold to the landowners, and the Indians then had to buy supplies from the land owners’ stores. Robert felt compelled to help purchase land on which the Indians could establish their own village. Thus began the village of Campo Alegre.
- Robert and Rita felt it was important to live among the Ticunas, and they built a home in Campo Alegre.
- During the years in this region they also did medical work, often treating dozens of individuals each afternoon. People would come with all kinds of illnesses, snake bites, or injuries. Robert and Rita would do their best to care for them.
- During the years at Campo Alegre, Robert focused on training Ticuna church leaders so that by the time the Wrights left in 1977, the work was completely cared for by the Ticunas themselves! Today the Ticunas have their own mission society reaching tribal people in Brazil.
While living in this region, Robert heard about the Mayoruna Indians. Their lands were being infringed upon by outsiders looking for resources, resulting in increased conflict and death. He and another missionary ventured into the jungle to locate the individuals involved and attempt to make peaceful contact. The tribe was located, but no peaceful contact was able to be established during his time in Brazil.
A New Chapter Begins
In 1977, the Wrights were invited to serve as Missionary in Residence at Western Baptist College, now known as Corban University. Robert and Rita accepted the one year assignment, which has lasted thirty five years! Soon after they arrived, Rita became college registrar, and served in this capacity for over thirty three years.
During this phase of ministry, through his teaching and godly life, my dad imparted wisdom, skills, insights, and a passion for global missions to hundreds of students, many of whom have served and are still serving around the world. During the years at Corban, he maintained his high involvement in overseas missions by making many trips to China and Romania to teach and encourage local church members and leaders. In Romania, he was deeply involved during the closing years of the Communist era—encouraging the churches, training students, and instilling his fervor for missions. Once Communism fell, he frequently taught at the Bible school in Selimbar.
During his years at Corban, Robert also pursued further education, earning a master’s degree and eventually completing his PhD at age sixty five! In the more than forty years he has lived in America, he has continually been used by God to help churches here better understand global missions, and deepen their involvements.
A Son’s Tribute
To me, Dr. Robert Wright is my dad and father. Together, my parents have impacted me more than anyone else (except my wife). They have deeply affected the course of my life for the good and for this, I thank them.
I have learned many vital lessons from my dad about what truly matters. These include:
- Godliness. I noticed this in my dad, even as a young child. I always remember seeing him having his devotions and prayer time as I grew up.
- Character. Who you are is more important than what you accomplish.
- Ministry. Reaching people with the life changing message of the Gospel and helping them live for Jesus has eternal consequences.
- The Bible and doctrine. What you believe will affect how you life.
- People. Do what you can to help those you can. Every cultural group is worthy of respect and you need to listen to and serve with and under the nationals.
- Family. Spend time with those closest to you because they are important. His love and care for my mother were evident. Even though ministry is a busy life, he found time to spend time with us four boys. He would take us on fishing trips on the Amazon and in the lakes in the jungle; he and mom would visit us at boarding school; he would take us boys water skiing on the Amazon when we were home and on furloughs we would take time to show us some of America. When I was in the tenth grade we were on furlough and that year I worked part time at a marina. While there I saw this hydroplane boat which I really wanted. I always remember that my dad was willing to take it to Brazil for me. I can still see it strapped to the top of our old station wagon as we drove from New Jersey to Florida and he shipped it to Brazil. I am sure that was a real effort of sacrifice!
- Hard work. He showed us that working hard is important, and he modeled that to us.
In addition, Dad greatly influenced and taught me much of what I know regarding missions. From him, I learned about anthropology, ethnography, cross-cultural ministry, theology, and being true to the Bible. He also shaped my understanding of how to apply biblical truths—in an uncompromising and sensitive manner—to the various cultural challenges.
What I learned from my dad helped equip me for my life’s work—serving as a missionary pastor in an international church with people from over thirty five countries, teaching the Bible at the United Nations Center to people from many differing spiritual backgrounds and countries, ministering in Romania during and after the fall of Communism, and working with Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.
As I grew up, Dad let me travel with him. I gained many valuable insights by observing how he did his work. In 1981, we traveled in China together and got acquainted with the church. In 1984, he encouraged me to go to Romania. We served there together for many years.
In summary, my dad has taught me to be: 1) A lifelong student of people, God, academics and life. 2) Independent, always following God’s call, even if it is hard. 3) An entrepreneur, finding a way to advance the Gospel even if it means operating “outside the box.” 4) A risk taker, understanding that giving one’s life for the advance of the Gospel is worthwhile, not letting fear of failure hold me back.
I am confident that many of you reading this article could echo these and other truths Dr. Robert Wright has taught you. The song, “Find Us Faithful,” portrays the legacy he and my mother have left to me, my brothers and our families, and to all of us who have been impacted by their lives. May we be faithful to follow their example.
We’re pilgrims on the journey of the narrow road
And those who’ve gone before us line the way
Cheering on the faithful, encouraging the weary
Their lives a stirring testament to God’s sustaining grace
Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses
Let us run the race not only for the prize
But as those who’ve gone before us
Let us leave to those behind us
The heritage of faithfulness
Passed on through godly lives
After all our hopes and dreams have come and gone
And our children sift through all we’ve left behind
May the clues that they discover
And the memories they uncover
Become the light that leads them
To the road we each must find
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
May the fire of our devotion light their way
May the footprints that we leave
Lead them to believe, and the lives we live inspire them to obey
Oh may all who come behind us find us faithful
 Lyrics by Steve Green. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFxxzrdo56U&feature=related