Two Years of Advances by the Bi-national Walton Funds Committee

During the last 2½  years, I served as the PC(USA) representative on the Bi-national Walton Funds Committee. This wasn’t a role that was originally a part of our assignment in Guatemala. Nonetheless, at the time the committee was facing a crisis of purpose, and was struggling to find ways to respond to cries for Presbyterian theological training in indigenous presbyteries. Now I’ve stepped down from the committee to make room for Richard and Debbie Welch, new PC(USA) mission co-workers who’ve come to Guatemala to work specifically with this committee. I wish them the very best as they begin their assignment in this important area of God’s mission. My involvement on the Bi-national Committee has been both a difficult and rewarding experience, but in the end I’m glad that I had the opportunity to contribute what I could. Most of all, I’m thankful for the ways that diverse groups within the IENPG have successfully joined together to extend educational opportunities to the most marginalized segments of the Presbyterian Church.

Bi-national Committee members recently reported to IENPG leaders on the work that’s been done during the last two years, as well as unfinished business. Here’s the summary that they offered.

Accomplishments of the Committee:

  1. Obtained clarifification that there are no proposed changes in the legal status of the Walton Funds.
  2. Reorganized the Bi-national Committee with more representation from educational institutions, indigenous groups, and other sectors of the IENPG. The membership increased from five to thirteen.
  3. Facilitated the formation of a new Presbyterian theological education program in Cobán for Q’eqchi’, Poqomchí, and Ixil students, with participation by IENPG committees and the Q’eqchi’ presbyteries.
  4. Restored the scholarship program for indigenous secondary students at the La Patria Norte School.
  5. Spearheaded the writing of a new job description for PC(USA) mission co-workers that work with the Walton Funds.
  6. Crafted the Comprehensive Plan for the Walton Funds, with guidelines and strategies for achieving the unfreezing of the funds.
  7. Reached agreement with World Mission and the Presbyterian Foundation of the PC(USA) to begin releasing Walton Funds according to the Comprehensive Plan.
  8. Reached agreement with the PC(USA) for four theological education projects for the Q’eqchi’, Q’anjob’al, Maya Quiché, and Mam presbyteries.

Pending Matters:

  1. Up-date the Comprehensive Plan to include all theological education projects, to revise the secondary scholarship program, and to make adjustments to the plan’s timeline.
  2. Develop and initiate the middle school studies project for pastors and leaders of the indigenous presbyteries.
  3. Delineate fair and collaborative procedures by which the IENPG and the PC(USA) will monitor projects that use Walton Funds, authorize changes in projects, and approve new projects.
  4. Propose a plan to gain legal approval for accumulated Walton funds to be used in building the Theological Center at the Presbyterian Complex in Cobán.

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God’s Mission in Cobán—Historical Background and Recent News

A Brief History of Mission in Cobán: Cobán was founded in 1543 by Dominican monks, led by “Protector of the SAM_1212Indians,” Father Bartolomé de las Casas. The missionary efforts of Las Casas were based on principles, unusual back then, like equal rights for the indigenous, and voluntary conversions based on sincere Christian beliefs. He convinced Spanish authorities to cease their attempts at military conquest to subdue the Q’eqchi’, so he and the Dominicans could reach them through non-violent means. The region around Cobán, known as the “Land of War,” came to be renamed Verapáz—“True Peace.”

Centuries later, other churches appeared in Cobán. The Church of the Nazarene arrived in 1904, and spread as an early Protestant force across the North-Central Highlands. Others followed them to the Cobán area, mostly Pentecostals and Baptists. Presbyterians began working in the Q’eqchi region 40 years ago, and eight Q’eqchi’ presbyteries have since been created.

Six years ago a Presbyterian school—Colegio Evangélico La Patria Norte—was founded in Cobán. Despite the small, leased facilities, the student body has grown steadily with 240 students in pre-school through high school. In 2012, land was purchased in Cobán for a “Presbyterian complex” to include a permanent school campus, church building, seminary, dormitories and guest house. A theological studies program began in 2013 for church leaders from the Q’eqchi’ presbyteries, with 47 graduating last December. PC(USA) work teams began to come to help initiate construction at the Presbyterian complex. This January, ministry began for Cobán’s 1st Presbyterian Church, and I was installed as organizational pastor, on a volunteer, part-time basis.

Now, here’s the latest update:

New Church Development: During the past two months, I and others have been cultivating a Presbyterian DSC01584group at the La Patria School, with lunch, worship and Bible study, teachings on Presbyterianism, and intercessory prayer (see photo at top of the 1st gathering). Now there are about 20-25  students and teachers that participate consistently. Plans include an excursion to Limon Sur to share with a Q’eqchi’ Church, and a Bible school for children in the La Libertad neighborhood near the site of the Presbyterian Complex. A Presbyterian mission house has been established close by to serve as a meeting place and office (see photo), and now we’re working on furnishing it. Our hope is that a water purification system will be installed there in the near future to help meet needs in the community for clean, affordable water. Northminster Presbyterian Church, of Cincinnati, Ohio, has officially agreed to partner with this new church.

Theological Training: This week marked the second of five week-long sessions of theological education for students from indigenous presbyteries. There are 29 students in the 1st year program and 35 enrolled in their 2nd year. Classes are taught by professors from the national seminary, with translation into Q’eqchi’. The quantity of women students has increased to six (see photo), DSC01642with the expectation that each year will see a larger female contingent. Other good news is that two new PC(USA) mission co-workers—Richard and Debbie Welch—have moved recently to Cobán to help in the administration of Walton funds for theological education (see photo). DSC01641They’re taking my place as PC(USA) representatives on the Bi-national Walton Funds Committee.

Presbyterian Complex: The different pieces of this ambitious undertaking keep falling into place. Early this week, a Multi-Institutional Board was formed for the Presbyterian Complex, which includes representatives of the national church, the Presbyterian Seminary, La Patria schools from the rest of the country, other committees of the IENPG, and the Q’eqchi’ presbyteries (see photo of Lizardo Lopez, board treasurer, drawing diagram). DSC01640At the latest meeting, I was asked to serve as Moderator of the board. Projects underway include the completion of environmental and topographical studies, and grading for a gravel access road. Funding from the IENPG and several PC(USA) partners is helping keep the work going. Approval was granted for the construction of a multi-purpose building that will serve as chapel, auditorium, and conference center (see photo of drawing). img210More PC(USA) work teams will be arriving this summer to help raise this building and to participate in other ways.

Please continue to pray for and support this comprehensive mission effort in Cobán. The Q’eqchi’ presbyteries see this as holding historic significace for them, and they’re raising money and pitching-in as they’re able. Diverse sectors of the IENPG are coming together with an energy that’s been un-heard-of. We keep seeing the impact that these ministry projects have on all who are involved.

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Chajul Dedicates a Beautiful, New Temple

This past week a 9-member delegation from Williamsburg (VA) Presbyterian Church travelled up into the far mountains of Quiche Province to participate in the fulfillment of a dream for the first Ixil Presbyterian congregation—the dedication of a beautiful stone and mortar temple. Less than two years ago, the site was a steep, craggy bluff that appeared fit only for weeds and stray animals. Digging by hand, members of the Chajul congregation created room for a 2,600 square foot building. The construction was a joint project of the Chajul congregation, Guatemala City’s Central Presbyterian Church, and Williamsburg PC—all partners in covenant to each another.

The week began with days of clearing building materials and scaffolding, pouring the concrete floor, creating doors and windows, constructing restrooms, and hanging decorations. It looked like getting it done on time was unrealistic, but the church rose to the challenge, mobilizing crews of volunteers from before dawn until after dusk. Several steers were butchered, and crates of vegetables were delivered for the celebration feast that the church women prepared in giant kettles. In the end the sanctuary was a splendor to behold, and everything was ready for the big day.

The sun shone brightly on the morning of the dedication, and a parade of cheerful Presbyterians and other well-wishers processed through the town’s hilly streets. A marching band of the local Methodist school led the way, and citizens emerged from all directions to see what the commotion was (see photo). DSC01606A ribbon-cutting ceremony took place before the doors opened (see photo), DSC01613and quickly the seats of the sanctuary filled. Worship occupied most of the rest of the day (about 8 hours, with break for lunch). To begin the service, a praise band led us in repeating stanzas of “We love your presence, Oh God,” and then we lifted our voices to sing “Great is your faithfulness” (see photos). DSC01619DSC01622This was followed by musical performances, prayers of thanksgiving and consecration, historical remembrances, youth dramas, a presentation of infants, and remarks by church and community leaders, a sermon translated into three languages, and a wedding.  A “Pentecostal time” was included when some worshippers danced to the accompaniment of emotional, up-tempo choruses. Towards the end, the Williamsburg team stepped forward to sing “We are one in Christ Jesus, all one body.”

Gratitude was expressed by all sides to all sides. The church’s pastor, Miguel Ramirez, was recognized for having let the Presbyterian congregation meet in his house for the past seven years. Volunteer builders were awarded certificates of appreciation. Each Williamsburg team member was fitted with an Ixil ceremonial sash (see photo). DSC01630The Chajul church presented the Williamsburg church a banner expressing thanks in three tongues for its generous contributions for building materials as well as its prayers and accompaniment. In turn, the Williamsburg church presented banners from their youth, tambourines, customized caps, and a box of electric tools.  Guatemala City’s Central Presbyterian Church gave numerous gifts to commemorate the event, and profuse thanked was offered for its constant support for the Chajul mission. Everyone gave praise and glory to God.

The Williamsburg and Chajul groups held several talks about the future direction for the partnership—teen scholarships, theological training, and hopes for a new Presbyterian cooperative to help generate jobs, and future trips by Williamsburg, as well as potential visits by Guatemalan partners to Virginia. No doubt there also will be more construction projects, but for the moment everyone seems content to put down their tools and rest in contentment over all that God’s made possible so far. Surely God has much more in store for this partnership, probably more than any of us can imagine.


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Message from Middle Tennessee to the Petén: “We’re with you in good times and bad”

This past year a deep crisis arose in the Petén Q’eqchi’ Presbytery (PQP) that involved dysfunctional leadership practices as well as several intense pastoral conflicts. There were questions about whether the presbytery would be able to recover.  The PQP is comprised of 7 small, rural congregations. The average educational level of the pastors is 3rd grade, and most of them support themselves and their families by working in the fields.

During this crisis, the PQP’s international partner, the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee (PMT), assured them that they’d stick with them for better or worse. The PMT kept their partners in prayer. They sponsored three visits by IENPG officials and me to help PQP leaders diagnose the presbytery’s challenges and find ways to overcome them. Out of these meetings emerged a vision statement for the PQP and a strategic plan.DSC01590

This past week a 7-member PMT delegation, led by Elder Barb Hall, came to Guatemala to offer support more personally and directly to the PQP. They invited PQP pastors and their spouses to join with them in the mountainous city of Cobán for a 2-day retreat featuring fellowship, a service project, and in-depth look at how the PMT might support the PQP’s strategic plan. Each morning we came together to address issues such as improving decision-making and financial discipline, resolving conflicts between pastors and elders, legalizing church properties, reviving the presbytery’s women’s organization, and reinforcing Presbyterian doctrine, liturgy and government. In the evening, 2 PMT pastors—Teddy Chiquimia and Mary Louise McCullough—offered training on leadership skills. In the afternoons, while the men worked together on building a pavilion at Cobán’s new Presbyterian complex (see photo), the women gathered to share experiences and to discuss their critical role in the PQP’s future. Juggling three languages, they developed project plans, which were later endorsed enthusiastically by the PQP’s executive committee.

The next step by the PMT delegation was the sponsorship of a presbytery-wide event in the town of Sayaxche to rally around the PQP’s strategic plan. Leaders from all 7 PQP congregations were invited to gather at Sayaxche’s Presbyterian Church for a morning of training on the themes of stewardship and mission. (See photo) DSC01592-1After lunch, a celebration was held that included Holy Communion. During the worship, PQP pastors that recently graduated with diplomas in theological education were recognized. A 12-year-old boy, Jaime Chun, with cerebral palsy was thrilled to receive a wheelchair that a PMT team member, Kathy Corlew, had brought for him from Tennessee. (See photo) DSC01591The day ended with singing of “We are One in Christ Jesus,” and with shouts of “Viva the Presbytery Q’eqchi’ Peten!”, “Viva the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee!” and “Viva Cristo!”

Thank God for bodies of faith like the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee and the Peten Q’eqchi’ Presbytery that are channels of God’s grace to each other, especially during moments when the easiest thing would be to give up.

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Reprint: “Stuck on the PC(USA)”

(Over two years ago, on Jan. 22, 2012, I published the following post about my relationship with the PC(USA). I reprint it now because it remains true to me.)

This past week a new reformed body was launched in Orlando, Florida called the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO). It’s comprised of Presbyterians whose relationship to the PC(USA) has been strained by theological shifts within the denomination, most prominently the relaxing of ordination standards about sexuality.

It’s understandable that PC(USA) leadership isn’t thrilled about the ECO, and is concerned about its supporters. At first Moderator Cynthia Bolbach wasn’t going to attend the ECO’s Covenanting Conference in Orlando. According to the current Presbyterian Outlook:

“In an interview this week, Bolbach said she had changed her mind, in part because ‘they’re expecting lots of folks who want to stay in the PC(USA) and want to figure out how to do that’ while not violating their sense of conscience. ‘If there are people there who are still engaged in the PC(USA), I want to be in dialogue with them,’ Bolbach said. ‘I want to have conversation with them to say, “We want you to stay. We don’t want you to go.” ‘ “

Although I haven’t heard whether Cynthia Bolbach actually went to the conference or not, I’m glad she affirms the presence of evangelicals in the denomination. Theologically I’m in general agreement with the ECO, and I’ve tended to apply the category “evangelical” to myself over the years. My family and I want to stay in the PC(USA), and we want to continue to work as mission co-workers. Hopefully evangelical believers always will be valued and respected not only in local congregations, but at every level and area of the PC(USA), including mission assignments overseas.

Some Presbyterians seem to feel stuck in the PC(USA). They’re faced with the challenge of extricating their churches from the PC(USA), which has become an unpleasant place for them. I seem to be stuck too, but instead of stuck in, I’m stuck on the PC(USA). To be stuck in something, such as a rut, means you’re struggling to get yourself out from an undesirable place. To be stuck on somebody means you have an uncontrollable attachment, an affection that won’t let go.

Yes, I’m stuck on this denomination. I’ve discovered that my attachment to it is beyond my control. Sure, there are other denominations where my theological positions are more widely held, but God didn’t put me in such a denomination. In God’s infinite wisdom, God put me in this one. I was baptized in it, received my first Bible in it, had my first mission experience in it, and people prayed for me in it when I wouldn’t pray for myself. For a number of years I moved in a different direction, and I struggled spiritually and vocationally. Then God called me back into the PC(USA). Doors opened for me to use my talents and to participate with my family in the fulfillment of God’s divine plans. I’m stuck on the PC(USA) because God’s stuck on it. How gracious God is! He doesn’t let go, even when conflict rages in our churches and many of us worry about losing our way.

The Guatemalan Presbyterian Church (IENPG), to which my wife and I are assigned, has an impressive record of stick-together-ness. The church functions within an environment of stark poverty, devastating natural disasters, and bloody social turmoil, including the lingering effects of a 36-year civil war with a death toll of 250,000. Over the years and with few resources, the IENPG has contended with unsavory personality conflicts and a few corrupt leaders, as well as divisive religious currents like Pentecostalism and liberation theology. Guatemala’s divergent social classes are reflected in the Presbyterian churches here, along with the full range of political and ideological persuasions. Half of the members are westernized Ladinos, while the rest belong to socially-marginalized indigenous groups that speak different languages. With these challenges and so much diversity, the IENPG has for the most part held together. Indeed, while the PC(USA) seems to be at risk of falling apart, the IENPG has expanded into more areas of Guatemala. In recent years they’ve achieved reconciliation with four schismatic presbyteries, reintegrating them back into their denomination. They’ve opened up two new high schools, and are forming a Presbyterian university. The IENPG has stuck to this pattern, praise God, ever since a predecessor of the PC(USA) started it over 130 years ago.

At their last Synod meeting, Guatemalan Presbyterians expressed their disagreement with the PC(USA) over changes in ordination standards. At the same time, they expressed their desire to remain in covenant partnership with the PC(USA). Here’s the reason one Guatemalan gave for wanting the partnership to continue: “When we’ve struggled and didn’t get along, they never left us. Now the PC(USA) is struggling. How can we leave them?”

It’s a blessing to work at building partnerships between Christian bodies like the PC(USA) and the IENPG, partnerships that figure out how to face differences and accept some significant disagreements. It’s also a blessing to be a part of building partnership within Christian bodies like the PC(USA), where we also face differences and even accept some significant disagreements.

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The IENPG and the PC(USA)—A Changing Narrative (Hopefully!)

After several years of development by the IENPG’s International Relations Committee (one of the committee’s with which I work), a revision of the covenant between the PC(USA) and the IENPG is expected to be ratified soon. Actually, this can’t happen soon enough, for changes have been sorely needed.

The current covenant, approved in 2006, contains an inexplicably harsh take on the partnership’s background, and of the IENPG in particular. It begins by describing a “failure in the relationship between the mother church and daughter church” that existed from early on. Jabs are taken at early missionaries, who are accusing of “a lack of understanding of contextual reality” which produced “errors, misunderstandings and lack of foresight.”

The Guatemalan church is denigrated in the current covenant. According to covenant, the theological controversies of prior years prompted new understandings within the U.S. “mother church.” The “daughter church,” however, didn’t benefit from these new changes. The covenant says that Guatemalans “did not aspire to develop in the light of the Reformed tradition (confessionally open). The mother church changed and the daughter did not. The daughter church stayed in the first mile, concerning theological formation, training its leadership in an evangelical style and nothing else.”

This historical interpretation contends that the “daughter Presbyterian church struggled to find its identity within the Reformed tradition.” According to the document, “Large contradictions and internal struggles exist between one current within the church that wanted to continue according to the classic principle, “The Church Reformed, always reforming,” and the conservative, inherited current, which continued to dream of the past and the mission epoch.”

When I first read this document over three years ago, it puzzled and disturbed me. I wondered about the fairness of the portrayal of the IENPG and its missionary origins. Subsequently I read about the amazing hardships and achievements of missionaries like Edward Haymaker, Paul and Nora Burgess, Dorothy and Dudley Peck, and others. It became clear to me that the view expressed in the covenant was excessively negative, to say the least.

I also wondered about the even-handedness of the portrayal of the IENPG as a divided church that will not reform. My subsequent visits around the country revealed a church that, for the most part, actively searches for the right balance between the preservation of traditions and the acceptance of change. The church did not seem, however, to be stuck in the past. On the contrary, I found a diverse church that is holding together, and a dynamic church that is expanding and growing. My conclusion was that the covenant’s historical overview was inaccurate, even deplorable.

Then I wondered why such an account would even be included in the covenant in the first place, even if it was true. Why would such disparaging language be used in a document whose aim is to express mutual appreciation and respect, and to set a framework for shared mission?  It occurred to me to check out whose signatures were on the document. It turns out that all four of the IENPG officers that signed it have since been charged with corruption and mismanagement of funds. Two left Guatemala, one was expelled from the IENPG, and the remaining pastor is under discipline by the Synod, prohibited from serving in any national capacity. Sadly, this suggests that the signees of the covenant didn’t necessarily have the best interests of the IENPG at heart.

Why did the PC(USA) endorse this humiliating interpretation of the partnership’s history? It suggests a lingering paternalistic inclination toward churches of the Global South, particularly those that choose to determine their own independent theological path. It evinces a tendency to look down on churches like the IENPG whose priorities are considered passé by some segments of the PC(USA).

Now, thankfully, the PC(USA) and the IENPG are on the verge of renewing their historic partnership with a new outlook toward the past and the future. A wave of forward-looking IENPG leaders has replaced the old, and the Synod has agreed to some many changes in the written covenant. At the same time, the PC(USA)’s Area Coordinator for Latin American and the Caribbean, one of the signers of the current covenant, has agreed to support the changes. The covenant no longer speaks disparagingly of “mother” and “daughter” churches. Instead, it offers gratitude for the opportunities to learn from each other, to serve and grow together. The revised document recognizes the vision and sacrifices of both PC(USA) mission workers and Guatemalan church leaders. It asks God’s forgiveness for mistaken actions and attitudes, along with the lack of respect for theological and moral differences. It also expresses the desire of both denominations to seek God’s blessing while addressing “the challenges that we face in our own national and cultural contexts.” As long as it truly reflects the heart-felt intent of both churches, and unless it’s obstructed by those who continue to hold the old outlook, this new covenant bodes well for our partnership’s future.


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More Progress in Cobán, and Future Change in Our Assignment

Amidst a cold spell and drizzly weather in Coban, a team from the Presbytery of South Alabama began building a perimeter wall around the area of the Presbyterian complex. Each day volunteers from their partner—the Chisec Presbytery—traveled up the mouDSC01515ntain to help. Together they also painted the exterior of the storage building and cleared the entranceway for the property. Over the weekend, we visited five churches in the Chisec area, worshipping and making plans for future endeavors such as water projects, theological training, and visits by two groups from South Alabama this coming June. (See photos)DSC01512

In a high-spirited worship service on January 20, the new church development (NCD) in Cobán was officially launched. IENPG officials from across the country were on hand, as well as Q’eqchi theological students, staff, students and parents of the La Patria Norte School, and South Alabama team members.  During the service, I was introduced as organizing pastor of the NCD by Pastor Ivan Paz, IENPG Moderator. (See photos of La Patria Norte liturgical dance group and installation) Installation Coban 2014DSC01518

After the installation, my turn came to offer remarks: “The vision for this church is that it be Protestant, Presbyterian, Guatemalan and Cobanera. Someone might wonder, ‘if that’s the vision, why’s the new pastor a gringo, and why’s his name Philip Beisswenger, which doesn’t sound Guatemalan or Cobanera?’ I think the best response is that our God is very mysterious, and that God is great enough to do things in unlikely ways that none would expect. For the past year and a half, we on our new church commission have followed Jesus’ instruction to ‘Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.’ After so much prayer without finding the right person, the commission approached me about answering the call. As it turns out, sometimes when we pray that God send someone, we find out that we ourselves are the answers to that prayer.”

On a different subject, tor the past 3 ½ years we’ve worked in Guatemala under the auspices of PC(USA) World Mission. Bacilia and I always will be grateful to the PC(USA) for this mission opportunity. It’s been enriching for us and, we think, beneficial for numerous new partners with the Presbyterian Church of Guatemala (IENPG). Nonetheless, due to some disagreements with World Mission about the application of partnership principles, Bacilia and I have decided not to renew our assignment. Our service doesn’t conclude until July 2014, so I’ll still be available to accompany visiting teams from the U.S. After July, our plan is to stay in Guatemala. The Presbyterian Church of Guatemala has asked us to continue to serve with them in the ongoing development of international partnerships and projects. We’re in the process of figuring out together all of what that will entail. I’ll keep you posted about these plans, but please play that all things will work together for good for everybody.

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