Evangelism and Education in Chajul

The Presbyterian church keeps broadening and deepening its outreach in the lofty municipality of Chajul, Quiché, as I saw this week with a team from Guatemala City’s Iglesia Presbiteriana Central (Central Presbyterian Church). Six from Central’s youth group conducted Bible school for 150 energetic kids, and two elders led a leadership workshop. Meanwhile, Pastor Jenner Miranda and I focused on visiting several surrounding Ixil villages where a number of isolated congregations are eager to unite with the wider connection and solid doctrines provided by Presbyterianism.  DSC02249

Our first stop was a congregation in Juil, a village about an hour from Chajul. They became Presbyterian last September, and subsequently were evicted from their building by the unhappy landowner. Quickly the Chajul church came to the rescue, dismantling their old facility at Pastor Miguel’s front yard and hauling the materials to Juil. We joined in a thanksgiving service for their new building, which is nicer now than before and on property they’re purchasing. (See photo)

Next we headed to the village of Visiquichum, another hour away, where a small, independent church applied to join the Presbyterian fold. We had a friendly discussion with its leadership, explaining steps in the admission process, distributing booklets about Presbyterian identity and governance, and breaking bread together. (See photo) DSC02251By then it was 9:00 PM, and we still had to go to the town of Chel, another two hours distance.

Travel on Guatemala’s back roads often turns into a madcap adventure, and that’s what happened in this case. The night was cold and wet, the gravel road rutted and slippery, and our van was likely to get stuck. Given these conditions, plans changed. A 4WD pickup was sent from Chel for Jenner and me, while Central’s elders returned to Chajul in the van. After a long delay with the pickup, news reached us that halfway to Chel an overturned road grader was blocking the highway. The Visiquichum church leaders fetched two motorcycles to transport Jenner and me. We sped through the rain to the accident scene, waited while two bulldozers maneuvered the grader onto a flatbed truck, and finally found our waiting pickup. By God’s grace, we finally arrived at about 11:30 PM.

Once in Chel, we discovered not one, but two churches seeking Presbyterian affiliation. The first was a Pentecostal church called Betania. We held a late-night talk with its pastor and elders, and offered middle scDSC02254hool scholarships to the Pastor Cipriano’s two daughters. (See photo) After midnight, Jenner and I were taken to the town’s only hotel (lamentably the kind with badly-stained walls and leaky bathroom down the hall). Neither of us were prepared with overnight bags, but we made do and were grateful for the rest. In the morning we went to the second church, called Puertas Abiertas (Open Doors). Pastor Pedro and his congregation had in mind a full day of meetings, worship and meals to celebrate becoming Presbyterian. Unfortunately, Chel’s only bus was scheduled to leave at 11:00 AM, so we only had time for the reception ceremony. Further festivities and training will have to wait till next year. (See photo of congregation)DSC02258-001

Back in Chajul that evening, we assembled a group of excited Presbyterian students and their parents to confirm educational opportunities for them. Due to the generosity of partner Williamsburg (VA) Presbyterian Church, eight students, plus the two from Chel, were awarded middle school scholarships. As part of WPC’s commitment to education, they’re also sponsoring a learning center and after-school tutoring program at the Chajul church. Another three students will enroll at the La Patria Norte School in Cobán to pursue secondary degrees, thanks to scholarships from the school as well as WPC for covering room and board expenses for these students. (See their photo)DSC02267

Throughout its history, Presbyterianism has been characterized by a passion for education and congregational development. Having witnessed this past week how God continues to use Presbyterians to make history in the Ixil indigenous area around Chajul, our mission team gives all praise and glory to God.

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Our 2014 Christmas Letter to You

Christmas 2014, Cobán, GuatemalaDSC02244-001

Dear Family & Friends,

Joyful greetings to you from Cobán!

In Guatemala, Presbyterians tend to be misfits at Christmastime. They feel uneasy about this holiday, which is dominated by Catholic processions & posadas, & dismissed by Pentecostals as unscriptural & pagan. Poverty disqualifies many Presbyterians, especially the indigenous, from the consumerism of the season. Christmas for them is austere, often without gifts, only tamales, firecrackers & a few familiar carols. The good news is that God sent us Jesus amidst people’s scarcity & doubts. A misfit at his own birth, he’s a Savior for all.

In Cobán’s new Presbyterian congregation, we discussed ways to celebrate Christ’s birth while steering clear of traditions that can be confusing in this context. Imported customs like Christmas trees & Santa Claus were spurned (too secularized), while nativity dramas & festive decorations won approval. There was resistance to nativity scenes (graven imagery) & the advent wreath (lighting colored candles can be associated with witchcraft). After thoughtful debate, the advent wreath was OK’d as long as its biblical meanings are explained for everyone.

The past year brought big changes for our family. In June we relocated from sprawling Guatemala City to Cobán. We’re in a friendly Q’eqchi’ neighborhood, adjusting to no cable or internet. Our kids transferred from the bilingual American School to a small Presbyterian school with a different academic calendar. Quickly they found new friends, & their sports passion shifted from soccer to karate. Before, we went to Guatemala’s oldest Presbyterian Church; now we’re at the newest, with Philip as pastor. As of July we ended ties to Presbyterian World Mission. Still belonging to the PC(USA), we now serve directly with the Presbyterian Church of Guatemala, grateful for the stipend they’re providing.

Of course, there’s continuity too. We’ve stayed involved in partnerships between U.S. & Guatemalan churches, coordinating mission teams & projects in different regions. Philip remains active in the expansion of indigenous theological training, & was proud that last month 60 more graduated with seminary degrees in Cobán. Our focus on developing Cobán’s Presbyterian Complex has grown—with the school campus, dorm, chapel, theological center, & guest house moving gradually from the drawing board to reality.

Much is in store for 2015. We’re eager to settle into the manse that’s nearing completion at the Complex. In January, Matthew, Manny & Stefi enter the 7th, 4th, and 2nd grades respectively. Bacilia starts a nursing program at the local campus of Landívar University, & Philip plans to enroll in Q’eqchi’ language classes. Hopefully we’ll travel to the U.S. at some point to see family & mission partners. We await a visit soon by son Daniel, his wife Holli, & 1-year-old Eliza. Daniel’s a staff sergeant at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

We rejoice in the enduring presence of God’s grace. Many people have been a means of grace to us through encouragement & prayers, & we’re so grateful. We thank the Guatemalan church for asking us to continue in mission with them. Since the salary they offer doesn’t cover every need, some of you & your churches are contributing towards our work, & this means a great deal to us. The Outreach Foundation handles this support, which should be marked “Beisswenger” & sent to 381 Riverside Drive, Suite 110, Franklin, TN 37064.

Our pray is that the remembrance of Jesus’ birth will bring rich blessings to you as you praise God & bless others. May God keep working things together for good, enabling us all to fit into his peaceful kingdom.

Philip, Bacilia, Matthew, Manuel & Estefana Beisswenger

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Sycamore PC, Outreach Foundation, & Seminary Graduation

During the past couple of weeks there’s been lots of cross-country travel, and plenty of forward movement for God’s mission. First was a visit by Sycamore Presbyterian Church, of Cincinnati, Ohio, to the northern mountains of Huehuetenango. This church is considering reviving a mission partnership that the Cincinnati Presbytery DSC02182previously had with the Q’anjob’al Presbytery. Getting to the Q’anjob’al region was more challenging than usual due to highway blockages by protesting indigenous organizations and government workers. Once we arrived, the seven Ohioans united with the Q’anjob’al executive committee, women’s society, and youth leadership to share ideas for combined service. (See one of many group photos) We visited several villages, exploring prospects for medical teams as well as water and agricultural projects. The week was filled with moments for worship, fun, and laughter. (See photo of me with children from the church in San Juan Ixcoy)DSC02180 Towards the end, moving recognitions were bestowed upon Ron Cowgill, long-time, faithful coordinator of the partnership. A Q’anjob’al-language Bible was presented to him signed by Q’anjob’al leaders and the team. The return trip from Huehuetenango was made much faster by a chartered plane that flew us to Guatemala City. (See photo)DSC02189

The same day that Sycamore left for the U.S., a delegation from The Outreach Foundation, based in Franklin, Tennessee, arrived to investigate theological training and church projects, especially in the Cobán area. The visitors were Rev. Rob Weingartner, Executive Director, and Elder Tom McDow, Trustee and President-elect of the board. A quick-paced itinerary included dialogue sessions with leaders of the Presbyterian Evangelical Seminary, the Chiséc Q’eqchi’ Presbytery, and Pastor Isaias Garcia, IENPG General Secretary. (See photo)DSC02225 They participated in the Wednesday night Bible study with Cobán´s new Presbyterian congregation, and attended a meeting of the Multi-Institutional Board that leads development of Cobán’s Presbyterian Complex.

They also joined with other well-wishers and excited family members to celebrate the graduation of 60 Q’eqchi’, Poqomchí and Ixil Presbyterians—26 with theology degrees in Practical Pastoral Theology and 34 in Bible and Mission. (See photos) Guatemala’s Evangelical Presbyterian Seminary awarded diplomas in either Practical Pastoral Theology or Bible and Mission at the auditorium of Cobán’s La Patria Norte School. Scholarships for DSC02201this program were provided by the seminary with support of Walton funds from the PC(USA). A number of PC(USA) partners also helped with student travel costs, including Middle Tennessee Presbytery and Williamsburg Presbyterian Church. Plans are for this training program to grow again next year with an additional degree in church administration along with workshops in strategic planning, organization and accounting.DSC02204

One can only marvel at the good things that come together in God’s mission in places like Guatemala through divine grace and collaborative efforts. Even more encouraging and wonderful are the signs that God has much more in store for the days and years to come. Praise be to God!

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Caps & Gowns in Cobán

This was a week of graduations in Cobán. Remember, the academic calendar in Guatemala runs from January to October. On Tuesday at the auditorium of the Colegio La Patria Norte, diplomas were awarded for students finishing preschool, primary and middle school. It was special for our family because Matthew was among the sixth grade graduates (see photo).DSC02138 I gave a speech about Peter’s final admonition in the Bible, that we “grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3 18).

On Thursday, graduation was held for 50 sixth graders at the La Libertad Public School, near where we live. It was an exciting accomplishment for them and their families, since many of them won’t go further in their formal education. These are the students for whom Bacilia and I had been giving weekly Bible lessons, and the teachers asked me to deliver the address. (See photo) DSC02148Since the school and neighborhood are named “freedom,” my theme was: “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil.” (1 Peter 2:16) Thanks to La Patria Norte, five of these graduates will receive scholarships to continue their studies there next year on the middle school level.

Our last ceremony was on Friday for high school students from Colegio La Patria Norte. In the graduating class, fifty earned degrees in health science, four in legal studies, eight in agro-forestry, and four in computer science. Again I was invited to be the speaker, and I used the text from Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The event highlight for us was the graduation of Catalina Laynez and Cristina Pacheco, two bright Ixil teens who we’ve grown to love during the past several years. (See photo) DSC02158They received degrees in pre-medicine and pre-law, respectively. Coming from humble backgrounds, they benefited from scholarships from the school, room and board expenses from PC(USA) funds, and financial support from Williamsburg Presbyterian Church. Ciristina is enrolling in the law school at the national university, which has a campus in Coban. Catalina hopes to study medicine, but for the time being will be returning to Chajul to seek work there.

Children’s education has been a leading priority for Presbyterians in Guatemala since they first arrived 132 years ago. To somehow be involved in this tradition of preparing young minds for faithful, meaningful lives is an exciting part of our work.

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Denver Presbytery Signs Three Water Covenants

DSC02108A team from the Presbytery of Denver signed covenants for water projects at three churches in northern Guatemala. Water purification systems will be installed as part of the ministry of Living Waters for the World (LWW). Two of the churches are in the Franja Transversal del Norte Presbytery, mission partner with Denver Presbytery, and the other in Cobán. The Presbyterian Church in the village of Bethania signed the first covenant (see photo). DSC02116Although this village receives water from a nearby petroleum company, an analysis showed contaminants. Training and negotiations were headed by Duane Lyman and Pablo Perez, the new LWW coordinator for the IENPG. Once again, Bethania Pastor Mateo Coc Coc shepherded us from place to place during out time in the presbytery.

The 2nd covenant was signed with the Presbyterian Church in Tres Rios, along the banks of the Chixoy River (see photo).DSC02127 After a boat ride across the river, we were greeted by a tree full of monkeys (see photo). This village has lost its two latest crops due to heavy rains flooding their fields. Nonetheless, church leaders expressed faith in God and excitement about what the water system will mean for the community. DSC02123They agreed to dig a new well and construct a building to house the system, with Denver partners providing materials. In a meeting with the presbytery´s Executive Committee, discussions were held about support for theological training, agricultural courses, well digging projects, and legalization of church property.

The 3rd covenant was signed by a committee representing Presbyterian Complex in Cobán (see photo). DSC02133This project will be jointly operated by the La Patria Norte School and the Presbyterian new church development. The church in Coban is in its early stage. On Sunday the Denver team attended worship with the new Presbyterian congregation, and Pastor Loye Troxler delivered the sermon (see photo at top of liturgical dance by children).

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Life in La Libertad

Our neighborhood in Cobán is called La Libertad, which means “freedom.” Residents, for the most part, are working poor, with an ethnic mixture of about ⅔ Q´eqchi´ and ⅓ Ladino. Small homes are crammed along 3ra Avenida, the main thoroughfare, as well as a network of narrow side streets and footpaths that climb into the surrounding hillsides. Buses crawl back and forth on 3ra Avenida, which is usually very dusty or muddy. (See photo of street in front of our house) DSC02092-001Much of the street is unpaved, and it floods knee-deep in places when it rains hard. Most blocks feature a couple small general stores, a tortilla maker, and other assorted shops. Yes, petty delinquency is a nuisance, but fortunately organized gangs haven´t penetrated like in many other urban parts of Guatemala. Although people are quite friendly to us, long-time residents lament that the barrio’s not as tight-knit as it used to be. There are two Catholic churches, one traditional and the other charismatic. There are also three Protestant churches, and now a Presbyterian Church is under development.

La Libertad´s original name was Chib’ec B’al Cho’ch,’ Q’eqchi’ for “place where the earth sinks” because of underground caverns at one end of the community. For many years it was the site of several prosperous coffee plantations belonging to German immigrants who made the native Q’eqchi’ population work their fields. During World War II the Germans were expelled from Guatemala, and the land was gradually parceled out. Local leaders decided 45 years ago to change the barrio’s name, thinking that La Libertad was simpler and had a more positive connotation. The first highway from Cobán to the Petén ran through the barrio. During Guatemala´s civil war years, military convoys would ramble down 3rd Avenue toward distant rural areas in pursuit of insurgents. Today´s scene, however, is dominated by uniformed students and workers walking briskly to schools and jobs, delivery trucks swerving around potholes, and street venders in pursuit of customers.

Our family has been enriched by neighbors like Alberto Choc, a carpenter who´s faith is a blend of Mayan and Catholic traditions. He’s lived in La Libertad all his life and has kindly helped me understand its history. There´s Lencho Xol, a laborer at the Presbyterian Complex, which is under construction at the far end of 3rd Avenue. He and his wife, Aít, have become regulars in the Presbyterian congregation. This week they dropped off a rooster and 50 quetzals as a tithe. Then there´s Cristina Ca’al. She´s raising two small children on her own in a wooden room that she rents. We met her one week when thieves broke into her room and stole her belongings. Her son contracted pneumonia sleeping on the concrete floor, and was taken to the local hospital. BDSC02085acilia reached out to her, and Cristina accepted her invitation to Sunday worship. Soon our families bonded, and now she joins Bacilia on Saturdays to pass out flyers about the new Presbyterian congregation.

For the past month or so Bacilia and I have offered a Wednesday morning Bible study for the 6th grade at the La Libertad School. This past week we shared with the 60 students about how Jesus touched the sick, touched children, and touched lives in general. A discussion ensued about how God also calls us touch people for the better, and how we leave behind fingerprints of blessing whenever we do. We considered Psalm 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me,” and what it means to leave goodness in our wake as we journey through life. We ended with a project in which students were invited to place an ink fingerprint on a world map, indicating their desire to make a positive impact on others wherever they are. Several students mounted the map on the classroom wall to a round of applause. (See photos of the students and their map)DSC02088

We love living in La Libertad and hope to learn much more about its history and people. Our prayer is that Christ will touch many lives here through the Presbyterian Church. May all who live in this barrio enjoy the grace that God offers so freely, and may we be free from all that might impede us from fully serving and praising God.

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Serpent on a Pole, and Jesus on the Cross

In indigenous Presbyterian churches, I usually encounter a strong objection to the figure of the cross.Cross Symbol They tend to reject the cross as a graven image that’s only used by Roman Catholics. This view is so deeply held that you’ll rarely see anything resembling a cross in or on their church buildings. Occasionally U.S. partners will present some form of a cross as a gift to their Guatemalan partners, resulting in some awkwardness and confusion. There have been times when I’ve raised this issue with indigenous church leaders, inviting them to consider the difference between idolatrous images and sacred symbols. For starters, I share a message about how the Bible’s most famous verse is linked to one of its strangest verses:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” —John 3:16

Most of us are so eager to focus on John 3:16 that we skip right over John 3:14-15: “And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so I, the Son of Man, must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in me will have eternal life.”

Though this allusion to Moses is often ignored, we can’t fully understand John 3:16 without it. The conjunction “for”—as in “For God so loved the world…”—binds the two phrases, making the meaning of the second part dependent on the first.

Bronze SerpentIt was an obscure incident involving Moses. The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for almost forty years, and as usual they were complaining. God, fed up with their negativism, sent deadly snakes to crawl around them and bite them. As the death toll mounted, the Israelites admitted their faithlessness. They got Moses to ask God to remove the snakes. God’s response was to have Moses make a bronze snake and hold it up on a staff. If the snake-bitten Israelites looked upon it, they were told, their wounds would be healed.

Someone might wonder how this decrepit tale found its way into scripture. Doesn’t it smack of superstitious cures and magic wands? Was there no quality control in the oral tradition? Why would God want Moses to lift up a graven image, after years of forbidding it? Why would God want people to stare at a symbol of temptation and falsehood? And what does any of this have to do with John 3:16?

Actually, John 3:14-15 is an excellent, if strange, precursor to John 3:16. In one, people face their sin, that the snakes are doing to them what they’ve been doing to God and one other. In the other, people hear about the way to our redemption and healing. In one we offer confession. In the other we find mercy. In one—the reality of evil. In the other—the power of grace. In one, we perish. In the other, we live eternally.

The aftermath of this episode was that the murmuring stopped, and the end of the wandering came drew near. Even after the Israelites settled into the Promised Land, they kept lifting up Moses’ bronze serpent. They looked at it in the Jerusalem temple for 500 years, revering it with incense until King Hezekiah declared that a meaningful symbol had become a harmful idol, and he smashed it to pieces.

Anyway, a more potent symbol would be on the way—the cross on which Jesus was lifted up. When we consider the cross, we face the reality of our sin. We confront our separation from God, the consequence of our weak faith, our own murmuring, bickering, and idolatry. We also find the way towards our healing, God’s Son, sent to us as the supreme expression of God’s love and salvation. That’s where John 3:16 fits in.

Sure, the cross is abused by some people—an empty novelty, a decoration piece, a good luck charm, or even a graven image. However, we needn’t follow the example of King Hezekiah and smash the cross to pieces. Unlike the bronze serpent, the cross is a symbol for the ages for all of God’s people. It stands irrevocably for the Christ who never loses his ability to smash sin to pieces and heal the world. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

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