Clamor for Change Continues in Guatemala

DSC02909-001 For months Guatemala has been rocked by government scandal. President Otto Perez is being impeached in the nation’s Congress for siphoning millions of dollars in graft through the nation’s customs authority. Other high officials have been implicated in this racket, like the former Vice-President, Roxana Baldetti, who’s now in prison awaiting trial. Much of the President’s cabinet has resigned. This criminal conduct was revealed by Guatemala’s courageous Attorney General, Thelma Aldana, and the United Nations’ Commission Against Impunity, headed by Ivan Velasquez. Nonetheless, powerful political alliances and business interests that benefit most from the corrupt status quo are maneuvering legally to protect Perez, and he insists that he’ll complete his term which ends in January 2006.

Most sectors of society, including the churches, have demanded Perez’ resignation, stronger anti-corruption laws, and major reforms in the electoral process. A nation-wide strike was held yesterday, Aug. 27, with highways blockaded across the country. A hundred thousand protesters marched in Guatemala City, plus many thousands more across the country in places like Cobán (see photo). Even transnational chains like Pollo Campero and McDonald’s closed their doors and encouraged their workers to participate. This demonstration, like others that preceded it since April, included a cross-section of social classes, and was led by student and campesino organizations. Despite the intense outrage of the population at unscrupulous officials, the clamor for change has stayed peaceful and positive so far. (I even took our kids to the protest in Cobán.) Amidst this turmoil, electoral campaigns are at full tilt, with vigorous competition for the presidency and other offices. Election Day is set for Sept. 6, but many are calling for it to be postponed, claiming that conditions are miserable for a fair election, and that the leading candidates on the ballot represent the old guard of self-serving, crooked politicians.

The depths of corruption in Guatemala, with its devastating effects on schools, healthcare, environmental protection and other public services, is outrageous. The non-violent push for change in Guatemala is inspiring and energizing, and I pray that it will persevere with God’s blessing until it prevails.

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The MV Anna Jackman

After my first year of college, I worked for a summer in Southeast Alaska as a Presbyterian Volunteer in Mission with a group of other college-age students from across the U.S. It was 1979, and my first ever mission experience. We were sent to a variety of settings and remote villages throughout the Alaska panhandle, mostly to lead Vacation Bible Schools at Presbyterian churches. My assignment was to the towns of Wrangell and Skagway, plus the Rainbow Glacier Camp near Haines as a summer camp counselor.

I wasn’t a likely candidate for this VIM program. In my application I’d written that I wasn’t a church member or church goer, and furthermore that I was skeptical about Christianity. The truth was that I’d come away from my freshman year full of incoherent thoughts, a distorted sense of self-importance, and an impulse for questioning authority. By accepting me that summer, the Presbyterian Church extended God’s grace to me in an amazing way, and I’ll always be grateful for that.MV Anna Jackman

The first part of our orientation was in Juneau, and the second part on a mission boat named the MV Anna Jackman. (MV stands for “motor vessel.”) What I remember most about our orientation was how I openly identified myself as an atheist. On the Anna Jackman, we slept in cramped bunks below deck, and I was overcome with seasickness. It was certainly worth it, however, because coastal Alaska was a paradise of sights and sounds. The friendly skipper steered up inlets alongside waterfalls, glaciers, and to areas where sea-life could be viewed up close.

The boat stopped near a stream where salmon were spawning. Throngs of fish were dying after having laid their eggs. Hiking along the stream’s edge with another volunteer, I shared with him my many doubts about the Christian religion. He patiently heard me out, seeming to get my points of view. Unfortunately I can’t recall his name. Back at the dock, prior to boarding, he turned to me and said, “Philip, I’d like to pray for you. Is that okay?”

Struck by the boldness of this gesture from one of my peers, I answered, “Sure, I guess so.” On that spot, he placed his hand on my shoulder, and thanked God for me. He prayed that somehow I’d come to know Christ through my travels and experiences, and that my life be filled with spiritual peace. At the time I didn’t realize how important that moment was for me. I didn’t become a believer in Christ right away, but I sensed that somehow God was embracing me. And my fellow volunteer’s action stayed with me, how he cut through my intellectualizing with something as simple as a heartfelt prayer. The rest of the summer in Alaska contained lots of meaningful events and encounters, but in the long run nothing made an impression like that prayer alongside the Anna Jackman.

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Stages in the Partnership Journey—Williamsburg and Northminster

Genesis tells about how Abram and Sarai journeyed from their home country in stages. According to Genesis 12:9, “Abram continued traveling south by stages.” Genesis 13:3 says, “From the Negev they continued traveling by stages toward Bethel.” So they progressed, from Mesopotamia to Haran, from Shechem to Hebron and lots of new places in between. At the end of each stage, Abram and Sarai paused to build an altar, to give thanks for God’s faithfulness along the way.

In their own way, mission partnerships also can be journeys with stages. Each stage has its peculiar challenges and accomplishments, disappointments and advances. Each stage offers opportunities to stop and worship our covenant God before we move forward. The story of Abram and Sarai reminds me of two recent mission teams that traveled south from the United States to continue their church partnership journeys in Guatemala. Their partnerships keep moving into new stages, and worshipping the Lord is a vital part of each stage.

Williamsburg (Virginia) Presbyterian Church: This six-member team, led by Bob Archibald and Rich Watkins, continued its partnership with the Presbyterians in Chajul, Quiché and Guatemala City’s Central Church. A special tone was set at the welcoming service on the 4th of July, when the Chajul congregation arranged for a U.S. flDSC02801ag to be displayed, the U.S. national anthem to be played, and for fireworks in front of the church. The early focus of this partnership was the building of a church building to replace the Chajul church’s first meeting place—a ramshackle addition to the pastor’s house. Having dedicated the new building last year, the partnership’s focus now has shifted to education. The group labored to move rocks and dirt from the site where a new Learning Center is being erected beside the church. They met with eight Ixil middle school students that have been beneficiaries of a scholarship program sponsored by Williamsburg (see photo). They brought four computers and a printer for the Learning Center, and another four computers and printer for Ixil secondary students in Cobán. As a partnership outreach, they joined with leaders of the Chajul and Central churches to visit sick and elderly members. At each home they delivered prayer shawls that were hand-knitted by women’s circles in Williamsburg (see photo).DSC02807 The week ended on a high note of fellowship with an outing to the Chichel waterfall with the Chajul congregation. The women’s society prepared a delicious beef soup (see photo) DSC02821-001and, of course, an exhausting soccer game took place (Somehow I even scored a goal!). To conclude their sojourn in Guatemala, the team traveled to Lake Atitlan and enjoyed fellowship and worship with the Central Presbyterian Church in Guatemala City.

Northminster Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio: This six-person team, led by Harry Stone, they came to further its bond with Cobán’s new Presbyterian church, a partnership that began two years ago when the congregation was just a dream. Together with youth volunteers from the Chiséc Presbytery, they pitched in at the Presbyterian Complex, mixing concrete, painting and plastering. The group faced a tough challenge when team member Mike Houston suffered a fall on the work site, fracturing his wrist and breaking some ribs. While trying to rally to support our hurting companion, the group carried on in the spirit of the song, “Through all its tests and struggles, the Church’s work carries forward.” By skipping some planned side trips, the group was able to spend more time engaging in partnership discussions with leaders on the local, presbytery and national levels. While the new church development was the focus, education has increasingly become a larger part of the partnership. The team met with teachers at the La Patria Norte School, presenting each of them with a set of instructional tools (see photo).DSC02853 They also visited the La Libertad public school, where Northminster had sponsored school supply kits for all 400 students. One night the team came over to the manse for pizza with our kids, and taught them a card game called Farkel (see photo).DSC02863-001 Their week featured times of devotion, worship, Holy Communion, and even a wedding! The partnership journey continues, by God’s grace, stage by stage!

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Summer Mission Encounters: “For All Who Are Far Off”

On Pentecost, Peter declared, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off.” (Acts 2:39) Interpretations of Peter’s words often highlight “your children” and downplay “all who are far off.” However, the message is quite clear—God’s covenant comprises a mixture of both the familiar and the strange, the intimate and the distant. The experience of divine forgiveness somehow binds us to our closest kindred as well as the diaspora of believers that we barely recognize and tend to ignore. The grace of Christ creates a faith circle that’s expands beyond family ties, proximity, and similarity. It stretches dramatically to encompass those whose culture, language and life circumstances are sharply different than our own. DSC02776

During the past two months, one U.S. mission team after another joined with Guatemalans to share their common faith, distinct gifts, and diverse ways of life. New friendships and ongoing partnerships were fueled by a passion for companionship and discipleship. It all signaled a fulfillment of the Pentecost promise that Peter proclaimed. Here are a few words about two of these teams:

Trinity Presbyterian Church, Fairhope, AL: This multi-generational team was hosted by Cobán’s Presbyterian congregation. Led by Stephen Davis, the team had 22 members, including five belonging to the same family. They labored alongside Presbyterians from Cobán and Chiséc, mostly mounting concrete wallboards on the Center for Mission and Administration at the Presbyterian Complex (see group snapshot). While at it, they also fell in love with neighborhood kids that wandered over to play and participate. In worship we all sang “May the God of Hope Go with Us” in English and Spanish, and Pastor Matt McCullum preached (see photo).DSC02771-001 Other highlights included a Q’eqchi cultural show by students at the La Patria Norte School (see photo),DSC02765 a heated soccer contest between Trinity and Cobán youth, and an outing to the Hun Nal Ye ecological park for hiking, swimming, tubing, fishing, and horseback riding. Afterwards, the Trinity team described the visit as “incredibly meaningful for every person.”

First Presbyterian Church, Kingsport, TN: This team of 7 members was led by Pastor Sharon Amstutz. During the first half of their visit, they strengthened an ongoing relationship with Bethel Presbyterian Church, a congregation in the working-class barrio of Sabana Arriba, in Guatemala City. The principal project was to carry out a food basket ministry to needy people of the church and community. After a trip to the market to purchase food staples, 30 baskets were assembled at the church. Two ministry groups were formed with people from both congregations. At each home, the groups sang, read scripture, prayed, and delivered a food basket (see photo).DSC02786 At every stop, the group was welcomed with sincere thanks. Other activities included joint worship with a sermon by Sharon, a lively youth gathering, and visits with Sunday school classes. The second part of the week was in up in Cobán, painting walls of the church and manse with Presbyterians there (see photo). DSC02789A special recognition was given for the generous contribution the Kingsport church gave last year in memory of Bee Rigby to support building at Cobán’s Presbyterian Complex. Once back in the States, a Kingsport team member commented: “Everyone had an amazing time in Guatemala” and “We so enjoyed working and worshipping alongside each congregation.”

Soon, news about two other summer teams—Williamsburg (VA) Presbyterian Church and Northminster Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, OH.

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Forming New Synods, & Other IENPG News

IENPG Logo ColorThe yearly Synod meeting took place May 25-29, at the Monte Sion Camp Center alongside beautiful Lake Amatitlán, outside Guatemala City. Close to 300 delegates journeyed from presbyteries across the country to attend. The IENPG is a diverse church ethnically, geographically, and theologically, with its fair share of strong-willed personalities and internal alliances. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that sparks flew early in the plenary, with heated exchanges over procedures and denominational priorities. Afterwards, God answered prayers that the session take a kinder, more thoughtful direction, and the final days were marked by a more conciliatory spirit.

Here are some noteworthy developments, especially from a partnership standpoint:

• A proposal to divide the Synod into 4 smaller synods was well-received. According to the plan, the new synods will be named Western, Central, Southwest (Pacific coastal plain), and the North. The Synod of the North would comprise the 8 Q’eqchi’ presbyteries, with Cobán as base of operations. Before final approval, the plan will be discussed in the presbyteries, and come up again at next year’s Synod meeting.
• Delegates also agreed to split the Presbiterio Occidente (Western Presbytery) into 2 new presbyteries—Altiplano and San Marcos.
• I reported on the progress of the Presbyterian Complex in Cobán, including the new Presbyterian congregation. Although some delegates questioned certain steps taken to advance construction at the complex, the assembly reaffirmed its full support for this mission project.
• Delegates debated a proposal to break ties with the PC(USA) over its allowance of same-sex marriage. In the end, the body affirmed the partnership, while declaring its unwillingness to receive gay/lesbian mission workers. PC(USA) Regional Liaison Amanda Craft assured the Synod that Presbyterian World Mission would respect the position of the Guatemalan church.
• There was a report on the development of Presbyterian University at the former site of the Maya-Quiche Biblical Institute. This project has stalled for lack of funds to upgrade facilities to meet requirements for government accreditation.
• A new moderator was elected to a 2-year term—Pastor Aurelio Cárcamo, from Champerico, Retalhuleu. The 23 new members of the Synod’s executive committee also were elected and installed (see photo of installation).DSC02747
• Power-point presentations by 4 PC(USA) mission co-workers were warmly received by delegates. Amanda Craft also gave an explanation about the availability of Walton funds for theological education for the indigenous presbyteries.
• I was supposed to give a presentation about my work with PRESGOV and international partnership activities, but time ran out before it was my turn.
• Although the agenda included a proposal to issue a pronouncement about the current political crisis in Guatemala, time also ran out before it could be considered.
• On Friday I preached at the morning devotion about seeking lost sheep, and the dilemma of choosing between management and mission as a church.
• A called Synod meeting will be held in June in Quetzaltenango to take up unfinished business, including election of officers to church-wide committees. Recognizing the financial hardships that Q’eqchi’ delegates face in traveling so far, the assembly waived the Q100 registration cost for them.

Driving back to Cobán in the PRESGOV van, I enjoyed the company of 9 Q’eqchi delegate passengers. As we reflected on the session at Monte Sion, I mentioned the lack of indigenous participation in floor debates, even about matters that effected them directly. Their reluctance to speak out, they replied, is due to their limited grasp of the issues caused by language and education barriers. Most haven’t benefitted from involvement on IENPG committees where they’d gain more familiarity with the wider church, and many leave the plenary early to get to their distant homes before Sunday. As part of an all-Q’eqchi’ Synod, they hope these obstacles can be more easily overcome, and they understand that they’ll no longer have the option of being mere observers.

Forming the new Synod of the North will be a daunting undertaking, since economic resources are few, and physical infrastructure, experience and education is so lacking. However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the Q’eqchi’, with their passion for the Gospel, their readiness to sacrifice, and their belief in the power of prayer. Also, no one should discount the willpower of the IENPG, which took up the challenge of Cobán’s Presbyterian Complex well before proposals for a Cobán-based Synod took shape. Above all, if the Synod of the North has God’s blessing, we can trust in God’s power to provide what’s needed so that it will glorify God’s name as an advance in Christ’s kingdom.

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Ferment and Hope in Guatemala’s Political Arena

Recent news headlines in Guatemala have been dominated by the dramatic implosion of the ruling Patriot Party (Partido Patriota), which came to power on an “iron fist” law and order platform. On April 16, days before the launch of the general election season, the United Nations International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) ordered the arrest of PP political appointees running the nation’s tax and customs agencies, as well as the personal secretary of the Vice-President, Roxana Baldetti (see photo)Roxana Baldetti. They were charged with running a crime racket that embezzled over $100 million in tax revenues. Adding to the scandal, a judge quickly granted bail to the accused, and the VP’s secretary fled, becoming an international fugitive. Although the VP wasn’t formally charged, because of this and other controversial incidents she became the symbol of abuse of political power.

A few days later, the PP’s presidential candidate, Alejandro Sinibaldi, dropped out of the race and quit the party. Afterward, a steady stream of other PP elected officials began to abandon the PP. The government’s credibility crisis Ignited student marches and large, non-violent protests by ordinary citizens. Campesinos organized road blockades across the country. They all demanded the resignations of Baldetti, President Otto Perez, and an end to the government’s standard corruption. Prayer vigils were held in the Central Square by Protestant church leaders, including numerous Presbyterians, while Catholic bishops and business leaders issued pronouncements against the VP. Congress voted to remove her immunity and conduct its own criminal investigation. Soon a national consensus was reached that Baldetti had to go.

After weeks of hiding, the VP finally turned in her resignation on May 8 to the glee of Guatemalans. Authorities have forbidden her from leaving the country. Furthermore, the CICIG charged the judge who released the accused tax racketeers with taking bribes from their lawyers, who were in turn arrested. Also, formal investigations were ordered by the Congress against the heads of the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Energy and Mining, and Ministry of Social Development, all PP appointees. Protesters don’t seem to be satisfied, demanding deeper, more lasting changes, and still pushing for the president to step down too. Political campaigns are intensifying as September 6 nation-wide elections loom on the horizon. While Guatemalans are feeling exhilarated at their rediscovered ability to make change, many are also dismayed that the leading presidential contenders seem to fit the same mold of dirty, greedy politics.

A note to mission partners with the IENPG: challenges to Guatemala’s political status quo haven’t posed any safety risks to mission groups and projects. Demonstrations have been positive in nature and directed specifically at the systemic crookedness of Guatemala’s ruling class. Psalm 72:2 says, “May the king judge your people with righteousness and your poor with justice.” Please keep this nation in prayer, so that resistance to entrenched corruption and impunity will continue to stay peaceful and successful.

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A Water Installation, with Glimpses of Social Reality

A 10-member mission team just returned to their homes in the Denver Presbytery, after a 9-day visit with partners at the Q’eqchi’ community of Bethania, located in the rural lowlands of the department of Baja Verapaz. They worked with Pastor Mateo Coc Coc and members of Bethania Presbyterian Church (Iglesia Presbiteriana Bethania) for the whole community to have access to clean water. Together they installed a Living Waters for the World system that, using microfiltration and ozonation, produces 300 gallons of clean water in 75 minutes. (See photo of system with Bethania operating committee with team member Barry Mayhew.) DSC02708While part of the group focused on assembling the system and training operators, another part provided health education. The week at Bethania was capped off with a celebration with representatives of nearby communities and the presbytery (see photo with leaders of Franja Transversal Presbytery). DSC02707The joyful event included lots of singing, a skit and homily, certificates for trainees, a dedication plaque, and the ceremonial presentation of the first jug of clean water. Women from Denver Presbytery sponsored soap pouches as gifts for all attendees, and there were endless hugs, handshakes, and high-fives. Everyone eagerly lined up to sip water samples, and to wash it down with 27 chicken’s worth of soup.

While the installation dominated the team’s efforts, there was time in Cobán to worship with the new Presbyterian congregation, and to visit the La Patria Norte School and the Presbyterian Complex development. There also was an opportunity to hike through the cloud forests in the beautiful uplands, and to worship, shop and reflect in Guatemala City. It was a blessing to accompany this hard-working team, and I’m so appreciative of the leadership of servants like Rev. Loye Troxler and Rev. Amy Mendez.

The group’s stay in Guatemala was punctuated with signs of the country’s social ferment. On the Saturday night that the team arrived in Guatemala City, the streets around the National Palace near the hotel were blocked by hundreds of Q’eqchi’ protesters camping in tents, demanding land reforms. The following Saturday, we were glad to read they had reached an accord with government officials. When we arrived at our hotel in Guatemala City that afternoon, a massive demonstration was underway at the Central Plaza across the street (see photos). DSC02714DSC02713-002A peaceful crowd estimated at 15,000 was protesting high-level government corruption. Fueled by allegations that the vice-president was involved in a criminal enterprise that included the heads of the tax and customs departments, demonstrators demanded that she resign along with the president. Team members slowly weaved through the crowd, snapping some photos, reading placards with messages like “Fewer Political Prisoners, More Imprisoned Politicians,” and admiring the passionate, hopeful exercise of democratic rights.

On one day, half of the group DSC02701travelled to the community of Caserio Presbiteriano La Bendición (known as Nueva Esperanza in its earlier location). Until recently these families had been squatters elsewhere, but with help from Denver Presbytery they obtained legal right to land that they’re now purchasing. Our trip was to offer support and thanksgiving for their new place, and to accompany the delivery of roofing materials and corn for the 19 families (see photo of worship service). In the early morning, while we ate breakfast at an open-air diner, a long convoy of police vehicles sped by. Three hours later, we happened upon them again. A face-off was underway between uniformed police in riot gear and a hundred landless Q’eqchi’ families that were occupying a tract of private property (see photos, with police and campesinos in opposite corners). DSC02694-001DSC02695We kept moving, only to cross paths with a throng of campesino men armed with machetes, marching towards the confrontation. Further down the road, we stopped the van to pray for the people we’d seen, and for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Hours later, while passing the site on our way back, our hearts were broken by the sight of the campesino homes ablaze (see photo). DSC02703-001Distraught Q’eqchi’ women and children stood on the roadside, and we heard the men had been chased into the surrounding hills. We prayed once again for these poor families, confessing our inability to address the situation otherwise. At the same time, we felt grateful that, by God’s grace, the families of Caserio Presbiteriano had been spared a similar fate.

Despite the careful thought that goes into partnership itineraries, the detailed project planning, and the logistics for safety and well-being, there’s always a degree of unpredictability in mission trips. Often it’s through the unpredictable that God’s Spirit intervenes. If we encounter challenging and disturbing situations, it’s worth remembering that our purpose isn’t really to feel good or to feel bad. Serving God, faithfully, in partnership with others, as best as we can—that’s our purpose. Within such service, God tends to show us glimpses of the heart-warming as well as the heart-wrenching, a mixture of our partners’ joys and struggles, to help us sense the “what” and “where” of God’s mission, and how we might participate in it. Sure, there are risks, but the biggest risk probably is that we ourselves might be transformed in ways that none of us can imagine.

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