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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Holy Week in Cobán

Holy week in Cobán has been happily eventful for us in several ways. For the new Presbyterian congregation, it was a special blessing to receive 12 new members on Palm Sunday (see photos).DSC02621DSC02617-001 Four of them were baptized (see photo of the event at an area park). On Maundy Thursday, the congregation celebrated our other sacrament—the Lord’s Supper—for the first time, and from now on we plan to DSC02608follow the pattern of monthly Communion.

On Monday our family moved out of the house in Barrio La Libertad where we lived for the past ten months. Originally we expected to stay there only two weeks, but God had other plans. We’ll be forever grateful for this cramped, little place where the congregation got started. It will continue to be used for worship and other church activities. Once the new manse (see photo) DSC02637-001at the Presbyterian Complex finally had water and electrical power, we wasted no time in changing places. A service of dedication of the manse already had been held on March 16, with representatives of the national church and Q’eqchi’ presbyteries, along with folks from the local congregation.

Our relocation was perfectly timed for a two-week visit by my oldest son Daniel, who arrived in Guatemala on Wednesday with his wife Holli and my granddaughter Eliza (see photo).DSC02640 Daniel’s in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, NC. They’ve been fascinated by Cobán’s Holy Week traditions, particularly the elaborate religious traditions (see photo of Catholic procession on Maundy Thursday). DSC02634-001Mostly, however, we’re catching up with each other, with lots of family time, admiring adorable Eliza, and enjoying Guatemala together.

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From “Nueva Esperanza” to “Unión Presbiteriana”

Sometimes it seemed like the day would never come, but at last it did! We praised the Lord in the new home of the Nueva Esperanza (New Hope) community. On Tuesday, Pastor Mateo, on behalf of the Franja Transversal Presbytery, and I traveled to the place where the 19 families have settled, where they’re legally entitleDSC02571d to live. For over ten years they were squatters on rocky fields with rancid water, having nowhere else to go. Now, by God’s grace, these Q’eqchi’ campesinos have relocated to 34 manzanas (about 59 acres) on a fertile hillside with natural springs, alongside the Chixoy River, with plenty of fish.

Dishonest legal wrangling was the biggest challenge. Over and over we’d met in attorney’s offices with the IENPG’s legal representative because the gun-toting landowner, Don Julian, kept reneging on signed contracts as well as his word, even after accepting a down payment and after Nueva Esperanza had taken apart their church, school and homes. At one point we wondered if we’d get back the down payment. DSC02564Next a trusted elder disappeared with money that was donated to cover moving costs. Then as the community prepared to move to their new site, several elders and Mateo were forcibly held and threatened by a misinformed mob. But they never gave in, prayers never ceased, and Don Julian underwent a change of heart. To make amends, he even reduced his asking price by 25%, making the yearly payments more manageable. On Feb. 24, the 19 families carried what belongings they could to their new place and erected dwellings out of plastic tarps and poles. They had to leave behind most of their building materials, as well as their unharvested crops.

For me, getting there meant an uncomfortable four hours on bumpy, gravel roads. Twice the van overheated, and another time a downpour stopped us. Mateo and I then hiked to the river and took a launch across. Word had gotten out that the community had little food, so I brought 10 quintales (½ ton) of corn. The families received us with joyful excitement. DSC02579Everybody gathered in the makeshift temple, constructed from branches and the village’s few sheets of lamina. Don Julian even showed up, all smiles, with an empty holster. A friendly representative of local campesinos came also, welcoming them and inviting them to join his organization.

The text for my message was Psalm 107:4-9: “Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle. They were hungry and thirsty, and their lived ebbed away. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way to a city where they could settle. Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind, for he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.”

DSC02577-001Words of gratitude were expressed all around, including for the Presbytery of Denver that offered prayers and raised funds for the down payment and other needs. The clerk of the session said, “To all who’ve helped us through all this, we can’t repay you, but we ask God to give you more life and reward you for what you’ve done. We’re thankful from the bottom of our hearts to be in our new community with our families, very happy and proud to be persevering as children of God.” A loud, long cacophony of prayers was uttered that left us physically exhausted and spiritually elevated. Cheers and applause followed an announcement by Carlos, the lay worker, that the community’s new name will be Union Presbiteriana La Reforma (The Reformation Presbyterian Union). Afterwards we sat around a metal fuel container that served as a table, and enjoyed a celebration meal of tortillas, hot, traditional chicken soup, and coffee before our return journey.

Please keep this community in prayer. A lot of time and effort will be necessary to cultivate their first crops and build longer term housing. Final legal paperwork is scheduled to be signed on March 24. Then they’ll designate parcels for each family. Existing cardamom crops won’t be ready for harvest until August.

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Middle Tennessee & the Petén—Grace upon Grace

The Gospel of John tells us that from Christ’s fullness, “we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16). This past week a team from the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee (PMT) made an annual trek to visit with partners in the Petén Q’eqchi’ Presbytery (PQP). “Grace upon grace” is a fitting way to describe the time spent together. Arriving a day late due to bad weather in the U.S. didn’t faze the 4-member team a bit. The highlight was an overnight stay in the remote village of Xexán II. We hiked in with lots of helpers for our stuff (see photo),DSC02546 and the congregation took great care of us. Stephanie Hall led children’s activities while the rest of us met with the session. The community has no electricity, so the elders were thrilled to hear that a new generator would be coming through the partnership. The women proudly showed us a tidy pig pen holding two sows and ten piglets, results of a project sponsored by PMT women (see photo). We talked with students, five of whom are to receive scholarships from Middle Tennessee partners (see DSC02550photo).DSC02553 Pastor Teddy Chuquimia preached at a full house of worshippers that night, and Barb Hall and David Carleton sang a duet. Afterwards the temple was converted into two dorm areas where we slept on cots.

In Sayaxché we held two days of discussions with Executive Committee about ministries such as the new church development in Sayaxché. Among other topics, PQP leaders explained the positive impact that theological training in Cobán had made on their presbytery, and women representatives from the PQP’s seven churches shared the successes (and some frustrations) of their pig projects. The end of the trip featured a tour of the Cancuen archeological site (see photo), worship with the new Presbyterian congregation in Cobán, DSC02557and a tour of the Presbyterian Complex development. Praise God for this partnership as it enters into its 13th year. Through it, “grace upon grace” from Jesus Christ has been received, shared, and enjoyed.

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