A New Era Begins for Presbyterians in Cobán

By God’s grace, the Presbyterian mission continues to consolidate in Cobán, and recently has reached a few important mileposts. In mid-July, the indigenous theological training program, after 3½ years in various rented facilities, moved to the nearly-finished mission center at the Presbyterian Complex. Accommodations are rather austere for now, with two restrooms and showers for 50 people, and students sleeping on the floor on foam mattresses. For meals, they walked five blocks over to the site of the church. Far from of complaining, however, students are happy that at last Presbyterians have a place of their own (see photo). DSC03920 (2)

Great progress was made at the Complex over the summer, thanks in large part to the terrific PC(USA) work teams that came to pitch-in. At the end of July, the Cobán Presbyterian Church decided the time had come to relocate there. After a sentimental final service at the rented house where the church started, everything was hauled over to the mission center. DSC03944 (2)People quickly adjusted to the new, roomier surroundings and, before long, the youth had cleared off a soccer field, complete with bamboo goalposts.

On the last weekend of August, the church marked its 2nd anniversary. On Friday we held a bonfire at the Complex grounds (see photo), DSC03987 (2)roasting hotdogs, corn-on-the-cob, and marshmallows, and sipping hot chocolate. There was singing around the burning embers, and I recounted the story of the epic contest at Mt. Carmel between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (scripture’s most famous bonfire, I claimed). On Saturday night the youth led the service, with a drama about Jesus being our best friend, a choreographed praise dance (see photo), DSC03997 (2)and inspirational music by guest artists. Afterwards, we all feasted on Honduran-style tamales.

The celebration culminated on Sunday with a service of thanksgiving. The sanctuary was decorated with balloons and big pacaya branches. Special music was provided by the youth band, children’s Sunday school (see photo), DSC04017and women’s choir. Pastor Isaías García, Permanent Secretary of the IENPG, was our guest speaker, preaching on “Characteristics of a Dynamic Church.” The women’s society’s first set of officers also was installed, and the new kitchen was dedicated. Afterwards, everyone lined up for Q’eqchi’-style chicken soup (see photo).DSC04029

Yes, God’s work in through Presbyterians has come a long way. As we praise God, we’re getting ready for the next stages at the Complex—building a Christian training center and guest house, and the campus for the La Patria Norte School, which remains at its leased quarters for now. Please keep us in your prayers as we move forward!

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Two Are Better than One—Northminster and Cobán

As part of a team from Cincinnati’s Northminster Presbyterian Church that visited Cobán’s Presbyterian Church in mid-July, Jane Whalen preached at Sunday worship. Her text was from Ecclesiastes, about two being better than one. “We at Northminster Church pray for you,” she said, “and we know that you pray for us.” She went on: “If we want better results in anything we try to do, we seek a partnership with someone else. But if we want to get really surprising results, results that break all limits and reach unimagined scope, then that partnership of two should be raised to a combination of three by partnering with God.”

God continues to bless the relationship between these churches, helping them to bring the best out of each other. Most on the 24-member Northminster team were high school and college-age youth, but there were veterans to the partnership as well. Along with the Cobán congregation, a group of eight Q’eqchi’ youth came from elsewhere in the Chiséc Presbytery to participate.

During the week, everyone scattered to plug into different ministry projects at the Presbyterian Complex—some painting the exterior, others mixing concrete, landscaping, and sealing sheet rock. Several sign painting projects also were tackled (see photo).DSC03933 Jobs were done at such breakneck speed that, at times, it was a challenge to keep supplies stocked and to find enough to keep everyone busy. The mission wasn’t restricted to the work site. Not wanting to exclude church women as they prepared lunches at the church kitchen, Northminster sent helpers each day to dice vegetables and pat tortillas. Each day, also, teams went to homes of needy families in the community, offering words of encouragement, prayers, and bags of food staples.

One morning, the marching band from the local elementary school showed up at the complex to play a few numbers, wanting to show appreciation for a school supplies ministry that Northminster has funded for the past couple of years (see photo). DSC03930 (2)The next day, the executive committee of the Guatemalan Presbyterian Church pulled up in a bus and offered words of thanks to the team for Northminster’s contributions to projects in Cobán.

We had numerous special occasions for relationship building. After Sunday worship, there was a picnic at a local swimming hole. Although repeated downpours got everyone wet, the spirit of fun was never dampened (see photo). DSC03927 (2)During the week there also was a youth soccer match, a pizza night with Cobán youth, a faith-sharing service, singing (see photo),DSC03921 (2)and a meeting about ways to keep strengthening ties between the two churches.

At the farewell service, on the last night in Cobán, representatives from both churches signed a covenant to renew their partnership for another three years. I love how God brought these two churches together, about how Northminster entered into a long-term covenant with a congregation that didn’t yet exist, in a city they’d never seen before. After much thought, prayer and discussion, they followed God’s Spirit on faith. Ever since, the truth that “two are better than one” has been demonstrated over and over again.

 

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“Transformed”—Sycamore Presbyterian Church and the Q’anjob’al Presbytery

“Transformed” was the theme for a delegation of energetic students from Sycamore Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio, who arrived on July 8, eager to serve with the Q’anjob’al Presbytery, high up in the Cuchumatan Mountains. Most of the 19 team members had never been to Guatemala before. After overnighting in Huehuetenango, we stopped at the Mayan ruins of Zaculeu, which go back about 1,700 years, to gain some historical perspective. Upon entering Q’anjob’al territory, we wound our way to San Juan Ixcoy, where a packed Presbyterian Church extended a warm welcome (see photo of team singing). DSC03883 (2)The presbytery leadership greeted us and provided a delicious supper. The next day, at an indoor soccer court in San Juan Ixcoy, the team joined with young people from across the presbytery for a day-long youth gathering. The event was filled with worship, group games, exchanging testimonies, and a friendly soccer match.

Most of the 9-day trip was in the town of Santa Eulalia, where the Sycamore youth joined with local youth to paint the Presbyterian sanctuary and classrooms, and help build an addition to the building. The paint project included a scenic backdrop behind the pulpit (see photo), DSC03891 (2) and scripture verses on classroom walls. As everyone labored together, we could see that the building was being transformed.

In the afternoons, the youth led a children’s Bible school, with a drama about the gospel, songs, games, crafts and, of course, snacks. Also, each afternoon a different, small group reached out to the community, visiting homes to pray with the sick and elderly. The Santa Eulalia youth were amazingly friendly and incredibly hospitable, working alongside the Sycamore team every day, preparing traditional snacks for us, and organizing kids for Bible school. A proposal to play soccer turned into a youth night, with a soccer match (complete with ref), a song interchange, and hamburgers and French fries sponsored by Sycamore. As people of different cultures and languages bonded, transformation was happening.

The mission trip also provided an opportunity to further explore formalizing a partnership with the Q’anjob’al Presbytery. Sycamore representatives took part in a presbytery-wide meeting to discuss the draft of a covenant. There’s considerable hope that the relationship will continue in the long-term, but no final decisions have been made yet.

The last day the Santa Eulalia congregation held a touching farewell gathering, featuring a sermon by team leader Meredith Reuscher. After the service, on a lark, the team climbed aboard tuc-tucs (three-wheel motor-taxis) for a spin through the streets of Santa Eulalia (see photo).DSC03909 (2)

However, the trip wasn’t over yet. Before returning to Cincinnati, the team dropped by Antigua to see colonial ruins, historic churches, and to hunt for souvenirs. The final morning, we all worshiped at Guatemala City’s Central Presbyterian Church, Guatemala’s oldest Protestant church, giving more historical perspective to their visit.

“Transformed” means to undergo a dramatic change in form or character. When Christians like those at Sycamore and the Q’anjob’al Presbytery overcome barriers to serve and worship God together, they’re refusing, in effect, to be conformed to the selfish, shallow ways of the world. They’re choosing, instead, for God’s transforming power to work in them and through them in deep and lasting ways. Amen to that!

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Kingsport Visit Capped by Dedication of Bee Rigby Room

By God’s grace, First Presbyterian Church of Kingsport, TN has moved by faith as a mission partner in Guatemala. For numerous years, the church has sponsored water projects and nourishment programs in marginalized areas on the outskirts of Guatemala City. Then God led them to seek closer ties with local Presbyterians. Now the church is pulling off a mission relationship with two quite different Guatemalan churches. One of them, Bethel Presbyterian Church, is urban, mostly Ladino (mixed-ethnic, westernized), and firmly established in a working-class barrio in Guatemala City. The other, the Presbyterian Complex of Cobán, includes a mostly indigenous church development in Guatemala’s most impoverished department (Alta Verapaz). For the past three summers, Kingsport has included both places in its visits to Guatemala, and somehow (by God’s grace) it’s working.

This year’s team had 14 people, including Senior Pastor David Cagle. The first leg (July 30-July 3) was with Bethel, and was coordinated by PC(USA) mission co-workers Richard and Debbie Welch. Home visits in the community were an eye-opening experience, with opportunities for worship, faith-sharing and prayer. A highlight was a children’s outreach on a neighborhood basketball court, with a piñata, face-painting, and a skit about Noah’s ark. One day for lunch (see photo),Kingsport at Bethel 2016 (2) the Kingsport team prepared a traditional southern lunch of pulled-pork barbecue sandwiches and all the fixings. (When a Bethel delegation visited the Kingsport congregation last December, they prepared a typical Guatemalan meal.) The visit at Bethel culminated with Sunday worship, with David preaching, Bo Grover playing the fiddle, and everyone sharing holy communion.

After the service, it was off to Cobán. A half-dozen Bethel folks boarded the bus with the Kingsport folks, wanting also to join in this mission effort. Five hours later, we were all together at the Cobán Presbyterian Church for supper and a welcome service. For the next 2½ days, they painted the interior of the Mission Center at Cobán’s Presbyterian Complex, delivered food baskets to needy families (see photo).DSC03873 (2) Two Kingsport women, Judy Grover and Martha Pendley) began a beautiful rendering of the IENPG symbol behind the worship area (see photo). DSC03875 (2) The highlight of their time in Cobán was the dedication of the Bee Rigby Room at the Mission Center. The moving service included personal testimonies about Bee Rigby, a deceased Kingsport elder whose faithful, loving spirit touched many lives. (See photo of plaques that are displayed at the center.) DSC03980 (2)A bequest left by her for global mission helped make possible the construction of the Mission Center.

I’m grateful for the people of Kingsport FPC, and their devotion to God’s mission, even when the mission journey swerves along several paths. As a mission partner, they demonstrate that, as Romans 8:28 assures us, “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

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The Strength of a Three-Strand Partnership

The Bible says that a cord of three strands isn’t quickly broken (Ecclesiastes 4:12). This maxim certainly holds true in the partnership of Williamsburg Presbyterian Church, Presbyterians in Chajul, Quiché, and Guatemala City’s Central Presbyterian Church. Five representatives from Williamsburg made the yearly trek to Guatemala on June 22-29, tightening the strands that already bind the three congregations. A committee from the Central Church and I were at the airport to welcome the team, led by Bob and Nancy Archibald. Immediately we drove north to Coban, where we met the next day with five high school students from Chajul whose room/board is covered by Williamsburg while they study at Cobán’s La Patria Norte School (see photo). DSC03807 (2)The students talked about their experiences living together away from home, and served a delicious lunch of chow mien. Then we all boarded the PRESGOV bus for the journey’s next leg, heading for the remote hills of Ixil region, and the amazing people of Chajul.

While in Chajul, our itinerary had three priorities—improving facilities, advancing education, and strengthening personal ties. The church building, dedicated just two years ago, had never been painted. Volunteers from the three partners rolled up sleeves to spread two coats on the temple’s interior and front, making them much brighter and appealing. DSC03811 (2)We also got to view progress on the new study center next to the church, a project funded in large part by Williamsburg.

Promoting better learning opportunities in the Chajul community has become the heart of this mission partnership. Just 11% of young people in Chajul finish middle school, due in large part to the lure of work, the unaffordability of tuition, language barriers, and the need for a support network to help them meet educational challenges. In response, partners are providing scholarships to 21 middle school students. These students also benefit from an after-school tutoring program, which has been named the “Williamsburg Presbyterian Reinforcement Institute.” While in Chajul, the three churches sponsored an afternoon get-together with the scholarship recipients. The students expressed their gratitude for the program, and shared how it was making a difference in their lives. Letters of encouragement from Williamsburg women’s circles were given to many them, along with some refurbished laptops for the tutoring center. Later on, there also was a tour of the local Methodist school where the students are enrolled.

Since personal relationships are a key to this partnership, there were many moments for simple interaction. On several afternoons, Williamsburg led crafts and games for excited church kids that clung to the team’s two youth members. We visited homes of elderly and sick church members, presenting prayer shawls that were knitted by Williamsburg women. Sunday morning worship took place along a nearby stream where 14 baptisms were performed (see photo) IMG_1498-1 and Holy Communion was offered. The afternoon service included a wedding, and a stirring solo of “The Lord’s Prayer” by Pastor Rachel Hubert, who also preached.

The Chajul congregation was a kind, generous host, serving delicious meals at the manse, organizing logistics, and offering constant companionship. At the farewell service, the Chajul congregation presented the Williamsburg team with two beautiful, hand-woven banners as a gesture of appreciation (see photo of one of them). DSC03837 (2)Williamsburg, in turn, presented a set of Spanish-language maps for Bible study (see photo). DSC03846Back in Guatemala City, on the last day of the week-long journey, we were treated to a meal at the Central Church session treated us to a meal, during which we celebrated the partnership’s successes, gave all glory to God, and discussed ways to help this three-fold cord grow stronger and stronger.

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Living the Story—Trinity Presbyterian Church & South Alabama Presbytery

The past two months have kept us on the run, hustling to work with one great mission team after another. Now that the summer season is winding down, it’s time to catch up on this blog.

The summer’s 1st team, June 15-22, was the biggest—39 people! Anchoring the team, with over half, was Trinity Presbyterian Church, Fairhope, Alabama. There were also nine “Teens-4-Christ” from the Presbytery of South Alabama, led by Rev. Ashley Mertz, plus 3 representatives of Presbyterian women. The Presbyterian Complex in Cobán was the focal point of activity. Despite hot weather, the team tackled jobs with gusto, hanging sheetrock inside the mission center, pouring a concrete veranda, and spreading gravel across the parking area (see photo).DSC03778 Teams leaders Roger Ahrens and John Griffin kept everyone plugged in somewhere. A crew of eight youth volunteers from across the Chiséc Q’eqchi’ Presbytery, which is a partner with the South Alabama Presbytery, pitched in each day, making a huge contribution. Meanwhile, Bacilia and other church women cooked up a storm to feed lunch to the whole gang each day.

Over the weekend, much of the team journeyed down to the lowland village of Limón Sur for a presbytery-wide youth gathering. The event was packed with interactive games, worship, singing, eating, swimming, and culminated with the election of Señorita Chiséc Presbyterian Youth—one each for Guatemala—Tricia Flores—and Alabama—Caroline Davis (see photo). DSC03795 (3)Another highlight was a get-together of women representatives from the South Alabama and Chiséc Presbyteries. Among topics of conversation was a sewing venture for women in Cobán and beyond.

On Sunday, everyone packed the mission center to praise God in three languages with Cobán’s Presbyterian Church (see photo).DSC03799 Rev. Matt McCullum preached on “Living the Story,” using a scripture passage that says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly.” (Colossians 3:16) Through the week there were moments for Christian fellowship, such as a hoopla-filled soccer match (does anyone remember who won?), an arduous hike to a lovely mountain waterfall, and a never-ending search for rich, Cobán coffee and mementoes to take home to Alabama along with impactful experiences and lasting memories of how we “lived the story.”

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Q’eqchi’ Hymnal in the Works

One of the exciting projects of Cobán’s Presbyterian Complex of the North is the first-ever Presbyterian Hymnal in the Q’eqchi’ Himnario Q'eqchi' (2)language. This undertaking was initiated last year at the request of the Q’eqchi’ participants on the complex’s oversight council. Their concern is that the official hymnal of Guatemalan Presbyterians hasn’t been updated for 52 years, is hard to find in the Q’eqchi’ region, and is unintelligible to many Q’eqchi’ Presbyterians.  A commission was formed of representatives from each of the eight Q’eqchi’ presbyteries, and me in the role of facilitator. (See photo of recent meeting in Cobán)DSC03776 (2) The hymnal will have a mixture of well-known traditional hymns, contemporary worship songs, and popular choruses.  Commission members are striving to select music that resonates with Q’eqchi’ styles of worship, reflects the Guatemalan cultural context, and upholds Reformed theology. A scriptural reference point has been the Apostle Paul, who said, “I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.” (1 Corinthians 14:15) So far about 300 songs have made the cut, some of them already available in Q’eqchi’ and others that will need translation. In order for the hymnal to connect with younger church-goers, the commission has opted to use the updated form of Q’eqchi’, rather than the antiquated version that’s more familiar to older generations. We’re grateful to the First Presbyterian Church of Kingsport, Tennessee for a generous gift in support of this new hymnal. God willing, the new hymnal will be dedicated later this year.

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