Eastminster’s Easter Ministry

eastminster-fireThe awful news spread quickly last week. The building of Eastminster Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee was destroyed by a fire. (See photo by Pastor Gilbert Varela) It’s such a painful blow for this faithful congregation! Lord, please, have mercy upon them, encourage them, revive them!

I’ll forever be grateful for my ties to Eastminster, which began in the fall of 2001 while I was Hispanic Ministries Coordinator of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee. I asked the Eastminster session for permission to use their facilities to reach out to Hispanic residents in the area. They voiced some concerns, since their Anglo membership was small, aging and declining. Earlier that year, the sanctuary ceiling had caved-in. Pews and aisles were buried under mounds of debris. Without the means to clean things up, electrical power had been cut, doors padlocked, and worship relocated to the fellowship hall. Hearing my proposal, the session questioned the church’s ability to be in ministry with Latinos, and they wondered what risks might be entailed. Nonetheless, on faith the session agreed to grant use of several rooms.

In early 2002, my wife, Bacilia, and I started offering English classes and Spanish-language Bible study at Eastminster on Thursday nights. Within a month or so, a group of 25 undocumented immigrants were participating. Most of them were from Mexico and Honduras, working low-paying jobs and wiring funds back home. Although none had Presbyterian backgrounds, they already were beginning to sense a connection.

One Thursday night, they asked if they could go into the sanctuary. Hearing that it was in shambles, they still wanted to take a look. I found a key and a flashlight, and we ventured in. Aghast at the condition of the once-elegant worship space, they turned to me and asked, “How soon can we return to clean up this mess?” I referred their question to the session, and soon a Saturday work day was scheduled.  All day long, the Latinos labored alongside the Anglos, carrying out rubble and moving pews. The church women prepared lunch. At day’s end, an unlikely bonding had taken place. A host of barriers had been discarded with the rest of the trash. Any qualms by church members about the Hispanic ministry were gone. More work days followed, and within a few months the sanctuary was restored.

eastminster-photo-jpegOn the heels of this experience, a Sunday-afternoon Spanish service got underway, while the Anglo members continued to worship on Sunday mornings. I was called to serve as pastor of both groups, and eventually they blended into one growing, multi-lingual congregation. The fusion triggered a seemingly endless string of innovative ministries—some successful, some not, but each filled with life, love, and laughter. One long-term goal was that the session become half-Hispanic/half-Anglo, and gradually, by God’s grace, the goal was reached. (See photo of congregation in 2010) After eight amazing years, my family and I left to serve the Presbyterian Church in Guatemala, where we still are.

Now the sanctuary has been reduced to ashes, along with the fellowship hall, the classrooms, and most everything else. Though it might appear that another Presbyterian church has bit the dust, I wouldn’t write-off Eastminster yet. This church has a history of coming back from the dead. It’s their resilient character, their godly nature, an essence that’s built into their very name—Easter. I praise God for this church, with humble people who respond in unexpected ways to adversity, saying things like, “How soon can we return to clean up this mess?”


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Dedication of Centro de Ministerio Norte “La Trinidad”

Last Friday, representatives traveled to Cobán from across Guatemala to join in the dedication of the newly-completed multi-purpose building at the Presbyterian Complex. (see photos)  dsc04209dsc04203The previous day, the Complex’s Multi-Institutional Board agreed to name it the Centro de Ministerio Norte “La Trinidad,” in honor of two PC(USA) churches that have been instrumental since the beginning in developing this multi-purpose facility. These churches—Northminster Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio and Trinity Presbyterian Church, Fairhope, Alabama—were of enormous help with donations and work teams. Other generous PC(USA) supporters were also acknowledged: South Alabama Presbytery; First Presbyterian Church of Kenosha, Wisconsin; First Presbyterian Church of Kingsport, Tennessee; The Outreach Foundation of Franklin, Tennessee; the Inland Northwest Presbytery, and Denver Presbytery.

At the dedication service, many greetings and well-wishes were expressed, and numerous gifts were presented (see photo).dsc04227 Flowers were provided by Northminster Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. After a sermon by Pastor Ivan Paz, Secretary of the Multi-Institutional Board, a beautiful rite of anointing took place. Pastors and elders came forward, dabbing their fingers in olive oil and scattering throughout the building to pray for God’s continued blessing (see photo).inauguracion-centro-coban-2016 David’s words in 1 Chronicles 29:16 were remembered: “Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you.” Following the service, the celebration continued with a traditional chicken dish called “tiú.”

The center currently serves as home for the new Antioch Presbyterian Church, a regional campus for Guatemala’s Presbyterian Seminary, and hub for the eight surrounding Q’eqchi’ presbyteries. It offers a meeting/worship space, five rooms for either classes or lodging, an office, a kitchen, restrooms and showers, and room for our water purification system. There’s still a lot more to do to fulfill the long-range vision for Cobán’s Presbyterian Complex. The Multi-Institutional Board has authorized the next stage of construction—a guest house and training center. We welcome any presbyteries, churches or individuals that would like to be involved in this next urgent project!


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The Chartering of “Antioch Presbyterian Church”

Barely two years ago, a Presbyterian worshiping community started to gather in the carport of the house we were renting in Cobán. Now, that community has been officially chartered as a church. The membership chose the name “Antioch” in honor of the multi-cultural mother church of mission to the Gentiles, where disciples were first called “Christians.” (See Acts 11:19-26)

With 96 men, women and children, the church averages 80 worshipers each Sunday. Youth and women’s societies meet each week, as well as prayer meetings and Bible study. Four ruling elders serve on the session—two men and two women—along with four deaconesses and me as pastor. Members are a mixture of Mayan and Ladino, with both the Spanish and Q’eqchi’ languages used in worship. On November 3, the plenary of the Chiséc Q’eqchi’ Presbytery voted unanimously to approve the chartering of the church. The next evening a service of dedication was held at Cobán’s Presbyterian Complex. See photo of the session being recognized, minus Bacilia who was taking a nursing exam, and some of the members. dsc04193dsc04194

The church is excited and thankful for all in Guatemala and beyond who have been involved in progress of this new church development. as it continues to grow in membership and offer God’s grace in more ways to the surrounding community. Among well-wishers was our PC(USA) partner Northminster Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati, Ohio. On behalf of the church, Jane Whalen sent this message:

“Greetings from Northminster Presbyterian Church! Today we rejoice with you for what God has done for you and through you! The dedication of The Antioch Church is an important milestone in the development of this new church. Your faithfulness and commitment to God’s people shows in your worship and your witness to the people of Cobán. We are honored to be in partnership with you, and doubly honored that you would name the multipurpose building ‘Centro de Ministerio Norte’ in recognition of our partnership. We will continue to pray for you and your ministry, and we look forward to being with you again next summer. To God be the glory!”

Indeed, all glory is given to God! Please keep Antioch Presbyterian Church in prayer as we strive to grow ever more vibrant in our faith and fellowship, more gracious in our witness to the surrounding community, and more fruitful as people draw closer to Christ through God’s ministry at this church.


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A Year’s Progress in Mayan Pastoral Training

The year 2016 has seen more growth in theological education in the region around Cobán. Last Thursday a graduation ceremony was held for the 4th consecutive year, with 42 students receiving diplomas from the Presbyterian Evangelical Seminary (see photo).dsc04213 Most were Q’eqchi’, with some Poqomchí, Ixil and Ladino graduates. As we praise God for this blessing, we continue to pray for the future of this crucial program.

Every year, financing poses a high hurdle to surmount, as you might expect. Most students face impoverished economic conditions, and they rely on scholarships, which include room and board in Cobán. While Walton funds from the PC(USA) provide considerable help, it’s been difficult at times to harmonize this endowment’s 25-year-old stipulations with current needs. Guatemala’s Presbyterian Seminary underwrites some expenses, though it suffers financial hardships of its own that threaten the program’s future viability. Plans are underway to invite supporters from abroad to help cover some unmet expenses so we can avoid charging students.

dsc04208Another ongoing barrier is the limited formal education among Q’eqchi’ pastors. Since many have only an elementary education, their ineligible for the next seminary degree program. They’re stuck until they complete middle school, an expense beyond their means. Next year we hope to be able to offer some new scholarships to help pastors and church leaders advance in secular education. We also plan to start offering workshops in Cobán next year for Q’eqchi’ ruling elders that have little access to leadership training.

dsc04058Being able to house the program at our own facilities is a huge breakthrough. In September, all aspects of theological training in Cobán moved to the Presbyterian Complex—classes, housing and meals. However, the facilities are small, with students sleeping on mattresses on the floors of Sunday school rooms. Some classes are taught outdoors until a more spacious training center and guest house can be built (see photo).

In addition to coordinating theological education in Cobán, this year the seminary askeddsc04167 me to be an adjunct professor. In Cobán I taught about church history and pastoral administration (see photo), while in the Q’anjob’al Presbytery I taught Bible courses on Acts, Paul’s epistles, and Revelation (see photo). It’s most gratifying to participate in God’s work of equipping the saints for ministry, and I’m deeply thankful for all who support these efforts in so many ways.

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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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