Our Thai Adventure

At the start of the year, who would’ve imagined that God’s plans for our family included a trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand? What an unexpected blessing it was to beDSC03019 there over the past two weeks! It was a generous gift by The Antioch Partners (TAP) to invite us to join with other missionaries from around the world for their first-ever TAP Retreat.
The trip’s first leg, of course, was air travel. After flying to Houston, we had a 15 hour flight to Beijing, China, followed by 13½ hour wait at the Beijing airport. To make the most of the long layover, we took a siDSC03032de trip to the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City. Then it was off to Chiang Mai.

The retreat site was Horizon Village, a botanic resort on the outskirts of the city. We began and ended each day with worship, and then an address on the theme of “nurturing resilience.” Through the week, speakers touchedDSC03094 on topics like “raising third culture kids,” children’s education, mission insurance and finances, and communications technology. There was considerable time for small group prayer and discussions. Matthew, Manny and Stefi had a great time with other missionary kids from places like Japan, Uganda, and Madagascar. There was plenty of time for resting, networking, and even an outing to an elephant park.

AfterwaDSC03126rds, we stayed some extra time to enjoy more of northern Thailand. For 3 days we went north to trek among hill tribe villages, hiking through mountains, riding and bathing elephants, and rafting down the Mae Tang River. DSC03137Our last days we worshipped at an international church in Chiang Mai, visited the zoo, shopped, and cycled through the city. Finally, we packed our bags and headed home to Guatemala.

What was our takeaway from this journey? We took away unforgettable learning experiences as a family. Insights into ways that God enables us to thrive in all circumstances. DSC03144A wider circle of missionary colleagues, and stronger ties to TAP. And, naturally, we picked up some souvenirs. We’re so grateful to God and to TAP for this opportunity to explore another fascinating area of God’s creation and to come away with a stronger passion to serve.

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Learning to Do Good in the Peten

Visitors in Guatemala often remark about the passion for life that many Guatemalan people exude, a hopeful outlook despite severe conditions of poverty and insecurity. Is this a faulty perception, a stereotype that romanticizes the poor so we can fool ourselves into thinking that nothing needs to change? Of course, not all Guatemalans are don’t share the same outlook. Some resign themselves to injustices and a meager existence, perhaps finding comfort in vices like alcohol, or even using some forms of religion as an escape. Yet, for there are plenty of Guatemalans whose passion for life is genuine. An active faith often fuels this. Another thing is a yearning for education. The streets of Cobán bustle each day with exuberant young people making their way to and from classes. Behind these students are parents who are passionate about seeing that their children prosper in school and, consequently, in life.

The Prophet Isaiah told God’s sinful people to “learn to do good.” (Isaiah 1:17) Presbyterians in Guatemala are busy applying such Biblical principles, promoting education as a key to a meaningful life. In many cases, partners in the United States come alongside the Guatemalans, encouraging and supporting these efforts. Almost every international partnership I facilitate has education as a top priority. Projects include tuition scholarships for needy youth, school supplies for public schools, resources for teachers, room and board for students away from home, sponsorship of a learning center, travel funds for theological training, as well as support for the Presbyterian Complex in Cobán, which has a strong educational component.DSC02989

A specific example is in the Petén Q’eqchi’ Presbytery (PQP), which partners with the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee (PMT). For the past year, women of the PQP have gathered in Sayaxché for training in animal husbandry, basic economics, and organizational skills. Each time Bety Cifuentes and I have traveled to facilitate this training. Bety, a Presbyterian deaconess from Xela, has a long-history of enabling women across the IENPG. Recently, women representatives from the PQP’s 7 churches met with Bety and me for another day of training and fellowship. In all there were 33 adults plus 10 children. The first order of business was lunch preparation behind the church, which meant butchering the 6 chickens and 1 duck brought by the women (see photo). Then, while the group watched over a kettle of soup, Bety outlined duties of officers in the Presbiterial and the process of elections. Meanwhile, I met with the PQP’s executive committee to discuss, among other topics, a growing scholarship program for middle school students that’s been developed in partnership with the PMT. After lunch we joined together in the temple for a report from each society on their pig projects. (see photo of some of the pigs)img122 In 1 year the women showed a profit of Q 8,090 beyond an initial investment of Q 10,500. These profits were then disbursed to ministries of the women and the presbytery. Six of the 7 women’s societies chose to repeat the stewardship project. Thanks to God for stirring up this passion for doing good, and to Christ’s faithful servants for helping each other life well.

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First Anniversary of Cobán’s Presbyterian Church

A year ago, Presbyterian worship services got underway in Barrio La Libertad, Cobán. The truth is that after moving to Cobán in June 2014, we realized that a Presbyterian Church was needed not only to serve the community, but also for us. After several months of family devotions on Sundays and plenty of prayer, we invited others to worship with us in our garage (photo on left). DSC02050The congregation has grown gradually, and on Sunday we held of service of thanksgtiving for our first year (photo on right).DSC02930

As you’d expect, the year included lots of firsts—first baptisms, first members, first ordination of elders and deacons, and first weddings. A youth group, Sunday school, Bible study classes, Holy Communion and fellowship activities were initiated. The year provided myriad opportunities for our family to learn about Cobán’s cultural traditions and social realities, and to meet many interesting and good-hearted people. It was a year of trying to shape the NCD’s identity as a Reformed congregation in a religious landscape dominated by Roman Catholics, Nazarenes, and Pentecostals. There were challenges along the way—juggling church and family in the same place, completing the manse, expanding the worship area, the theft of our amplifier, the kidnapping of a church member, and seeking to figure out how best to respond to the needs of the poor in the barrio. It was a pleasure to welcome numerous mission teams from the United States, each one bringing encouragement and a sense of connection with the wider Church. We’re thankful for the continuation of the NCD’s ties with Northminster Presbyterian Church, of Cincinnati, Ohio, a partnership that started almost three years ago.DSC02917

To mark this anniversary, members held a weekend of special events. On Saturday, Aug. 29, two busloads of participants traveled to the cloud forest near Purulhá for a day-long retreat. We enjoyed a nature hike (see photo), swimming, soccer, devotional, a workshop on “The Fruit of the Spirit,” and we savored the famous turkey soup called Kak’ik. On Sunday, Aug. 30, worship was held for the first time at the nearby Presbyterian Complex, in the unfinished shell of the Administration and Mission Center. At 6:00 AM church members started hauling chairs, tables, hymnals, speakers, and other equipment from the church building, to set up and decorate for the 10:00 AM service. (See photo) DSC02931 There were 81 persons in attendance—a record for us! Afterwards, church cooks served a delicious meal of barbecued chicken. We then hauled everything back to the church building and, to top things off, played yet another soccer game.

Among the congregation’s goals for the next year are:
1. To keep reaching out to people at their needs as we proclaim the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
2. To find more ways to intertwine our spiritual family with the rest of the community, especially the Q’eqchi’ population;
3.To increase strength in numbers, resources and organization so that the church can be officially chartered;
4. To begin forming small faith groups in other parts of Cobán and beyond;
5. To finish the building at the Presbyterian Complex that will be our long-term location.

Praise be to God for the extraordinary blessing of participating with so many others in Christ’s mission in Cobán, witnessing the miracle of God’s divine plan as it unfolds phase by phase.

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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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