Starting the New Year in Honduras

During the 1st part of 2016, we made our periodic jaunt to Honduras, Bacilia’s country of origin. We spent a couple days in La Ceiba, glad to see that the dilapidated pier has been restored and the seedy waterfront has a new boardwalk. (See photo) DSC03333We found a restaurant called Super’s Chicken we liked so much we ate there 3 times. On Sunday we enjoyed worshipping at Zion Methodist Church, where I was pastor for 4 years in the nineties. It was an honor to help serve Holy Communion. (See photos) DSC03343DSC03349

Our next stop was Santa Rosa de Aguán, the seaside village where Bacilia grew up. Days were filled dropping in on her extended family, also swimming, hiking, and playing games with neighbor kids. (See photo)DSC03374 A dancing and singing troupe called a fedu roamed around the village. (See photo) Once wDSC03364hile crabbing, our boat docked next to a huge, poisonous viper called a Tamarás Negro, which was promptly whacked to death. (See photo)DSC03385

After our stay came the 3-day series of boats, busses and vehicles leading back to Cobán. Yes, we picked up some souvenirs—countless mosquito, tick and sand fly bites. We also brought back our gratitude for another opportunity to reconnect with a land and people that we love.

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Southern Hospitality in Kingsport, Tennessee

In early December, I enjoyed accompanying a delegation from Guatemala City’s Iglesia Presbiteriana Betel (Bethel Presbyterian Church) on a six-day visit to First Presbyterian Church of Kingsport, TN. DSC03288At the invitation of Kingsport FPC, six Bethel members and I traveled as a continuation of their mission partnership. Despite it being a hectic time of year, the Kingsport congregation went all out to host us, welcoming us in homes and everywhere we went. (See photo of my gracious host family, Tony and Gail Cole) We met with the session, shared morning devotionals, and made home visits to elderly members. Seeing many outreach ministries of Kingsport FPC and its members, we saw how seriously they take their motto: “Seeking to see the face of Christ; striving to be the hands of Christ.” DSC03291Among stops was a clothes closet, a community garden, a transition program for ex-prisoners, a local school partnership, a men’s carpentry ministry, and a women’s ministry called Oasis. Other highlights of our stay included a barbeque at the farm of several FPD members, a performance of Old Time bluegrass music and clogging at the Carter’s Fold  (see photo), DSC03275and a tour of Christmas lights at the Bristol Speedway, including supper in a skybox. (see photo)

On Sunday, we greeted Sunday school classes, and then joined in worship. Having combined services for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, the sanctuary was full. It was a privilege for me to deliver the message, and Pastor Luís Trigueros from Bethel extended greetings. DSC03286That afternoon delicious aromas and bursts of laughter filled the FPC kitchen, as people of both churches prepared traditional dishes from each culture—chicken pot pie and a spicy chicken dish called pepián. That evening, Bethel youth Saulo Davila and I gave power-point presentations to the congregation, his on Bethel’s youth ministry and mine on Presbyterian mission in Guatemala.

Pastor Sharon Amstutz spearheaded the planning and logistics, and all of us felt deep gratitude for her warmth and attentiveness, as well as that of so many others. Afterwards, she remarked, “I sense this was an important part of our partnership and really brought the rest of the congregation on board. It is hard to explain to them verbally or in writing what the partnership is all about – now that they have experienced it, I think they get it.”

An FPC Kingsport member, Don Thompson, wrote, “I had to write to say how touching the visit was from our Guatemala brothers and sisters. Sharon had told us previously how much our congregation had learned from Pastor Luis and his congregation. Their love and faith were truly moving and I felt so close to all of them, even though my Spanish was not up to par…. We were still able to communicate and the fellowship was phenomenal. I hope all members of the Bethel Church know how much love their sister church here in Kingsport has for them.”

Back home in Guatemala City, Bethel’s Pastor Luís Trigueros reflected: “The visit was excellent, learning about Kingsport’s ministries and our cultural differences. The hospitality was warm and impressive, and the unity in worship meant much to us, especially how we celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Theirs is a church that doesn’t just talk about God’s work, they enjoy doing it. I’m grateful for Kingsport and our partnership with them, and look forward to their return to Guatemala in July, so we can try to give back the hospitality we received.”

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Another Year of Q’eqchi’ Theological Training

God’s hand continues to move among Presbyterians in the northern region around Cobán, as evidenced by another graduating class of pastors and lay leaders from 8 Q’eqchi’ presbyteries. For the 3rd year, Guatemala’s Evangelical Presbyterian Seminary (SEP) awarded diplomas. The ceremony was heldDSC03223-001 on Nov. 30 at the Presbyterian La Patria Norte School in Cobán. Of the 69 graduates, 19 earned degrees in “Current Practical Pastoral Theology,” 18 in “Bible and Mission,” and 32 in “Church Administration.” Once again, representatives from across the Guatemalan Presbyterian Church (IENPG) were on hand to celebrate with the graduates and their families. Along with the Q’eqchi’, there were also Poqomchí and Ixil DSC03230graduates.

This educational program is a collaboration of the SEP, Cobán’s Presbyterian Complex, and the Guatemalan Presbyterian Church (IENPG), with funding support from Walton Funds (a PCUSA endowment).DSC03226

It remains to be seen what future study opportunities will be available to graduates that have finished the 3-year cycle of degrees called “diplomados.” These degree programs are tailored to the needs of Q’eqchi’ Presbyterians, many hindered by limited secular education, Spanish proficiency, and economic resources. Many would like to continue on towards a secondary-level theology degree called a “bachillerato” that SEP offers. However, most need to complete secular middle school (estudios básicos) to be eligible. Efforts are underway to find ways to help students to keep advancing in their studies.

It was a pleasure to spend time with the seminary’s dynamic, new Academic Dean, Eliseo Vilchez. He announced the slate of courses that SEP will offer in Cobán, starting in February 2016, which include offerings on youth and women’s ministries. Also, the Multi-Institutional Board of the Presbyterian Complex, met and decided that the next round of theological training sessions will be held at the complex, rather than other rented sites. Lots of work needs to be done to ready the facilities of the complex, which is far from finished, so please pray that we can make it.DSC03240

At the initiative of the Chiséc Q’eqchi’ Presbytery, the Cobán church hosted a meeting of representatives of the Q’eqchi’ presbyteries to consider a proposal to break the IENPG’s single Synod into four regional synods, including a Q’eqchi’ Synod to be based in Cobán. (See photo) Representatives of the SEP and the IENPG were on hand to answer questions. So far, the Q’eqchi’ presbyteries seem to view favorably the proposal to have their own synod, with plans for it to be based in Cobán.

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Partnership Updates: Sycamore PC and Denver Presbytery

My apologies for the lack of posts during the past month or so. Mission partnerships have been busily about the Father’s business. While these activities are uplifting, the downside is not finding enough time to write about them. Here are a couple updates:

Sycamore PC-Q’anjob’al Presbytery: On Nov. 8-13, I joined with Rev. Eliot Wink, Associate Pastor for Education, in a visit to the Q’anjob’al Presbytery. Up in the Cuchumatán Mountains, the weather was chilly, but we were received with warmth and enthusiasm. In the presbytery’s hub in San Juan Ixcoy, we dialogued with presbytery officers as well as women and DSC03180youth leaders about next steps in forming this new mission partnership. A highlight was witnessing the graduation of 20 Q’anjob’al theology students with degrees in church administration taught by the Presbyterian Seminary (see photo). Then we headed up to Santa Eulalia to visit several new church projects that are enlarging the presbytery’s ministry in that area. (See photo of NCD in the Ononá community.) DSC03184Plans are underway for a large Sycamore youth team to arrive in July to work alongside Q’anjob’al youth in this northern corner of the presbytery.

Denver Presbytery-Presbiterio Franja Transversal del Norte: On Nov. 14-22, an 8-member team from the Guatemala Mission Partnership (GMP) of the Denver Presbytery traveled to their Q’eqchi’ partners in the Franja Transversal del Norte Presbytery. Led by Kirk Yeager, they successfully installed a clean water system at the “God Is Love” Presbyterian Church in the Tres Rios community. Although the economic base of Tres Rios is farming, the Chixoy River adj20151119_134014oins their lands, often overflowing and destroying their corn crops. The GMP had to tackle several obstacles to help them get clean drinking water. One was the lack a reliable water source. The GMP funded the materials needed for a 100 foot well, while the local congregation provided volunteers to hand-dig and reinforce it. Another challenge was the lack of a suitable building for the system. Once again the GMP funded materials while the Tres Rios provided manual labor. A third challenge was travel to the community, which meant taking the PRESGOV bus each day from Chiséc to the town of Playitas, ride an outboard boat up the Chixoy River, and then IMG_3310climb into a pick-up truck for the last leg to the church. Once on site, part of the team wasted no time in assembling and testing the system, and training a local operating committee (see photo). Meanwhile, another part of the team trained local women to give hygiene education and organized activities with neighborhood kids. The week culminated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a lively celebration (see photo). At the dedication of the new system, team members presented the first bottle of water to the pastor, DSC03203-001Alberto Tiul (see photo). The GMP also arranged to give Spanish study Bibles to all 14 pastors of the presbytery. Plans are underway for another GMP team next April to install a water system at the Presbyterian Complex in Cobán.

Next posts coming soon: Q’eqchi’ theology graduates; visits to Chajul, Quiché and to Kingsport, TN; the latest on the Cobán NCD.

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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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