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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Becoming Antioch Partners

Bacilia and I have some exciting news to share about our mission assignment in Guatemala. We, along with our children, are now be part of the Antioch Partners, a U.S. missionary-sending agency with close Presbyterian connections. We’re so grateful to God for this answer to prayer. The Antioch Partners (TAP) began in 2006 as a joint endeavor of the Outreach Foundation and the Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship to support long-term missionaries in cross-cultural settings around the globe. TAP collaborates with the Presbyterian Church, working with US churches and a wide range of mission partners around the world.

TAP logo 1.29.2013     TAP’s mission is to “send out followers of Jesus to participate in God’s mission in the world. We are committed to inviting people to follow Jesus, social justice and establishing worshipping communities among unreached peoples throughout the world.”

TAP’s vision: “Presbyterians effectively equipped, sent out and supported as they participate in God’s mission in the world, and every Presbyterian congregation extensively, strategically, and radically involved in this process.”

Here are some of the values and principles that have drawn us to TAP:

• A conviction that God calls us to join in Christ’s mission around the world.
• A recognition that the most vibrant church growth is now occurring in Africa, Latin America and Asia, not in the West.
• A passion for proclaiming the Gospel to unreached people groups, and for joining with emerging churches that strive to  more effectively reach their people groups.
• A commitment to servanthood and simple living in our international mission settings, acknowledging the challenges of Western missionary affluence.
• An awareness that our Presbyterian churches in the US desperately need renewal, and that partnering in God’s global mission is a means to that renewal.
• An appreciation for our Presbyterian roots and connections in the US, even as God calls us to serve primarily as disciples of Jesus and citizens of God’s kingdom.

TAP has an organizational structure that provides accountability for us as we continue to serve Christ with the Presbyterian Church in Guatemala (IENPG). An important part of TAP’s role is helping us build support relationships of every kind—prayers, moral, logistics, and economic. One of our critical goals through TAP is to form a network of giving towards our family’s living expenses, insurance, pension, travel, children’s education, and ministry costs. Our work in Guatemala depends on this, and Bacilia and I invite you to be part of that network.

Since our ties to Presbyterian World Mission of the PC(USA) ended last July, the IENPG has kindly provided our family with a stipend to cover basic needs. Some US churches and individuals have helped with uncovered expenses by sending contributions to the Outreach Foundation. From now on, contributions like these should be sent to TAP. One of our financial goals is to relieve the IENPG of the expense of our stipend, so they can devote those funds to other important ministries.

Bacilia and I hope you’ll consider supporting us in the future financially and prayerfully through The Antioch Partners. If you’d like to do so, please look at the website: http://www.theantiochpartners.org. There you’ll find our “Partner Bio” and information about how you can donate.

Praise be to the Lord who opens doors for every one of us to answer the call to follow Jesus and to participate in Christ’s amazing mission with our own gifts in different ways.

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New Members Received in Cobán

Sunday was a day of rejoicing as the Presbyterian New Church DevelopmenDSC02440t in Cobán received its first group of members. These membership candidates previously had taken a study course on the Christian faith and Presbyterianism—doctrine, history, worship, governance, and the meaning of church membership. The service began in our garage that converts into the sanctuary (see photo). The secretary of the Chiséc Q’eqchi’ Presbytery, Pastor Filipenses Flores, delivered a sermon on Acts 2:46-47: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Next, worshippers piled into several vehicles, transporting worship to a nearby park where a couple of new believers were baptized (see photos).DSC02450-001DSC02457-001 Then sixteen adults and youth formally professed their faith in Jesus Christ, took membership vows, and were presented with certificates (see photos).DSC02478 After the service, we ate tamales and drank coffee, in keeping with the day’s sermon text. To wrap things up in good Guatemalan fashion, the group held an impromptu soccer game late into the afternoon. Praise God for this milestone, which hopefully will be followed in the future by many similar events. We’re deeply grateful for all who have partnered, prayed and participated with us in God’s mission in Coban.

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School Starts; Q’eqchi’ Worship; Land for Nueva Esperanza

DSC02436Today schools opened for a new academic year in Guatemala, including at the La Patria Norte Christian School in Cobán. Since the new campus isn’t ready yet at the Presbyterian Complex, La Patria Norte will make do another year at its current leased facilities. Spirits were high as initial ceremonies and worship took place this morning (see photo). Enrollment is down slightly so far, with 220 students in kindergarten through secondary, but there’s still time for more registrations. Our kids are excited about getting back to class. Matthew enters 7th grade (primer básico), Manny’s now a 4th grader, and Stefi’s a 2nd grader (see photo).DSC02433

Among the secondary students at La Patria Norte are 3 from the Presbyterian Church in Chajul, Quiche. Mateo Caba, Elisabeth Mo, and Elena Caba (see photo) arrived in Cobán 2 days ago with their fathers, and will be studying to become legal professionals. This opportunity is made possible by scholarships from the school, with their room and board covered by contributions from Williamsburg (VA) Presbyterian Church. Through its partnership with Chajul Presbyterians, Williamsburg is also DSC02435providing scholarships and tutoring for 10 middle school students in the Ixil region.

To help needy children start school on the right foot, Northminster Presbyterian Church, of Cincinnati, OH, has sponsored a school supplies project for Cobán’s La Libertad Public School. Northminster provided resources for 400 supply kits, which were assembled last Saturday by the youth of the new Presbyterian congregation, down the street from the school (see photo)DSC02419. The supplies will be distributed at a special school assembly on January 21.

Some 80 Q’eqchi’ pastors and church leaders expected to begin theological studies next Monday in Cobán, but the program’s start  has been delayed due to uncertainty about funding. The Presbyterian Seminary hasn’t yet received approval of its 2015 proposal for Walton funds, and won’t be able to begin until the arrival of the funding, which is an endowment to support theological education for indigenous Presbyterians in Guatemala. Please pray that these resources will be available soon.

Q’eqchi’ Worship: Last Thursday, Cobán’s new Presbyterian Congregation held its first weekly Q’eqchi’-language service (see photo). DSC02414Thank God for Pastor Federico Saquí and other Q’eqchi’ Presbyterians from Canaan, Chiséc, who are taking a 3 hour bus ride each way to make possible this ministry.

Land Purchase for New Esperanza: Yesterday Presbyterian representatives signed a contract to buy 114 manzanas (almost 200 acres) of undeveloped farmland for 18 families of the Nueva Esperanza (New Hope) community, in a remote area north of Cobán. This is an event of miraculous proportions for this community, which belongs to the Franja Transversal del Norte Presbytery. For years they’ve been squatters, hoping to reach an agreement to buy the land where they raise cardamom and corn. As their mission partner, the Presbytery of Denver, especially Englewood Presbyterian Church, has prayed for this community and came up with funds for a down payment. DSC02426-001As it turned out, no deal could be reached with the landholder, but a better and larger piece of property became available nearby at a lower cost. This owner agreed to sell the land interest free! Prayers make a difference! The community will pay Q 60,000/year for 12 years from proceeds of future harvests. Please pray for these families as they now take apart their homes, church and school and move to their new place. (See photo of contract signing, with me; Fernando Martinez, Presbyterian Trustee; Flavio Poou Coc, Elder from Nueva Esperanza; Pastor Mateo Coc Coc of of Franja Transversal Presbytery; Julian Ixim Max, property seller; and Marco Antonio Chocooj, attorney)

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