Izabal is home to thousand-year-old Mayan ruins, a four-century-old Spanish fort, Guatemala’s main shipping port, its largest lake, a Garifuna settlement along the sea, and vast tropical forests. This department is also the location of the Izabal Presbytery, where a team from Cincinnati’s Northminster Presbyterian Church visited this week.
The 4-member group has been touring prospective mission partners in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Their time in Izabal included stops at four churches, where impromptu worship experiences broke out with mobs of children. There were also get togethers with the presbytery’s executive committee, women and youth. The hospitality of the women and men of the presbytery was outstanding in every way. (See photo from outside a church in the village of Chinebal.)
We stayed the night inside the presbytery’s small training center. Since there’s no electrical power in Chinebal, the presbytery leaders arranged for a generator. Their thinking was that we might have laptop computers to plug in, or cell phones that would need recharging. Mosquitos were on the rampage. The presbytery had arranged mosquito netting for us, and we supplemented it with bug spray and smoking repellant coils. The Izabal pastors, wanting to be available in case we needed any help, slept outside, slapping away at mosquitos all night, without protection. Unexpected gestures like this provided a clear glimpse of how seriously the Izabal people take their role as hosts. (We did offer bug spray and coils, but the pastors insisted they were okay.) In the morning, a group of women showed up with a hot breakfast of eggs, beans, cheese, tortillas and coffee.
The towns that we visited are surrounded by foreign-owned African palm oil plantations. Until about a decade ago, cattle were raised on this land. Before that, Q’eqchi’ campesinos farmed it. As you might expect, this agri-business is a source of controversy. On one hand it provides some employment opportunities. On the other hand, it occupies large tracts of land that are unavailable for growing basic crops. African palm also can contribute to land erosion, depletion of soil, contamination of the water table, and can damage the biodiversity of the environment. (See photo of oxen that haul the seeds to a truck that delivers them to an extraction plant.)
The Izabal Presbytery faces many challenges, including water shortages, few educational resources, lack of land and employment, and child malnutrition. The presbytery also enjoys much strength to share, including its vibrant ministries with children and youth, a dedicated women’s organization, caring pastors, lovely places of worship, and a love for God’s work. I’m grateful to God for this presbytery, and for the many opportunities that it offers to make a difference in the lives of God’s people.