Monthly Archives: July 2012

Izabal

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.

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Images of Guatemala City

Guatemala City is an often maligned place that tourists tend to avoid. We’ve lived here for two years now, and find the capital of Guatemala to be colorful and fascinating. On Saturday afternoons, while waiting for niece Jesy to finish her youth meeting at church, I like to wonder around the city center. Recently I’ve been carrying a camera, and here are some photos I snapped:

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Driving Back to Limón Sur and Sayaxché

We just returned from a four-day loop through the Q’eqchi’ presbyteries of Chisec and the Petén. Since our children are on vacation from school, the whole family came along. We drove our car. The first stop was the hotel in Chisec, where the kids went swimming and sliding at the pool. The next day, Sunday, I preached at two churches in the village of Limón Sur. I also met with the session at a third church. These churches have endured some turmoil during the past month because their pastors were suspended at the IENPG’s May Synod meeting, due to an improper financial transaction from several years ago. The pastors have confessed their mistake and pledged to return the funds in question. It was good to see how well the congregations are holding together, with hopes to raise funds to help their pastors make amends so they can be reinstated. My sermons were about the paralytic man and his faithful companions that carried him on a stretcher to Jesus, despite obstacles that could’ve easily dissuaded them.

On Monday we headed to the town of Sayaxché, where I met with the executive committee of the Petén Q’eqchi’ Presbytery. The church building project that began in February now has its walls and roof. (See photo) While Bacilia and our children explored the neighborhood, presbytery leaders and I went over costs estimates for the last phase of construction. We also discussed a strategic plan for beginning ministry there. The decision was made to deploy a pastor from another nearby Presbyterian church who will initiate visitation in the community on an interim basis, and begin a weekly worship service. A rudimentary budget was created that will cover the pastor’s travel expenses, a small compensation for the days that he’ll be away from his corn field, and some initial expenses for the new church development. Other churches in the presbytery will be asked to chip in support for this budget, and a request will be sent for some funds from outside. This arrangement will continue until a full-time pastor is called, which might be a while since the presbytery has a hard time enlisting new, capable pastors.

On our way back to Chisec, we gave a ride to one of the pastors on the executive committee, Ricardo Chun. Like his colleagues, he struggles with poverty. Recently Ricardo accepted a new call to a church in the rural community of Xexán.  His previous call offered no salary, and his new church pays him 200 Quetzals ($25) per month. He, along with other pastors in the presbytery, also receives $10 per month in support from the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee. As in his previous church, Ricardo and his family live in a one-room dwelling made of boards, reeds and thatch. This manse also serves as Sunday school room and church kitchen. To sustain his family, he works a corn patch like others in the congregation, and depends on earnings from the harvest. Like others farmers in Xexán, he benefited from seed that was donated by Middle Tennessee. Prospects for harvest this year are uncertain because of a fungus that’s killing the corn.

The conditions confronting pastoral families like Ricardo’s are tough, but their determination is inspiring. It’s tempting for them and their churches to pin their hopes on outside help, and it’s tempting for outsiders to want to come to their financial rescue with financial. But in the long-run that approach can lead to a cycle of dependency and paternalism that saps congregations of vitality. Thinking out loud, Ricardo and I wondered if it wouldn’t be healthy and reasonable to expect that before congregations make requests for outside assistance, they establish a standard of tithing among their members.

After dropping off Ricardo, we spent the night again in Chisec. On Tuesday, our family visited a large network of caverns near Chisec called the Cuevas de Calendaria. Flashlights in hand and following our guide, Manuel, we hiked around stalactites and stalagmites, and squeezed through passages with unusual rock formations.  (See photo) Afterwards we enjoyed roast corn on the cob beside the highway. Family trips like this one to Chisec and Sayaxché often seem like an unlikely combination, or in some ways even clash, of mission work, family fun, and learning experiences.

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Summer Youth Teams—a Growing Tradition of Partnership

This morning the last of four summer youth teams left for the U.S., having spent ten days in the town of Palín. The 20-member team, from First PC of Portland, Oregon, stayed at the Presbyterian campground called Monte Sión, alongside Lake Amatitlán. It’s a place of scenic beauty, hearty meals and, unfortunately, no hot water. (An accompanying cartoon entitled “Taking a Cold Shower” illustrates the experience.) The visit required adjustments for some rustic conditions, rainy weather, and a few cases of sickness. They took things in stride with a great spirit. Of course having gracious, attentive hosts in Palín made a big difference.

The youth partnered with Palín’s Iglesia Presbiteriana Betania. They labored on a construction project at an outlying small congregation called Ebenezer, where they also held a week-long Bible school. They paid several visits to the local elementary school, sharing music and delivering school supplies. (See photos) The time was filled with a variety of worship services, encounters with Guatemalan youth, and much personal reflection. The young people worked hard, and afterwards played hard at Monterrico beach and in the colonial city of Antigua.

When it was all over, team members shared comments like these: “amazing experience,” “truly life changing,” and “shows that there is no end to God’s love for the world.”

I’m grateful to First Church Portland, and especially to group leader Sue Van Stelle, for having the wherewithal to come here, and for trusting that they’d be taken care of while in Guatemalan. I’m hopeful that the relationship between these churches will continue. God willing, this summer’s youth teams will become an annual tradition, perhaps with some churches sending teams over and over again.

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