This past week included a visit to the Polochic Q’eqchi Presbytey for the inauguration of a new congregation deep inside the department of Baja Verapáz. The presbytery had invited me to be the preacher for the services. I brought along 10-year-old Matthew, and we traveled for 10 hours on a series of busses and vehicles to reach the mountainous village of Jalauté.
The people there are Poqomchí, one of Guatemala’s smaller, less visible Mayan groups that lives south of the more populous Q’eqchi’. Jalauté is an agricultural community where coffee and cardamom are the dominant crops. At one time there was a coffee cooperative with a mill powered by an old-fashioned water wheel, but about a decade ago the cooperative broke apart and the mill has since fallen into decay. The people are poor, with simple thatch houses, earth floors, and no electricity.
Until the arrival of Presbyterians earlier this year, Jalauté was strictly Roman Catholic. The Polochíc Presbytery initiated an outreach to the village, and met stiff resistance by some Catholics who placed wire barricades on the incoming roads. The Polochíc Presbyterians, however, weren’t dissuaded, and they began to visit homes and hold sporadic activities. Once a group of local supporters was formed, the presbytery contributed lumber and 40 sheets of metal roof for the new temple, and then provided volunteers to help build it.
As soon as Matthew and I arrived at Jalauté, we were led down to a stream where villagers were gathering for a baptismal service. As guest pastor, I was invited to perform the baptisms of 27 women, men and youths. (See photos)
Then we hiked back up the path for the inauguration of the new temple. I offered remarks based on Psalm 24:7: “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.” A pastor cut a ribbon and opened a ceremonial padlock, opening the way for energized worshippers to stream indoors where a coat of pine needles covered the floor. There were a couple benches, but most worshippers stood and seemed unbothered by sweltering heat (there were no windows).
During worship there was lots of singing, testimonies, and prayers, another baptism, reception of new members, a wedding for three couples, and then my sermon. Worship lasted for 3½ hours until it was decided to pause until 8:00 in the morning. After the service resumed the next day, there was a presentation of children, the installation of officers, and another sermon by me. Interestingly, the new officers are men and women, which is uncommon in indigenous churches. The explanation I got after inquiring about it was that in their culture leaders prefer to serve as married couples. (See photo)
The people of Jalauté worked hard to accommodate us and tend to our needs. They served a special soup called Kak-ik at each of the meals with small, wrapped tamales and coffee. Conditions were rough, as I expected. Matthew and I benefited greatly from the water, repellant, and sleeping bags that we brought. Our bed was several boards across two saw horses. (See photo)
Currently there are seven Poqomchí Presbyterian congregations, plus one fully chartered church. There are numerous other villages like Jalautéthat are also fertile ground for church development. The Polochíc Presbytery is hopeful that soon these Poqomchí will organize their own presbytery. Although the people in this area face serious needs, the only requests that I received were for help in obtaining communion sets and cups. Working in partnership with these emerging ministries would be an excellent opportunity for a PCUSA presbytery or church that might sense God calling them to be a part of this mission.