Grace to you, and greetings in Christ from Guatemala!
The Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:4, teaches, “There are different kinds of gifts.” How tragic it is when gifts are cast aside because they’re not understood.
In August, I accompanied a team from the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest on a visit to several Poqomchí congregations in the mountains of Baja Verapáz. After worship in the village of La Pinada, we were ushered to a table where members served us roast chicken, squash, and stacks of tortillas. As we ate, a woman kindly placed raw cacao pods in front of us and we commented on how attractive they were. Afterwards, we offered thanks for the delicious meal and exchanged farewells. During the bumpy, 4-hour ride to our hotel, I pondered the meaning of the cacao pods. To my chagrin, it dawned on me that they were gifts for us, gifts that we’d left on the table.
The cacao tree is native to the Americas, the words “cocoa” and “chocolate” being derived from the Mayan Ka’kau’ and Chocol’ha. Cacao beans were once used as currency by the ancient Mayans, whose religion held that the gods made humans from corn, and then gave them the gift of cacao. Our group hadn’t recognized such a valuable gift, and left the cacao behind.
The Poqomchí are one of Guatemala’s smaller Mayan groups. They’re subsistence farmers that have suffered a long history of domination, first by the pre-colonial Quiché, then the Spanish, and more recently by large, politically-powerful landholders. The Poqomchí have historically belonged to the Catholic Church, which in their region typically features vivid public ceremonies, personal gestures of piety, with underlying pagan traditions. Many Poqomchí don’t find these religious practices meaningful, and they turn into nominal Christians.
For over a century Presbyterians have reached into communities where Catholicism has been the only religious option. This outreach now includes the Poqomchi, who are beginning to appreciate the simple, participatory ways that Presbyterians practice their faith. The emphasis on the role of elders resonates with them, as does the active leadership of women. In Poqomchí churches, married couples customarily serve together as elders. Last year I was honored to install seven such couples, as well as baptize 28 adults in the remote village of Janauté (See photo of elder couples in La Pinada).
Ministry with the Poqomchi hasn’t been risk-free. While the Inland Northwest team visited the village of Rivakó in August, local Presbyterian leaders told how their new temple was almost torn down by a mob of local Catholics. The mob was fueled by the false accusation that the temple was financed by a nearby unpopular, foreign-owned hydro-electric plant. Last year, when I visited a Poqomchí church in Januaté, local Catholics had been erecting wire barricades on the road to keep Presbyterians out.
Despite such obstacles, the Presbyterian ministry keeps moving forward. For example, three years ago the congregation in La Pinada was operating in a small board structure high up in the hills. The pastor, Carlos, had no training. Since then they’ve built a beautiful concrete temple right off the main road (see photo). The pastor, along with four Poqomchí colleagues, is attending a Presbyterian theological education program in the city of Cobán. All five of them are set to graduate in December from this program, which receives help from the PC(USA). They requested communion sets for their churches, which I was able to round up with help from PC(USA) partners. In the near future, the Poqomchí hope to form a presbytery of their own.
It’s a gift for Bacilia and me to be involved in God’s mission in Guatemala. Thank you, whatever your different gifts of support might be—prayers, offerings, visits, or letters. If you’re just learning about God’s mission in Guatemala, will you consider coming alongside of us in your prayers, correspondence and financial gifts? We’ve learned a lesson from the Cacao pods, and assure you that your gift isn’t being left on the table. On the contrary, your support makes possible the connection between U.S. and Poqomchí Presbyterians. May none of us ever cease to value and share the greatest gift of all, God’s Son who was sent because of God’s love for the world.