Monthly Archives: March 2014

God’s Mission in Cobán—Historical Background and Recent News

A Brief History of Mission in Cobán: Cobán was founded in 1543 by Dominican monks, led by “Protector of the SAM_1212Indians,” Father Bartolomé de las Casas. The missionary efforts of Las Casas were based on principles, unusual back then, like equal rights for the indigenous, and voluntary conversions based on sincere Christian beliefs. He convinced Spanish authorities to cease their attempts at military conquest to subdue the Q’eqchi’, so he and the Dominicans could reach them through non-violent means. The region around Cobán, known as the “Land of War,” came to be renamed Verapáz—“True Peace.”

Centuries later, other churches appeared in Cobán. The Church of the Nazarene arrived in 1904, and spread as an early Protestant force across the North-Central Highlands. Others followed them to the Cobán area, mostly Pentecostals and Baptists. Presbyterians began working in the Q’eqchi region 40 years ago, and eight Q’eqchi’ presbyteries have since been created.

Six years ago a Presbyterian school—Colegio Evangélico La Patria Norte—was founded in Cobán. Despite the small, leased facilities, the student body has grown steadily with 240 students in pre-school through high school. In 2012, land was purchased in Cobán for a “Presbyterian complex” to include a permanent school campus, church building, seminary, dormitories and guest house. A theological studies program began in 2013 for church leaders from the Q’eqchi’ presbyteries, with 47 graduating last December. PC(USA) work teams began to come to help initiate construction at the Presbyterian complex. This January, ministry began for Cobán’s 1st Presbyterian Church, and I was installed as organizational pastor, on a volunteer, part-time basis.

Now, here’s the latest update:

New Church Development: During the past two months, I and others have been cultivating a Presbyterian DSC01584group at the La Patria School, with lunch, worship and Bible study, teachings on Presbyterianism, and intercessory prayer (see photo at top of the 1st gathering). Now there are about 20-25  students and teachers that participate consistently. Plans include an excursion to Limon Sur to share with a Q’eqchi’ Church, and a Bible school for children in the La Libertad neighborhood near the site of the Presbyterian Complex. A Presbyterian mission house has been established close by to serve as a meeting place and office (see photo), and now we’re working on furnishing it. Our hope is that a water purification system will be installed there in the near future to help meet needs in the community for clean, affordable water. Northminster Presbyterian Church, of Cincinnati, Ohio, has officially agreed to partner with this new church.

Theological Training: This week marked the second of five week-long sessions of theological education for students from indigenous presbyteries. There are 29 students in the 1st year program and 35 enrolled in their 2nd year. Classes are taught by professors from the national seminary, with translation into Q’eqchi’. The quantity of women students has increased to six (see photo), DSC01642with the expectation that each year will see a larger female contingent. Other good news is that two new PC(USA) mission co-workers—Richard and Debbie Welch—have moved recently to Cobán to help in the administration of Walton funds for theological education (see photo). DSC01641They’re taking my place as PC(USA) representatives on the Bi-national Walton Funds Committee.

Presbyterian Complex: The different pieces of this ambitious undertaking keep falling into place. Early this week, a Multi-Institutional Board was formed for the Presbyterian Complex, which includes representatives of the national church, the Presbyterian Seminary, La Patria schools from the rest of the country, other committees of the IENPG, and the Q’eqchi’ presbyteries (see photo of Lizardo Lopez, board treasurer, drawing diagram). DSC01640At the latest meeting, I was asked to serve as Moderator of the board. Projects underway include the completion of environmental and topographical studies, and grading for a gravel access road. Funding from the IENPG and several PC(USA) partners is helping keep the work going. Approval was granted for the construction of a multi-purpose building that will serve as chapel, auditorium, and conference center (see photo of drawing). img210More PC(USA) work teams will be arriving this summer to help raise this building and to participate in other ways.

Please continue to pray for and support this comprehensive mission effort in Cobán. The Q’eqchi’ presbyteries see this as holding historic significace for them, and they’re raising money and pitching-in as they’re able. Diverse sectors of the IENPG are coming together with an energy that’s been un-heard-of. We keep seeing the impact that these ministry projects have on all who are involved.

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Chajul Dedicates a Beautiful, New Temple

This past week a 9-member delegation from Williamsburg (VA) Presbyterian Church travelled up into the far mountains of Quiche Province to participate in the fulfillment of a dream for the first Ixil Presbyterian congregation—the dedication of a beautiful stone and mortar temple. Less than two years ago, the site was a steep, craggy bluff that appeared fit only for weeds and stray animals. Digging by hand, members of the Chajul congregation created room for a 2,600 square foot building. The construction was a joint project of the Chajul congregation, Guatemala City’s Central Presbyterian Church, and Williamsburg PC—all partners in covenant to each another.

The week began with days of clearing building materials and scaffolding, pouring the concrete floor, creating doors and windows, constructing restrooms, and hanging decorations. It looked like getting it done on time was unrealistic, but the church rose to the challenge, mobilizing crews of volunteers from before dawn until after dusk. Several steers were butchered, and crates of vegetables were delivered for the celebration feast that the church women prepared in giant kettles. In the end the sanctuary was a splendor to behold, and everything was ready for the big day.

The sun shone brightly on the morning of the dedication, and a parade of cheerful Presbyterians and other well-wishers processed through the town’s hilly streets. A marching band of the local Methodist school led the way, and citizens emerged from all directions to see what the commotion was (see photo). DSC01606A ribbon-cutting ceremony took place before the doors opened (see photo), DSC01613and quickly the seats of the sanctuary filled. Worship occupied most of the rest of the day (about 8 hours, with break for lunch). To begin the service, a praise band led us in repeating stanzas of “We love your presence, Oh God,” and then we lifted our voices to sing “Great is your faithfulness” (see photos). DSC01619DSC01622This was followed by musical performances, prayers of thanksgiving and consecration, historical remembrances, youth dramas, a presentation of infants, and remarks by church and community leaders, a sermon translated into three languages, and a wedding.  A “Pentecostal time” was included when some worshippers danced to the accompaniment of emotional, up-tempo choruses. Towards the end, the Williamsburg team stepped forward to sing “We are one in Christ Jesus, all one body.”

Gratitude was expressed by all sides to all sides. The church’s pastor, Miguel Ramirez, was recognized for having let the Presbyterian congregation meet in his house for the past seven years. Volunteer builders were awarded certificates of appreciation. Each Williamsburg team member was fitted with an Ixil ceremonial sash (see photo). DSC01630The Chajul church presented the Williamsburg church a banner expressing thanks in three tongues for its generous contributions for building materials as well as its prayers and accompaniment. In turn, the Williamsburg church presented banners from their youth, tambourines, customized caps, and a box of electric tools.  Guatemala City’s Central Presbyterian Church gave numerous gifts to commemorate the event, and profuse thanked was offered for its constant support for the Chajul mission. Everyone gave praise and glory to God.

The Williamsburg and Chajul groups held several talks about the future direction for the partnership—teen scholarships, theological training, and hopes for a new Presbyterian cooperative to help generate jobs, and future trips by Williamsburg, as well as potential visits by Guatemalan partners to Virginia. No doubt there also will be more construction projects, but for the moment everyone seems content to put down their tools and rest in contentment over all that God’s made possible so far. Surely God has much more in store for this partnership, probably more than any of us can imagine.

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Message from Middle Tennessee to the Petén: “We’re with you in good times and bad”

This past year a deep crisis arose in the Petén Q’eqchi’ Presbytery (PQP) that involved dysfunctional leadership practices as well as several intense pastoral conflicts. There were questions about whether the presbytery would be able to recover.  The PQP is comprised of 7 small, rural congregations. The average educational level of the pastors is 3rd grade, and most of them support themselves and their families by working in the fields.

During this crisis, the PQP’s international partner, the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee (PMT), assured them that they’d stick with them for better or worse. The PMT kept their partners in prayer. They sponsored three visits by IENPG officials and me to help PQP leaders diagnose the presbytery’s challenges and find ways to overcome them. Out of these meetings emerged a vision statement for the PQP and a strategic plan.DSC01590

This past week a 7-member PMT delegation, led by Elder Barb Hall, came to Guatemala to offer support more personally and directly to the PQP. They invited PQP pastors and their spouses to join with them in the mountainous city of Cobán for a 2-day retreat featuring fellowship, a service project, and in-depth look at how the PMT might support the PQP’s strategic plan. Each morning we came together to address issues such as improving decision-making and financial discipline, resolving conflicts between pastors and elders, legalizing church properties, reviving the presbytery’s women’s organization, and reinforcing Presbyterian doctrine, liturgy and government. In the evening, 2 PMT pastors—Teddy Chiquimia and Mary Louise McCullough—offered training on leadership skills. In the afternoons, while the men worked together on building a pavilion at Cobán’s new Presbyterian complex (see photo), the women gathered to share experiences and to discuss their critical role in the PQP’s future. Juggling three languages, they developed project plans, which were later endorsed enthusiastically by the PQP’s executive committee.

The next step by the PMT delegation was the sponsorship of a presbytery-wide event in the town of Sayaxche to rally around the PQP’s strategic plan. Leaders from all 7 PQP congregations were invited to gather at Sayaxche’s Presbyterian Church for a morning of training on the themes of stewardship and mission. (See photo) DSC01592-1After lunch, a celebration was held that included Holy Communion. During the worship, PQP pastors that recently graduated with diplomas in theological education were recognized. A 12-year-old boy, Jaime Chun, with cerebral palsy was thrilled to receive a wheelchair that a PMT team member, Kathy Corlew, had brought for him from Tennessee. (See photo) DSC01591The day ended with singing of “We are One in Christ Jesus,” and with shouts of “Viva the Presbytery Q’eqchi’ Peten!”, “Viva the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee!” and “Viva Cristo!”

Thank God for bodies of faith like the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee and the Peten Q’eqchi’ Presbytery that are channels of God’s grace to each other, especially during moments when the easiest thing would be to give up.

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