From West to East across Guatemala, the mountains stand high. Fields lay on the slopes like the patches on the worn-out trousers of the farmers that work the land. These fields lie near to the heart of the Guatemalan people, and have been whittled small through generations of inheritance.
Tucked between the mountains are villages; clusters of small houses built around a central square and a Catholic church. To walk down a cobblestone street is to experience the way things have been for hundreds of years. The smoke of cooking fires filters through the brick roof tiles. The slapping sound of tortilla-making punctuates the quiet hum of the village. Roosters crow. Dogs bark. The clop-clopping of pack horses echo in the street. The aroma of roasting coffee hangs in the air.
For hundreds of years, the magnificent mountains have stood guard over a culture of the past. When the Spanish Conquistadores forced their way into the mountains in the 1500’s, they brought a new language and a new religion. Today, a Catholic church stands in the center of most towns, a reminder of the faith of the invaders. But these centers of worship practice a strange mix of Catholicism and paganism. Today, although most of Guatemala speaks Spanish, many of the Highland people still speak only the old Mayan dialects.
To this environment came the first Mennonite missionaries in the 1960’s. They came with a vision: to pierce the darkness of centuries and bring a true understanding of the God of the Bible. With them came Harold and Darlene Kauffman. Not yet middle-aged, they shared a burden for the work, and were placed West of Guatemala City, at the portal of the Western Highlands.
As Harold learned the language and the culture, another vision stirred him. Those mountains. What was beyond them? As he pored over maps, he saw valley after valley, town after town. But the same mountains that stood guard over the Mayan culture now stood as an obstacle to the gospel. How could those villages be reached? But even in 1970, there was one advantage that Pedro de Alvarado didn’t have. Wings.
In 1972, Harold’s vision began to take shape. At age 40, he learned to fly. He purchased a property in Guatemala City to use as a mission base. A new mission board formed, a small airplane was purchased, and Mennonite Air Missions was born.
As Harold studied his maps, his attention kept returning to the small town of San Bartolome. The first mission outpost had already been established in San Andres, and Harold was looking for a place to establish a second, nearby. San Bartolome was a remote area where foreigners were feared and unwelcome. It was beyond the end of the road, only accessible by foot or by air. Just the place. In 1973, after some exploratory trips were made, a second mission station was established in the Quiche region, in the town of San Bartolome.
In 1976, Guatemala was hit with the worst disaster in Central American history; an earthquake that reached 7.9 on the Richter scale and killed 22,000 people. It was an event that drove many people to seek the Lord in San Bartolome, and the church continued to grow. Another outreach was begun in nearby Mixcolaja.
Near the end of the decade, civil war broke out when Communist Guerrillas attempted to overthrow a corrupt government. In 1980, the Americans’ sense of security was shattered when John Troyer, a missionary with the Conservative Mennonite Fellowship, was shot and killed by insurgents. At the recommendation of the U.S. embassy, all of the mission staff returned the States.
Although mission effort began in the Quiche region, opportunity opened in other parts of the country during those first eight years. When new believers relocated, new mission outreaches sprung up around them. When the missionaries left in 1980, there were churches in San Bartolome, Mixcolaja, San Andres, Novillero, El Chal, La Sorpresa, Oratorio, San Sur, Zaragoza, and Guatemala City. These were left in the hands of native leaders for two years.
Those two years were anxious ones for the missionaries who longed to return to Guatemala, and difficult ones for the young pastors who remained to pastor the churches. Pastors received death threats. Christians were threatened, both from the military and the guerrillas. Although many, including several backslidden Christians, were killed in San Bartolome in those years of violence, not one believer was taken. Instead of fragmenting the new brotherhood, those two years of standing alone strengthened them. That experience proved to many that those churches stood in the strength of God, and not the strength of men.
After the missionaries returned in 1982, the work of Mennonite Air Missions continued to expand. When members moved from an established church into a new area, a new congregation often sprung up around them. From El Chal alone came the seed that opened new churches in Porvenir, Los Achiotes, San Sur, and Santa Rosita. During those years, the churches in Oratorio, La Sorpresa, and other places were also planted.
Since the beginning of the work, Harold was known for putting local brethren into the ministry. It was a system that laid the groundwork for an indigenous church, although it was not free from set-backs and failures. Many men who once served in the ministry are no longer with the Mennonite Church. But from those first ordinations sprung faithful leaders that still serve among us today.
During the growth and expansion of Mennonite Air Missions, there was increasing awareness of the need for an indigenous focus. We needed more Guatemalan leaders in our churches. We needed the congregations to sense a personal responsibility for their churches, schools, and outreach programs, and be less dependent on the mission as a mother organization.
The peak of North American presence came around the year 2000. Out of seventeen churches and mission stations under MAM, there was a North American presence at eight of them. It was about then that the “Ministerial Training Program” was born. It is a plan in which spiritually mature candidates are nominated by the ministry, approved by their congregation, and invited to a series of classes dealing with Christ-awareness, doctrine, and basic church administration. These men are then considered “lay-leaders” in their home congregations, and some have since been ordained by their churches.
Since 2003, North American presence has somewhat declined. Many of the churches that were once led by North Americans are now shepherded by Guatemalan leadership. During the last eight years, Mixcolaja, San Sur, and Porvenir went from American leadership to Guatemalan. Today, twelve churches function with local Guatemalan leadership, and there is American presence in three; Guatemala City, El Chal, and Santa Rosita. Out of five bishops, three are Guatemalan.
In some ways, Guatemala is a very different place than it was thirty-five years ago. It is now the most technologically advanced nation in Central America. Electricity is available in every outpost but Santa Rosita. On the heels of electricity came radio and television. Cell-phone towers sprouted all over the country, and even remote villages have service. It’s not rare to see a cowboy riding between pastures, talking on a cell phone. Western idealogy and technology has done to Guatemala what the Spaniards could never do, and the mountains do nothing to stop it.
Today it is rare to find a remote village without Evangelical influence, as Charismatic and Evangelical churches of every denomination have opened missions throughout the country. Guatemala’s population is now considered to be over fifty-percent Evangelical. While it’s a blessing to see the gospel being spread, it is unsettling to see fundamental Bible teaching and discipleship attitudes being replaced with “easy-believism” and charismatic influence.
As Guatemala changes, the opportunities for service change as well. We envision a missionary presence in Guatemala for years to come, not as authorities over established churches, but as “helpers of their faith”. North American workers can be used to help train new leaders, to teach in the churches, and to evangelize. Capable personnel could help support and encourage local leaders who work alone. We can continue to use clinics, schools, and other methods to serve and reach out to the Guatemalan people.
Human need has not changed, and God’s power has not diminished. We long to see the gospel of Jesus planted and growing, wherever it finds root. Although the gospel has reached much of Guatemala, there are still many areas without a conservative witness, and we would love to see churches planted there. San Marcos, El Capulin, and Las Brisas, Honduras are all places with interested believers and potential church members. But whom can we send? Our native pastors have much responsibility, and our North American staff have other assignments.
Today, our vision is to expand our mission effort with a two-fold purpose: to support and encourage the established churches toward fuller maturity, and to enter new areas as doors open and the Lord provides capable personnel and support.
Please pray that the Lord of the Harvest would keep our vision clear and our focus sharp. Pray that He would raise up national leaders to shepherd the Guatemalan church. Pray that he would open doors into new areas, and send workers into His harvest, and that the work would bring fruit, and be a useful tool in the great task of extending the Kingdom of Jesus.