Friday, October 31, 2014

Forging A New Partnership – Fall update from Richard and Debbie Welch in Guatemala

‘Charu wankat’ Friends and Partners in Mission, (roughly that means ‘hello’ in the Q'eqchí Mayan language)

We have a story for you…

“When we first arrive in these villages, many of the women are frightened and suspicious of us. But after many times, over several visits, we get to know one another and they begin to see that they can have a place in the ministry of the church”These were the words of a young indigenous woman named Norma Ico. Norma is one of the leaders of the Presbiterial (woman’s association) of the Polochic Q’eqchí Presbytery in North Central Guatemala. She was sharing with a visiting delegation from their US partner presbytery, the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest.  

Norma told of young indigenous women, traveling two by two into remote and isolated villages with limited resources, and not much more than basic theological training.  This would be a daunting task for anyone, but for these women there are additional challenges for their safety as well as their ability to be accepted into close-knit and suspicious mountain communities. But still they go. They find their way to these places and do what they can to connect with women in situations of remoteness and poverty that make them marginalized among the most marginalized people in the country. And they’re making an impact.

The women of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest listened intently with joy and amazement, as Norma described this ministry of reconciliation and outreach.  As our visiting group listened, we were reminded that Norma is the daughter of Julian Ico, a long-time servant leader of the Polochic Presbytery. Norma seems to have benefited from watching and accompanying her father as he traveled around the region, starting and encouraging Presbyterian churches in many villages in the area.
Members of a delegation from Inland Northwest
 meet with the Women of the Polochic Presbytery

By the end of the visit, the women of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest felt led to come alongside these women in the most remote corners of the Polochic Presbytery in order to affirm them as valued and important components of the ministry of their presbytery.  They are in discernment now about how to move forward with an effective partnership.

Norma represents the histories and passions of many of the indigenous Guatemalans like those we’ve had the privilege of meeting during our visits with students of the Guatemalan Presbyterian Church’s theological education programs for indigenous church leaders. Many of these students have been inspired and encouraged by close friends or family members who support and mentor them in growing as pastors and church leaders. They come to the training with a hunger for filling in the gaps in their initial introductions to ministry. The room is often filled with an electrifying excitement when students learn of biblical and reformed traditions that bring new meanings to many of the practices and methods they have been using in their ministries. We were encouraged once again by the empowering nature of the theological education the church is providing to the indigenous women and men who have sensed God’s call on their lives and have stepped into some form of spiritual leadership in their communities.

Hearing Norma’s account of outreach and visitation to the indigenous sisters of her presbytery was particularly poignant for this visiting delegation, especially for Margaret (Midge) Hayes, an 80+ year-old indigenous Presbyterian from the Nez Perce tribe of Northern Idaho. Midge has been active in her church, the oldest one in the Inland Northwest Presbytery, for “More years than I can remember” she says. All of us could not help but be captivated as we witnessed this connection between two indigenous women, separated by age, distance, culture, and language, and yet united by faith, common histories, and love for their people.

Norma Ico (left), Midge Hayes (Middle), and
Julian Ico (right) together at the Polochic Center
Our church’s mission agency has identified three critical global issues that our church can address through our mission efforts around the world. Among these is the ministry of reconciliation that boldly states, “We will engage in reconciliation amidst cultures of violence, including our own”. We are delighted to report that your faithful support is having an impact on efforts of reconciliation in both subtle and not so subtle ways. We were blessed to be able to witness a miracle of reconciliation reflected in the ministries of Norma and Midge, two indigenous women who chose to not let their histories of violence and oppression hold them back from impactful ministries among their people. Thank-you once again for believing in and supporting our church’s work among indigenous populations around the world!

For the fall of 2014, please pray for us in the following areas:

  1.          The nature of our work: We love all aspects of our work so far. Exciting things are happening in the Guatemalan Presbyterian Church. Many of these things will impact how we carry out our roles as educational consultants. Please pray that we can quickly adapt to the ever-growing and changing needs of our partners and that we are equipped to provide needed help where and when it is needed.
  2.       Safety and Blessings for transformative experiences for those visiting Guatemala: As the summer months come to a close, the flood of visiting groups from US presbyteries and churches begins to wind down. However, we’re excited to hear about several groups that will be traveling to Guatemala in order to interact with their partners. We’ve been so blessed by the opportunity to accompany some of these groups while they are here. Please pray for safe journeys, good health, and experiences that enhance the ministries of these faithful missioners in their homes, churches, communities, presbyteries and in our denomination.
  3.           Ongoing financial support: Sustaining mission workers continues to be an involved and costly challenge for our denomination. Please pray that those touched by a passion to serve our indigenous sisters and brothers of Guatemala with the enabling blessings of education will be moved to support this ministry. Also pray that we will be effective communicators of this imperative initiative.

‘E’mah-kits-us-aah’ (roughly that means “take care of yourself” in the Nez Perce language)

Richard and Debbie Welch

Richard and Debbie Welch
PC(USA) Mission Co-Workers, Guatemala

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Making Disciples – Summer update from Richard and Debbie

Dear Friends and Partners in Mission,

Summertime in Guatemala brings several changes to life and work in this “eternally spring” part of the world. We’re now in the rainy season. For us that means regular downpours usually in the mid to late afternoon. The summer months have also provided an opportunity to engage in our work more intentionally.

In order to serve the theological training needs of the church’s indigenous community, projects to take the training to the people are starting up around the country. The first of such projects is taking place here in Cobán, offering much needed and much asked for theological education to pastors and leaders of the surrounding indigenous presbyteries. The national seminary provides teachers and materials for the classes, the national church provides for food, lodging, and rented classrooms, and the participants (many with help from their US Presbyterian partners) provide for their travel expenses to attend the one week sessions.

Being able to sit in on these classes has been a great privilege for us. It has given us a glimpse into the lives of the participants, and an opportunity to understand their thirst for greater knowledge of our faith, our church, and those elements of pastoring that make them more effective servants of their congregations and their communities. A young man named Arturo personifies the profile of so many of these students. He first captured our attention when he took a turn translating the professor’s lecture into the Q’eqchí language for the benefit of those who needed translation from Spanish. He was the youngest translator to volunteer, and the only one to translate simultaneously during the lecture. He had a natural poise and confidence not often seen in the indigenous. We had the opportunity to get to know Arturo better when he volunteered to help with another project related to the new Presbyterian Complex in Cobán. Assuming he had benefitted from greater educational opportunities, we asked him about his schooling. We were surprised to learn that his formal education amounted to the third year of “Primaria”, or roughly a third grade education. He could tell we were surprised to hear this, so he went on to tell us that, being from a large family, there wasn’t enough money in the household to supply all the kids with everything they needed to attend school. So after the third year, the older kids stop so the brothers and sisters behind them get their chance at getting some education. Most of his literacy training is self-taught or learned from friends and other mentors.
Arturo and Debbie
Clearly, this 26 year old has a lot on the ball. His quiet nature, ready smile, and quick sense of humor cause him to find favor among his peers as well as those outside the indigenous community. He’s a natural leader which is why his pastor put his name in for participation in the training program. When asked if his dream is to be a pastor, he said “perhaps”. “Right now I want to learn more about our church and about God who has done so much for me”. When asked about which part of the training interested him the most, he said he was interested in the lecture on how the church makes decisions (polity) and that each elder and pastor in the church has the same voice and vote. He, like many indigenous, always thought the church was run by the powerful and sophisticated people who live in the capital city. “But now we’re learning that we have the same voice and vote that they have”. He says, “I think our church has a lot to say to the young people in my town.” (He is from the community of Chisec). There are so many among the indigenous who have lived without a voice or a vote in so many critical aspects of their lives. Who would have thought that educating young indigenous Presbyterians (about church polity of all things) would help them start finding their voices in their church, and in their communities?

One of the critical global issues identified by our church’s mission agency is focused on evangelism: “Together with other members of Christ’s body, we will share the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ.” Educating leaders like Arturo empowers those ‘other members of Christ’s body’ to bring the church’s gospel message to those looking to find their voices. Your support for us and our ministry is truly bearing fruit that will improve the lives and ministries of this generation of leaders; and of leaders of generations yet to come. Thank you for believing in us and our work. Thank you for your prayers for us; we sense them regularly. Thank you for communicating with us and encouraging us. And thank you for the financial support that sustains our ministry here in Guatemala.

For the summer of 2014, please pray for us in the following areas:
1)      Our language study:  We found a language school here in Cobán! That story alone is quite interesting. We will probably always be students of Spanish. There is so much new to learn. Please pray that we will learn what we need to know in order to be effective ministers of the work God puts before us.
2)      The nature of our work: We love all aspects of our work so far. We’re excited about the current and potential plans the church is creating to build learning opportunities for the many indigenous members of this church. Please pray also for the many US Presbyterians who travel to Guatemala during this time of year to visit their partners.
3)      Ongoing financial support: Sustaining mission workers in the field continues to be an involved and costly challenge for our denomination. Please pray that those touched by a passion to serve our indigenous sisters and brothers of Guatemala with the enabling blessings of education will be moved to support this ministry. Also pray that we will be effective communicators of this imperative initiative.

Blessings for a wonderful summer!

Richard and Debbie Welch

Richard and Debbie Welch
PC(USA) Mission Co-Workers, Guatemala

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Following in the Footsteps - A Post from Debbie

Assembly of the
National Presbyterian Church of Guatemala
I have my ups and downs here. Just like normal no matter where we live. A few weeks ago I had one of the “downs”. We had to travel to the other side of the country to the Seminary in Retalhuleu (on the Pacific coast) for Guatemala’s version of General Assembly. It was the first time I had been to that part of the country. The weather was in the 90’s with about 80% humidity. We met for five days with about 400 mostly men crammed into an auditorium for nine hours each day with an hour break for lunch. Of course everyone was speaking Spanish which I couldn’t, for the most part, understand. I didn’t realize it at the time but I was also coming down with a nasty cold. Just trying to stay conscious became the big challenge. Needless to say, I wasn’t a happy camper. In fact, about halfway through the week I was having one of the times that my dear friend and former missionary to Kenya, Judy Palpant, warned me about. She told me there would be times when I would ask myself “what am I doing here and throw myself on my bed and cry” only since the hotel was several miles away, I didn’t have a bed to throw myself on. On this particular day I was waiting for Richard who was helping a friend make some last minute changes for his upcoming presentation. They were working on a computer in the seminary office. I was hoping they would finish so that we could go to lunch. Then I looked up at the walls covered with pictures. The photos were a long pictorial history of the Presbytery seminary throughout the years. And suddenly a pair of eyes caught my attention!

Jim & Gennet Emery were members of our home congregation, Knox Presbyterian Church in Spokane, WA. I knew they had been missionaries, and I am sure at one time I knew that they had been in Guatemala, but at that time the place really didn’t mean anything to me. Consequently it didn’t stick in my head. Looking up, seeing his familiar face looking down at me from years gone by I suddenly realized that these beloved friends and mentors had walked here in this place before me. It brought me amazing indescribable peace. I felt once again, an incredible reassurance that I am in the right place. A number of years ago, Gennet encouraged me to do something that I felt called to do but at the same time felt very ill equipped to undertake. I felt called to lead a Ladies’ Bible Study at our church but I was sure there must be others who were more qualified for the task. But Gennet urged me to continue forward and was a faithful and supportive participant. She, and the entire experience, was a huge blessing in my life. It was very much like the situation in which I currently find myself feeling called but ill equipped; and here she is again, encouraging me to trust God’s wisdom.  I am always filled with wonder at the amazing tapestry God weaves with the people we encounter throughout our lives. We never know how we fit into each other’s lives but every once in a while we get a glimpse. What a blessing and encouragement!

Now that I’m back home and recovered from that nasty cold, I’ve been thinking about all of those footsteps I’ve been following that have led me to this exciting and stimulating period in my life and ministry. I honestly can’t say if I ever let Gennet know just how much her encouragement and support meant to me those many years ago. I want to be sure that you know that when you follow our ministry though our blog posts and our letters, when you correspond with us and let us know that you’re thinking of us and praying for us, and when you sacrificially support us financially, you are putting down fresh footsteps of strength and encouragement we’ve come to rely on in this ministry.

Thank-you and God bless you!


Richard and Debbie Welch
PC(USA) Mission Co-Workers, Guatemala

Friday, May 23, 2014

Of Men, Meetings, and Machetes

Getting together for work, fellowship, mutual support, or for planning something big and exciting is a vital component of getting things done. Whether it’s a digital ‘teleconference’, a formal meeting, an impromptu time around the water cooler, or a large conference or assembly, the need to gather a group to share ideas, strategize together, and plan for the future is a reality in so many human endeavors. So, if meetings are such a vital part of things we do, why do they always seem to be such a drag? Throughout my professional and church volunteer life, it seems as if most meetings I’ve attended or moderated in the course of accomplishing some great end brought the most joy and excitement to the participants when they were canceled. Debbie says I live for meetings. I don’t think that really is the case. But I have to admit I do get excited about those times when a team is gathered together to bring their various gifts and perspectives to a challenge at hand. And then, everything clicks and good things happen. But I have to admit that is not the outcome of every meeting in which I am involved.

The "Inter-Institutional Junta" gathers for a meeting
A large portion of our work involves attending meetings. Whether with our World Mission colleagues, with our Guatemalan partners, or conference calls with folks in the US planning a visit, there’s always a contagious excitement in these meetings because there’s so much that’s new for us and so much for us to learn. We’ve been invited to be a part of meetings taking place here in Cobán that are part of the planning for an aggressive church project here that includes the establishment of a new church school campus, a Presbyterian church, and an extension of the National Presbyterian Church Seminary. Many different institutions of the church are involved with this project, and representatives of each are a part of these meetings. Because the project involves and benefits several indigenous presbyteries in the area, representatives from these surrounding presbyteries participate in these meetings as well. It was our interactions with our indigenous friends that got me thinking about how we respond to being involved in meetings.
Representatives from indigenous presbyteries
The group had a very full agenda to work through. There were reports on the progress of the different components of the project, discussions on the budget, review of the timeline, reports of personnel, equipment, and utilities for the land that had been purchased for the center. Throughout these reports from time to time we’d lean over to our indigenous friends and ask them what they thought about all of this. There were general nods of agreement or shrugs of what could be perceived as apathy. This is something to which we pay particular attention because our indigenous friends often don’t fully engage in these kinds of meetings. The reasons are varied and complex, involving culture, language difficulty (something to which we can relate), lack of confidence, and other factors. Then we got to a new agenda item: getting bids and planning for the clearing of the underbrush from the land. These men were there as pastors, leaders, and representatives of their churches and communities. But they were also no strangers to the process of clearing and preparing land of this kind. Suddenly, the energy of the meeting shifted as everyone listened to these men as they explained and talked among themselves about how best to accomplish this task. Realizing that this was their project too, they said, “We can take this on. We’ll stay an extra day or two, and if the board can put us up for a couple nights and get us some tools, we’ll get the land cleared”.

The board treasurer made some quick calculations, and the board quickly approved the resources necessary to support the volunteer work party. For the remainder of the meeting, this previously disconnected group of men was now attentive and engaged. They found a sense of ownership in the project that was uniquely their own, and their gifts and skills were welcomed by the rest of the board. As the board members left for their respective homes (some had to travel great distances from other parts of the country to join the meeting) we were left with the task (should I say ‘privilege’) of settling this group of volunteers in for the night and then accompanying them to purchase the tools they would need, which turned out to be one machete per man and a couple of files to keep them sharp throughout the project.
The work party - Ready to start
At the property, the men wasted no time in getting down to the business of swinging their machetes and felling the underbrush. They had sharpened the machete I had bought for little projects in our backyard. They figured as long as I was there, I may as well make myself useful. I got a quick lesson in using the instrument (don’t swing if anyone’s body parts are in the way) and went to work alongside our partners. I’m proud to say I lasted a whole hour before telling them that I was sure Debbie was in great need of my assistance with something. Later that night we had them over to our home for some refreshment and fellowship. We learned a lot about these men and their callings to serve the church, both as leaders and members willing to grab a machete get some work done.
Arturo taking a swing

Taking a quick break
So often we speak of the individual gifts that people bring to the community of faith that makes ministry and projects happen. Scripture is full of examples and admonishments to recognize, embrace, and utilize one’s gifts in order to more fully serve the whole. The lesson for us in watching five men in a meeting suddenly transform from observers to co-owners, was the realization that those individual gifts need to be recognized, embraced, and utilized by the greater community as the contributions they are. To that end, we acknowledge your gift to us in reading these reports, in corresponding with us, in praying for us, and for supporting us financially. We can fully embrace those gifts even more now that it was made very clear to me that I’ll never be able to make a living swinging a machete!

Richard and Debbie Welch
PC(USA) Mission Co-Workers, Guatemala

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Semana Santa in Spokane, Part Two: Virtual Church

This is our second post of several about our recent trip to Spokane. Although Holy Week or “Semana Santa” is a wonderful time to be in Guatemala, we determined that this would be a good time to visit our home in Spokane, Washington. Richard needed to do a couple of follow-up appointments with doctors, it’s a week when very little is happening from a work standpoint, both our birthdays fall in that week, we could renew our visas, visit family and friends, sit down with an accountant to prepare taxes, and spend Easter with family.

Debbie and Richard
Easter Sunday
Our travel schedule over Holy Week gave us the opportunity to attend Easter services at Knox Presbyterian Church in Spokane, our ‘home church’ prior to our call to Guatemala. As we bathed in the experience of hearing and feeling everyone’s greetings and welcomes, we got to thinking about how technology has kept us connected with those who have supported us and encouraged us in our ministry in Guatemala. Through a variety of media, we’ve found ourselves engaged in the lives of congregations around our denomination. These unexpected connections have encouraged and sustained us in ways we never would have anticipated.

Worship in the Villages
Worship at the Baptist Church
Sunday morning in Guatemala has become a fascinating mix of cultural, linguistic, and spiritual experiences that have allowed us to ‘taste and see’ so much of what is wonderful about the gathering of different communities of faith across international, denominational, and demographic lines. When traveling in Guatemala’s countryside with US groups or as a part of other church-related activities, we worship in our partner congregations in some of the simplest of surroundings, a dirt floor sanctuary and rough wooden benches, partially in a language we don’t understand at all, and partly in a language we’re just learning to understand. Even so, the warmth of the congregation, and their expressions of love and trust in God and one another, connects us in ways that transcend the differences in language and demographics we know exist. When we’re home in Cobán, I've begun attending a local Baptist church down the road from us while we anticipate the establishment of a Presbyterian church here. I met the pastor at a church event several months ago. Every week (at least the weeks when I attend) this church lifts up prayers for the ministry of the new Presbyterian church being established in Cobán. It’s good to connect and build relationships with members of the greater community of faith. Yet for me church services in Spanish are still more linguistic and community building exercises than they are times of learning and spiritual growth.

"Virtual church" in our home kitchen
Then there is our time of ‘virtual church’. After attending services with the local congregation, we gather around our kitchen table, start up the computer, and connect to our church’s website from which we can download and listen to the previous Sunday’s worship service over the Internet. Sometimes we stop and think; here we are in Guatemala, listening to a worship service (sometimes hearing our own sons’ voices) thousands of miles away. Even as a former “IT guy” the technology is still just amazing. We have other technical connections with encouragers and supporters we've come to appreciate. We receive a regular devotional reading from Pastor Chris at Hillsboro Church via Facebook. We've had Skype sessions with groups who have active ministries in Guatemala. We receive regular weekly messages, often with links to a recent sermon from Pastor Chris at 1st Church Lake Forest. And of course there are the regular email, Facebook, and other social media messages of news and encouragement.

People ask us how we’re adjusting to being so far from familiar friends and family settings. The answer is “surprisingly well”. Our new life has connected us with so many new and fascinating people, as well as new opportunities to serve people in ways we never imagined. At the same time, maybe our adjustment has been made just a little easier because of the ways in which our encouragers and supporters hold us up with their prayers, their gifts, and all those tokens of connection that are only a click away.

Richard and Debbie Welch
PC(USA) Mission Co-Workers, Guatemala

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Semana Santa in Spokane, Part 1: Bigger Barns

This is our first post of several about our recent trip to Spokane. Although Holy Week or “Semana Santa” is a wonderful time to be in Guatemala, we determined that this would be a good time to visit our home in Spokane, Washington. Richard needed to do a couple of follow-up appointments with doctors, it’s a week when very little is happening from a work standpoint, both our birthdays fall in that week, we could renew our visas, visit family and friends, sit down with an accountant to prepare taxes, and spend Easter with family.

The old barn - in slightly better days
The first sight that attracted us to the small farm that we ended up purchasing and living on some 33 years ago was an old barn, built on the property at the turn of the last century. It had fallen into disrepair, and as struggling newlyweds, we weren’t able to renovate the old structure, but with some simple repairs and lots of tarps to shed the rain from the leaky roof, we used the barn for many years as a place that sheltered horses, pigs, chickens, and rabbits. Our boys grew up as “farm kids” building forts in the hay bales and rigging rope swings to play on in the loft. But, by the time we were to a place where we could renovate the old structure, the damage was too extensive. Reluctantly, we abandoned the project and built a new barn.
The morning after the wind storm

Caber tossing lumber to the truck
(If you're Scottish, you'll see
the irony in that)
Walter prying nails
Around Thanksgiving time, a blast of winter wind finally brought the old structure down. I have to admit we were glad we were in Guatemala when it finally went. Our boys (now young men) began the process of salvaging the beautiful weathered wood to re-use as decorative paneling in the new barn. For part of our visit, we were able to work side-by-side once again on this salvaging operation. Several thoughts came to mind as we pulled nails and stacked wood on the trailer for transport. Maybe it’s because it was the Easter season, but there seemed a resurrection story in the events related to the old barn’s demise and its inclusion into the new structure. As I stacked the sheets of metal roofing in a pile, I also thought of how our partners in Guatemala would love to get their hands on some of this “lamina”, as it’s referred to there, for roofing their homes and churches. Mostly, I thought of Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:16-21, referred to as “The Parable of the Rich Fool”. I’ll not repeat it here, but I invite you to read it for yourselves. In essence, the parable is about a person whose land produced an abundant crop and he immediately thought to build bigger barns to store all his goods. Then God says to him “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you. Then who will get what you prepared for yourself?” 

The new barn. Just before we left

It’s a parable I’ve always viewed as a warning about being too consumed with the things of this life and not on the things of eternal life (which I still believe to be an accurate interpretation). But our new life in Guatemala causes me to look once again at the words “This very night your life will be demanded of you”. Ironically, (or not) at the very time we were discerning this call to mission service, we were in the process of planning and building our new barn. And after we were accepted to the position, we laughed with many friends and neighbors about the fact that we finally had a barn that doesn’t leak, just in time to leave it behind. For me anyway, I’ve begun to think we hear those words every night if we are listening: “This very night your life will be demanded of you” (I’m not sure about the “You fool” part). Maybe it’s a radical life change to quit one’s job and head to the mission field, maybe it’s service right at home to church, community, and neighbors. Maybe it’s the encouraging, sustaining, and life-giving support of ministry and mission around the world. In so many ways, the community of faith responds to the demand for our lives “this very night”. We are so privileged to see from where we work and live, the blessing this community has been. Thankfully, not all of us just built bigger barns.

Richard and Debbie Welch
PC(USA) Mission Co-Workers, Guatemala

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

We will make it safely across... with grace.

A post from Debbie...

Here is my favorite picture in the world!
It's the one our friend John McCallum took it on the road to Chijolom.

Today was a great day! We visited the seminary classes here in Coban with the Bi-National committee... habla, habla, habla... to my joyful surprise, there attending the advance classes was Arnoldo, the man in the picture reaching for the baby! This picture was taken my very first trip to Guatemala on our first excursion. I did not know of this man at that time. He was a stranger in a foreign land.

Today I learned something new (a common event in my life right now) there are different degrees of a handshake in K'ekchi-land. If you don't know or trust someone you basically touch hands but if you trust and really care for someone you grasp far up the arm. Thinking about pictures today, I was carried back to that first time on the road to Chijolom and attempting to cross a  nasty mudslide with grace when I remember a hand reaching out (I don't remember a face because I was busy looking at my feet and where I was trying to step) and grasping my arm far up and helping me cross safely. I stress the word safely because I felt very safe and cared for and I knew I was going to be okay. Today, given that picture and location, I am pretty sure that man was Arnoldo. He represents for me Christ in all of us, reaching out to us. When people ask me why I would give up all I had to come here, this is why... because Christ is reaching out to all of us.

Theological Training for Indigenous in Cobán
(Arnoldo is in the back row second from the left)