Saturday, June 3, 2017

Annual Ministry Update

“Yes, yes, we have approved your application for another four-year term ending 6/30/2021! Breathe Debbie, just breathe!”

As we closed our winter letter, we shared with you our calling to apply for another term of mission coworkers. Though we’ve sensed the call to continue the work we started in Guatemala, and received encouragement from our Guatemalan partners, colleagues and supervisors, and from many of you, we had to face and prepare for the possibility that our time in Guatemala might be coming to a close at the end of our first term.

We opened this letter with the enthusiastic reply from Del Braaksma, our Mission Coordinator with the mission personnel team in order to share with you the good news. We’ve been approved for another four-year term in Guatemala! As we write this letter, the time for the end of our first term, and the beginning of our second term is upon us. So, we’d like to take advantage of this annual ministry update to reflect on God’s faithfulness throughout these last for years, and share some of our hopes and dreams for the four years that lay ahead. Here are some stories that have accented our journey as mission coworkers.

World Mission Orientation - The Journey Begins
“As an overseas mission worker, you’ve got to remember the need to take care of yourself. ‘Self-care’ can never be an afterthought. You will never be effective in a new place, language, and culture if you don’t have a plan for taking care of yourself.” To our surprise, among all the valuable information gained in our World Mission orientation, this advice has been one of the most beneficial. ‘Paz en la Tormenta’ (Peace in the Storm) is a new song we learned early in our new church experience. We’ve learned to “Be still and know that God is God”. And in those still moments, we remember that there are so many people praying for us, and the peace rushes over us.

Language School in Quetzaltenago
with our very patient teacher
Language Learning:
“At what point did we really think we would be able to become proficient in a new language given our ages and past experiences? What were we thinking?” About halfway through our 11-week adventure of language school, our brains were starting to melt down. “I don’t get enough time to practice a concept before the next lesson is upon me. I feel like an idiot.” Then a friend or a colleague will comment on our progress. They say, “Wow, you two have certainly come a long way in your language skills”. A little encouragement right when we need it the most has consistently been God’s gift to us – lovingly delivered by God’s messengers, our friends, our colleagues, and family members.

Settling into a home:
Making a house a home - A bright and sunny kitchen
“Well, the apartment was going to be available, but our daughter has moved home and now she is in it.” Our hope was to move into an apartment in Cobán that was previously occupied by mission coworkers we’d gotten to know from previous trips to Guatemala. It was a familiar place, and we were looking forward to something known. Those hopes were dashed when the apartment was no longer available. We were unsettled and worried. Then a friend told us about a house that had just become available. It was literally just around the corner from the apartment. The house is large, with a beautiful garden. It has become our home and a place where we practice hospitality.

Theological training in the Q'anjob'al Presbytery
Getting into “The work”:
We’ll always remember that first meeting. It was with a national church committee with the responsibility to develop and execute theological training programs for the growing number of indigenous church leaders. Fresh from language school we did our best to keep up with the fast-talking ladino (non-indigenous Guatemalan) members of the committee. We found ourselves identifying with the representatives of the indigenous presbyteries who sat quiet and pensive. For these representatives, Spanish was their second language as well. We were all struggling to keep up. As the representatives from the US Presbyterian church, we needed to understand the need and help develop plans aligned with the purposes set forward by the US donors who were making these programs possible. “Am I getting this right?” Debbie asked as we did our best to follow the conversations. “This is going to be tough”. Riding home from our latest meeting with this group we remembered our first experience with them. The committee now is chaired by an educated, articulate, yet soft-spoken Mayan representative, selected by his presbytery. The ladino/a representation on the committee serve the mission of the group, serving as a consultant from the seminary, a representative from the women’s association, and a recording secretary. What a difference a few years and a lot of prayer have made!
Young Mayan scholarship recipients studying
at a local secondary school
A young Mayan woman learning traditional weaving
techniques via a vocational training program
Reflecting on these events started as a way to tell Debbie and Richard’s story. But as we’ve recalled them, we’ve been reminded of how much our story has been the story of all who’ve walked alongside us. The connections that have been created and nurtured over these past four years have made this journey a living one. Despite the amazing encouragement we’ve received so far from so many of you, there is still financial need. So we must continue to ask for your prayers and consideration of your ongoing support for our position, even as we thank you so much for the way you have held us up so far.

A visiting delegation making the overland
trek to spend time with their partners
As we look forward to our next term, we hope to expand a new adult literacy program that provides the required secular education certification to indigenous church leaders that will allow them to continue formal seminary-level studies. Supporting indigenous young people in their pursuit of a formal education beyond the primary grades has been an exciting and rewarding endeavor for us and our US partners. We hope to connect more students with sponsors as the program grows. And as the enthusiasm grows among many US partners, we’re excited about working alongside many more creative and innovative vocational programs. Our experiences here have confirmed what we already know: Nothing is too hard for God!

Blessings to you as we celebrate God’s faithfulness in the past and our hope for the days ahead!

Richard and Debbie Welch
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Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Sip from a Cup of Hope

“Partnership is hard. It always has been. It means coordinating different peoples’ schedules. It means learning, understanding, and responding to the different needs, perspectives, contexts, and ideas of everyone in the partnership. We need to work through differences in language, culture, demographics, and time zones just to be in communication with one another. It is hard. But we’re here because we know the results are worth it; and we know we can’t achieve them on our own.”

Plenary Session of the Guatemala Partnership Network
In January, The Guatemala Partnership Network met for three days in Guatemala City to celebrate the partnerships between congregations and presbyteries in the U.S. with congregations and presbyteries in Guatemala. It was also an opportunity to share ideas, experiences, successes, and ‘learning opportunities’ encountered over the years of mission partnership. Gatherings such as this one can bring much to an individual partnership as each one works through the nuts and bolts, the relational and the practical, and how we can all be better partners in discerning and living out our call to work together in order to accomplish what can only be accomplished through each member’s unique contribution.
Listening to Presentations
Sharing by one partnership group
In the midst of the different presentations, messages, prayers, workshops, meals, and discussions, our thoughts often returned to the words shared as we opened our time together. It is hard. Sometimes it seems that as we grow closer in our relationships, the more we learn about the areas in which our partnerships fall short of the goals and ideals on which we established these relationships. We should point out that this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s often an indication that the level of trust and respect between partners has grown to a place where honest evaluation of the work we do together can take place. But I don’t think we’re alone in saying that it’s a lot more fun to celebrate our progress than it is to face the daunting challenges ahead.

New Living Waters for the World installation
Can we celebrate the ordination of a new woman pastor without recognizing how scarce female pastors are in the church here? Can we celebrate the installation of another water purification system without recognizing how many more people are without clean drinking water? Can we celebrate the graduation of more indigenous children from secondary school without recognizing the continued reality of limited opportunities for these graduates? Can we celebrate the beautiful weavings produced by women learning and rediscovering the traditions of their mothers and grandmothers, even though we know the challenges these women face as they try to organize and access the markets they need in order to sell their wares and help support their families? Does every celebration have to be accompanied by the reminder of the work that still needs to be done?

“Don’t talk to God about the size of your problems. Talk to your problems about the size of your God”. This quote, shared with us by our “pastora” many years before our call to mission service, often comes to mind when we feel overwhelmed by the challenges of our work in Guatemala. After the close of our network gathering, and after saying farewell to so many friends, we repeated those words once again as we rode the bus home and on to meet a visiting delegation in the northern part of the country.
Sandra and her reader
Then we met Sandra. This precocious seven year-old was playing outside her aunt and uncle’s simple home across the street from where our friends from the U.S. were planning on meeting their Guatemalan partners. As we waited, we started a conversation with Sandra. The house was also home to several students that had benefited from a scholarship program supported by our visitors. Sandra’s parents live in an outlying village. She’s staying with her aunt and uncle in order to attend the local primary school. “Do you like your school?” one of the delegates asked. “Oh yes!” was the reply. “What subjects do you like the most?” “I love to read” She said. Her cousin produced a reader from inside the house. Sandra read story after story to us. Her joy of reading was palpable. We checked the reader. It was designed for fourth grade students. That was pretty impressive for this second grader. Our time with her was a special gift of hope that we received right when we needed it.
Sandra reading to the North Americans
It is hard. The challenges are significant. We are so thankful that we don’t face these challenges alone. Sandra’s reading, the words (and often tears) of thanks from parents of scholarship students, the deep questions from theology students, the looks of accomplishment and pride of a weaver, the comments and notes we receive from our folks back home, and the notification of each gift of financial support from you is the gift of hope that always comes at just the right time. Thank-you for walking with us and reminding us that we meet these challenges together.
Indigenous weavers demonstrating their work
As we look ahead to the end of our first term as mission coworkers (June, 2017) we have sensed a call to commit to another four-year term in Guatemala. Will you consider continuing with us as we embark on this new chapter of working alongside our indigenous brothers and sisters of the Presbyterian Church of Guatemala? The journey will continue with your continued prayer, encouragement, and financial support of this work with our Guatemalan partners.

Blessings to you all in celebration of the hope of the resurrection!

Richard and Debbie Welch
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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Guatemalan embrace of the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Former Guatemalan President
Jorge Serrano Elías
In recognition of the celebration of the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, and the 
remembrance of his “I Have a Dream” address, former Guatemalan president Jorge Serrano Elías, with his own checkered past of constitutional violations while in office, (‘Google’ his name for more information on his life and presidency) posted a Guatemalan version of Dr. King’s famous speech to social media. I can’t endorse Mr. Serrano (or his ghost writers) given the fact that, as of this writing, he lives in Costa Rica, resisting extradition back to Guatemala to stand trial for corruption. I can however, endorse the spirit of this celebration of historic words that changed a country forever. Looking at them again, now, after 53 years - and in a Guatemalan context, we are challenged to dream of the possibilities for Guatemala, our country of service, as well as reminding us of how far our country of origin, the U.S. has come in these 50+ years, and how more recent events remind us of how far we still have to go. I hope you enjoy it.

50 years ago, in the most powerful country in the world, a leader of the African American community, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., shared his community’s dreams and inspired the whole nation to fight and defeat a structure of oppression that seemed invincible, that oppressed an entire people, denied their fundamental human rights and fundamental civil rights.

Guatemalan brothers and sisters, inspired by that example, I invite you to dream…

We dream that our children can walk the streets and roads of our country without fear of being killed, robbed or raped and to get on a bus without risk of death. Let us dream that we can go to court and find justice without bribes or coercion, and that it be the same for everyone, no matter how poor or powerful the person who seeks it.

Let us dream that hospitals find answers to our ills and medicines to cure them; that our children will no longer die due to the state's negligence in not preventing disease and for neglecting the environment of misery in which the poor live.

We dream that our children will have schools and educational opportunities, so that they can enjoy access to a dignified life and join in the conscious participation of the development of our country and its ethnic groups.

Let us dream that those who make the laws do so with the needs of the people in mind and not only the interests of the powerful.

Let us dream that the wealth of our country will have a better fate than to find its way to Miami or European bank accounts; and that rather it will serve to provide employment to the needy, to meet the needs of every household, to enable a dignified life for every Guatemalan, and finally serve to banish once and for all, the extreme poverty and misery that shames and dishonors us.

Let us dream that looting and corruption by the state and the exploitation of the poor and the trafficking of drugs, people and arms, with all that it implies, will disappear from our land simply because Guatemalans want progress, but not at the expense of our moral degradation.

We dream that our sisters and brothers will not have to emigrate; risking their lives and living inhuman tragedies, in a quest to seek security and opportunities denied them their own homeland.

Let us dream that cultural differences will never again be cause for discrimination against indigenous peoples and ethnic groups; and who can finally live in justice and peace, respecting and enjoying, orderly and judiciously, the resources God has given us.

Let us dream that we will protect the environment, aware that this is the space in which we, our children, our grandchildren and future generations will live; so their conservation and recovery represents an inescapable responsibility, especially with the generations who come after us.

Let us dream that, with the work of all, Guatemalan goodwill oriented in love, we can overcome these problems and above all, restore the good name that our country deserves but has been lost in the community of nations.

Dreams like these, that seemed impossible in the United States 50 years ago, became a reality for a people's faith in a God who was always the guarantor of their freedom, and the inspiration of men of faith like Martin Luther King, who made it possible for the nation to break those barriers and come to true brotherhood between black and white, giving the key steps towards achieving those dreams.

The people of Guatemala have faith in God and understand that to overcome the hatred, resentment and selfishness that oppress and denigrates us is fundamental for solidarity and brotherly love, understanding between rich and poor, as well as between all ethnicities and nations, and between practitioners of the different faiths that are practiced in our country, and to preach the love and the fear of God.
Protesters demonstrating against government corruption.
"Yes, we have the right to dream"

The blessings of a new hope for the future to you all!
Debbie and Richard Welch
PC(USA) Mission Co-workers, Guatemala

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

1st Quarter Letter - A little late

The following is our first quarter, 2016 Mission Connections letter. We normally do not post these updates to our blog until they have been published and distributed by World Mission. This year, changes to the World Mission web site, along with personnel changes have resulted in our electronic and printed letters not getting published. So, here is our first quarter letter on our life and work in Guatemala. We hope you enjoy it. Our second quarter letter will follow shortly.

Dear Friends and Partners in Mission,

“Is that you hermano Rogelio? I thought I recognized you. We haven’t seen you for a long time. I’m Maria, one of the students you helped with a scholarship so I could finish high school. It’s so great to see you again. I never had the chance to thank you and all the people who helped me. I’ve finished my studies and now I’m working in a bank. Thank-you for what you and the churches did for me and my friends!”

'Rogelio' looking over the Passion River in Guatemala
The beginning of 2016 has been a season of celebrating the many connections we have in and about Guatemala. Rogelio, or Roger as we know him, is a former PCUSA mission coworker who recently returned to visit the area where he and his wife Gloria served for ten years. Along with two friends who have supported the church’s mission in Guatemala for many years, we accompanied Roger on an odyssey of reconnecting relationships formed over many years of ministry.

In the early stages of the partnership between this Guatemalan presbytery and their US partner, church leaders recognized the barriers poverty and related difficulties bring to education.  The Guatemalan people we serve value education and wanted their children to benefit from it.  So, these partners got to work.  They envisioned a scholarship program that would expand educational opportunities for the young people of the presbytery.  More than that, they discovered it would be the perfect ministry to bring together Presbyterians from around the world.  We Presbyterians have long been committed to education.  The National Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Guatemala (IENPG) is no exception. They have formed advisory councils and administrative committees focused on education; and they have invited Presbyterians like so many of you to share from God’s bounty and participate in these scholarships.  Roger and Gloria worked tirelessly to coordinate this and other scholarship programs.

We are grateful that the IENPG has asked us to be part of the scholarship ministry.  Roger and other key players came to Guatemala to teach us what they know about the program and to introduce us to the local church leaders who provide local coordination of these programs. To students like Maria, the mission coworker is often viewed as the source of their support. In reality, programs such as these require a lot of coordination between the local churches, their US partners, as well as representatives from the denominations in both the US and in Guatemala.

As Roger shared his chance encounter with Maria, we realized that we were witnesses to a holy moment of affirmation. It was a gift from God in which we can be reassured that the work and ministry to which God calls us to do and support has a real impact on lives it touches. We believe we all need these moments of affirmation. For us, they’ve become more important since we’ve been working in a context where so much suffering and poverty surrounds us.
Fred and Chuck on the Passion River - Headed for Aguateca
“You know, I’ve got to admit it, I’m having a really good time here”. That was Richard’s cousin Jim. If the truth be told, Jim has always been Richard’s ‘favorite cousin’. Ten years his senior, Jim personified the ‘man of adventure’ so easily idolized by a young kid growing up in suburban Chicago. He served in the US Special Forces and taught Richard how to execute a parachute landing as they jumped off the picnic table in the back yard. Later, he bucked the family tradition of going into the business world and instead pursued his passion for flying, becoming a pilot for United Airlines. Jim accepted the Lord Jesus Christ into his life and became active in a large congregation near Chicago. Now that he’s retired from United, he’s traveled around the world participating in many of his church’s mission endeavors. We were so excited when we learned that Jim wanted to visit us in Guatemala, see the country, and learn about the work we’re doing with the IENPG.
Jim, Richard, and Debbie in Tikal

There is so much beauty, history, and culture to experience in Guatemala, and we love every chance we get to share this country with visitors. When we share our IENPG ministries with visitors, there’s also a good possibility of being exposed to some of the poverty, injustice, corruption, and desperation that impacts many of the people with whom we have contact. We made a journey to the northern part of the country to visit Tikal, the national archeological and natural park and one of the ‘must see’ destinations for anyone visiting Guatemala. Jim also joined us to meet the family of a potential scholarship student in Cobán. Cesar, the potential recipient, suffers from a cleft palate and lip and has had to undergo several painful and expensive reconstructive surgeries. His family recently had to make a choice between continuing with Cesar’s education or with his medical treatment. We worry about ‘overloading’ visitors with the harsh realities of Guatemala such as this situation. But Jim was able to find the positive. In the midst of a reality that limits access to education and health care for poor people, he could see the impact of a gift from an anonymous donor in the US.
Cesar, his mother and little brother registering for school

These are a couple of examples of how our connections with one another affirm, enhance, and fulfill the work God is doing here in Guatemala, using all of us in ways that often surprise us and encourage us. As Presbyterians, we cherish the concept of community by celebrating these connections wherever they occur. We refer to our denomination as ‘connectional’, and our system is setup in such a way that we can rely on, depend on, and be accountable to one another. Since becoming PCUSA mission coworkers, the reality of our connectedness is regularly in front of us. What we do can only be done with the blessing, affirmation, and support of the larger body of the church. So we close with words of thanks. Thanks from us of course, but also from Cesar and his family, from Maria and her family, and from the countless others for whom your support has made a difference in their lives.

The blessings of this New Year to you all!
Debbie and Richard Welch
PC(USA) Mission Co-workers, Guatemala

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Forgive me; I know not what I do. A Good Friday reflection

It’s 3:30 in the morning and someone is outside chopping wood. Just one more abrupt sound in the night to jolt me once again from a restless sleep, and I find myself staring off once again through the mosquito netting into the darkness, wondering if I should just stop trying to sleep. My mind is buzzing from the stimulus of strange and unpleasant sounds and smells. Well, that and the huge mug of over-sweetened coffee I was served just prior to bed time. As I listen to the axe finding its way in and out of the wood, I run through the catalog of noises keeping me awake. There’s an immature rooster in the coop outside who’s just learning how to crow. A gecko in the rafters chirps from time to time. The dog outside, surprised by something unseen and unheard, launches into a tirade of barks. A poorly-muffled motorcycle makes its way down the rough and rocky drive outside the house. Shortly after midnight, someone’s audio system kicks on. I don’t think they’re home. So the neighborhood is being treated to a short playlist of Latin dance tunes, playing over and over. And now someone is out chopping wood.

What am I doing here? That question comes up from time to time in this type of work. On Sunday I left Cobán for El Estor, a community on the banks of Lake Izabal, close to the Gulf of Honduras. I’d gone to meet up with Brian, my coworker, as well as with two leaders from the Sinódica, the women’s organization of the Guatemalan Presbyterian Church. Their plan was to travel to the remote indigenous presbyteries of Estoreño and Izabal, connect with the women there, build relationships, and talk about potential projects and programs to better the lives of the women in these areas. I was invited along to share some of the education projects going on in other indigenous presbyteries. Plans and schedules are generally goals and guidelines. They are subject to unpredictable bus schedules, weather, and other things that come up in the course of executing one’s trip plans. In El Estor we met briefly with the women and then attended an evening Palm Sunday service. Clearly everyone was too tired to have a productive meeting that night. We decided to gather the following morning.
Brian (left) and Richard (right)
Together with the women following the Palm Sunday Service

Meeting with the Estoreño Women

Observing meetings of the women leaders of indigenous presbyteries is often an enlightening and encouraging experience. Our time with the leaders of the Estoreño presbiterial was no exception. They arrive on foot or by public transportation, often with one or more child in tow. They are always ready to greet each other and their visitors from distant places. They work so hard in support of their families, and yet are willing and excited about gathering with us in order to hear about programs that could potentially improve their lives, and the lives of their children. Each has a story worth listening to. Each has dreams they are ready to articulate and share with both the women with whom they have worked and struggled alongside in their faith community, as well as with these women they’ve just met. We four travelers knew we were in sacred space and the time could not be rushed.

Guatemalan hospitality: 
Richard outside our host's home
So now we are behind schedule and we’re starting to realize that it will be impossible to make the long trek out and back to a very remote village in the presbytery of Izabal. We call the pastor with the responsibility of supporting the presbiterial to explain our dilemma. “No problem”. He assures us, “We’ll put you up in the village for the night”. Normally, when we know we’ll be staying in a village without a hotel, we bring along a few camping essentials to spend a somewhat comfortable night in a church building. A camping cot and a sleeping bag can make a big difference when ‘roughing it’ in a village. The pastor knew we were unprepared; and the tradition of hospitality among Guatemalan indigenous people made us realize we’d be displacing someone in order to make room for us in a house in the village.

Sinodica leader Betty (right) with Izabal
presbiterial leaders
Arriving late in the day we were welcomed by the women leaders who insisted we rest and eat prior to meeting together. This was a different meeting dynamic. Meeting late in the day it was clear the women were tired and frustrated. The children were restless, keeping the women occupied with them. Having traveled several hours from the main road by truck, we knew we were visiting a very isolated place where the contrast with the people from our previous meeting in levels of education, language ability, and interest in educational programs was obvious to us. I started to wonder if we were wasting our, as well as their time. As our meeting time finished, several women asked me about scholarships and one asked about the possibility of attending some of the seminary extension classes taking place in Cobán. I could see and hear her interest, but also could detect her low energy and a sense of futility over the possibility of her being able to fulfil that dream.
Meeting with Izabal women. It's late, it's dark, and
everyone is tired

I’m running through these conversations and events as the sugar and coffee continue to keep me awake with artificial stimulation and the need for regular treks to the pit latrine. I’m smiling as I remember the Estoreño women and the door falling off the mini bus on the way to our next rendezvous. Still, my heart sinks a bit thinking of the women in this village and their general lack of enthusiasm or hope. Something startles the dog again and he launches into another round of excited barks. The chopping stops and a voice chastises the dog. I recognize the voice of the woman I spoke with earlier. She’s up at 3:30 chopping wood for her fire in order to prepare breakfast for her husband as he prepares to head to the palm plantation for the day’s work. And here I am, lying on a lumpy mattress on a too-short bed, feeling sorry for myself for not being more effective in communicating our project plans to this woman. “Oh Father forgive me, I had no idea of what this woman’s life was like”. Exhaustion and overwork were mistaken for apathy and hopelessness. I had been blessed by a glimpse into one person’s life and have been restored and resurrected. Come Easter Sunday! I’ve a new perspective of a lifelong holiday.

The blessings of the resurrection to you all!
Debbie and Richard Welch
PC(USA) Mission Co-workers, Guatemala

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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Brightest and Best, Lessons from an Old Christmas Hymn

“Brightest and best of the sons of the morning; Lord of our darkness and lend us thine aid. Star of the East the horizon aborning; Guide where our infant redeemer is laid…”

It’s an old hymn of Christmas that we learned via a more contemporary arrangement. Through the years the poignancy of the poetic verse has held special meaning for us in so many of our life’s adventures. This year was no exception. Strange as it may seem, this year’s “Brightest and Best” adventure started with the bright and warm sun of the Central American country of Belize.

Richard and Debbie in Belize City for a 'visa vacation'
They’re often referred to in the mission worker community as ‘visa vacations’. For those of us working in Guatemala on a tourist visa, after six months in the country (following a 90-day renewal) we are required to leave the country for at least three days, after which we get a stamp in our passport and the cycle starts over again. For our most recent visa vacation, we traveled to Belize City where we stayed by the ocean, took many long walks, and enjoyed the local cuisine. In researching our trip to Belize, we failed to discover that our Guatemalan phones would not work once we crossed the international border. Though many of our younger Guatemalan contacts are comfortable with email and social media as a means of communication, our older friends (read: from our generation) are more comfortable communicating via phone. So, it was via the hotel’s Wi-Fi connection we received a note from the son of one of our contemporaries informing us about his dad. “My father has been trying to call you but hasn’t been able to get through. He wants you to know that while he was doing some work at the church center he punctured his leg on a wire. Because of his diabetes, the wound has not been healing and now there’s an infection. He’s laid up at home now. The doctor at the clinic said that if they can’t get the infection under control, he could lose his foot. He’s hoping he can get in touch with you so that you can ask his partners in the US to pray for him.”

Julian Ico
His name is Julian Ico. He’s been a fixture in the indigenous communities of the Guatemalan Presbyterian Church for longer than we can remember. His involvement in his local church as pastor, his involvement in his local Q'eqchí Polochic presbytery as secretary, and his work with several church-wide committees has earned him a reputation as a solid leader and faithful disciple among his indigenous counterparts and non-indigenous friends in Guatemala, the US, and Canada. It didn’t seem to appear to him that his network of North American contacts might represent available resources to get him access to medical care that otherwise would be outside of his financial reach. His message to me was to contact the people he knows in North America to ask for prayers for his healing. So, from our hotel by the sea, we sent a message out to Julian’s partners and friends.

“Say shall we offer some costly devotion; Odors of Edom and offerings divine? Gems from the mountain and pearls from the ocean; Myrrh from the forest and gold from the mine?"

Crossing back into Guatemala, the bars on our phones lit up once again and we placed a call to Julian. He sounded pretty bad. We told him that we had gotten the word out and that his friends were praying for him. “Gracias hermano, muchas gracias”, he kept saying. We also told him that there were sure to be people amongst his friends who will feel led to provide him with some help in getting some medical attention. “What would the cost be for you to come to the city and visit the clinic here?” He had no idea. He didn’t see that as an option. He was asking for prayer, not for money. He told me he would check into it and get back to me. Several days later, after checking with the local health center, he gave me the list of tests he should have and the possible medications he might need.
Maria in our backyard garden
Julian in his new running shoes
Indeed his partners and friends did respond. And after several failed attempts to get Julian transported from his village to Cobán, he arrived with his wife Maria to stay with us while he visited the clinic. He had consultations and tests surrounding his diabetes, his infected foot and resulting leg pain, as well as consultation for stomach pain (later diagnosed as kidney stones). After the consultations, blood tests, ultrasounds, and more consultations, Julian was prescribed several different internal and topical medications. His doctor also suggested some different shoes that might offer some cushioning for his leg and would not interfere with the wound on his foot. So, after a visit to the local running shoe store, he had a flashy pair of running shoes to compliment his other treatments. Though thinner and weaker than we’ve ever seen him, he was in good spirits as they prepared to return home.

"Vainly we offer each ample oblation. Vainly with gifts would his favor secure. Richer by far is the heart’s adoration. Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor."

Julian and family around our breakfast table
The time in our home passed by all too quickly; and as we sat around the breakfast table before heading to the bus for home, Julian and Maria (through Julian’s translation as Maria speaks only her native Q'eqchí language) took turns thanking us for our hospitality and asking us to be sure and contact everyone in order to thank them for their generosity in support of his healing. Then we prayed together. Julian in Spanish, Maria in Q'eqchí; lifting their voices with a humility and gratitude that comes from people who know what it is to depend entirely on God for everything in their lives. The prayer brought a new and profound meaning to the last sentence of that old hymn.

In sharing this old hymn and this new story we share Julian’s, as well as our thanks to you for your part in this unfolding miracle. Many of you had the opportunity to pray for Julian and to support him in his healing process. Many of you pray for us, read our post, visit and communicate with us, and support us in our work here. Your faces and names were in our thoughts as Julian prayed for us and for you. Truly, “Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.”

The blessings of Christmas to you all!
Debbie and Richard Welch
PC(USA) Mission Co-workers, Guatemala

Monday, November 23, 2015

Projects and Presence, Part 1: Lessons in Partnership from ‘Clem’ and ‘Tine’

“Well Clem, whatcha got for us this year? Are we gonna plow the back 40, put up some hay, slop the pigs, or dig a new well?”
“Golly Tine, I was hopin’ this year we’d replace that fence in the front pasture that’s fallin’ down. I’ve got everything ready to go. So change out of those city clothes, put on your overalls, and we’ll get to work…”

What sounds like an excerpt from a 1950’s era western was actually an annual conversation between me (Richard) and my brother-in-law (Rob). For most of our married life, Debbie and I would spend Thanksgiving with Debbie’s sister Korreen and her husband Rob. Every year we would trade visits. One year we would travel to their suburban Everett, WA home, and the following year they would visit our little farm outside of Spokane, WA.
New barn doors on an old barn. A Clem 'n Tine project

Rob truly loved doing projects on the farm, hence the corny greeting as soon as they would arrive. Over the years our projects became as much a part of our Thanksgivings together as the Thursday meal or Friday shopping trips. Over many Thanksgivings at our home we built fences, replaced barn doors, chopped firewood, and dug trenches. On our visits to Everett we made many trips to the city dump, landscaped, and worked in the garage. Not only did our project time help us build appetites for the meal (or work off the effects of over eating), it also gave the sisters time to themselves to catch up with one another, and in retrospect, I believe I got to know the most I know about my brother-in-law from the time we spent working together.

Besides the fact that we are now celebrating our third Thanksgiving in Guatemala, I’ve had additional reasons for reminiscing about past holiday traditions. Throughout our history with mission partnerships (even prior to our new careers as PCUSA mission coworkers), we’ve experienced a tension between different approaches to partnership. To some, partnership can only exist in the context of working together building or creating something that improves the lives of their partners. The economic disparity between the partners dictates that project resources generally flow from the US partner to the Guatemalan partner. We’ve observed many buildings built, repaired, or improved, and many gains in health, education, and financial independence that have resulted from projects carried out by partners working together in these work-focused visits.
U.S. and Guatemalan partners work together
Building a pastor's manse in the Peten Presbytery
Yet many have observed how project-focused partnerships can easily encounter unintended consequences such as dependency, misappropriation of resources, paternalism, loss of partners’ self-esteem, and visits that resemble a service provider’s call rather than a gathering of equal partners. Recent book titles such as “When Helping Hurts” and “Toxic Charity” do an excellent job of identifying the reality and impact of these consequences.

On the other side of the spectrum, we’ve observed partnerships focused on the building and maintaining of long-term and deeply personal relationships between partners. We’ve observed wonderful personal connections develop as people worshiped, shared music, had meals, and listened to one another’s stories together. Spending time in one another’s homes and communities creates a lasting understanding of each person’s context and faith journey.

Yet challenges exist in the ministry of presence as well as people who visited in the past no longer make the trip for whatever reason. Stories are retold as new and experienced travelers gather visit after visit and keeping the partnership fresh and relevant to both parties becomes more difficult. Eventually, the disparity in resources between partners can become more difficult to reconcile, and it’s not uncommon to see a relationship come to a place where people want to do something together.

Lately we’ve wondered… at what point did we decide that partnership has to be either project focused or relationship focused? Both aspects offer much to the vitality of our partnerships. And so we return to Clem and Tine. One year our project was to chop firewood for the winter. In anticipation of the family’s arrival I borrowed a neighbor’s hydraulic wood splitter. We split lots of firewood. But at the end of the day after we turned off the motor on the machine and took off our hearing protection my brother-in-law commented, “Boy, you sure can’t have much of a conversation with that thing going can you?” Unknowingly, I’d traded our opportunity to visit with each other while we worked for increased firewood production. I don’t think it was a good trade. From then on we stuck to more manual, but less intrusive methods of working together.
Team members from Alabama mix concrete by hand
with their Guatemalan partners.
Very manual and "non-intrusive".
“Just don’t let your project become your purpose” were the closing words to a conversation I had with a friend as we discussed a major renovation project in our aging church facility. No one denied the need to make the old building accessible for people with physical limitations, but my friend was aware of the ability projects have in taking on lives of their own, and we can sometimes lose sight of the purpose our projects have in the lives of our relationships with one another. We’ve had the privilege of working alongside so many of you who have partnered with us as well as with our indigenous sisters and brothers in Guatemala. Whether it’s in the execution of projects, the deepening of relationships, the financial support that keeps our ministry going, or the regular encouragement of your communications with us, your involvement is a joy to experience and witness.

Thanksgiving blessings to you all, in all of the different ways you may be celebrating the season!

Thank-you and blessings to you all!
Debbie and Richard Welch
PC(USA) Mission Co-workers, Guatemala

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