When Manny Gonzalez went to Guatemala in April to offer Bible training, local pastors walked as many as seven hours from remote villages to attend.
“I see how easily many of us can come up with an excuse not to attend a church service,” says Gonzalez, who attends Bethesda Church in Huron, S.D. “In Guatemala there are Christians who will travel a dangerous road to learn more about God and become better leaders.”
For Gonzalez and others, the trip to Guatemala provided opportunity to train and equip local pastors, preach, share testimonies and minister to children. As a result, ministry is being strengthened, both in Guatemala and among the Guatemalan population in Huron.
A need for training
Gonzalez, who teaches Sunday school and serves with Bethesda’s AWANA ministry, coordinated the April 8-21 trip as a result of his interaction with a Guatemalan church in Huron.
Four years ago, Gonzalez, who has been part of Bethesda since 2009, began teaching and preaching at Principe De Paz, a Huron church comprised primarily of indigenous Mayan people from the Ixchiguán, Guatemala, area. Here, he learned of the need for pastoral training in Guatemala.
“Pastor Francisco Lopez commented how local pastors have no opportunity to receive formal theological training or attend seminary,” Gonzalez says. “I began to pray and ask God how we could help pastors in that area.”
With pastoral training on his heart, Gonzalez, who earned his bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministry from Liberty University Online in December 2017 and was accepted into Liberty’s seminary program in January 2018, began planning a trip to Guatemala.
During the first week of training, Gonzalez and Steffen and members of the local pastor delegation hiked for miles to visit a remote village, located between two volcanoes, that sent its only pastor to the training. With no running water or electricity and one latrine for the village, hygiene is poor and the mortality rate among children is high, Gonzalez says.
Gonzalez invited his Liberty professor, Daniel Steffen, to accompany him for a week of training, then welcomed Bethesda participants Anthony Lind, who serves as youth pastor, and Justin Connerley, for a second week focusing on sharing testimonies and kids’ ministry.
During their first week in Guatemala April 8-14, Gonzalez and Steffen conducted biblical training in Ixchiguán, teaching basic biblical interpretation to the 50 pastors gathered from as many as 10 denominations. Steffen, who also serves as adjunct professor in New Testament and Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, speaks fluent Spanish and taught New Testament in Guatemala City for seven years.
“It was real interactive,” Gonzalez says of the training. “We started at 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. (At) the end of the week we helped them develop a sermon.”
Gonzalez spent evenings reviewing materials with pastors and visiting villages. He and Steffen also took turns preaching in villages.
“One day it took us over four hours to cover 20 miles in that region to visit the village of two pastors that were walking seven hours to the training,” Gonzalez says.
After Steffen’s departure, Lind and Connerley arrived for a week of sharing testimonies, preaching and conducting kids’ outreach events April 15-21.
Connerley shared his testimony in a jail, where more than 60 inmates gave their lives to Christ, Gonzalez says. The last Sunday, Gonzalez and the team extended an invitation to 30 churches for a kids’ event including games and testimony-sharing.
About 200 people came to Christ during the two-week period, Gonzalez says.
Before leaving Guatemala, Gonzalez left a collection of theological books, commentaries and other resources for the pastors who attended the training, as well as a monetary offering for the local pastor delegation that aided in planning the trip.
Primitive living conditions
In Guatemala, Gonzalez and others observed primitive living conditions while visiting villages surrounded by volcanoes in the high region of the country.
“Where we were at is the highest point in Central America for altitude,” Gonzalez says. “All the Mayans are up there. When the Spaniards started wiping out the Mayans, they sought refuge up in the mountains, and the Spaniards never chased them up there because it was so treacherous. That’s how they survived.”
Nestled between two volcanoes, one village Gonzalez and Steffen visited required miles of hiking to reach. With no running water or electricity and one latrine for the village, poor hygiene has contributed to a high mortality rate, especially among children. This village sent its only pastor to the training.
Malnutrition causes stunted growth—Gonzalez says children typically are two years older than they appear.
“We encountered kids that haven’t eaten in three days,” he says. “Most people can’t afford meat, so they’re just stunted.… There was an 8-year-old that was smaller than my 6-year-old and a 3-year-old that’s smaller than Anthony’s 2-year-old. Their dad was begging us to take them both with us back to the United States because he couldn’t afford to feed them.”
With limited access to medical care—many clinics do not have doctors—sickness and infections can be fatal, and a case of pink eye can cause blindness.
In the villages, women primarily attend church, as men are either working in the fields or at home drinking, Gonzalez says. Some parents seek employment in the United States to support their family, leaving their children to be raised by grandparents.
“All those people are trying to leave to get a better life condition because it’s so hard to live up there,” Gonzalez says. “…They migrate, and they end up in Huron.”
Immigrants bring diversity
The city of Huron attracts workers from Guatemala and elsewhere as a result of two nearby processing plants.
“Huron is the most diverse community in South Dakota per capita,” Gonzalez says, adding the city contains four Guatemalan churches, one Puerto Rican church, at least two Karen churches and a Buddhist temple.
Gonzalez volunteers among the Guatemalan population in Huron and speaks on a Spanish radio station, encouraging parents to send their children to school—by age 12, most kids are expected to work.
“I was on a radio station here in Spanish, talking to them and motivating them to send their kids to school, let them finish school because then those kids will have a better future,” he says. “That’s what is happening now. All these kids are coming in, they’re attending high school or elementary, they’re getting their degrees, they’re fluent in Spanish and in English and they’re getting a better way of life.”
Plans for future trips
Gonzalez hopes to return to Guatemala in two years as part of a long-term commitment to pastors, saying he plans to create a vision for future trips then meet with Bethesda’s missions committee for possible church sponsorship.
He plans to invite other churches to participate, including other Mennonite Brethren churches and Spanish-speaking churches in Huron, and would like to take medical care providers next time.
“If I can take at least a few medical guys or gals and at least can teach them
hygiene, how to take care of the common parasite or the common fungi that they’re encountering, I think that’s going to improve the quality of life,” he says.
Meanwhile, pastoral training is ongoing in Guatemala, both through the help of one of Steffen’s seminary students in Guatemala City and the use of an app, through which pastors send assignments to Gonzalez for review and correction. Pastors working on sermons and needing clarification can send questions to Gonzalez, who responds with a written reply or a phone call.
“In an area that had no training at all, now they’re receiving training from other people that have been able to go to seminary and go to school,” he says. “Now what we’re hoping and praying to see is, in a two-year period when we go back, those pastors in that area have a better knowledge of Scripture, hermeneutics and other topics, and that that would help them grow those churches and reach out to the Maya culture that is so embedded in witchcraft.”
Committing for the long-term is important, Gonzalez says.
“We wanted to see that they’re going to keep engaged and continue to learn more and not just be satisfied that whatever they know now is enough,” he says. “They need to continue training.”