Dan’s Reflections on Visiting William

Global Discipleship Network Reflections

Daniel Roels visited William Quiñones, Guatemala City, August 2011, as part of a CICW / CRWM peer learning pastor exchange, and wrote the following in Sept 2011 in response to areas of reflection given by group coordinator Mark Charles:

  1. Bible Study

At the weekly célula meeting, one member was preparing lessons based on an American Christian book about family finances.  My first week’s lesson had a simple message: there is nothing wrong in asking God for prosperity.  As I sat through a few quotes of Bible verses and reflections about knowing how God provides for our every need and can also give abundantly, something in me began to rebel, and I’m sure it wasn’t dinner.

I come from a land where The Prayer of Jabez swept churches a few years ago and where Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel brings promising American glitz to every broadcast.  Everywhere I go there are ads for things to be bought and then replaced once obsolete.  In every city, urban churches are struggling because the middle classes took their resources to a bigger house in the suburbs.  Those of my neighbors who qualify as the American poor subsist on cable, welfare, and get-rich-quick dreams.  Meanwhile churches, whose Kingdom dream is mixed unquestioningly with the so-called American Dream, are doing mission on them and helping people out with money for food, rent, and utilities.  And we call all this “blessing.”  Something in me has long since been in full rebellion, and I’m sure it is the steady poisonous cultural diet of consumerism.

Yet sitting in a Guatemalan living room, in a house larger and nicer than my rented duplex back in Holland, I had to pause in my mutinous thoughts.  Poverty in Guatemala is different, right?  The neighborhood around this sturdy house was half cinder block and corrugated tin.  So why not ask God for prosperity if that means more than two bedrooms?  Surely, simply asking for a blessing is an act of faith in the One who blesses?  Is it not really a problem of stewardship of such great blessing that raises my hackles?  Has not my culture forgotten that blessing is not really for us, but for someone else through us?  Are material resources morally neutral in themselves?

The group of young couples begins to speak of blessings they seek, and all are buying land, building homes, or adding a porch.  The pastor lives in a three story block home, and the bottom two stories are given to the elementary school, with one room for guests like myself.  He, his wife, and two sons share a large bedroom.  Wouldn’t he love to build or add a porch?  Is he different because he is a pastor?  Something in me rebels.

Material resources are never morally neutral because there is always context.  There is no “in themselves.”  There is always culture, there are always needs, and there is always sin nipping at the heels of blessing, hindering the stewards who walk with God, lest they run toward their Savior with abandon.  And I return home to my sizable nest egg, represented by a number in my online stock brokerage account, and growing monthly with my middle class mindset of saving.  What is blessing and where is sin?  God grant me a stewardly and rebellious wisdom.

  1. Preaching

Pastor William and the pastor general switch every three months in the preaching schedule, though William admits he really doesn’t like to preach in such a formal Sunday service.  As it happened, the formal preaching I observed took place within context of a wake for a young man, whose family seemed at best loosely tied to the church.  Thus, William took the opportunity to preach an evangelistic message which reflected on his own loneliness as a fatherless child and pointed to the security and comfort found only in Christ.  The message was directly and obviously a proclamation of the gospel, even with acknowledgement that apart from Christ, comfort is hard to come by.

Were this to have happened in my American context, I imagine the various reactions of family members to such an evangelistic message: leaving the funeral service in a huff over being “proselytized” in their time of grief, remaining but feeling uncomfortable enough to let the pastor know that the deceased wouldn’t have been pleased, or assuring the pastor that such evangelism was exactly what the family needed to hear.  If I were preaching in the situation, I would find my hearers all over the board with regard to religion: some who consider themselves post-religious, others who prefer to be “spiritual” without making specific commitments, others who like the idea of Jesus but hate being “churched,” and still others reacting to all this with a more forward version of Christian faith.  I might spend a lot of time thinking about how to slip in some Jesus without offending, or how to get the gospel in by the back door.  Or, even in a culture in which medium may carry more meaning than the message itself, I might do well just to preach the Word, setting aside trepidations about how people will react, and be bold to preach the one hope of myself and of the world unapologetically.

  1. Prayer

William begins most of his prayers with “Papito lindo” (something like “Beautiful Daddy”), which was an address for God I had not heard before.  The words may be best translated as “Abba,” yet the “ito” as part of an address for God, as also in the “Diosito” of a Mexican family I know, made me uncomfortable.  Part of my discomfort stems from my inadequate understanding of that grammatical marker, since I learned “ito” as a diminutive form used for small things or yound children, but “ito” endings also make objects or people familiar and close.  Or perhaps my psyche and religious sense is accustomed to the distant above-it-all transcendence of a Most Holy God of Hosts spoken of in stentorian tones.  More fire on the mountain than let the little children come to me; more judge than daddy.  Yet this means that my discomfort was good because my experience of God was being stretched with a simple bending of the grammatical ending of one word.

  1. Worship

Upon my return to the States, I often remarked to my congregants that the youth worship service in Guatemala was more contextualized for my own culture than my usual service was.  Saturday nights rang with drums, electric guitars, and pumped up audio.  Video loops ran behind song lyrics in EasyWorship2009, video clips introduced the message, and a gigantic black banner across the front of the sanctuary read “X-Files,” as a way to present our many deep questions for God for which He sometimes has mysterious answers.  The pastor has a donated blackberry, via which he teases attenders with themes and invites on facebook, and he says, “Jesus used parables, so I use whatever I have within my reach to communicate the gospel.”  American high schoolers I know would be more likely to attend this service and enjoy it than most services in West Michigan.

This is not to say that the worship service I preach in is not contextual.  It is, but to an older generation which is more apt to learn by listening than by seeing, and wants to be fed on the famliar spiritual diet that has nourished it for decades.  Similarly, the Sunday congregation at the Guatemalan church is older, and more traditional, though that means they enjoy familiar hymns to Mariachi band once per month.  I pray that lovers of a certain style of worship become lovers of a variety of worship, so that God would be experienced in more of His uncontainability.

  1. Community Involvement/Outreach

William repeatedly said that most churches of his evangelical denomination pull in the direction of being separate from the society around them.  This has led to a diminished voice in government, where once the evangelical church in Guatemala could speak and change the course of legislators and laws.  In contrast, William and the Morán family (the senior pastor’s family) are heavily involved in the community through the colegio and the outreach center in downtown Santa Catarina Pinula, and are frequently getting the church and school and outreach center working together on social service projects.  That includes an anti-addiction community coalition he, a government worker, and a high-powered Roman Catholic lawyer are building as well as the colegio’s class-based social project to put on a party for the kids who attend the outreach center.  For William, all this is a matter of conviction and faith that God is involved in every facet of life and that evangelism is not merely a matter of the soul, but a misión integral.

How very reformed, even Kuyperian!  When I noted that engaging with culture and reaching people wholistically was part of the Calvinist and Kuyperian theological traditions, he saw that as a great asset and a surprise.  Even apart from theology, the theologians were invested: John Calvin made it his business to design a decent sewer system for Geneva, though I’m not sure if it was implemented.  I wonder if our churches make enough use of our heritage in this respect.  William could no doubt be encouraged by Kuyper and Calvin, but their work is unfortunately not much in Spanish.

  1. Leadership Development

The key area in which I observed this was during Nexo, the youth worship service.  After ten years of working with many of the same youth, William has trained various of them in roles supporting the worship service.  Some are techs and trained in EasyWorship, others are musicians, dramaturges, décor artists, or set-up / take-down crew.  In weekly planning meetings with worship leaders (who have their own teams they are responsible for) and on facebook, the service theme is discussed and ideas are exchanged.  This bears some superficial resemblance to the modern American environment, with its high degree of relationship building and use of social media.  However, in Guatemala, I think that there are more opportunities for long-term fruitful discipleship due to lower social mobility, strong collectivist values, and a longer time of being considered “youth.”  All of these factors result in less geographic mobility, which leaves more time for relationships to grow.  Yet, reflecting back on the U.S., there may be increasing opportunity as our culture grows in exactly those three areas under the effects of economic recession (fewer grads can afford to move away, or live at their parents’ home) and the growing need for deep relationships (studies indicate Americans have fewer close friends than decades ago).

7.       Relationships/Fellowship within the Church body

            (see reflection on #1 and #9)

8.       Sacraments

            (Not observed)

9.       Involvement of leaders own childern and family in their ministry

            Iglesia Nueva Jerusalén has a three-part ministry of church, school, and neighborhood drop-in center.  As William brought me around to each, I was constantly meeting more siblings, in-laws, and extended family – as it happened, the daughters of Pastor Morán (the senior pastor of the church) each have become deeply involved in the various ministries.  William is a son-in-law and the youth pastor.  Carlos, married to daughter Mimi, is the outreach center director.  Daughter Milú is a teacher, and daughter Caren, though she could land a well-paying job with her master’s of psychology, is the principal of the school.  Daughter Jahaira takes charge of much of the home hospitality, and was the one who received me and cooked for me on day one.

            I found myself asking how this could hold together.  In the U.S., children would either rebel against such deep and assumed commitments, seeing them as imposed, or would simply find their own paths in career and ministry.  Among the congregants, other leaders would chafe against the apparent domination of one family within the structure.  Over time, having such a pillar family running most of the church might lead to the closing of the church once that family burned out.  In my own church experience in West Michigan, the strength of family values has hindered and at times trumped family-of-God values, because dinners and homes and social life is family-based in the extreme, to the exclusion of those who are not family, even if such outsiders have no reliable family other than the church.  So, why can such a family-oriented structure work in Guatemala?  Upon reflection and a bit of research (particularly in Cultures and Organizations, by Geert Hofstede), there are two reasons such a dynamic can function healthfully and long-term.  First, Guatemala is a far more collectively-minded culture than the U.S.; in one cultural study, Guatemala ranked as the most collectivist whereas the U.S. ranked as the most individualist out of 76 countries studied.  In collectivist set-ups, one’s identity and purpose is found in the group, so sticking around and participating in the group project matches one’s own sense of what is desired and desirable.  Iglesia Nueva Jerusalén may depend on exactly these values.  Second, Guatemala has a cultural characteristic of “high power distance,” especially relative to the U.S., meaning that authority and inequality of decision-making power is accepted more readily.  If the pastor lays out the plan, people are more likely to follow it, and having one powerful family is seen as more okay.  Thus, a ministry rooted in family participation and strength is a model that functions well in Guatemala.

10.   Children’s / Teaching ministry

            I would guess that children’s ministry anywhere in the world requires fun.  In Guatemala, this means playing soccer and, currently, marbles.  Laugh.  Be not so distantly adult, but be a kind of friend, and then teach as an insider, yet also as an authority on Things That Matter.  Such relational ministry is an equal requirement in Guatemala and the U.S. for genuine discipleship.

            On the other hand, the type of content delivered in the teaching I observed was very different.  A common style of Biblical teaching I observed in classes at the school and young adult Sunday school was moral education: what is right and wrong?  How should one decide?  What are consequences?  Such questions would not attract most American high schoolers I know, who would rather speak about who they are and how they feel, emotion more than ethics.  I remain somewhat unsure about the positive reasons for the apparent effectiveness of this teaching focus on the Guatemalan side, but there are negative reasons in that in the U.S., the relative ineffectiveness of such teaching would be related to the growing narcissism (and subsequent entitlement) of younger generations and to postmodern moral relativism.  The first means a self-orientation that inhibits learning about a moral structure based in someone else (be it the other, or God as the ultimate Other), and the second means any moral structure doesn’t seem to fit the wishy-washy world American teens inhabit.

Expand one of the reflections above into a short essay (approx 1-2 pages)… Two more stories that address what I think the church in Guatemala can teach and what lessons I carry with me.

1)      A barbershop quartet: Psalm 92:4

William said he needed a haircut.  Maybe it was because his doppelganger, a candidate by the name of Baldizón, was running for the presidency.  Not that William wanted to differentiate himself from the dozens of “Baldizón ¡Partido Líder!” ads lining every street of Guatemala City, but more that he felt he needed to look good for the campaign.  After all, Baldizón might be his brother, the pictures were everywhere, and so in this city, he was inescapable.  Down the hill we went to the barber.

The barbershop: a fine high-backed chair, scattered hair-care products, the daily newspaper to read, mirrors bordered by family photos, and the real family members who passed through on the way to the store.  The barbershop was, in fact, part of the house, next to the garage.  Plastered on the walls were the ten commandments, other written Bible verses, and a testament to living alcohol-free through Jesus.  In this barbershop, He was inescapable.

William and the barber, who goes to the church, made small talk for bit, discussing the latest news and being sure to greet every family member within range, but after additional snips, settled down to the meat of the conversation.  “Do you remember Panalito?”  (They called him that since the young man once had an afro such that bees could have dwelt in that “honeycomb.”)  “Well, his mother has diabetes and had to go the hospital a couple nights ago… she’s doing fine now… we need to ask the Lord to do a work in her life.”  “I was just telling Daniel about the student who stayed with us years back – how he met his now wife, who also stayed with us before he did.  Look at how God blesses these things!”  And from there they launched into iterations of stories I’d heard three or four times already in under two weeks: how this person was brought back to grace, how another was healed, how Jesus had saved a life nearly lost to drugs.  In this barbershop, He was inescapable.

The haircut was done, but the retelling of the mighty works of Yahweh continued.  It might sound like the high-minded piety of people trying to impress a guest pastor, but it wasn’t.  It wasn’t religious or forced or dull with unpolished antique faith.  No, this was living and active, a conversation well-seasoned.  It was entirely natural to be talking about what God had done, maybe for the umpteenth time for them, in the freshly winsome tones of people who never cease to celebrate Jesus.  Driving back to the house, we saw more photos of Baldizón, and William looked more presidential than ever.  But in the city as in the barbershop, the images that mattered were of Him who is everywhere, and He was joyfully inescapable.

2)      Acompáñame

It was late.  It was late because tomorrow morning students would begin arriving by seven o’clock, some of them with snare drums, others with shrill bells, all ready for parade rehearsal.  And it was late because the neighbor would surely be cranking music well before seven o’clock.  And it was late because the urban roosters would begin sooner than that.  Thus, the sudden shuffle of activity surprised.  It was an emergency.

Willie’s mom had to get to the hospital immediately.  After days of fighting an illness, her diabetes was out of control.  “William, is there anything I can do to help?” “Acompáñame.”  So we went across the main street of Santa Catarina Pinula to a neighborhood ironically named La Joya, the jewel, to pick up Willie, a.k.a. Panalito, and his mom.  She staggered into the car, dragging close to her the clinging smell of illness.  The streets were clear.  We sped to Roosevelt Hospital and dropped her off at the gate outside emergency.

And then we waited.  The rules say that only one person can go into the secure area with a patient.  All others hang around outside trying not to be too cold and trying to reach the designated insider by cell phone.  There are a lot of us.  These days, the hospital unions are on strike, so nobody goes to the hospital until things get really serious, because at least emergency is still open.  After an hour, there is no answer to the phone and no news from the inside, but it is clear that we are staying until there is.  William tells me about growing up in the country during decades of varying degrees of civil war.  Once, while playing soccer with friends, he watched rebels attack a hospital in an attempt to rescue a leader.  These days the conflict is more about narco gangs versus everyone else, which is why after two hours, heavily armed federal police showed up to guard one of the ambulances.  After three hours, we went to sleep in the car.  Eventually, Willie came out and said his mom would be discharged, and we were back home by 2 a.m.

For all that time we stayed, I spent half of it wondering if we would ever get back to the house that night.  Willie might never answer his phone, let alone come out, until the next day.  The house, and proper beds, might have been only twenty minutes away.  But that’s not what “Acompáñame” meant.  It meant, “Hold vigil and watch with me.”  It meant, “Do this open-ended task together.”  It meant being incarnate representatives of God’s presence, but not the glorious shining-eyed Jesus kind so much as the stiff, bleary-eyed, inefficient-but-together kind.  It meant ministry.

Other questions that could be reflected on…

–          What did you learn about God? (see my #3)

–          What new perspectives do you have on your cultural context? (answered in many places in my reflections, but it could be a prompt for a more specific answer)

–          What mistaken expectations did you have about the context you visited?  For me, the Spanish accent of Guatemala gave me more trouble than I thought it would.  I can only compare the experience to something like learning English for the first time in Michigan and then going to Texas for two weeks.

So, esteemed colleagues in ministry, I hope these reflections are soul food for you and lend support to the idea that peer learning, international included, continues to be a good idea.  This is not a particularly professional write-up, but I’m not sure exactly what is asked, so some of my writing probably feels like an informal travel journal, or like hefty ideas needing more “unpacking.”  If anyone wants something different, just let me know.  If any of this material is going to be published or public in some way, as opposed to being a basic report to those who are involved or tracking this GDN project, I would like the chance to review and edit it.  I am also willing to prepare articles or reflections for a broader audience.  In any case, all this is written with deep gratitude to William Quiñones, Mark Charles, CRWM, CICW, and all the other players in this.  May the Lord use it all for His work.

Bendiciones en el Señor,

Daniel Roels

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About Global Discipleship Network

The Global Discipleship Network (GDN) is a ministry of CRWM which brings together church leaders from the CRC in North America and from our international partners into a learning circle for mutual discipleship.
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