Land of Many Trees and Many Cultures
by Juan Sarmiento
The variety of ethnic, cultural, racial, and linguistic groups in Guatemalan cultures is apparent even to someone that, like me, is visiting for the first time. More than 40 % of the total population is made up of indigenous people, and there are at least 23 recognized languages that preceded the arrival of Spanish.
Our group arrived in Coban, an influential population center in the Q'eqchi region in the same area where Bartolome de las Casas, a renowned priest, was active as an advocate of native cultures while at the same time promoting a type of evangelization as a clear alternative to the forceful programs that were so common in these lands during the 16th century. In spite of many historical instances that have sought to suppress the multicultural nature of Guatemalan society, the interaction of U.S. missionaries with its broad diversity has been part of the development of at least three of the most significant developments in the understanding and practice of global Christian mission in the 20th century.
Bible Translation Movement: In 1917 Cameron Towsend, a Presbyterian from the Los Angeles area, came to Guatemala with the intention of passing out Bibles only to realize that the lack of interest by a significant part of the population was due to the fact that their mother tongue was other than Spanish. That experience prompted him to translate the Bible into the Caqchikel language. He went on to launch Wycliffe Bible Translators which developed versions of the Bible in more than one hundred languages and thousands of others after that making the scriptures more available to a larger section of the world’s population than ever before.
Frontier Mission Movement: Ralph and Roberta Winter came to these lands to serve as Presbyterian missionaries among the Mam people from 1956 to 1966. Immersing themselves in the life of the Mam helped them gain an appreciation of the particular dynamics of intentionally bridging ethnolinguistic cultural groups in order for the Christian message to be appropriated by distinct cultural groups in ways that are meaningful to them. Such experience was part of Ralph’s preparation to eventually become the foremost popularizer of the “unreached people group” concept that is behind the growing efforts by the global Church to share the gospel among those that have the least access to it.
Today the majority of the members and most of the growth of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Guatemala comes from indigenous groups. By partnering with them, God can help us become more aware of intercultural realities as we seek to minister faithfully in our own diverse communities in the United States.
As part of our trip we had a chance to worship at Antioch Presbyterian Church, a new congregation that lifts up God’s power to bring together Q'eqchi speakers and mestizos (who traditionally worship separately) in ways that overcome historical hostilities and display the unity of the Spirit made possible by Christ.
In the next blog I will introduce a third significant mission development that originated in Guatemala and that is still having a great effect both around the world and in Guatemala itself.
Juan J. Sarmiento
Associate Director for Mission