Singing gladly with God's people in the Yucatán Peninsula

by Juan Sarmiento

O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.  
Psalm 96:1-3

Journeying through the states of Yucatán, Tabasco and Campeche over the last week has taken my view of Mexico as having a very musical culture to a whole different level. The three congregations that I have worshiped with displayed the combination of joy and reverence that accompanies so much of how Presbyterians respond to God’s grace here.

Missionary Todd Luke shared with me that when the first Presbyterian church was started in the Calakmul region of Campeche, pastors were available one Sunday a month at the most. However, in addition to Bibles and the Westminster Catechism, people were given hymnals and guidance on how to use them.

During the three decades that The Outreach Foundation has facilitated the participation of Presbyterians in the United States in mission efforts here, the National Presbyterian Church more than doubled in size from 1.2 million to the current 2.8 million. That remarkable growth can be attributed to many factors, including how Mexican Presbyterians combine worshipful hearts and missional passion in so much of what they do. I noticed that many of the Bibles used in Presbyterian churches also incorporate a hymnal. All three theological seminaries that The Outreach Foundation partners with have developed strong musical degree programs. Considering that most congregations do not offer a salary to their music directors, the existence of those programs is even more noteworthy.

In the 1980s Mexican Christians became originators of worship songs often referred to as “alabanzas.” Combining elements from the so-called “contemporary” praise and worship, Latin rhythms and fervent spirituality, singers and composers like Marcos Witt and Jesus Adrian Romero seized the advent of the compact disc era with tunes that that are now sung in most Spanish-speaking churches around the world, including those in the Roman Catholic tradition. The response of historically Reformed churches has been mixed, with concerns ranging from weak theological content, too much borrowing from American elements instead of Latin cultural roots, and dismissing traditional hymnody. Currently, it is common for Presbyterian congregations to incorporate selected “alabanzas” and to accompany them with guitars and drums. At the same time, they are making use of digital tools such as CDs, YouTube videos, and video projectors to encourage younger generations to embrace time-honored hymns.

One of the participants of this last part of the trip is Argel Chay. Born in the state of Yucatán of a bilingual (Spanish/Mayan) family, he now serves as an elder at Fuente de Vida Presbyterian Church in Hollywood, CA; a congregation that nests in the facilities of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Argel also plays the base guitar at Fuente de Vida’s worship band and was commissioned by his church to join the Outreach group that is learning and serving alongside our partners in Campeche.

Through the centuries Christians have expressed their worship to God by creating, performing, and teaching music in different places, styles and languages. As different as our forms of worship may be, what a great privilege we have of lifting our hearts and our voices together in gratitude to the One that is worthy of praise and inviting others to join in.

“Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.”  Psalm 67:5

Juan Sarmiento
Associate Director for Mission