Sunday, September 27, 2015

San Bartolo Aguas Calientes (Totonicapon, Guatemala)

A 3:30 in the night start is not any easier than it has ever been, but I’ve learned ways to make it a little less painful. Carry a blanket and drink as little as possible and you might be able to sneak in a nap without feeling like your bladder is about to explode as you bump and jolt down gravel and dirt roads.

I set off with my frequent traveling companions Fontaine and Edgar, along with Karvin Adams from Texas, my right hand man Antony, and our new intern Donavon. As the sun searched for the horizon line our wheels rose into the highland area near Xela, Guatemala. The growing light began to reveal small cooking fires sparked alongside the highway as women prepared tortillas and coffee.

Our path took us along peaks and ridgelines as we navigated without edge line or guardrail only inches away from a decisive mistake. Despite my best efforts, I barely made it to a concrete bathroom behind a desperate gas station. After what was surely a personal best in evacuation duration, I climbed back to the comfort of a warm blanket wondering how in the world I can drink a cup and produce a bucket?

Certainly this last line has thinned out the audience a bit, so now let’s move into the story. Our trusty ministry van rattled and screeched its way around the mountain curves as Edgar kept the accelerator firmly in the down position. To my surprise, we arrived alive at San Bartolo Aguas Calientes, Totonicapon, home of Pastor Julio. 

The city’s name includes the words, “hot water” because of its proximity to a natural volcanic heated spring. Lest you think we kicked our heels up all day, I’ll tell you that the spring was a kilometer from our location that ironically had water only 2 hours per day, and not a drop of it was hot.  Even so, the beauty of the city cannot be over-embellished. Gorgeous vistas and mountainscapes surrounded us on every side with symmetrical patches of agriculture being tended at seemingly impossible inclines. Fruit stands lined the streets brighter than an oil painting, on a tapestry smoother than any watercolor. 

Pastor Julio met us in the road and jumped into the temporarily stopped, tire-smoking van. He guided us to his home where we feasted like kings on a fresh cooked, all local breakfast of scrambled eggs, plantains, refritos, tortillas that came steaming hot from the stove-top, fresh made Rosa de Jamaica tea, fresh sliced watermelon, and steaming fresh coffee for which I gave sincere thanks to God. Julio’s wife was a baker and a wonder in the kitchen. We all were family as we ate our fill and thumped our bellies like large drums. I laughed at the spectacle. We were like the dwarves that ransacked Bilbo Baggin’s house on that most unexpected of nights.

For some unexplainable reason, I enjoy the experience of an unknown day. Each moment is an adventure, and there are no disappointments. And so I was delighted when we loaded up into the van, stopping to pick up people I’ve never before met as we turned the corner from Julio’s house and headed down the incline, reaching his church. 

After parking the van we unpacked like so many multi-faced clowns… some of us smiling, some of us grimacing at the sun and uncreaking our spines. We stumbled down the sidewalk and made our way to the church that seemed perched on the edge of the cliff like a Dr. Suess house. To my delight, the doors were opened and we were greeted by the church leadership, a beautiful mix of both young and a little more experienced men and women. 

The church seemed large with it’s massive balcony that I of course had to climb. It had skinny concrete steps that rose boldly without hand-rails over the expanse below. 

The top of the stairs ended into the ceiling, and a small alcove that housed the bells was two feet away in the side-wall, with a 2 foot gap between them that was open to the concrete bleachers some 20 feet below. I considered making the climb and instantly broke out in a nervous sweat. I put it on my list of things to do next time I’m here. Not today.

With wobbly knees I made my way back down the balcony and to the main floor of the sanctuary. Edgar shifted my attention to the large banner on the wall. Fontaine, our mission director said, “Now that’s vision with teeth.” Printed in full color was the architectural plan of a 1,200 seat auditorium with a two story classroom structure, and a mass production pure water plant.

It was a massive plan. If they could actually build this church, it would be the largest church of our Reformation Movement in all of Central America. In fact, it would be among the largest Churches of God in all of North America. This could be a tremendous story of church expansion! We all stood in awe, considering if something like this could actually be realized.

It was at this moment that the pastor’s voice softly broke the silence. “Would you like to come and see it?” I turned to him slowly as again he repeated it, and then led us out to the van.  We bumped down the road and down the mountain about a quarter mile, crested the ridge, and saw the vision of the church, half-way built! Pastor Julio explained that a crew of four men were responsible for the majority of the building.

Classroom structure, photo right; Auditorium photo left.
The original plan for the lower level was to build a feeding center for the community. The land was at an elevation of 8100 feet above sea level and to the shock of everyone, while digging the foundation, a natural spring was found at a depth of 18 feet. This little village that only received water for 2 hours per day could use a fresh water supply. It seems that God provided a church some land, vision with teeth, and a natural fresh water supply.

The church decided to relocate the feeding program and to use the space at the church for water purification. The pure water project is now fully licensed by the government to filter water, fill 5 gallon jugs and water bottles, seal them, and provide them to the community. A small pump delivers the water from the well up to three large holding tanks on the roof, and then the water is gravity fed through the system for filtration. Our tour ended with a full cup of clear and refreshing pure water.

Living water. Jesus told his disciples that they would do even greater things than he did. While working here I have witnessed the blind gain sight with eyeglasses, the deaf hear with cochlear implants, the lame walk through surgery or prosthesis. I’ve witnessed the orphaned become son and daughter. Today I see a community that is receiving the both the living water of the good news of God restoring creation back to communion with Him, and pure water that will strengthen and give life to a city.

The church construction continues and Pastor Julio anticipates that the roof will be on the sanctuary in the early months of 2016. We’ve decided to partner in ministry with these giants of faith and vision. Catalyst Resources International will be bringing teams for work, including Emmaus, the 5 week summer mission for students. We also will be partnering with the Anderson University School of Theology to resource Spanish language materials and to provide formal biblical training.

Third Floor with the water tanks
and room for future expansion.
A view of the 1,200 seat auditorium
with balcony space to the left.
A fabulous panoramic view from a corner classroom.
Once again my heart has been overwhelmed with emotion as I realize even deeper the width, the depth, the breadth that is the love of God. I am learning to more fully see that Jesus is the Subject.

And still… the day was not ended. Pastor Julio then invited us to travel further up into the mountain to a Mayan Church of God that they helped found and support. Again we loaded into the van and our ascent began. We came to the end of the road and kept going. I can announce to Shel Silverstein that I know where the sidewalk ends. The dirt and stone path wound up the mountain pass, crumbling mountain walls on the left and a sheer drop on the right, we navigated around holes and rocks, passing canyons, waterfalls, and many beautiful smiling faces. 

The church was fully built by hand with no electricity or running water. No blocks or bricks were purchased. Rectangular bricks of adobe were formed with clay cut from the adjacent hillside, mixed with water carried a mile and a half away in five gallon buckets, up a steep path. The stones in the foundation were also carried from the river below. The men strapped them to their backs and made the strenuous climb.

We stood on that ridge, nearly 9000 feet in elevation in total awe of the work done by hands in honor of God, for a place to worship Him. We breathed in the cool, fresh air and slowly turned in wonder as we contemplated the vast landscape that stretched out on every side. This is the work of my God. I am filled with wonder.

The inside of the church was beautiful tile on the floor, curtains hung with reverence from the ceiling that was hand cut and sanded strips of pine that had been inlaid with skill. The language of the mountain wasn’t Spanish. It was a Mayan church, and they spoke their native tongue, Kaqchikel. The pastor’s family was beautiful, and they shared cans of juice and small packets of cookies with our group. I nearly wept as they served us. I am overcome even now as I reflect on the moment.

There were just too many emotions hitting me at once. The expanse of the open blue sky, the height of the ridge that held the church, the beauty of the children, the tenacity that it took to form that church in this ancient place, the ridiculous effort that was required for simple survival here, and these hands that had accomplished it all, despite the odds… serving us with the best of what they had.

Oh… I wanted to fall on my knees and thank God. I wanted to bury my face in the clay and ask forgiveness for the way I live my life. My life is not this hard, my hands haven’t known this level of strain, my back hasn’t carried boulders to honor my God. Again, God teaches me what I thought I have always known, but He causes me to know it deeper. 

I walk away with a refreshed soul. I step with more hope than I realized possible just a few hours earlier. Purpose just seems to have been distilled for me today. Our passions fuel our days. They drive us: to do more, to give more, to live more. There is no greater passion than what God pressed into our souls at our moment of creation… His image. He seeks us out. There is evidence of that in the farthest corners of the world. There is evidence of this right where you are.

Take a moment to be in awe.

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