Word&Way News Writer
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — It was set up just like any other Baptist meeting. Pastors greeted each other with calls of “hey brother,” a keyboard player led participants in singing hymns and praise choruses, and food was available at every break.
One might confuse it for any Baptist gathering in Missouri, except it was in Spanish, and in Guatemala.
Around 75 pastors, spouses and layleaders gathered in Quetzaltenango (pronounced kay-tzal-teh-NAN-go) — or Xela (pronounced SHAY-lah), the more popular Mayan name — for a two-day pastors conference led by Baptist General Convention of Missouri representatives Gary Snowden, Bob Perry and his wife, Marilyn Nelson.
Xela, which is set in the mountains, is the second largest city in Guatemala.
For many attendees, the conference serves not only as the source of their theological training, but also as their only opportunity to stay in a hotel or receive three meals a day.
BGCM provided funds and leadership for the training session Jan. 6-7, the fifth of its kind, through its partnership with the Guatemalan Baptist Convention. Pastors were asked to contribute the equivalent of $7 — a sacrifice for many, Snowden said.
The partnership is focused on the western region of Guatemala, around Xela.
“It’s a wonderful idea for Missouri Baptists to be linked with one of the outlying areas,” Perry said in an interview at the Baptist Seminary in Guatemala City. Perry serves as congregational health team leader for BGCM. “Guatemala as a whole is too big for Missouri Baptists to have a lot of impact.”
The smaller area allows the partners to develop personal relationships. “These people know Gary,” he said.
A core group of 50-55 church leaders have attended all five sessions. According to Roger Marquez, pastor of First Baptist Church, Xela, these meetings provided the opportunity for the pastors to get to know each other, leading to the first western region association in 50 years.
“I noticed a need for fellowship with each other,” Nelson said at the seminary.
The training sessions consisted of an opening session, led by Snowden, on spiritual maturity and an indepth look at spiritual gifts, led by Perry and Nelson.
Participants had the opportunity to take a spiritual gifts inventory that Nelson designed, which was translated into Spanish for the conference.
Perry had questioned the effectiveness of the sessions, given the prevalence of spiritual gift materials in the U.S. “As it turned out, it was new,” he said. “Carlos (Cerna, executive secretary of the Guatemala Baptist Convention) said no one there had completed a spiritual gifts inventory. The idea was new to many.”
“Baptists here, like in the States, have been slow to emphasize spiritual gifts due to what some feel is an excessive emphasis of Pentecostals.”
Nelson and Perry were both impressed by the interest and participation of conference attendees. “It became obvious that they were learners — and deeply grateful learners,” Nelson said. “The Guatemalans are people who show a great respect for everyone, particularly those teaching and helping them grow in Christ. They show their respect and appreciation in tangible ways — words, hugs, eye contact.”
Perry said the discussion was lively and indicated a good degree of interest and understanding. “It is always good when participants contribute and add to the value,” he said.
Guatemala is a somewhat undeveloped country, Perry said, but it has great natural resources. It’s democracy has a history of being stable, and the country is seeing development of new businesses. “Baptist work seems to be growing,” he said. “I’m glad BGCM is having a hand in helping Baptists in Guatemala.”
Guatemalans are a hardworking people and very diligent about their faith, he said. “Many Guatemala Baptists have a style of worship that is very enthusiastic and energetic.”
As indicated by the conference, many of the churches in the western region use music that would be familiar to those in the U.S. The conference featured Spanish-language versions of “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” and other popular praise choruses.
“Even though I don’t speak their language, I felt a real connection with the people at the conference,” Nelson said. “I hope to return to maintain and grow that connection, which is possible because of our mutual love for Christ.”
The conferences are just one aspect of the partnership, Snowden said on the van ride from Xela to Panajachel, where the travelers spent the night. BGCM has provided bicycles for rural pastors who needed transportation, computers and Internet access for the Baptist Seminary in Guatemala City, video projectors for the convention and theology books for pastors.
The real value of the partnership, however, is the sharing of human resources, Snowden said.
BGCM is encouraging Missouri churches to get involved.
For example, First Baptist Church, Lee’s Summit, will be traveling to the department (the equivalent of a U.S. state) of San Marcos to speak at public schools, distribute bags of food and share the gospel with needy families, conduct Vacation Bible School and lead adult Sunday School leadership training classes. San Marcos is a poor area, Snowden said. The Lee Summit congregants will be able to supply bags of staple groceries for around $10 each.
First Baptist Church, Farmington, has a trip scheduled in April to work with First Baptist Church, Xela, in evangelism, VBS and multifaceted training.
Snowden said construction work may be available at some point, but that has not been a part of the early partnership.
“I see the partnership as vitally important,” Nelson said. The church leaders have little opportunity for training and new ideas. “The more we can help, the better for everyone.”
“Consider what you’ve taken for granted in church,” she said. “Consider how it has made a real difference in your life — whether it be Bible study, learning from a minister or age group ministries. You’ll see it in a fresh light by coming and helping train leaders. You will go back energized and ready to take on some things you’ve become blind to or didn’t see as a need.”