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Guatemala mission partners focus on relief rather than reunion


During COVID-19, need for food and clean water take priority as mission trips are canceled, postponed or moved online

By Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Families in Guatemala’s Estoreño Presbytery, in partnership with Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, received emergency food assistance through funds allocated for a mission trip canceled due to COVID-19. (Photo contributed by Estoreño Presbytery)

LOUISVILLE — The ministry of presence is important in God’s mission. Yet even when a global pandemic causes cancellation of short-term mission trips, congregations and presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are showing care and compassion in creative and urgently needed ways from afar.

In Mid-Kentucky Presbytery, after more than a decade of mutual mission, Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church canceled its scheduled July mission trip to the Q’eqchi’ Estoreño Izabal Presbytery in rural eastern Guatemala due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

It’s the first time a trip has had to be canceled since the partnership officially began in 2009, said Perry Chang, a deacon at CHPC, Guatemalan Connection participant and research associate in Research Services with the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

With news of growing food insecurity, CHPC decided to send its partner presbytery some of the money that would have been spent on airfare, housing, meals and other expenses for the seven-member team, along with some money from the church budget, to provide food for Guatemalan families experiencing extra challenges during the pandemic.

“People are not working at home at Guatemala,” Chang said. “They don’t have big savings accounts or access to paycheck protection program loans. They aren’t receiving economic stimulus checks. A family who grows corn depends on their neighbors to grind the corn.”

Through CHPC’s reallocation of a portion of its mission trip funds for COVID-19 relief, some 240 families in 12 congregations within the Estoreño Presbytery received emergency food assistance. Provisions included beans, rice, flour, Incaparina (a high-protein vegetable food), sugar, oil and coffee.

“It was clearly a community effort to get the food in bulk, portion it out and distribute it across all of the churches of the presbytery,” said Doug Yeager, an elder who helps lead the Guatemalan Connection partnership at CHPC.

There are many factors that cause division among people in Guatemala — financially, culturally, geographically, as well as through the more than 20 Indigenous Mayan languages spoken, Chang said. Yet the Guatemalan people are resilient in the midst of some pretty tough circumstances.  Guatemalan and U.S. partners faithfully pray for one another. They share joys and concerns through phone calls, Facebook messages emails and mutual visits.

“Our visits to be with our Guatemalan partners do not include typical mission projects. Our time together is focused instead on building personal relationships, self-education activities and learning from each other how to serve God more effectively,” said Soni Castleberry, an elder at CHPC. “This year, however, our partners had asked us to help them to do some very basic maintenance and improvement projects on the grounds or inside their church buildings. We were eager to help with those because we saw firsthand on our last visit some of the problem areas that congregations had identified to the presbytery as priorities.” On previous trips, the team has led workshops for women, children, men, youth and young adults, and visited new congregations within the presbytery.

Guatemalan Connection mission trips, like the trip canceled this year, are supported through donations received two ways: CHPC’s monthly Second Sunday Soup Spectacular and the annual St. Joseph Children’s Home summer picnic, in which the church receives donations for parking cars in its lot adjacent to St. Joe’s.

CHPC regularly prays for a different congregation or presbyterywide ministry in the Estoreño Presbytery each week. The partners also have enjoyed sharing in parallel Bible studies over the years. On mutual visits from Guatemalan partners to the U.S., Estoreño Presbytery members have had full schedules, speaking at church suppers, leading worship and visiting with Spanish language students at a nearby middle school.

Chang’s wife, Stephanie Gregory, an elder at CHPC who has traveled to Guatemala four times with the team, reminded him that on their first visit they met an 8-year-old girl. Over the years they’ve watched this child grow up and get married. Now she and her husband are raising two children of their own.

Other presbyteries across the country have seen their Guatemala partnerships continue even during the pandemic. Some of the relationships are decades long.


In 2019, partners in Albany and Mam presbyteries enjoyed fellowship together and hiked into a volcano/lagoon. (Photo contributed by Albany Presbytery)

Albany Presbytery is in the process of providing emergency food for our partners in the Mam Presbytery, working with CEDEPCA to do so,” said the Rev. Kathy Gorman-Coombs, co-pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Scotia, N.Y., and co-chair of the Guatemala Mission Network.

The Albany-Mam partnership is more than 30 years old and Gorman-Coombs has been involved since 2007.

“Those involved in the partnership now, both in Guatemala and in Albany, are not the same people who started it all those years ago,” Gorman-Coombs said. “We try to visit our partners at least once a year and have, on a few occasions, attempted to bring folks here to visit us, but they have not been able to obtain visas. The most recent time we attempted this was in 2016.”

Albany Presbytery also has provided extensive support to Mam Presbytery’s sewing school, Gorman-Coombs said. “We are constantly looking to build the mutuality of the relationship and find ways to grow in faith together.” A planned trip to Guatemala in November likely will not be possible due to COVID-19. The trip would have included a mutual planning retreat among the leaders of the partnership from both countries.

Denver Presbytery’s mission trips to Guatemala, in partnership with Living Waters of the World, conclude with a parade around town and water celebration ceremony. (Photo by Beth Hewlett)

The Guatemala Mission Partnership of the Presbytery of Denver has partnered with Living Waters of the World since 2015 to provide clean water, clean hands and healthy bodies for the people of Guatemala. Its first water system was installed in the Prince of Peace Church nine years ago. To ensure sustainability, church members were trained in maintenance, micro-business, health and hygiene.

“We had planned to travel to Camotán to do an installation in April, but it was postponed,” said Beth Hewlett, a member of the Guatemala Mission Partnership in Denver. “In May we sent a check to help provide food for our brothers and sisters in Christ who were in need. That food was distributed in the Franja Transversal del Norte Presbytery, where we have previously installed three water systems.”

Dr. Rhoda Burns Passmore, a member of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Fairhope, Alabama, suggested the idea of a “virtual mission trip” to encourage members of Trinity and the Presbytery of South Alabama to learn about Guatemala mission without leaving home. Working with the Rev. Matt McCollum, senior pastor, and the Rev. Chris Peters, associate pastor, they came up with topics, speakers and materials to promote the online learning opportunity.

The nightly virtual excursions will take place through Zoom teleconferencing and will include speakers such as the Rev. Leslie Vogel, World Mission’s regional liaison for Guatemala and Mexico, and Dr. Raj Nadella, associate professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, who will discuss “Missions in the New Testament.” Travelers are encouraged to log in at 6:50 p.m. Eastern Time each evening from June 28 to July 2 to listen to speakers and take part in question-and-answer time during the one-hour “trips.” See details and the nightly schedule of speakers.

Through funds sent by the Presbytery of South Alabama, more than 1,000 bags of food have been delivered within the Cobán and Chisec presbyteries and over 2,500 delivered to other presbyteries in the Q’eqchi’ region of Guatemala. (Photo contributed by Presbytery of South Alabama)

The Presbytery of South Alabama has had a partnership with the Chisec Q’eqchi’ Presbytery in north/central Guatemala since 2013. Peters said,“In light of our trip to Guatemala being canceled due to COVID-19, both the presbytery and two churches, Trinity-Fairhope and Evergreen Presbyterian Church-Dothan, have sent significant funding to help provide meals and other aid as administered by the pastors in our partner presbytery.”

New Castle Presbytery has been working to provide COVID-19 relief through its two partners in Guatemala, CEDEPCA and the Association of Mam Christian Women for Development. Relief is being provided in the form of locally-sourced food kits that can feed a family of five for one month. “These emergency food kits have also been matched with three egg-laying chickens that will provide a family with 60 eggs each month,” said Carrie Saathoff, co-chair of the Guatemala Partnership of New Castle Presbytery. The presbytery’s youth summer mission trip to Guatemala would have returned on Wednesday if the trip had not had to be canceled, Saathoff said. Watch the video to learn more about New Castle Presbytery’s relief efforts to help partners in Guatemala during the pandemic.

“Reports from our Guatemalan friends and partners have confirmed what we have been fearing: people all over the country, including women in the Association of Mam Christian Women for Development, are struggling more than ever just to feed their families during this COVID-19 crisis,” Saathoff said. “Curfews, lockdowns and suspended public transportation have made it nearly impossible to travel to work or to the markets. Incomes are disappearing. Stores are running out of food. Prices are rising. There are no food banks and little government assistance. The situation is becoming increasingly desperate.”

New Castle Presbytery is teaming up with in-country partners to provide food kits and egg-laying chickens to address malnutrition and food insecurity made worse by the COVID-19 crisis. (Photo contributed by New Castle Presbytery)

The partnership’s initial goal was to provide 300 food kits so that each active member of the association could receive one. With an unprecedented outpouring of support from churches and individuals, that goal was met in four weeks, according to Saathoff.

“Our new goal is 500 kits, so that we can reach additional women who live in these vulnerable communities,” she said. “Each emergency kit includes staples such as rice, beans, oil, sugar, flour, salt, oatmeal, powered milk, eggs, bleach, toilet paper and detergent.”

In the Presbytery of Baltimore, First Presbyterian Church of Howard County in Columbia, Maryland, and the Union Maya Quiché Boca Costa Presbytery have been in partnership for more than 15 years. In January a team from First Presbyterian-Howard traveled to Guatemala to attend the Guatemala Mission Partnership meeting in Guatemala City and, while there, to work with partners in installing efficient, vented, wood-burning cookstoves. When the COVID-19 crisis forced the cancellation of a summer trip, First Presbyterian-Howard County sent its partner presbytery emergency relief aid to supply 386 families in eight churches with food staples during this challenging time.

During a mission trip in January, members of the Union Maya Quiché Boca Costa Presbytery Executive Committee taught a woman to use her new cookstove, installed through a partnership with First Presbyterian–Howard County in the Presbytery of Baltimore. (Photo by Becky Torrance)

“We continue to communicate with our partners, pray for each other and look forward to the day we can be together in community,” said Brett Sivo, a ruling elder at First Presbyterian-Howard County and co-leader of the congregation’s Guatemala Mission Partnership team.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has granted $55,000 to partners in Guatemala for emergency humanitarian response. This has included hygiene kits, food security projects, psychosocial support and the launch of an awareness campaign to share ways to prevent coronavirus. PDA also hosted a resiliency webinar in Spanish for CEDEPCA.

World Mission has added a discernment tool to its online Short-Term Mission Trips Toolkit. This new resource, “To go or not to go,” includes questions for reflection during the pandemic, along with alternatives to consider and additional service opportunities to explore.

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