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As you may know, I’ve been taking classes in the Mayan language. I’m currently in the second term. This past weekend, as we closed out our classes in 2013, we had the opportunity to celebrate Christmas, Yucatan style. Part of that celebration was a rendition of Silent Night in Maya. I was able to record a portion of it here:

What do you think? Were you able to sing along?

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We believe in the power of the Word of God, that’s why a large part of our ministry is dedicated to preaching and teaching the Bible. Still preaching and teaching, at best, serve only as a gateway for personal exploration and application of the biblical text. It is a jumping off point for believers, encouraging them to dig deeper into what God would want to speak into their lives on any given subject. That is why personal study of the scripture is so important, and why access to the biblical text is such a fundamental necessity for any culture.

Here in the Yucatán, where almost 60% of the population speaks the Maya language, we’re glad to know that the New Testament has been in print for several years and is widely available. However, when the majority of those who speak Maya cannot read the language, the benefit of this printed biblical text is severely limited, and a large portion of the population remains cut off from access to the Word of God in their native language.

That is why we’re happy to be forming a partnership with Faith Comes by Hearing (FCBH), distributors of the Proclaimer Audio Bible. The Proclaimer is a device, approximately the size of a large radio, that is able to reproduce the biblical text for a group as large as 300 people. That means that even the illiterate will be able to hear and understand the message of the Bible in their native language. Furthermore, the fact that the device a single unit, and that it is solar or manually powered, opens up opportunities to transport the Word of God to places that lack even basic services.

But this partnership is about much more than just the distribution of devices. Just this week, I was able to speak with Gil Moreno, one of the FCBH ministry staff, who took me through their philosophy of setting up listening groups in order to facilitate Bible literacy and discipleship. Through a commitment of as little as 30 minutes a week, a group of believers can listen to the entire New Testament in less than a year. But they’re not only listening; in these groups, they’re interacting with the Word of God, recalling the stories, expressing their feelings, and applying the truths. That’s where the change occurs!

It’s our goal to implement these listening groups in conjunction with the churches that we are forming through our Jesus Film outreach. This way, even if a pastor is unable to visit a village for an extended period of time, discipleship is still taking place as new believers gather to hear and discuss the Bible. We hope to have our first batch of seven Proclaimers in use by the end of summer, with another two shipments to arrive soon after. It’s our prayer that this device and this new partnership will yield much fruit in our effort to disciple indigenous believers here in the Yucatán and beyond.

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Since we arrived for our second term here in the Yucatán in November of 2010, one of our emphases has been to see the gospel spread through the indigenous Maya culture. In the course of our work, we’ve taken several trips, met and worked with lots of individuals, and undertaken projects ranging from public events to church building. Through it all, we’ve realized it’s anything but “business as usual.” Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

1. We all have “boxes.”

Boxes are great tools, and as missionaries, we’ve come to have a special appreciation of them. They not only help us in our moves, but they retain their usefulness throughout our stay. Cultures, as well, are known to have their own “boxes”–ways of thinking and acting that are particular to a people or society, and, while there are certain conveniences that come from working out of these boxes, we rapidly see the liabilities of these beloved tools in a cross-cultural setting:

  • While they give us a place to store our “stuff,” they limit the amount of knowledge that we are open to receiving.
  • While they help us with categorization of our our experiences and perceptions, they also restrict us, causing problems when what we experience doesn’t fit with one of our preconceived categories.
  • While they aid us with the ability to recall past information in order to deal with a present situation, they also may lead us to stereotyping, especially when we have only a cursory knowledge of foreign customs or attitudes.

They scarier reality is that, although we have been trained to recognize the danger of utilizing our American-style boxes when engaging with Mexican culture, many Mexican nationals who desire to partner with us lack the training to realize that they too must recognize and overcome the temptation to operate exclusively from within their particular set of cultural norms.

While we had made certain assumptions in our partnership fellow ministers, we have found that the reality can often be quite different. For example, we had assumed that one’s proximity to the Maya culture would produce vision for ministry to that culture, However, we found that, at least with one worker who spoke the language and pastored among the people, this was not the case. His participation floundered soon after our first ministry trip. We had also thought that shared identity would equal experience, but found that even fellow “Yucatecos” can be at a loss when reaching out to the Maya culture of which they are descendants.

What we have experienced quite often are more in line with the idea that familiarity breeds contempt. In other words, that which is near at hand is seldom appreciated. Here in the Yucatán, many consider the Maya culture to be backward, outmoded. The language is not being passed on from one generation to the next as children have more interest in consuming what is produced in the global market than conserving their own heritage. With this in mind, there is an expectation for the indigenous to “move along” with the rest of society, limiting the number of those who would “reach back” in order to minister to these groups.

Also, we have found that the ministry that is being done often has a view to realize activities while it tends to sacrifice analysis. Many are quick to hold a campaign, but few succeed at the process of discipleship that is required before, during, and after the event. Events are planned out in minute detail, but rarely is the question asked, “Is this event appropriate for this community?”

So how do we do ministry among the indigenous, while encouraging our national brethren to join with us in the effort? That question leads us the the second lesson learned:

2. Our focus must be on understanding before we seek results.

The obstacles that we face are large. At times we aren’t understood, either by our ministry partners or the people to whom we are trying to minister. Conflicts come with partners over ministry approach, style, and content, while language barriers and culture disconnects often thwart our attempts to reach out to the indigenous in relevant, meaningful ways.

Nevertheless, we must believe that we can overcome these obstacles and work hard to do so. Among our partners, this must be done through vision-casting and mission-building. We must help them to see the big picture and get on board. Our goal is not that they become like us, but that they receive Christ into their own culture that He might transform them from the inside out.

In Romans 3:29, Paul asks the question, “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too,” Our goal is that the Maya understand that God is their God as well, not just the God of the Spanish-speaker. Once this vision is accepted, we must make take steps to plan how this can be achieved, intentionally working together to bring about the desired result. Only with this plan in hand can we overcome our own cultural barriers and work together to extend the Kingdom of God among the indigenous.

Among the Maya, we must seek to gain entry into the culture, finding access through language-learning and key individuals who can serve to interpret the signals that so often come through our filters as just so much noise. We must also be willing to take a step back from our rush to stereotype behaviors and our hasty conclusions. We must understand that we need to learn to ask the right questions before we can ever be able obtain the answers that we’re so eager to receive.

Box photo used under Creative Commons by z287marc.

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In this entry, cross-posted from her blog, Every Day is New, Kelly shares about her first visit to Cocoyol, the site of the first projection of the Jesus Film in Maya.

Cocoyol (coco – joel’). It isn’t on google maps, but it certainly exists. It took us over 3 hours to get there, which included a few wrong turns. It was raining during about half of our trip and raining when we arrived. Why did we go? To be part of a new work going on in Yucatan to start or “plant” new churches in the Mayan language. We are what you might call the “link” – hooking up those who have a vision to see the message of Jesus brought to people in their own language with a group of believers who have a desire and commitment to start a church, oh, and that speak both Maya and Spanish (that part is important!).

The Maya have been in math & history books, in several tourist guides and even in Hollywood, but I don’t think the current culture or people get that much publicity. In Cocoyol, we saw a snapshot of life for this indigenous people group.

It was a bit like entering any other small town at first glance. After we found the correct road, we traveled under a canopy of trees, that would have provided shade had it not been raining, and arrived at the “center of town” where the Catholic church and the local school were situated on two joining sides of a basketball court. The team had arrived before us, visiting the 100 families that make up this Maya community and letting them know about the event. Upon returning, they got to work setting up a portable screen and projector to show the Jesus film, not in Spanish but in Maya. “Wait!” you’re saying, “aren’t you living in Mexico?” Yes, yes we are. Although Spanish is the national language of Mexico, there are, according to Wikepedia, over 6 million indigenous Maya in 4 countries! And one of those is Mexico.

While the setup was taking place, I watched, snapped some photos, and spoke with the kids who were gathering. Fortunately, I didn’t need a personal translator since some of the kids were able to communicate in Spanish. I even got a few questions/words in English since some of the kids’ family members most likely have work in tourist areas. One particular boy acted as a sort of spokesman for the group; he even confiscated my camera and snapped a shot of Rebekah and me.

However, the kids spoke to each other in Maya, all the time. It was like being in another country for me. I knew that there were several families, even in the city where we live, who continued to speak Maya inside the home or between family members. There are older ladies in our church who help us with basic phrases to learn something new in their native tongue. But, hearing their everyday conversation being spoken in something other than Spanish was a bit surprising.

This was not the first time that the message of Jesus’ love had come to the small town. One boy told me of another group that had come on a few occasions (with a bigger screen!). The difference, we hope, is that the team’s goal is to come, to stay, and to speak their language. The Maya language. The team is not from America or Korea, but from a larger town in Mexico, about 30 minutes or so away. And they don’t plan on being a passing memory.

I played a small part, not being on the team and not speaking the language. Sure, I spoke Spanish and a few answered me in Spanish. I mainly talked and played with the kids. My kids and I taught them Simon Says and they taught us “veneno” (poison) which, fortunately, was a harmless game where they spun in different directions holding hands 😉 They practiced some English phrases and I practiced some Maya ones. They were amazed at the height of our daughter, who is 12 going on 13. I marveled at their ages being 12 and 17 and still being in the 3rd and 6th grades, respectively, of their elementary school.

It is clear we are very different, but we are loved by the same God. I am glad my God doesn’t speak to me in Mandarin or French or Turkish. Can you even imagine? . . . That is the idea behind this team and others that will follow in their footsteps and in the footsteps of Jesus – speaking the language of the people, sharing His beautiful words of life.

Kelly’s added a few of her photos from the trip to our photo album. You can view them all here.

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Antonio Gamboa chiding me for not having learned Maya. At times, the plans that we make work out beautifully. On other occasions, things don’t come together in the way we expect. In the fall of 2008, I entered Itzamná, the Maya language school in the center of town, with the goal of getting a functional knowledge of the indigenous language still spoken by a large percentage of the inhabitants of the Yucatan. However, a household accident had one of the Godzwa parental team off of her feet for a few weeks that November, meaning carving out four hours from an already active schedule got increasingly more difficult. Needless to say, that attempt at learning Maya met with failure.

Still the resolve to try again stayed with me. The reasons for learning were solid; drawing near to the people and being able to share the good news of salvation with the Maya community in their own language are goals I consider necessary for long-term ministry success here on the peninsula. Also, returning to the Yucatan, we found that ministry opportunities, from small group sessions to church planting projects, for those who spoke Maya were abundant, so with a bit of chiding from Antonio Gamboa (above) I began my search again for a program to help me gain this essential tool.

This summer, I enrolled in a free class offered by a local university designed to give novices a chance to learn Maya, while giving professors a chance to polish their skills in the classroom. Last week I entered my first class. Each Friday, therefore, I’m being immersed for three hours in Yucatec Maya. From start to finish, we are being taught and asked to respond only in Maya. Needless to say it was a bit of a shock, but my hope is that, at the end of the 15 week course, I’ll be well on my way to realizing the goal that I set for myself in October of 2008: to learn the Maya language.

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Although, according to the 2010 census, 47% of the population of the state Yucatan reports living in a Mayan household, to date, no coordinated effort has been made to plant churches specifically focused on reaching the Maya speaking population. Since the spring, we’ve been telling you about the efforts that we have made to see church planting among the Maya reach priority status here in the Yucatan. In the last few months, we’ve seen advancements and some setbacks, but now, we are able to share with you that we are on the verge of naming the team that will spearhead what we believe can become a church planting movement!

We are thankful for the efforts of our District Missions Director, Abel Can, who saw the need and saught to make this project a part of his ministry portfolio for the next two years. We’re also thankful for the collaboration of the District Coordinator of Ministry to Ethnic Groups, Miriam Pech, who has been leading the search in the recent months for qualified candidates. With the help of these individuals, two Maya speaking pastors have been found. Following training, these men will lead up a program of training and evangelization that will give local churches the tools and guidance that they need to mother indigenous works throught the state.

Nevertheless, while we’re thankful for the progress, we understand that this effort must be undertaken through continued prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. For that reason, we are making this appeal. Would you pray:

  • That God would especially equip these candidates with the giftings required to undertake this work.
  • That pastors would catch the vision and provide opportunity to the team to work and plant Maya speaking congregations in their area.
  • That the Maya people that we seek to reach would respond to the presentation of the gospel in their own language.

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words, I thought that 7,000 words might be sufficient to describe what went on at the premiere of the Jesus Film for Children in Maya put on by the missions organization, Message for the Mayans. (Of course, I did take the liberty to add captions.)

Enjoy!


“I was invited to the premiere of the Jesus Film for Children in Maya put on by the organization that made the film, Message for the Mayans.”

From The Premiere of Jesus Film for Children in Maya, posted by David Godzwa on 2/12/2011 (8 items)

Generated by Facebook Photo Fetcher 2

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2009 Bethel Graduation

2009 Bethel Graduation

Since we’ve been in Mexico, we’ve witnessed the passing of a generation. No, we haven’t been here in Mérida for 20+ years, although looking at the growth of our kids during this term has made me wonder at times. I’m talking about the recent Bible Institute graduation service celebrated this past Monday, where Generation 06-09, walked the platform to receive their diplomas from the District Superintendent. This marks a milestone as it means that the students that I had the chance to teach from the first year of their Bible school experience are now being launched into ministry. The freshmen from my Personal Cvangelism course of December 2006-February 2007, my first solo class taught in Spanish, are now moving into their vocations.

Watching them receive their charge as graduates I had mixed feelings. There is a sense of joy in knowing that I had a part in their formation as ministers, but there is also a sense of regret. So often I had wished that I could have had certain sessions over again, where my lessons could have been more polished. On more than one occasion I’ve wish that I could have another chance at conversations that I’ve had knowing now that my Spanish could have been more understandable. In spite of my wishing, though, what was taught was taught, and the encouragement, advice, and prayers have been spoken. And that’s OK, because I believe that, though at times stammering or searching for the words, we communicated. As we learned we grew, each one of us offering to the other what we could not acquire on our own.

It wasn’t by chance that God brought me together with this generation at this moment in our lives. I so as I said goodbye to each one I prayed that as we part our ways, the graduates to their respective positions, and my family and I to the US to intinerate, that God will help us to remember the ways in which our being together expressed the manifold wisdom of God (Eph 3:10) that saw fit to join us together during their generation in the Bible school.

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Maya Language School Itzamná

Maya Language School Itzamná

Ma’alob k’iin. Bix a beel’ex. Having trouble responding? That’s because what my greeting was written in Maya. It reads, “Good morning. How are you?” (There are no question marks in Maya)

Here in the Yucatán the official language is Spanish. For this reason, we spent our first year of this term in Costa Rica learning Spanish so that we could live and work here in Mérida. Nevertheless, there are times, like this past month when we journeyed to the town of Tekax, that even speaking in perfect Spanish isn’t enough. That is because, in several towns in the state of Yucatán, many still speak the traditional indigenous language which has changed only slightly from the time of the pyramid builders of Chichen Itza to the present. Others are bilingual, having learned Spanish in school, but clearly function better in their native language.

So how do we respond to this fact? Well, we could rely upon those who are bilingual to translate for us, hoping that they will correctly interpret the meaning of our message. But what does this teach the Maya speakers? I feel it teaches them that the gospel is something foreign. Something that requires special abilities in order to understand, and that salvation is reserved for those who earn it by learning this foreign system. I don’t believe that our God is like that.

From the beginning, with the question, “Adam, where are you?”, we know that God initiated his plan of salvation. Romans 5:8 says that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And John 1:14 says that Jesus, the very Word of God came near, and lived among us. We are not those who search for Him says Romans 3:10-11, He comes after us.

How does this translate then as a reaction to the situation of the Maya here in Yucatan? Years ago, before archeology became the force that it is today, many thought that the Koine Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written was a sacred tongue. This was thought because the texts available to the scholars at the time, that of Classical Greek was different from what they saw in Bible. However, as more research came to light, they found that the New Testament Greek was not a sacred language after all. In fact, it was the common speech–that which the housewives used to write out their shopping lists. So, in fact, we see that the very Bible that we read is another aspect of God “coming near” to us. He didn’t speak through the elite of the society or through a priestly class, He instead spoke through the common tongue of the merchants, the peasants, and the slaves.

Understanding this, if we are to “come near” as Christ’s ambassadors and show the Maya that this message is in fact for them, that Christ came to save every, tribe, tongue and nation, then we in turn should take the steps to learn to share this salvation in their native tongue.

So that in fact is what we are doing. Every Monday and Wednesday for two hours, I am traveling to the “Ermita”, a plaza south of town, to learn to speak and write the Maya language. (The picture in this post is a shot of the entrance to the building.) The municipal government has established a course in which they teach citizens and foreigners at beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels for only $5 a month. Having extended for a year, and having scheduled outreaches into these Maya speaking regions, this was an offer that we couldn’t refuse.

So here I am again learning anew how to function in another language, struggling to come up with the words to respond to the teacher. However, when I consider what Christ did for us, coming to us as a baby, unable to speak, to function on His own, in order to live among us, I say that my struggle is worth it if it allows me to live among this people and reveal to them the God that we serve, the God who came near.

By the way, a fellow Mexico Missionary just sent us a link to an example of the power of “coming near” to an unreached people group. You can check out the video on You Tube

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Leading Worship

Even after a year and a half here in Mérida, God still finds ways of stretching us. In January, while chatting with pastors before a sectional meeting, our president asked if I played an instrument. I responded that every now and again I played the guitar, while I had considerable experience on the drums. He followed up that question with a request that I lead worship that meeting. Now, I had lead worship in the past, but always in English. (I think the number of choruses that I know on the guitar in Spanish could be counted on one hand.) Therefore, I did what any self-respecting perfectionist would–I put him off, until the next month.

I used that time to gather the some more choruses, practice, and pray. (It’s amazing how the weeks fly when you’re anticipating something like this.) Of course, I second guessed my decision. I almost breathed a sigh of relief when I thought that perhaps the meeting had been canceled for the month, but, regardless of my doubts, the event came. The end result this last Monday certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was a beginning. I was able to sing (staying on key for the majority of the service), play the guitar, and I actually felt that I had led others in worship.

When I began my Spanish classes, I looked forward to the day when I would be able to do this very thing, but for one reason or another, I had put it off. Not enough time, other responsibilities more pressing, the list could go on. Isn’t it great that God doesn’t forget those dreams? In fact, I’ve found He sometimes uses others to push us into realizing them.

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