Mexico

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AntorchistaWe were driving back from a planning meeting in Muna last Tuesday, where we’ll be hosting my brother and his Chi Alpha team, when I noticed, all along the roadway, bikers, runners with torches, and support vehicles flashing their lights and honking their horns. There were hundreds of people in the hour long stretch that we traveled.

It resembled some kind of Olympic procession. It was as if this group was ushering in the torch to light the first ever Yucatan Games, but looking closer I noticed that each one was wearing a t-shirt displaying the symbol of Mexican religious devotion, image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Researching further, I learned from YucatanLiving.com that these “antorchistas” are youth that have made a personal vow to the Virgin, and last week on December 12th, the Day of the Virgin, they ran or biked in order to complete their vow. The trek is a point to point journey, with more favor bestowed for greater distances. Apparently, the bicycle was introduced as a way for the working devotee to cover more ground in a shorter amount of time. (Read fewer days off from the job.)

Of course, we have the tendency to dismiss all of this as a misguided devotion, a practice to abandon as pure paganism. Still, one has to admire the determination, the organization, and the passion of those who would exert themselves for their faith. We evangelicals, a group lacking the presence of young men in our congregations, can’t help but ask, “How do we instill this type of enthusiasm, this type of devotion in our faithful?”

I would suggest that the answer lies within the pages of the Bible in the example of our Lord. It would seem that we are more famous for what we don’t do (drinking, smoking, dancing) than for what we do, for what we are against, than what we are for, but Jesus didn’t seem to be this way. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” was the complaint of the Pharisees and scribes. What I see from Jesus isn’t a prohibition type religion. I see a radical redefinition of religious and social symbols.

To Peter and Andrew, fishermen by trade, Jesus says follow me, and I’ll make you fishers of men. To the woman at the well, Jesus says I am the one who gives living water. At the Last Supper, Jesus redefines the traditional passing of the cup and bread during the Passover meal into a remembrance of his sacrifice on the cross and celebration of the unity that we now have in the Church, the body of Christ on the earth. In other words, Jesus doesn’t seem to separate a person from his or her culture, rather he transforms the culture in much the same way that he transforms the individual.

This to me says that we as missionaries have a need for wisdom and God-given creativity when it comes to engaging a culture. What is truly anti-Christian, and what is simply an expression of culture? How can we contextualize, not just the presentation of the message of the gospel, but also its expression in worship and everyday life?

One case in point of an interesting attempt to accomplish this redemption of culture was in the Chota Valley, a culture of Ecuadorians of African descent. This people group had a dance that utilized a bottle, worn on the head and, if I remember correctly, filled with alcohol. In the bottle would be placed items that represented the pain and suffering that the person experienced in life. Missionary Joe Castleberry and his team, instead of prohibiting this cultural expression, redefined it. Gone was the alcohol and in the place of the symbols of pain and suffering was a flower to represent the new life the Christ brings.

I’ve not had the opportunity to see the “Freedom Valley” project first-hand, but I feel that it touches on an area that all missionaries need to consider. Did we do a disservice in our clothes-line style holiness of the 1900s? Have we relegated ourselves to the fringes of society though our lists of rules and prohibitions? How does it come across in the 21st century? On the flip-side, how does this redefinition of culture look, in Africa, in Mexico, in the US? Also, how do we know that we are truly redefining culture and not just compromising for convenience?

Granted, this task is not something that a simple post can solve, nor the work of one individual, but I think discussion is necessary and helpful if we are truly seeking to change the world.

Note: Picture was taken from YucatanLiving.com. (It’s kind of hard to drive and take pictures at the same time.)

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Jonathan BirthdayAbout two weeks ago, (yes, the events of our lives and ministry have taken a toll on my blogging) we celebrated the birthday of our youngest, Jonathan. It was filled with parties–one at school and another here at the house, as well as a mountain of presents, many of which have already made their way to the black hole that our boys call their closet. Of course, all of these things came as no surprise. After celebrating the 19 kids’ parties that we have, from Princess to Bob the Builder to Spider Man to Jungle themes, we’ve come to expect the anticipation, celebration, and sugar withdrawal cycle that each party brings. However, after all of the celebration was over, and Jonathan had time to reflect, he did something unexpected: he decided to testify. In fact it was such a surprise that we didn’t have our camera. The blurry picture was taken with my cell phone.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, testimony night has gone the way of Sunday morning prayer requests in most churches, they’re just not done, but here in Mexico, testimony night is alive and well, and two weeks ago last Sunday a certain recently turned 5 year-old decided to step forward and thank God for another year that God had allowed him to complete.* Not only did he testify, he also sang “Open the Eyes of My Heart” (“Abre mis Ojos, Oh Cristo”) in Spanish.

To me, this is the sign of two things happening:

  1. that our son is rapidly acculturating: Testifying is expected of church members when they celebrate their birthday. That Jonathan noticed this and wanted to do it tells me that he’s becoming more “Mexican.”
  2. that our son is recognizing God as part of his life: It was hard for me to choke back the tears as I listened to our “baby” asking Jesus to help him to truly see Him as he is. It’s my desire as a father to be a part of the the answer to that prayer.

*Spanish idea: We don’t “turn” years old as we celebrate birthdays, we complete years or “cumplemos años” hence the Spanish salutation “Feliz Cumpleaños”

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A Change of Plans

Tabasco Under WaterMondays are usually a low-key day for the Godzwa family. The day after ministry is usually reserved for catching up on household items or replying to correspondence. I had a post planned about the evangelism seminars that we have been leading. But a telephone call from Paul, our mentor missionary here in Mérida, broke the routine. “Dave,” he said, “the situation in Tabasco has gotten out of hand…” The situation he was talking about was the flood that Mexican President Felipe Calderon now calls Mexico’s worst recent natural disaster.

If you have not had the opportunity to see the images of the Mexican state of Tabasco that CNN has been broadcasting, please understand that the inhabitants of this area, which is located about 300 miles from our current location in Mérida, are dealing with a true disaster. Due to unseasonable heavy and continual rain, several rivers have flooded their banks inundating businesses, homes, schools, and churches. News reports put up to 80% of this low-lying state currently underwater. Calls to church leaders in this district have returned reports of lower lying areas completely underwater, of many homes and churches with more than five feet of water in them, and of flooding so high that even people who live on the second floor of a building have found shelter elsewhere because there is no access to their homes.

So to one side moved the household chores and unanswered went the correspondence for one more day so that I could hit the phones to see what I could do to lend a hand to the relief effort being planned here in the Yucatan.

The situation in Tabasco is being described as the Katrina of Mexico. The center-city of Villahermosa is a complete disaster and as a result, those who have been forced to stay behind have nothing. The residents of Tabasco need drinkable water, powdered milk, towels, diapers, canned food, and lots of other basic items. The people of Yucatan are changing their plans to pitch in. Instead of buying food for their family, they’re buying supplies to donate as schools churches and government buildings have opened their doors to accept donations.

Specifically, the church leaders of Tabasco have asked for medical personal with medicines and vitamins to come and offer care. This is extremely important as the floodwaters begin to recede and diseases resulting from contaminated drinking water and inadequate services begin to appear. To respond to this request, God is calling on still others to change their plans. A relief corps of Christian doctors and nurses from Mérida are organizing now to travel in order to provide first-hand relief and the peace of God to those caught in the middle of this crisis. All of these health professionals are sacrificing family-time and their personal goals as they prioritize the needs of their countrymen.

I’m happy to report that my change of plans brought about some tangible results, but a need this great calls out for so much more to be done.

How about you? Do you feel God leading you to be a part of the relief effort?

Comment or email us and we’d be glad to help you with your change of plans.

Photos courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kubricka/

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Topes

TopeThe roads in Mexico are a pleasant surprise compared to the deteriorated byways that we had gotten used to in Costa Rica. We have a wonderfully paved road outside of our home, and it has been some time since I’ve had to swerve like a slalom skier to avoid ramming one of our wheels in a pothole. However, what makes the Mexican driving experience unique are the “topes” (pronounced tow-pays)

Topes are the Mexican version of speed bumps, although an American speed bump can’t hold a candle to a tope. Usually taller than they are wide, they’ll give you a bone-shattering shock if you happen to hit one unawares, bringing about a tongue-lashing from any passenger who just might be in your car. Believe me, it only takes one or two of those experiences to learn to slow down when driving, especially through small towns and neighborhoods.

The big problem with topes is that they are usually in the oddest places. From time to time, you can find them before a busy intersection or at a school or church crossing, but often they’re in the middle of nowhere, and the diamond shaped indication signs usually only give you a few feet of warning before your vehicle crashes into the unforgiving mound of resistance.

Topes, though, have a much larger meaning for the missionary or ex-patriot. The tope signifies the unexpected resistance that we experience as we continue in our work of cultural assimilation. Cruising along a comfortable speed, making strides in language, food, and relationships, inevitably we face topes that remind us that the land that we are in, although each day more familiar, is truly foreign.

We’ve been in Mexico almost 8 months now, and we are comfortably eating the yucatecan food, speaking more aporreado (what is referred to as the yucatecan accent), and building friendships with people in and outside of the church community, but we still experience our topes. Mine most recently has been in the form of our front yard.

Formerly working an 8-5 job in the states, I prided myself with the ability to keep up my front yard. I mowed regularly, trimmed the bushes and spread fertilizer in the spring and fall. Not given to excesses, except one post-season when I mowed the Yankees interlocking NY in the grass, I still felt satisfied in having a green, presentable garden.

Remembering all of this, I fell in love with the small, manageable green space that our current house gave me. I had visions of “working the land” again, and looked forward to the wealth of sermon illustrations that this labor of love would afford me, but the more I got involved in the day to day hustle and bustle of being a missionary in Mexico, the less and less time I had to devote to keeping up the garden.

So, by chance, I happened to find a gardener who could help me at least trim our trees. At less than $17 American, it was a deal that I couldn’t afford to pass up. Then came the tope. Unable to find the same gardener, I asked for a recommendation from our landlord. I contracted one of the two he recommended to trim our trees, this time for what I thought would amount to about $20. The bone-shattering shock came, however, when I realized, after the work was done, that it was to be $20 for each tree. Ouch!

Determined not to fall into the same mistake, but still needing a gardener more than ever, I contacted one after comparing the quotes of our neighbor’s gardener and one other who works in the neighborhood. We were needing help for our heat suffering grass and weed infested flowerbeds. After having negotiated what I thought was a good price, I let him go to work, but soon into the labor, I began to find the hidden costs, $20 more for extra insecticide, $70 for more plants, etc. Can someone say “TOPE!”

We expect blockades in ministry. We anticipate the frustrations that we may have to face in communicating our heart in a foreign tongue, but I guarantee that problems with the care of my front lawn never even entered into my mind. Like topes these complications hit me unexpectedly.

Still, I have to say I’m thankful for my tope experiences. Although they’ve been painful, they’ve slowed me down enough to think about my life and work. They’ve proven to me time and time again, that Dave Godzwa alone can’t get the job done. There needs to be someone else involved with a higher perspective, one who can guide us through even the unexpected situations.

So, although I’m sure that I’ll continue to feel the bumps along this road of cultural assimilation, I’ll thank God for them because I know that they’ll slow me down enough to refocus my vision on Him–the one who’s mapping my course, and who just happens to know where those topes are.

Photo Credits:

Above: Members of the Chi Alpha Spring Break Missions Team, Julia, Bethany, Ashley and Kelsey spell tope while standing on one. Photo by Bethany Chroniger

In article description: A photo of a common tope warning sign.

Angel of Indep.--photo by daveI just wanted to send out a quick update to thank those who had prayed. As you might have read in our last post, the whole Godzwa family traveled to Mexico City in order to present ourselves to the Immigration Officials and receive our work visas. Well, from the photo to the left, you can see that we made it to Mexico City, but that is just the start of the great news that we have to share with you!

  • We now have our official FM-3 business visas. This means that we will not have to leave the country to renew our tourist visas. It also means that we now have significantly more freedom to live and work here in Mérida.
  • We are glad to report safe travel and absolutely no incidents with in the city with the police or otherwise.
  • We were treated like royalty by our hosts the Grecos, and those who stopped by to spend the day with us like the Amiots, Breits and Thomases. Thanks for your hospitality!
  • We can also say that, all things considered, our children behaved wonderfully, and our flights were actually a rather enjoyable experience. It seemed to me that even the airline corn chips tasted better.
  • Thank you for your prayers!

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    Angel of Independence“The City” in the U.S. is of course, New York City. It is one of the most important centers of commerce and culture in the country, and, who can forget, it is also home to the best team in baseball, the New York Yankees. However, when you speak of “The City” in Mexico, you are speaking of Mexico City, the nation’s capital and home to about 32 million people.

    This Wednesday we will have the opportunity to travel back to “The City.” We were most recently there this past August, when we received our invitation to work in Mérida. This time we will be traveling in order to receive our official religious visas, which will give us more freedom to work in Mérida and throughout the country. We’re happy to finally be through with this process as it has meant mailing of lots of paperwork and dealing with lots of waiting. Still, God willing and the thumb prints don’t smudge, we’ll have those important documents in hand this Thursday.

    Also, we’re looking forward to getting together with other missionaries, including friends from language school, Peter and Delia Breit and Josh and April Amiot. Their children and ours we’re good friends in Costa Rica, and we’re glad to have another chance to allow them make memories as well as catch up with them on their lives and ministries.

    So this week please be in prayer as we head out to “The City.” Pray for safe travel, for the complication-free reception of our visas, for patient easygoing kids, and for protection in and around the metropolitan area.

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    New Traditions

    This year, the Godzwa family rang in the New Year a bit differently. No watching the ball drop in Times Square for us. We welcomed 2007 Mexican style. That meant of course there had to be fireworks, lots of them, and the traditional eating of the grapes.

    That’s right, when the clock strikes 12:00 Mexicans have a tradition of eating 12 grapes, one for each chime of the clock. The tradition started in Spain in the early 1900’s, some suggest, as a way to trim the excess of an especially large grape harvest for that year. Later, the custom was transported to Mexico where the grapes have taken a special significance. Each grape represents a wish for the new year: Health, Work, Love, Peace, Money, Success, Prosperity, Joy, Happiness, Harmony, Friendship, and Luck.

    Of course, we all have our traditional ways to celebrate the New Year. Why don’t you share with us your favorite by dropping us a comment. We’d love to hear from you.

    Well, however you had opportunity to ring in 2007, we do hope your celebration was festive, and we wish you all of the blessing and joy that following Jesus brings to you in 2007.

    Confusing?

    Monday left you feeling a little bewildered? With the Christmas rush, I’m sure that all of us have asked ourselves if we are coming or going, but how about if you ran into a sign like this one?

    We have had a pretty good time with navigation through Mérida. The city is laid out like a grid even streets running north-south and odd east-west, but once you reach the street called Circuito Colonias, which is basically a circle route around the older central neighborhoods, throw logic out the window. We’ve now tried to navigate the eastern portion of this road three times, and each time we’ve ended up in a different location. Of course it’s no surprise with signs like this one leading the way. I guess things like this show us we still have a bit more to learn about this city.


    Things have been a little quiet here on disciplemexico.org for the last week, but it’s not because we’ve been taking a Thanksgiving vacation. In fact, as I write this, I’m in the lobby of our hotel for the Mexican General Council, in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico.

    Thanksgiving is a decidedly American holiday. So, since Latin America doesn’t recognize it, life goes on pretty much like any other day. Events are scheduled, business is planned, and missionaries need to leave in order to attend church events.

    Still, before I left for council, we had a chance to spend some time at Chichen Itza. This was the last great city of the Maya people which rose to prominence in the year 900 A.D. and collapsed about 1200 A.D. The site still holds much cultural and religious significance today.

    I’ve added pictures of our trip to the which you can view by clicking on the picture above or following this link.

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    Day of the Dead

    I received an email from one of the readers of the site asking about the Day of the Dead rituals that occur here in Mérida. She was wondering if it mirrored the traditional practices that take place throughout the country, or if there was a certain Yucateco twist to the holiday. Not being one to disappoint, I decided to give what insight into the event that I have in this post:

    First of all, one needs to be clear about the Day of the Dead as it is traditionally celebrated. Throughout Mexico, the first two days of November are a national holiday during which the country remembers their deceased relatives. The first day is a day set aside to remember the deceased children and the second is “El Dia de Todos Los Santos” or the Day of the Dead proper. During these days, altars are made in homes with pictures of the dead relative along with those things that would have been special to the person during their lives: a sweater, a jacket, a picture or possibly a toy for a child. Also, the deceased’s favorite foods would be on display with the idea that, during these days, the relative would visit to be with the family and partake of the meal there on the altar.

    During this time as well, there is much attention given to the family gravesite where flowers are placed and the debris that have collected during the year are cleaned away. One Maya village takes this idea of cleaning to the extreme, and actually exhumes the dried bones of relatives that have been dead for 3 years, cleaning them and placing them on display in boxes. The ritual is detailed in this Yahoo news article

    Also, it is said that, during the day of the dead proper, the family gathers at the gravesite in order to enjoy a meal with the dead relative. I tried to witness this tradition, stopping by the General Cemetery here in Mérida, but, possibly because of the rain, I found only a few families placing flowers.

    Here in Mérida, there is another holiday celebrated during the same time called El Hanal Pixan. It is a ceremony that predates the arrival of the Spanish and also honors those family members who have died. The picture above, from the local paper Diario de Yucatan shows girls dressed in the traditional Maya “huipil” making tortillas in front of an altar constructed in order to celebrate this event.

    We’ve found it hard to experience this holiday living the midst of an evangelical society that has rejected its practice, but I find myself personally torn by this rejection. On one hand, the worship of dead loved ones as a way of receiving favors for ourselves with God or as a way of helping them somehow reach eternal rest are ideas that I reject as being groundless biblically, but the Bible does not consider our loved ones as dead to us. Paul states that to die to be with Christ, and that our spirits continue to live after our physical deaths. Hebrews chapter 12 states that the saints (believers) who have died form a kind of “cloud of witnesses” that seem to cheer us on in our own Christian walk. So in this sense, our struggle to try to forget our dead loved ones seems as well to be a bit unbiblical. I still haven’t had enough exposure to the rituals involved to make an unbiased judgment. So I’ll save any conclusion for much later. Of course this could be something to talk out in the comments section!

    So there you have it, a bit of a survey of what went on during this past week as Mexico and the Yucatan celebrated the Day of the Dead. Next year, we’ll hope to be more on top of the action so that you can see more of the sights, and possibly sounds of the season.

    Update 11/10/2006: For more about Day of the Dead around the missionary world, see this feature post on Missionary Blog Watch.


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