Chiapas is the southernmost state of Mexico, and the location of many Baptist churches served by Chuck and Ramona Shawver. For four days in September it was my privilege to travel with Chuck to visit a number of these congregations as well as the seminary in San Cristobal.
Situated in the rugged mountains of southern Mexico, these rural congregations are difficult to reach. In his first years of ministry with them, Chuck would often have to walk for days as he plied his round of visits. Now, there are roads, but often times they are hardly more than trails which test the endurance of his trusty pickup, especially in the rainy seasons when many sections of the roads are reduced to mud.
In these remote villages, people live their lives as farmers, cultivating crops on the steep hillsides much as did their Mayan ancestors. In a form of slash and burn agriculture, they plant their corn, beans and squash in rugged terrain, using a stick to poke holes in the earth for the seeds. All the work is manual from clearing, planting, and hoeing to harvest. Unlike in America where farmhouses are situated on each person’s land, the fields here are often located some distance from their homes which they cluster in a village. It is common to see people trekking up the roads carrying their implements in their hands or their harvest in large baskets on their backs supported by ropes they harness across their heads. Chuck remarked that it is not uncommon for them to carry sacks like this weighing a hundred pounds as they make their way from their fields to their homes or to market.
Coffee is a cash crop here and one can see the coffee plants nestled in the shade of forests on the steep hillsides. But a virus is attacking the coffee plants and devastating the harvest. Similarly, global warming is changing rain patterns that they have depended upon since their Mayan ancestors, and that, too, is creating economic uncertainty.
During the brief days I spent with Chuck among the churches here, most of my time was spent in pastoral duties: preaching and praying for the sick. Medical services and medicine are difficult to find in these remote areas, so there is a strong reliance on prayer for healing among our Baptist brothers and sisters. The cases varied, from a young man afflicted with the West Nile virus, to an elderly pastor who was loosing his ability to speak, to an elderly woman who was dying, to her son who complained of back pain and swollen feet – a sure sign of kidney problems.
The congregations worshipped in a variety of structures from a large modern structure in Maravilla built with the help of the American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains to a temporary structure of poles and corrugated tin in Carmen Grande. In each setting but one, we were accompanied by acoustical guitars and other instruments as we sang. In the one exception, the church sang songs created by the pastor with tunes that were ancient in their culture and predated musical instruments.
Life would seem simple in such villages, but as everywhere, people here struggle with the same concerns: poverty and their children’s future, issues of wounded pride that divide families, resentment and anger over slights and injustices, (real and perceived), and tragedies and trauma with cruel suffering. Likewise, they, too, turn to God for aid and mercy, for the power to forgive and the will to turn from wrong, and the ability to extend grace to others and live in peace. Likewise, they, too, give thanks for the blessings of knowing Christ and the scriptures. Likewise, they, too offer fervent prayer for one another and their communities.
There were many touching moments for me, but none so powerful as the weeping during prayer as hearts were poured out to God in supplication and yearning. Though the languages of the tongue were not familiar, the language of the heart was clear.
The poor here struggle against many injustices against them as their lands are increasingly encroached upon by outside interests, as they experience discrimination because of their ancestry, and as they cope with inadequate educational and medical infrastructure. Likewise, the drug cartels of other Latin American countries are seeking to extend their dominance into this area. Each of these is a difficult social challenge for these disciples.
The situation has been compounded by political friction between the poor and the government, and the friction between Catholics and Evangelicals. There was an especially tragic period of political violence in the nineties that often took on a religious flavor, so much so that in 1997 a group of 45 Roman Catholics, 36 of whom were women and children, were meeting in a church were attacked and slain by a group of evangelicals in the village of Acteal. In testimony to the transcendent message of forgiveness and justice that ABC missionaries have been preaching and teaching, the Mayols led a group of seminarians from the Baptist seminary to Acteal to express their regrets as evangelicals for what happened and to ask the community there for forgiveness. This was the first time that evangelicals had made such a pilgrimage of reconciliation to Acteal.
My visit was moving for another reason as well. Chuck was saying his goodbyes as we traveled in Chiapas. He and Ramona are retiring and returning to their home in California. For more than twenty years, they have been faithfully serving these congregations. In many ways Chuck has functioned as an area minister, caring for the pastors and congregations in the Baptist association. Chuck’s love for the people is palpable. His compassion and advocacy for the poor is central to his ministry as is his constant urging to embrace the gospel of reconciliation and peace. Oh, the forlorn faces that I saw as he said goodbye!
As General Secretary, one of my greatest privileges in the past 14 years has been to travel the globe encouraging the churches of Jesus Christ, praying with brothers and sisters in Christ of different nationalities, languages and ethnicities, and sharing from God’s word. It was with joy that I spent these days breaking bread and sharing fellowship in Christ with the Baptists of Chiapas.