As soon as we stepped out of the airport in Guatemala City, we were in a brand new world. The first thing I noticed was the wet heat. It had the smell of rain, flowers and urban living. As we walked, there were masses of people everywhere. Some were waiting for friends and loved ones. Others, were street vendors selling treasures, a mixture of art, desperation and the economics of international travelers and domestic business people. It all felt like the chaos of a festival, buzzing energy, sweaty bodies a little too close and anticipation of something good about to happen.
Greg Miller was our guide and met us at the airport. Greg is from Ohio. He’s married with 3 adult kids and has been a missionary in Guatemala for 26 years. He reminds me of a oil-rig roughneck. He’s tough, smart and capable. He has an easy demeanor about him but none of the smoothness and shine of American religious professionals. He has the fruit of a Jesus follower though, something American clergy should care more about than charisma. He is devoted to Jesus, clear-eyed and focused on his mission, joyous and filled with hope. In two and half decades, Greg has planted 16 healthy churches led by home-grown, indigenous leaders. He also leads with his wife a multi-faceted orphanage serving 20 kids; he does amazing work in local economic development—coffee and tilapia farming and all kinds of other initiatives. He also has a beautiful 22-acre, multiple-building compound that is well-maintained and is a jewel of will-power, penny-pinching and God’s favor in the midst of the chaos and poverty of this Latin nation.
In an extended-cab, 2008 Toyota truck he drove us to our destination. We drove west out of the city about 3 hours into the rural area of Guatemala. Where Greg is involved, drivingis probably the wrong word. It was more like riding the space shuttle when it breaks the gravity of earth—fast, out-of-control, and seemingly life-altering. We were on the twisting roads of mountains. He would take turns at shuttle-break-gravity-speed (this is of course a mix of fantasy and realism but if you were there, you would agree with me). He loved to pass cars and trucks, entering the opposing lane and playing chicken with oncoming cars. We joked about it, the kind of joking you do when you fear for your life but don’t want to admit it. I stayed relax though. I mean if Greg has never died driving in the last 26 years then odds are on our side. Right?
The Calvary team was made up of me, Jaime Flores—our Mission Director, Ken Adair—an elder, and Scott Pachol—church member, mission team leader and long time missional partner with Jaime. I love trips like this. Close quarters plus lots of time equals the opportunity to experience the idiosyncrasies of persons that usually only parents and spouses get to see. Jaime is time conscience and driven by the need to keep to the schedule (My Latin brother has the timeliness of the best Dutchmen). Ken is super prepared and always has in his backpack that essential item that makes traveling much easier; I didn’t know such organization and preparedness was humanely possible. Scott is quiet but in a delightfully intelligent way. Scott watched with the eyes of someone trying to figure everyone out. Who has what mental disorder? He was our social psychologist; the quiet one always has lots to say. As for me, I like to move leisurely, need alone time and for some reason my sarcasm gets thicker the farther from the States I am. I am a delight to travel with! All in all it was a delightful human experiment being together. This is how deep friendship are made, shared purpose, close quarters and space shuttle rides.
Our trip to Guatemala was important. The Deacon board of our church (who has oversight of missions) has charged Jaime and the mission team to explore and build new missional partnerships—one or two locally and one or two internationally.
Jaime and I have been meeting for 3 years. First, we met getting to know one another and then strategizing about mission and Calvary. What could we focus on that embodies our church’s vision? What could we do that had clear parameters of failure and success? What kind of international partnership could we cultivate, for a specific period of time that was drenched in gospel outcomes and invited all our church to serve internationally in some way? This is why we came to meet Greg and see with our own eyes the possibilities of a partnership with his ministry work.
Jaime stands out uniquely on this trip as a connecting point between Calvary and Guatemala. Jaime has done significant missional work in Guatemala for decades—built, funded and managed a health & nutrition clinic, provided hundreds of stoves to indigenous homes for safe heating and cooking, installing wells in villages with no clean water, equipping ministries and villages with solar power to make constant electricity a possibility and most of all he has shared the gospel with hundreds in Guatemala. He and his wife are serious, brilliant Jesus followers. Their leadership and witness are gifts to Calvary.
Jaime loves Guatemala. His love is contagious. As we journeyed the western, rural area of Guatemala, I realized it wasn’t just geography we were traveling but Jamie’s redeemed soul. The garden of the gospel in him has Guatemala as one of its beautiful vines. God is working in Guatemala and Jamie is an important part of this work. Praise God for that.
Jaime has known Greg Miller, the American missionary, for 3 years. Jaime and his ministry, All for Him, partners with Greg. (Greg’s compound will now house and partner with All for Him’s nutrition and health clinic). In 26 years, Greg, through his missional work, has been involved in thousands of men, women and children coming into a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ. At the center of his strategy is church planting.
Greg is a traveling salesman in the mountains of Guatemala for the gospel. These villages are filled with the descendants of the Mayan civilization, noble, intelligent and dignified people who love the land and the communities they are a part of. They live much like their ancestors have for endless generations—simple but elegant mud homes living off the riches of the land and raising their families. This is where Greg plants churches! For all their beauty and historic richness, these villages are filled with extreme poverty, significant education and health challenges, rampant physical and sexual abuse, and the marginalization that happens when your geographic location shuts you off from the growing life of modern civilization.
These people are filled with all the human potential, love for family, need for community and innate beauty that the image of God bestows. Like all of us, they need Jesus. They need gospel-centered churches.
In the 16 villages where Greg has started a church it all begins with a few villagers who are soul thirsty. The thirsty quickly become evangelizing disciples. With Greg’s leadership, these unreached people slowly become the people of God,, the foundation for a good future for the whole village. These church plants range from 40-180 people. This is of course amazing but a sustainablechurch it does not make.
Churches need local pastors and elders. A church needs shepherds who lead, teach, protect and love. Without local leaders, churches crumble. Greg can only do so much; he is one man. Greg knows this and plants accordingly. He plants churches and raises up young men from the area to be pastors.
Greg is a no-bull-shit leader. He doesn’t want shiny leaders who tarnish and rot in the crucible of leading a church in the forests of Guatemala. He wants his leaders to be solid, inside and out. He wants his leaders to thrive for decades. He spends the time necessary for this to happen. He provokes and demands character development and coaches the skills needed to pastor well. Personally, I have never seen a better model of 1stcentury, book of Acts pastoring. He puts me to shame.
An aside: in Guatemala, immigration to the United States is a visceral concern for the church. Young men are leaving the poverty and pain of rural living for the hope of a better life in the U.S—an (illegal) immigrant can easily make $18-$20 dollars an hour in the States; this is like winning the lottery for a person who lives in a place where subsistence living is normal and making a few hundred dollars a month is considered middle class. The result is the strong and able are leaving women, children and a country that desperately needs their leadership. Could the church be part of the answer of giving vision and help for Guatemala to keep its young and strong home?
Meals. Space shuttle rides. Hotel sleeping. It all creates a lot of together time. When leaders get together, dreaming happens. Leaders have the God-given gift to see what could be. Where others see only challenges and risk, leaders see opportunities and hope. Of course, if dreams move towards reality, they are always tempered and shaped by teams, boards and other wise leaders but a dream always starts with a few visionaries. God uses persons and teams to advance his purposes.
During the weekend, Greg, Jamie, Ken, Scott and I began to dream about what a five year partnership between Calvary and Greg (and his wife) might look like. We dreamed big dreams. What could a suburban church in Orland Park do to add fuel, support and person equity for Greg and his leaders to multiply their work? Greg and his wife have been a two-person team producing amazing fruit. What if they had substantive, additionalsupport?
The dream looks something like this:
We dream of partnering with Greg for five years to plant 20 churches in indigenous villages where gospel-centered churches do not exist. We want to take the model that he has been successfully using and provide the needed resources and people commitment to, “expand the operation”.
This will require a reworking of Greg’s hands-on approach to more of a leader-of-leaders approach. This has been Greg’s goal but daily missionary necessities and finances keep standing in the way. Greg should be freed up to cultivate pastoral leaders and be the visionary leader. Our partnership would include freeing this man up to do what he does best. It will require a pastoral training model that develops character, skill and theological competency. What a joy it would be to partner with Greg to develop, and implement such a training. It will of course require money! The potential is amazing.
We will focus on planting churches with Christ-centered leaders. The newly planted church will evangelize and share the eternal hope of Jesus. As it grows and matures, the church and her leaders can be the catalyst of economic, educational, health and infrastructure development (we envision short-term mission trips focusing on assisting these local church plants in their spiritual and development work).
One local, on-fire church and a committed pastor could save countless souls, and bring a community into modernity with all the benefits and opportunities this entails. 36 churches (16+20) in western Guatemala could change the spiritual, personal, economic, bodily health and educational landscape in one generation. Jesus is good news for all of life. The church is the means of his good news. This is God’s plan. It’s his mission. Calvary has the potential to help make this dream a reality in Guatemala.
Right now we are flying home. Jaime is flying in first class (he’s got inside connections); Scott is asleep (I’m thinking about throwing something at his face), Ken is out of sight (probably organizing his already perfectly packed backpack) and I have gastric issues (that’s a euphemism for diarrhea😂) but we are all different, in a way that only Jesus can do. He moved among us. We saw what could be if we say yes and God’s blesses. There is nothing more satisfying than, joining with Jesus to transform lives.
Pray as we share with leaders, teams and our deacon board; pray as God sharpens the dream opening and closing doors. May we all have the wisdom, faith and earnest hearts to follow where God wants to lead us.