A few weeks ago my student Mario invited me to the ninth birthday celebration for his church in Oakland where he is a leader in training.
The church is made up of immigrants from just one village in Guatemala: Todos Santos Cuchumatán.
That Sunday at Iglesia Eben-Ezer, I thought about the meaning of the gospel in light of a gathering of 800 Mam speaking Christians in Oakland. Their story signals a surprising and dramatic reversal in the direction of Christian mission and it should affect how we understand the gospel.
The Christian faith I grew up in assumed the gospel was a formulaic message, and we worked hard to express it accurately. In the process, we often failed to recognize that, in the New Testament, when Jesus’ talked about the gospel he was making an invitation. The invitation is to enter into a story that God is writing—to involve oneself in God’s project to bring blessing to all humanity.
The movement of people from Todos Santos, Guatemala, to Oakland is becoming part of that story. Iglesia Eben-Ezer is one of at least 13 churches of Guatemalan immigrants in Oakland that doesn’t use Spanish or English. They speak the Todos Santos dialect of Mam, a Mayan language.
Nearly all the Todosanteros I met that Sunday (not a very reliable sample) were not from any church back in Todos Santos. Most commented about how, when they left Todos Santos, they wanted to live “wild” lives. They met Jesus in the dangers and loneliness of their migration. In their exile over only a very few years, they gathered in Iglesia Eben-Ezer, where they are now trying to discover how to follow Christ. They are doing it in Oakland, keeping in mind the perspective and involvement of family, friends and village back in Todos Santos Guatemala. How they will end up doing that is part of how the story of the gospel of the Kingdom is unfolding. It will have ripple effects in all the world.
Over the last 15 years or so 5000 people from Todos Santos, around 15% of the entire community, have come to live in Oakland. Many Todos Santos young people are raised on the streets of Oakland rather than in the mountains of Guatemala. And they speak English. This migratory movement has a powerful effect on how life is lived in both places. They are extending what one might call the “Todosantero space” and its impact to a wider world will be transformative.
The presence of Mam speakers in Oakland stretches and confuses American categories of ethnicity. Most English speaking neighbors do not have a clue that though they are Guatemalans, or that they speak Spanish as their second language. It does not work to squeeze Todosanteros into the census classification “Hispanic.” “Hispanic” invokes Spanish language or Spanish traditions–a mold Todosanteros have resisted for 500 years. They have held onto their language and traditions since they were conquered by the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th Century. Over the centuries they have paid a high price to hold onto this heritage. Their status as (un)conquered people combined with their commitment to preserving their way of life has contributed to their isolation and impoverishment. Amazingly, Todos Santos traditions were not wiped out in the recent and brutal Guatemalan civil war. That protracted conflict lasted from the late 1960’s to the late 1990’s and more than 160,000 Mayans were massacred—the majority of the total 200,000 Guatemalans who died in the conflict. Todosanteros, though they come from Guatemala, are insistently non-Hispanic.
We lived in Guatemala for nearly a decade of that war. And I learned about Todos Santos early on when I met the Wycliffe missionary who was committed to translating the New Testament into Todos Santos Mam even though his home in the village had been burned down by guerrillas. He simply moved to Guatemala City and carried on with informants.
We never went to Todos Santos. The journey, itself would have been difficult. Once we got there, we would have found ourselves in an area where conflict made life dangerous.
We remained aware of Todos Santos because of their particularly beautiful weavings and embroidery. Each village or region in Guatemala has its own distinctive native dress. Nowadays it is mainly the women who continue to wear hand-woven native dress. The men in Todos Santos are the exception. They continue to wear their native dress perhaps because it is so unique. The embroidered collars that adorned their shirts are particularly impressive. We bought a lot of weavings from many villages, but I don’t think we ever got anything from Todos Santos. The beauty, intricacy and fine quality of their weavings made them too expensive.
Iglesia Eben-Ezer is a local congregation of a Guatemala-based pentecostal denomination that began in 1999. It now includes more than 500 churches world-wide—most of which I assume use Spanish as their main language. The one in Oakland was started by Valentin, a migrant from the highland Guatemala town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán. When Valentin turned away from drunkenness to Christ, Sergio Enríquez, the founding pastor of Ministerios Eben-Ezer in Guatemala City trained Valentin and urged him to start a church among his own people. Valentin eventually started a church in Oakland among fellow immigrants from Todos Santos. Two Eben-Ezer churches in Oakland conduct their services in the Mam language of Todos Santos. Over the last 9 years, these two churches have produced six more Mam-speaking Eben-Ezer churches in the US: one in Stockton, two in Oregon, two in Washington and one in Grand Rapids.
When Jesus talked about “the gospel” it was an invitation to be part of a story like this. It is a story in which the principal protagonist is God and the people of Todos Santos are participants in it. God making a way to deliver on His promise to “bless” all peoples everywhere.
When we lived as missionaries in Guatemala in the 1980’s, I took a personal interest in Mayan peoples. I tried to learn to speak one of the Mayan languages. I did not study Mam. l studied Kaqchikel because Kaqchikel speakers lived close to Guatemala City. But, since my language helper could also speak Spanish, our common second language meant we developed a relationship in Spanish and we did not require Kaqchiquel or English to be friends. So I ended up learning only a few phrases. But I tried because I thought the participation of Mayan people was and is an important part of the gospel in Guatemala. I was doing my best to live relevantly, understand the message better and assure that it was communicated effectively to all Guatemalans.
Looking back, we suffered under (at least) three illusions. First, when we talked about “the gospel” we were thinking about a formula for salvation. We thought our job was to adapt ourselves well and translate the gospel formula so it would be understood and responded to by people who spoke different languages and lived in different contexts than us. Second, we thought that being “strategic” in our work would be the source of our effectiveness (fruitfulness). Third, we thought mission flowed from our sending base (USA) to “the field” (Guatemala), as if God lived in the USA and as if we took God in our luggage to Guatemala. The strategic direction for our work was formulated in an American space—and we were sensitively managed from our headquarters. Our supporting churches in the USA took comfort in knowing that our mission evaluated us regularly according to how effectively we applied the strategy we agreed to take with us.
The presence of Todosanteros in Oakland reminds us that the gospel is a story more than it is a formula for salvation. Our strategies are not the source of our effectiveness. And mission flows when God moves people and gets a hold of them in their movement so they can do some good. We had gone to Guatemala in an attempt to enter a wider world than the USA in the name of Christ, and we did the best we knew how. Today, so many Mam-speaking people from Todos Santos live in Oakland in their attempt to enter a wider world than Todos Santos. They also are doing so in the name of Christ and do the best they know how. They will produce good fruit.
When I lived in Guatemala, I could not foresee the geopolitics that has pushed and pulled many Todosanteros to Oakland. It seems to have taken the migration experience to show how Gods commitment to bless the people of Todos Santos extends their influence and blesses the peoples of the world through their adherence to the gospel. Migration is full of difficulty and trauma, particularly when migrants are forced to accept that the border is closed to them, and they must choose between two options in which both options mean that they are forced to the margins (illegality here, or oppressive poverty there). But God is not callous toward the difficulties and trauma of marginalized and excluded people.
The moment of dispersion for the people of Todos Santos becomes an opportunity for being reconstituted as a people around Jesus, even if it is in “a foreign place” that is not as beautiful as the one they left. Is this the “justice” that God promises for those whom society does not protect?
Many are learning English and their kids will grow up speaking English more than Spanish, or even than Mam which they may or may not use with their parents. Many Todosanteros are here without a proper visa, so they create an underclass in Oakland and they are subject to fear and lack of legal protection from exploitation by political authorities, employers, and neighbors. They produce a class of people who have little access to health care, housing, transportation and other services. But, from whatever location in the system, they have become part of the cultural soup of the United States. That soup blends the Todos Santos flavors with the flavors of earlier immigrants from Europe and Africa, and shapes the emerging new flavors of Oakland, California and the United States, and further introduces the flavor of the gospel of Jesus Christ into that soup.
Todosanteros here make a big difference in Todos Santos. Raiders and Warriors and A’s paraphernalia become part of the Todos Santos social landscape. The kids of migrants come back speaking English and Mam rather than Spanish and Mam like their cousins. Migrants send back money and provide finances for local development and new businesses. They improve the economy of Todos Santos. Some migrants return to Guatemala with new visions for their community or new skills to fulfill long-standing visions.
There are more Todos Santos “missionaries” today in Oakland than there ever were American missionaries in Guatemala.
Each year there was a retreat in Guatemala for missionaries like us. A majority of all the English speaking missionaries would attend each year, but I don’t believe the retreat ever had more than 500 people in attendance. On Sundays, some missionaries gather at Union Church for worship in English. It is a place where they worship God, but it’s also where they think actively about how they fit into the gospel story in Guatemala and in the world. Other ex-pats go to Guatemalan churches and think about the gospel story from those locations. In the process, new ways to participate with God in delivering the blessing and justice are thought up, and people are mobilized to bless others. And so outsiders and Guatemalans responded together to the invitation to participate in the unfolding story of the gospel in and from Guatemala.
The service at Iglesia Eben-Ezer in Oakland was different than a service would be at your church. It reminded me of church services I have attended in Mayan communities in Guatemala. While I may have felt more comfortable there than you would have, it was not exactly the way I would choose to do church. The service lasted 4 hours and included a wedding. The bride and groom sat in the front for the entire service, even though their ceremony did not take place until the last 20 minutes—at the very end. Some elements were more familiar to me. Many kids kept themselves entertained through the long service by watching videos on their parent’s iPhones and electronic notebooks. And there is a good chance that those kids also prefer to speak English.
Nearly 800 Mam-speaking people meeting in a tent in Oakland is significant. I don’t think I was ever at a gathering of English speaking Christians in Guatemala that large. On some of the most violent streets of Oakland, Todosanteros are entering the gospel story.
God must be writing a new plot twist into the story of how he will deliver on his promise to bless all peoples everywhere. In this chapter immigrants, like those from Todos Santos Cuchumatán play an influential role.