The Rabinal Achi Church: An Interview

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For years my church has supported Bible translators in Guatemala to bring the Scriptures to the Rabinal Achi people. In the course of that we have organized medical clinics and pastor trainings as well. One of our local partners is Eder Ixcopal. To get a better idea of the local culture and needs of the Achi church, I had the privilege of interviewing him.

Christoph: Tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you, what is your role in the church?

Eder: I praise God because He made me and allowed me to born in a wonderful country. I’m Eder Ixcopal from Guatemala, I belong to the ethnic group called the Rabinal Achi. I live in a small town, San Miguel Chicaj, three hours from the city by bus. I’m a Christian believer, member of one of the Nazarene Church in my town. When I was a child I was taught by Carol Barrera to read and write in my Mayan language. Rodrigo & Carol Barrera were missionaries in my town, and they translated the New Testament into Rabinal Achi. After I learned how to read and write in my mother tongue, she invited me to become a helper to her, teaching other kids how to read and write in Rabinal Achi.

From Carol Barrera I learned Rabinal Achi and from both of them I learned a lot about the Bible. From Rodrigo Barrera I learned specifically how to communicate in a better way with the pastors of the area.

Besides the translation, Rodrigo was in charge of handling the logistics for Desert Springs Church (DSC) in Guatemala, a church from New Mexico. When they decided to move to the USA, I became the person to handle the logistics for that church every time they come to Guatemala.

Also I was involved in a youth ministry for several years. I was one of its founders. All the experiences I had in that youth ministry and the experiences I had while working with the Barreras help me now to do ministry among my people.

Christoph: How are you doing? How can we pray for you specifically?

Eder: Currently, I’m in charge of handling the logistics for two churches from New Mexico, DSC and Christ Church, every time they come to Guatemala. Besides that, I have a Bible study with a small group of youth once a week and lead a prayer meeting with pastors of different denominations, once a month. All those people are from different church denominations. I am studying at SBTS (https://www.sbts.edu/) as well. I’m in my first course for Spanish speakers. I’m excited to learn more about God’s Word.

My prayer requests are: a) To have a better understanding of the Bible. b) To be fully equipped to proclaim God’s Word among my people through Bible studies and pastors' meetings.

Christoph: What are 2 or 3 things that differentiate your culture from the US?

Eder: In my culture we don’t need an appointment to visit someone. One day you may decide to rest in your living room. Surprise, your doorbell rings, so you need to get up and open the door of your house and invite the people at your front door to come in and you should make time to listen to them. Most of the time they just come because they want a fun time with you. So it’s hard to follow your agenda because you don’t know who is going to visit you at any time. We are more spontaneous when we need to make decisions. We don’t need to have a specific plan to go on a trip or to decide to go out for dinner. Just a call or a text message can make us to meet at the same place.

Christoph: That’s fun! I wish it were more like that here. Help us understand the people in your city or country. In general, what do they care about? What do they want out of life?

Eder: The majority of my people are more concerned about their beliefs and what the people say of them, whether they are believers or not. If they are nonbelievers, they are more concerned about traditions, myths, customs and ways of thinking. If they are believers, they are more concerned about pleasing God in everything they do. My people want to rid their lives of poverty, especially the people of the rural area. No government invests enough in education, the health care system or providing jobs for the people. The people who live so far in the rural area need to travel every time they want to get food from the market, receive medical service, or just sell in the markets what they produce themselves. Lack of education makes us live under corrupt governments.

Christoph: Humanly speaking, what are the major hurdles to someone in your country becoming a Christian?

Eder: There are some practices among my people that come from the Mayan worldview. Certainly they have been engrained in the Catholic church. The Catholic church and the Evangelical church are the two biggest groups in Guatemala. When someone becomes a believer, he/she brings with him/her some practices that are unbiblical from their traditional worldview, and often learns other practices within the church that are also unbiblical because of poor interpretation of Scripture. For example, in some churches women who are menstruating are not allowed to sing with the music team up front, and women who have just given birth are not to attend services for 40 days if they had a boy and 60 days if they had a girl.

The leadership of our churches don’t want to confront these practices in public. And when they talk about it, they don’t clarify well what God’s Word says about it. Several of these practices are deeply rooted in our churches and if confronted would cause division, so pastors tend to avoid those issues. For instance, how you dress, what kind of food you need to avoid, or that all Rabinal Achi traditions and customs are only for unbelievers. A young lady approached a pastor asking if she could sing with the music team up front in pants. The pastor responded: What kind of clothes make you feel more elegant? She responded: a dress. So the pastor said: There’s your answer. I told him that for me that wasn’t a clear answer. What he did was avoid the issue. This is just one example of topics that divide our churches. An example of food is “morongas”, which are sausages made with the blood of a pig and many spices. Some pastors say it is not wrong to eat it and others say that because it is made with blood the Bible prohibits it. But none of these pastors use the Bible to defend their point of view. I grew up being taught by my parents that to learn to dance to marimba, to participate in a traditional folkloric dance, or to participate in a presentation about the customs and traditions of the Achi people is SIN. Every time that we were to do some presentation of this type in school, my parents didn’t allow me to participate, saying that it was exclusively for unbelievers. Even today the marimba as a musical instrument is considered by many as an instrument for unbelievers.

Some of these practices came from misunderstanding the Old Testament. For example, as I mentioned above, when a woman gives birth, depending on whether she has a boy or a girl, some churches forbidden her certain number of day to go to service. If a girl or woman is in her menstruation she is forbidden to go to the service for a certain number of days. They are just some examples.

It’s taking long time to help the leadership of our churches change their beliefs to line up with God’s Word.

Christoph: What do Christians in your city or country care about? What’s on their minds as Christians?

Eder: Talking about the believers of my town, they are more concerned about pleasing God in what they believe is good to do. But what they think is pleasing to God is not necessarily because it comes from God’s Word. It’s good because that is what their leaders teach them is good. There are moral topics that the pastors teach to their churches that don’t have a biblical basis. The majority of believers just attend services, but they don’t want the commitments and responsibilities as believers. They believe if they are attending church, that’s all that God wants from them. I dare to say less than 10% of believers read their Bible and spend time to understand it. If they had a clear knowledge of Scripture it would help them to live worthily as Christians and to spread the gospel among the church and the community.

Several of our local churches don’t spend money for their pastors and elders to study, and because of that, several pastors don’t want to continue their theological study. The salary they receive from their local church is not enough for them to pay for their theological study. The pastors are more concerned with having everything their family needs for living because their salary is very low.

So for the members, attending church services and listening to the pastor’s preaching is enough for them as believers.

Christoph: What are your goals in your work in the church?

Eder: I started a couple years ago leading small group leaders of our pastors' retreat (twice per year before COVID-19). Together we started to study the material a DSC provided us before every training. The topics they decided to pick up for us were “The 9 Marks of a Healthy Church” from www.9marks.org.

Those topics helped us to open our minds to God’s Word and understand with a sense of the Scriptures. But it is taking a long time to make pastors change their mind about the interpretation they learned from others or their own interpretation of Scriptures. I started to study at SBTS to have a better understanding of the Scriptures and all that knowledge will help me to do ministry in a better way. While I’m studying, I want to continue working with pastors and involve them in reading the Bible in the way they need to do to understand it.

My mission is not complete yet. I don’t know if some day in future I will be able to see a deep change in the churches among my people, a change that will bring them to God’s Word, and to a better understanding of the Scriptures. More than 80 people attend our retreats. Almost all of them are pastors and several of them have leadership as elders of their local churches. We are affecting some pastors now. I can see myself working with them the rest of my life. So, if I can help someone to have a better understanding of Scripture, that will be great. One by one, step by step.

Christoph: What are the greatest needs you see in your church?

Eder: To come back to God’s Word. It is the only way we can change our churches and their structures. I am not saying everything is not good in the churches of my town. I’m saying that the deep needs we have are because the leaders of our churches don’t explain clearly what God’s Word says, because they don’t have a clear understanding of it themselves either. While that situation continues in our local churches, our needs will become that much more deep.

Christoph: Thanks brother!

Photo: Training pastors and leaders in Guatemala