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A vision for Central America


LAS TRES MARIAS, Guatemala — A tree stump with a flat piece of wood on top serves as the pulpit at the Church of Christ in this remote mountain village.
In a pavilion-like structure with a metal roof, three single light bulbs and no walls, church members sit on handmade wooden benches on a dirt floor.
The 50-member congregation’s prayers and songs of praise echo over a lush mountainside covered with coffee, corn, beans and bananas.

“I’m so glad to work for the Lord in this little village,” said minister Roberto Caal a 39-year-old father of six who supports his family by working in the coffee fields.

Here — in a village that had no church 14 months ago — and in places like it throughout Central America, a Texan named George Hall intends to realize a vision for the Lord.

It’s a vision that involves missionaries such as German Gamez, who recently baptized 11 people in two months in Gotera, El Salvador, and Leopoldo Villacorta, whose Tegucigalpa, Honduras, church has converted 81 men and women using what Villacorta affectionately dubs “the George method.”
It’s a vision to train hundreds of native church members to teach lost people about Jesus.

“We’re looking to reach tens of thousands — hundreds of thousands — of people,” said Hall, 61, executive director of the Biblical Institute of Central America, which he started in El Progreso, Honduras, in 1998 and expanded to Guatemala City last year.
‘IF IT’S TRUE, IT NEEDS TO BE TOLD’

Hall was 25 years old and working as an IBM computer engineer in Lexington, Ky., when an old Air Force buddy called him.

The buddy, a student at the Sunset School of Preaching in Lubbock, Texas, was headed north to a campaign in New York.
“Hey, how about me coming by?” asked the friend, who wanted to study the Bible with Hall.

When Hall agreed, they stayed up all night poring over the Scriptures. Then an inquisitive Hall followed his friend to New York, studying with a handful of preachers for three more days.

“I was a hard nut to crack,” Hall said, sharing his story while riding with a mission group through El Salvador on the way to Honduras.

But soon, Hall was baptized. Immediately after his conversion, he quit his job and enrolled at Sunset.
“I thought, ‘If it’s true, it needs to be told,’” he said.

After his 1970 graduation from Sunset, Hall worked with churches in Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Louisiana. While with the Central Pike congregation, Hermitage, Tenn., he started making annual trips to Honduras in the mid-1980s.

He fell in love with the people, but not the method of evangelism.

“There was a lot of dependence on the U.S. dollar and very little growth. There wasn’t a body concept,” he said. “The preachers were ‘the man.’ I mean, everything went through them, and they were making three or four times as much as the local people.”

Hall has a different vision for evangelizing Central America, one that focuses on developing what he describes as “lifetime, self-supporting missionaries in their own culture.”

SACRIFICES AND REWARDS

The men who brought God’s word to Las Tres Marias came from the biblical institute in Guatemala City, about three hours to the southwest.

A capital city of about 3 million people, Guatemala City lies in a deep valley where the dormant volcano Agua dominates the horizon.

It’s a poor, dangerous city with few jobs and frequent gunfire — a place that has drawn U.S. State Department warnings about increasing safety and security risks.

Hall carries a .38 Derringer on his frequent visits to Central America, but he refuses to let the threat of violence deter him.

“God didn’t give us a spirit of fearfulness,” said Hall, who lives with his Honduran born wife, Claudia, and their 21-month-old son, Jake, in a two-bedroom mobile home in Kingsland, Texas.

In Guatemala City, a mango tree and a small soccer field nudge against a part-concrete, part-brick house where about 30 students — including seven women — attend classes from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The living room, with pinkish-white walls, exposed wires and desks pushed close together, serves as the classroom.

Volunteer teachers — respected ministers from throughout Central America — come for a week at a time, saving the expense of full-time professors. Each provides 40 hours of instruction on a specific subject, be it personal evangelism or Ephesians.

Home congregations recommend students. For those accepted into the two-year program, the institute provides food, housing and clothing — which costs about $220 per month for single students and $320 per month for married students.

The institute pays for vocational training for students who need a trade. For example, a graduate might work during the week as a welder or technician, with the weekend dedicated to church duties. A few graduates line up U.S. support for full-time church work, but Hall discourages it.

In return for the benefits offered, the institute demands students’ total commitment, said Roberto Alvarez, who directs the Guatemala City campus.

“We are choosing dedicated young Christians,” Alvarez said. “We are telling them, ‘We are not offering you a nice life. We are not offering you a restful life here. We are offering you a lot of work and sacrifices, but a lot of rewards in the Lord.’ ”

A DREAM TO CONVERT HIS HOMETOWN

Single male students live upstairs at the Guatemala City campus, while the women share a nearby house.

The institute leases separate dwellings for married students, such as Ricardo Santay Canto, who lives with his wife and six children in a 400-square-foot house with a kitchen, a living room and two bedrooms. The rent is $100 a month.
Canto, a former policeman converted by a friend 10 years ago, said he wants to return to his Mayan hometown after graduation and start a church.

“I request your prayers and also your help for this dream,” he told a mission group that visited his house as his 9-year-old daughter, Chile, cooked homemade tortillas outside.

On weekends, the students travel to congregations throughout the region to knock doors and teach fellow Christians how to conduct Bible studies.

On Sundays, the men preach and lead singing, while the women help with children’s classes. 

Nineteen-year-old Laura Carolina Ixehop Ixcayau (left) enrolled at the institute rather than attend college. She said she wants to reach out to people her age.

“You can find in the universities many, many confused young people, many empty young people,” she said. “And also, the educational system is teaching human philosophies like evolution and all these things. My desire is to be well-prepared to teach others.”

MUDDY WATERS, CLEANSING WATERS

Besides weekend work, the Guatemala and Honduras students participate in 10 one-week campaigns each year.
“The idea is that we want them to practice what we want them to do when they get out,” Hall said.

A February campaign in Guastatoya, about an hour east of Guatemala City, resulted in 32 baptisms in a hotel swimming pool.

Orlando Campos, a 2003 graduate of the institute’s Honduras campus, stayed behind to develop the new congregation.
Campos, an appliance repairman, said he has baptized at least seven more people and started looking for a permanent church site.

“This is a town with a lot of adultery, and there’s a lot of Catholicism,” Campos, 28 and newly married, said after a recent service. “But thank God, we have a faithful church here in Guastatoya, and I’m trying to work hard in this place.”

Hundreds of miles away, students from the Honduras campus slept on wet floors in a cramped house as they led a recent campaign in the outskirts of Choluteca.

Despite heavy rains that caused the cancellation of some nightly services, students such as Jose Javier Perez Prado, a married father of a 3-year-old girl, trudged through the mud.
Passing chickens, pigs and an occasional horse on the neighborhood streets, they poked their heads in front doors left open to catch a breeze and asked strangers to study the Bible.

On the day that Hall and a U.S. mission group spent with the students, at least seven people were baptized in a small plastic kiddie pool.

Ted McKissick, a deacon from the Belton, Texas, church, which oversees the institute’s Honduras campus, witnessed three of the baptisms.

“The people are so poor down here, but they see hope that they can have a better life in the next life,” McKissick said. “They run circles around us on their dedication and trying to reach the lost.”
The experience left a similar impression on Bill Johnson, an elder from the Fairmont Park church, Midland, Texas, which sponsors the Guatemala City campus.

“We don’t really give ourselves to the Lord as I think he intended,” Johnson said. “The people here have the same struggles with sin, but at the same time, they’ve given themselves to the Lord.

“They don’t have much, and they know they have something better on the other side of the grave,” he added. “We think that we have it made.”

‘DO YOU BELIEVE WE CAN DO IT?’

In Hall’s vision for evangelizing Central America, each campus will graduate at least 15 students per year. Those graduates, in turn, will “teach others to teach others.” It’s a vision that Hall ties to 2 Timothy 2:2.

“In 25 years, how many teachers of the gospel do you think we’ll have if every graduate teaches five people a year to teach others?” Hall asked the Guatemala City students.

“Two thousand!” one student guessed. 

“No, more than 56,000 people,” Hall (left) said. “That’s without anyone we teach teaching others.”

But if those taught by the graduates teach others to share the good news, the number of teachers easily could top 100,000, he suggested.

“We’ll be able to evangelize Central America!” he said. “Do you believe we can do it?”
“Amen!” the students responded.

“By faith, we can see it, can’t we?” Hall said.

“Amen!”

The success of the Guatemala and Honduras campuses has prompted Hall to consider expanding to El Salvador and Nicaragua. But that’s dependent on a congregation stepping forward to provide the funding, he said.

At a recent meeting in San Miguel, El Salvador, a group of about a dozen ministers asked Hall to start a campus there.
Boanerges Flores, minister of the Santiago de Maria City church, said 90 towns surround San Miguel, but the area has only 31 churches.

“We need to train more people,” Flores said. “We are preparing local leaders, but it’s not the same thing. There’s a great, great opportunity here.”

Hall promised to do what he can.

“I ask you to pray for me and we can do this for God,” he said. “We can do mighty things for God.”

Filed under: International

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