If you ever visit the South American country of Guyana and hear a congregation gleefully singing, “Who did swallow Jo-Jo-Jonah,” that may be our fault.
The song that tells the tale of the reluctant prophet was a crowd-pleaser everywhere we went during a two-week trip in mid-July. “Let’s do the Jonah song” was a frequent request – from young and old. Children would run down the rugged mountain paths with the lyrics on their tongues. You could count on singing it every day, just like you could count on early morning wake-up calls from chickens, dogs and the occasional tribe of howler monkeys.
Our team of seven assembled in Georgetown, capital of the South American nation, and took a small plane to the village of Paramakatoi, nestled among the Pakaraima Mountains just north of the Brazil border. The community of about 3,000 people is home to a 30-40-member church of Christ, barely five years old.
The Thomas Street church, Altus, Okla., has adopted the young congregation and sends annual teams to host campaigns, collect completed World Bible School lessons, encourage church members and deliver everything from medicine to toys. Thomas Street sponsored our mission team.
Mission team members:
Paul Brown, Altus, Okla.
Sandra Lam, Kitty, Guyana
Tom Lewis, Altus, Okla.
Donnie Smith, Vernon, Texas
Robert Taylor, Altus, Okla.
Erik Tryggestad, Edmond, Okla.
Joann Winters, Midwest City, Okla.
Formerly called British Guiana, the country of Guyana is home to about 764,000 people. A third of its population is descended from African slaves imported by the Dutch to work on sugar plantations, and about half are the descendants of indentured Indian agricultural workers brought in after slavery was abolished. They speak English in a Creole accent similar to the people of Jamaica or other Caribbean locales.
Most North Americans remember Guyana as the site of a grisly mass suicide in 1978. About 900 followers of a religious sect, The People’s Temple Christian Church, led by Jim Jones, consumed cyanide after sect followers killed U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan.
The story of Jonestown, the jungle settlement where the sect moved after fleeing San Francisco, is no less infamous to the Guyanese, and hindered missionary work in the country.
Sandra Lam, a native of Georgetown who was part of our team, said that one of the early church of Christ missionaries to Guyana encountered resistance from the people he was trying to reach.
“Go home, white man. We don’t need another Jim Jones,” one Guyanese man told the missionary. But time led to acceptance, and eventually the missionary baptized the man who had told him to go home.
Paramakatoi: a young church in Guyana’s interior
Our mission team’s first destination seemed far away from Jonestown and the concerns of Guyana’s urban centers.
Most of the people of Paramakatoi are what the Guyanese government calls “Amerindians,” descendents of the country’s indigenous people. Our team had to file paperwork with the country’s Bureau of Amerindian Affairs as we began our work there.
David Lusk, missionary to Guyana since the mid-1980s, visited Paramakatoi in early 1999 and hosted a gospel campaign (the locals call them “crusades”). About nine people were baptized.
Pereira and his wife, Dorothy, were among the first converts. It was a hard decision for the couple, especially since Pereira served as treasurer for the Wesleyan church in the nearby village of Monkey Mountain.
“I had nothing against anyone in the Wesleyan faith,” he said. “They are my friends, but God is more important than my friends.”
Relations with the Wesleyans, who had a full-time missionary and a strong following in Paramakatoi, were as chilly as the night air that sweeps through the village. “People were numbering us with ‘666’ on our foreheads,” said Paul Daniels, one of the early converts.
And without the crusaders from the United States left, it was hard for the young church to find needed support. “After (the campaign) they said, ‘OK, you’ll have to take care of the congregation,’” Pereira said.
Enter Paul Brown. The Altus, Okla., contractor and fellow members of the Thomas Street church visited Paramakatoi about six months after the first baptisms. Jack Cummings, a former minister at the Thomas Street church in Altus, had introduced the congregation in southwestern Oklahoma to Guyana missions in the mid-1990s. Thomas Street members began to finance annual mission trips to Paramakatoi. The church sponsored Pereira’s training at Guyana International Bible Institute in Georgetown and helped the church build a meeting place.
“Paul Brown is like a father to us, like an elder,” said Andy Williams, an active member of the Paramakatoi church. Donnie Smith baptized Amanda Simone, the younger of Williams’ two daughters, during the trip.
Construction of the church building gave the congregation a sense of permanency in Paramakatoi. It also helped to quell rumors that the church was a cult, said Harold Simon, a church member who filled in for Paul Pereira during his time training in Georgetown. And friction between the new church and the Wesleyan group has subsided, Simon said.
We spent a week at the village’s guest house, sleeping under mosquito nets and eating Dorothy Pereira’s “bakes,” warm, homemade bread that we filled with a mixture of scrambled eggs and green onions.
The church members in Paramakatoi love to sing, and Paul Pereira had asked Paul Brown and the mission team to teach the congregation new songs and to cultivate new worship leaders.
The team purchased a plane ticket for an Oklahoma song leader named Don Smith, but he had to cancel. Paul Brown and his fellow missionaries considered it providence when they found Donnie Smith, a song leader for the Wilbarger Street church, Vernon, Texas, who was willing to go on short notice. Luckily, the airlines didn’t mind us switching “Dons.”
(Somehow I doubt that – if I had backed out – they would have found another Erik Tryggestad.)
Donnie and I had originally planned to teach the church members four-part harmony, but most of our singing class attendees were females and young children. We racked our brains and wrote down the lyrics to as many Vacation Bible School songs as we could remember – including “Jo-Jo-Jonah.”
The children loved it. They memorized every lyric, from “Father Abraham” to “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” Several days after the first class I singled out one of our best singers and asked her to name her favorite song.
She looked confused, and said something that sounded like “Twelve men from Spain.” Dorothy Pereira quickly explained that the girl’s family had recently moved from Brazil and didn’t speak much English. Many of the children speak a mix of English and Patamona, a tribal language that dates back before Guyana’s first European settlers.
It was hard to notice any language barriers as we saw the smiles on their faces as they sang – and as they picked out new toys. On the last day of our visit we gave each child one of the stuffed animals we had crammed into our bags for the flight to Guyana.
One church member, 14-year-old Sevanie Williams, taught our mission team a new song. Sevanie, who was baptized two years ago, said that the biggest gifts the teams from Thomas Street give the people of Paramakatoi are not the stuffed animals or supplies stuffed into checked luggage.
“They encourage people,” she said of the missionaries. “They help people and give to their needs … try to understand people.”
Mabaruma: Growing churches among a sea of choices
Flying north, our team headed for Mabaruma, close to the Venezuela border. We traded the cool, crisp nights of Paramakatoi for the hot, sultry humidity of Guyana’s Atlantic coast – weather that left us longing for cold showers in the guest house.
One of our team, Tom Lewis, had last seen Mabaruma nearly a decade ago, and worked with one of the early campaign groups.
Missionaries, including members of the Gateway church, Pensacola, Fla., assisted in the early days of evangelism. Today there are at least six congregations in the area, including a ministry training facility at the Hosororo church, supported by churches in Tennessee. Missionary Jim Cox, of the Smyrna, Tenn., church, visits four times each year and teaches a week of classes for about 40 area church members, said Charles Richards, minister and caretaker for the facility.
We hosted a singing clinic and a mini-crusade at the church buildings in Mabaruma and the nearby suburb called Settlement. The minister for Mabaruma has only one name – Latchmenarine – although he’s better known as H.M., since he was headmaster of a school in Guyana when he first encountered churches of Christ. His son, Joe (also called Junior), preaches for the Settlement church.
The tropical scenery was breathtakingly new for me, but in a way Mabaruma felt like home. The moist air reminded me of the humid summers in Macon, Ga., and the churches used the same songbooks I remember from my teens. Even the selections by the local song leaders were the old standards from my Southeastern upbringing. The influence of Tennessee and Florida churches is easy to see.
Today, mostly through the work of local evangelists, churches are growing in Mabaruma – no small feat considering the variety of religious groups active in the area, church members said.
“You find more denominational groups coming in. It’s becoming more challenging. It has become competitive,” said Steve Ashby, one of the song leaders during our crusade, who also preaches at a number of area churches. “We are trying to reach them … trying to tell people the truth.”
Georgetown: A children’s home and challenges ahead
We spent the final two days of our trip back in Guyana’s capital, enjoying the hot showers and air conditioning at the Windjammer Hotel.
I visited Steve DeLoach, who directs Operation Guyana. DeLoach spends much of the year in Guyana, coordinating medical and evangelistic missions that involve church members from surgeons to college students. Hundreds have participated in the program, which centers its work in the Georgetown area.
Earlier this year the ministry began operating a night school to provide preacher training after Guyana International Bible Institute shut its doors. GIBI director Jerry Cantrell said that the closing was necessary because some Guyanese church members had come to rely on the school as a primary source of funding.
Some former students, including Joe Latchmenarine in Mabaruma, said that, in general, they disagree with that statement. Many students made financial sacrifices to attend the school, even giving up higher-paying jobs to enter the ministry, Latchmenarine said. Biblical training is essential to future church growth in Guyana, he said, and several Guyanese opposed closing the school.
DeLoach said that he hopes that new programs at Operation Guyana will help fill the void.
Our team also visited a thriving congregation in the nearby town of Enmore. More than 200 people attended Sunday morning worship, making it one of the largest churches in Guyana.
Minister Kenneth Finlayson delivered the sermon and greeted first-time visitors.
Finlayson’s wife, Samantha, grew up in Tennessee and met her husband while doing mission work in Guyana. She directs a children’s home located in the Enmore church building.
The home currently has 27 boys and 16 girls, and its supporters are raising funds to construct a larger facility across the street from the church.
We also worshipped with the church in the Georgetown suburb of Kitty. Like Mabaruma, Georgetown has many religious groups competing for souls – from Mormons to Muslims, church members said. But, as in churches in the United States, it becomes easy for members to become comfortable and not worry much about evangelism.
“We have the understanding of scripture, but we lack the application,” said Leonard George, after delivering the evening sermon at the Kitty church.
Church members need to “get into houses … don’t wait for them to come here,” he said.
Steve Ashby, in Mabaruma, said that he’s encouraged by the improved standard of living he’s seen in Guyana in the past few years. Seeing economic development and a growing middle class has convinced many Guyanese that things can change in their country. And the goal of the church is “to get people to change their lives.”
With a high dose of humility, Ashby said, “On the whole, I think we’re doing a good job.”
Contact Erik Tryggestad at [email protected].