Voices only: ‘Siyahamba (We are Marching in the Light of God)’
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CUSCO, Peru — That’s Barton Kizer’s biggest fear for the Church of Christ he and his teammates have planted in this South American city of half a million souls, the gateway to the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu.
In December, after completing the eight years of service they committed to and trained for, Kizer and his wife, Allison, will pack up their lives and their four children (three of them were born here) and return to the U.S. So will three of their teammates — Gary and Jennifer Reaves and their two children and Corinne Faneus. Their destination: Charlotte, N.C., where they hope to plant a new, multi-ethnic Church of Christ.
Sitting in an upper room of the Cusco church’s rented building, the departing teammates talk about their hopes and fears with Ron and Georgia Freitas, former missionaries to Curitiba, Brazil, who work with Great Cities Missions, the Texas-based nonprofit that has trained and nurtured the Cusco team.
The church planted by the team, Iglesia de Cristo, Congregación Ayllu, takes its name from a word meaning “gathering place” or “community” in Quechua — an indigenous tongue still spoken in the villages that seem to dangle from the cliffs surrounding Cusco. About 120 people break bread, pray and serve in the church. Among them are the addicted, the abused and the overlooked — those the church planters came here to seek and serve.
Despite the mission’s success, the church planters know of other efforts that, despite careful planning, fell apart after the missionaries went home. But they’re not leaving the church empty-handed.
A second wave of U.S. missionaries will remain and a third wave is training for ministry. Among them are Peruvians Elvis Chacón, his wife, Yolanda Arévalo, and Percy Ávalos Rojas. The team prays that, in the coming years, the church will appoint Peruvian elders, deacons, preachers and evangelists and that its members will continue to serve the hurting — and plant new churches.
“We’re really trying to work ourselves out of a job,” says Sarah Davis, who moved to Cusco with her husband, Ryan, four years ago as part of the team’s second wave. She cites 2 Timothy 2:2 — advice given by the apostle Paul to his young protege nearly 2,000 years ago — as her guiding star: “Teach others to teach others.”
To equip themselves for ministry, the Peruvians studied for two years at Baxter Institute, a ministry training school in Honduras associated with Churches of Christ.
“All that I learned in Honduras I can put into the church here,” Arévalo says. But she’s concerned that, as Jesus once said of a prophet in his hometown, she and her Peruvian coworkers won’t get the same level of respect or cooperation that their congregation gives to the missionaries from the North.
As the transition approaches, the missionaries granted The Christian Chronicle access to their meetings with the Freitases and glimpses into their daily lives — and the lives of those they serve.
So far, “it’s been a funny-feeling year,” Barton Kizer says, “but God’s bringing it together at the right time.
“It’s going to be a tough transition, I don’t wanna underestimate it, but it’s going to be a good one, too.”
The slightest of smirks crosses Barton Kizer’s face as he recalls the reasons his team chose Cusco, a mere 3,600 miles south of, and across the equator from, his home in Tennessee.
(Yes, it is in the Western Hemisphere, though, and the same time zone.)
It’s also quite high up. The living room of the Kizers’ apartment measures 10,698 feet above sea level. A simple stroll upstairs to the roof yields a panorama of the city that’s breathtaking — literally. Allison Kizer says she’ll miss the view but not the “high-altitude baking fails.”
Back in the living room, as the Kizers’ twin 4-year-olds don superhero capes and compete for a reporter’s attention, the family shares a pasta dinner with Juan Carlos Malpartida, a structural engineer and deacon of the Wanchaq Church of Christ, a congregation launched in Cusco in the early 1970s.
“We really look to Wanchaq as our big brother,” Barton Kizer explains. When the first wave of missionaries arrived in Cusco in October 2009 they worshiped with Wanchaq as they learned Spanish and made contacts.
The teammates met as students at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn. They shared the desire to serve “outside the Bible Belt,” says Barton Kizer, whose father and brother both are pulpit ministers in the Southeast. They considered Vancouver and Denver, but their future wives influenced them to think south.
Their teachers recommended Bill Richardson, a missions professor at Harding University in Searcy, Ark., who leads teams of students to the region. He helped the missionaries on survey trips. The students also trained with Great Cities Missions, which plants Churches of Christ across Latin America.
“I like the way that they approached the mission here,” Malpartida says of the team. “They were very careful not to harm the church here. They asked, ‘Should we come here?’ The Wanchaq church’s reply: “We should not be the ones to prohibit God’s will. We can help you to start.
Among those served by the mission team is Erlin Guzman Bolanos, a man who knows a lot about thorns.
The taxi driver and his wife, Noemi, live in a single, rented room off a muddy creek path with their three daughters — including twins with cerebral palsy. Despite his humble circumstances, “he insists that you try his wife’s cooking,” Barton Kizer says.
As the family shares plates heaped with grilled fish, beans and rice, one of the twins gleefully rams her wheelchair into her guest’s legs, demanding he draw pictures for her, while the other dangles from Kizer’s neck.
The family encountered the Ayllu church through a medical campaign conducted by visitors from the U.S.
Soon, they learned that the church had more to offer than just medicine.
Speaking in Spanish as Kizer translates, Bolanos talks about the fights he and his wife used to have, and how their involvement with the Ayllu church likely saved their marriage.
Now they host neighborhood Bible studies in their apartment, sharing the parable of the sower and other stories of God’s love.
“After church, they always stay and clean up, these two,” Kizer says of the couple.
Later in the day, a small group of Ayllu members and a family of visitors meets for Bible study in one of Cusco’s middle-class neighborhoods.
Percy Ávalos Rojas, one of the Pervian team members, leads a discussion of 2 Peter 3:8: “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” He references the Old Testament prophet Isaiah’s admonition to “wait on the Lord” and the differences between man’s expectations and God’s timing.
It’s a lesson Esther de la Cuba knows well. Before the Bible study, she shares the story of her baptism and the long, patient wait she endured for her husband to accept the Gospel.
“One day, out of the blue, he came to her crying, saying, ‘Esther, I want to be baptized!’” Kizer translates. “He’s preaching this Sunday.”
Their daughter, Milagros Loiza, started attending church with her family when she was 12. Later, in her teen years, she fell away from the church, but “I had a conversation with Barton, and I’ll never forget it,” she says. She returned to the flock.
“We got used to you guys,” Loiza tells Kizer. “You shouldn’t leave, but the inclusion of the Peruvians (on the team) is good.”
As he passes a plate of Picarones — crisp Pervian doughnuts, hot out of the fryer — Ryan Davis talks about his vantage point as a member of the mission team’s second wave.
“And I know these guys are jealous,” he says of the departing missionaries, “because we’re going to get to benefit from the fruit of their labor.”
It’s the end of a meal at a second-story restaurant in Cusco’s historic Plaza de Armas. Around the table are the team’s past, present and future — Barton Kizer, Davis and his wife, Sarah, and Peruvians Elvis Chacón and his wife, Yolanda Arévalo.
“We absolutely fell in love with Cusco when we came down on our first mission trip,” Ryan Davis says, “but what we fell in love with I think even more was the team.”
He laughs as he remembers the long year of language learning after they arrived. They knew they were making progress when, during prayer request time at a small-group Bible study, one of the church members said, “I just want to thank God that these missionaries who arrived a year ago mute, now they can speak.”
Sarah Davis says, “I think we’ve had a huge blessing in just being able to learn a lot from Barton and Gary’s families. It’s been pretty exciting to get to come in and kind of apprentice under them in certain ways, and now to have the blessing of getting to work with our new Peruvian team members.”
“I want you to think about being a master builder — as a team — built on a foundation, built solely by Jesus Christ.”
Eight years into the mission, the U.S. Christians see their role behind the scenes, cultivating Peruvian preachers and evangelists. The two are different, Kizer notes. It seems that “God doesn’t make a lot of preacher/evangelists. He makes preachers and he makes evangelists.”
He sees both qualities in Chacón, a man who, at one point in his life, “didn’t think God would even love someone like me,” he says.
He grew up Catholic, like most of his countrymen, but spent much of his time at nightclubs, “drinking and fighting.” His sister found out about the Ayllu church and its reputation for helping the hurting and addicted. She encouraged him to visit.
“I was still doing things I shouldn’t do,” he remembers. But he kept going to church and was baptized. He collapses with laughter when he remembers the name of his employer at the time — a restaurant called The Fallen Angel.
“I don’t know why, but one day they asked me to preach and work with the young people,” he says. “I remember that my first sermon lasted about seven minutes.”
The sermons lengthened and improved, and the team members enrolled Chacón and his wife in an intensive course of study. The couple had to demonstrate three months of active membership followed by six months of active leadership. They led small-group Bible studies and did a six-month internship. Finally, the team sent the couple to Baxter Institute in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, along with Percy Avalos Rojas for two years of ministry training.
The training was excellent, Chacón says, and the pressure was high to join new, all-Latino mission teams headed for locales throughout the Spanish-speaking world, some of them coordinated by Great Cities Missions.
But “this is the church where I was born,” he says of the Ayllu congregation. “We wanted to come back because this is our family.”
Kizer adds, “If we had to just think of an ideal couple to work with the church, I would think of these guys.”
In a tight semicircle, the entire Cusco team lines the walls of an upstairs classroom in their rented church building as Georgia Freitas talks with them about the upcoming transitions.
“Our team’s going through puberty!” Barton Kizer jokes.
Or maybe it’s a midlife crisis. The team is about halfway through its 15-year plan — a plan focused on worship, evangelism and small-group ministry.
Freitas and her husband, Ron, host three sessions with the team — one for the departing missionaries, one for the U.S. missionaries who are staying and one for the Peruvian team members — before meeting with the full team. They ask each group what they feel good about and what they’re most concerned about.
“This is a momento muy importante en esta iglesia, a very important moment in this church,” Ron Freitas says in Spanish and English, occasionally throwing in a Portuguese word or two from his days in Brazil.
It’s also a difficult time, he adds, as the Christians attempt to “make a team out of two cultures.”
The teammates know the challenges. The U.S. Christians want to see the church continue its outward-focused, urban ministry, resisting the urge to buy affordable land on the outskirts of town. That could keep the church from reaching those who need Jesus, they say.
The Peruvians want their ideas to be considered equally with those of the U.S. Christians. There’s also concern about economic inequality. The U.S. Christians have access to more financial support than the Peruvians, though they must make regular trips to the U.S. to raise funds. The U.S. Christians also don’t have the family support structure the Peruvians have in Cusco.
The departing team members, meanwhile, worry that, despite their years of sweat, toil and tears, the intercultural mix won’t work, the team will fall apart and the church will disappear.
Throughout the discussions, Freitas encourages the teammates to be patient with each other and, most importantly, to keep their focus on Christ.
“I think sometimes we have to check our purposes as a church and as a team,” he says. “A lot of times, I find myself concerned or worried about things I shouldn’t be worried about. That’s pride.
“I want you to think about being a master builder — as a team — built on a foundation, built solely by Jesus Christ.”
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