150,000 Converts in Guatemala!
Ancient Faith Radio · September 13, 2013
We talk with Fr. Peter Jackson, newly appointed OCMC missionary to Guatemala following the mass conversion of 150,000 people into the Orthodox Church. Learn about his work in training clergy and translating liturgical documents for the 300+ churches and eight priests.
John Maddex: Hi, this is John Maddex, and many of you have probably heard about what’s happening in Guatemala, where there have been hundreds of individuals—men, women, children—coming into the Orthodox Church. This phenomenon has been of interest, I know, to a lot of you, and today we’re going to find out more about that, but also about some missionary work that’s planned in Guatemala to help train this influx of people. We’re talking with Fr. Peter Jackson, who is a newly appointed OCMC missionary to Guatemala. He and his wife will be going soon, and we’re going to find out today what that’s all about. Fr. Peter, welcome to Ancient Faith Radio.
Fr. Peter Jackson: Thanks so much, John. Thank you for having me.
Mr. Maddex: Tell us the story about Guatemala. What happened there that we have so many converts coming into the Church?
Fr. Peter: I’m so glad you’re asking about this, because it’s only now starting to filter down to the consciousness of the Orthodox faithful up here in North America, but in 2010, a huge group of people [were] received into the Orthodox Church under Metropolitan Athenagoras of the Greek [Orthodox] Archdiocese of Mexico, Central America, and the Carribbean. In the intro you said there were hundreds of people; what if I told you there were thousands of people that came into the Orthodox Church in Guatemala just in the last two years?
Mr. Maddex: Thousands? Wow. Oh yes, 150 thousand?
Fr. Peter: Yes, 150 thousand. And your response is not unusual in my experience.
Mr. Maddex: That’s amazing!
Fr. Peter: When we’re out there, it takes a while to sort of digest that number. If I tell people there’s thousands of people that have converted in Guatemala, that gets their attention. If you say there’s tens of thousands, they’re just dumbfounded. If you say there’s 150 [thousand], well, they can’t even comprehend that number.
Mr. Maddex: All right. So how did this happen? Where were they before, and how did they come into the Orthodox Church?
Fr. Peter: As you can imagine, it’s a long, complicated story, but to make it very brief, there’s a priest in Guatemala named Fr. Andres Jiron. He’s Guatemalan himself. He’s not an indigenous Guatemalan. In fact, a lot of the Orthodox faithful in Guatemala are Maya, indigenous people. Fr. Andres Jiron is not Maya, but he has always had a heart for the people. He was originally a Roman Catholic priest. He knew Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s. I’m sure you might be aware: there was a huge civil war in Guatemala in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and finally ending in the 1990s, so the country has a very turbulent recent history.
Fr. Andres always had a heart for the poor, a heart for the Maya people. The Maya people love him. He would help them to get titles to their own land so they would be able to own their own land and not be taken advantage of by wealthy landowners and such, so he did a lot to help the people. The people are loyal to him, and they just love him. He’s a very dear man. My wife and I went earlier this year to Guatemala. We spent several weeks there, and we met him. He ended up leaving the Roman Catholic Church about 20 years ago, and was sort of in the wilderness. He had a friend whom he met in Guatemala who ended up in a non-canonical Orthodox jurisdiction, so Fr. Andres sort of ended up in that non-canonical group and brought his people with him. He’s sort of a Moses in the wilderness leading his crowds of people, and they’re basically just following him wherever he goes.
He realized a while back that he needed to bring his people into authentic, canonical Orthodoxy, so that finally came about in 2010, just three years ago, when they were received by Metropolitan Athenagoras of the Greek [Orthodox] Archdiocese of Mexico. This huge church is now a canonical church. They’ve considered themselves Orthodox for the last couple of decades. They identify as Orthodox, they call themselves Orthodox, their churches all have “Orthodox” in the name over the door, but they don’t really understand a lot about what Orthodoxy means, so this is the big task ahead of us, is to catechize the people and train clergy for them.
Mr. Maddex: In the first place, this must be one of the largest, if not the largest, mass conversion into the Orthodox Church in the history of the Church, is it not?
Fr. Peter: I’m thinking it’s probably the biggest conversion since the Baptism of the Rus’ in 988.
Mr. Maddex: Wow.
Fr. Peter: I was reading recently about St. Nicholas of Japan, and when he reposed there were 30,000 people in the Church of Japan, and that’s just one of the greatest mission success stories of the last couple hundred years. But this is already five times bigger than that.
Mr. Maddex: The mind just reels when you start to think of the next steps: how do you train them, what about the clergy, how are they set up, and that’s kind of what you’re interested in helping to accomplish. Tell us about the infrastructure and what is needed there.
Fr. Peter: They have 338 parishes. When people ask about Guatemala, I tell them to picture it as: Guatemala is south of Mexico. It’s about the size, the area, the population, of Ohio, so think of it kind of like Ohio. In Ohio, there are 80 Orthodox parishes of all different stripes, but in Guatemala there’s already 338. So in Guatemala there’s three-and-a-half times that number. In these 338 parishes, they only have eight priests.
In my brief time down there, I was able to meet most of these priests, and they’re all wonderful men, very dedicated, very godly, very mature, very wise. They don’t know an awful lot about what Orthodoxy is, and there’s only eight of them. One of the priests I met, he’s personally responsible for about 50 parishes. In other words, these priests practically have to act like bishops over a diocese. Their flock is so huge.
So the big task right now ahead of us is to train clergy for all these parishes, and to retrain the clergy that they already have. The Church there is already opening up a seminary. It’s got a name. I was there for the first Liturgy served at the seminary. It’s going to be called the Saints Peter and Paul Seminary there in Guatemala. The Church itself there owns the land. They’re building the seminary. They’re being as self-sufficient as possible, but they need missionaries to come from abroad, from the U.S., who have theological training and experience to come down and teach the people.
Mr. Maddex: Where in Guatemala is this, Fr. Peter?
Fr. Peter: The seminary is outside of a town called Huehuetenango—H-u-e-h-u-e-tenango. I always say it’s called that because it’s “way, way” apart from everything.
Mr. Maddex: It’s interesting now, then, to note your background. I’d like to chat about that just for a few minutes here. You have served as a missionary in Colombia, right?
Fr. Peter: Yes, that’s right, John. Before my wife and I were missionaries in Colombia, down in South America. My wife actually grew up there. Her parents are missionaries—still are, actually—and some of her brothers and sisters still live in Colombia. Our son moved back to Colombia recently, so we have a lot of connections down there. We worked with the primitive Indian tribe called the Kogi—K-o-g-i—and I translated the New Testament into their language while we lived there.
Mr. Maddex: We have many former Evangelical listeners to Ancient Faith Radio, and they would be familiar with the Wycliffe Bible Translators, and that’s whom you were with, right?
Fr. Peter: That’s where I got my training from, and I taught a number of their classes. It was while I was teaching their courses that I met my dear wife, down in Dallas where Wycliffe has its training. We ended up going independently with my wife’s parents, so I got my training with Wycliffe, but we did our work independently.
We were there for ten years, and I learned Spanish, and I learned the indigenous Kogi language as well. We’re used to living in Latin America, but my wife and I are also used to living with indigenous peoples, which is what it’s going to involve in Guatemala.
Mr. Maddex: Yes, and your wife’s name is Matushka Styliana?
Fr. Peter: Styliana, that’s correct.
Mr. Maddex: So, Fr. Peter, the Kogi language that you became familiar with and did your translation work—is this the same language that you’ll be using or translating in Guatemala?
Fr. Peter: No, Kogi’s just spoken by 5,000 people in the nation of Colombia, which is five countries away from Guatemala. In Guatemala it’s a different language family altogether; it’s not related to the languages of Colombia. So the languages in Guatemala are Maya languages; they’re related to each other, but they’re all different from each other. They’re not understandable by each other. When I was down in Guatemala, I encountered speakers of seven different Maya languages. So the faithful in Guatemala, a lot of them don’t even speak Spanish as their first language. Spanish is the official language of the country, and you think of Guatemala: “Oh, it’s a Spanish-speaking country,” but a lot of the people there don’t speak any Spanish at all. They speak these indigenous languages.
Mr. Maddex: Then how do you choose which one of the Mayan languages you translate the New Testament and liturgical resources into?
Fr. Peter: Thank God, the New Testament has already been translated into most of these languages, but the next step is to translate liturgical texts, starting from the Divine Liturgy and going from there, translating prayer books and catechetical materials. My plan, Lord willing, is to train the people themselves to do the translation work, and I would be overseeing it, because there’s no way I could learn all these languages myself, much less do all the translation work. So I’m going to be sort of trying to train teams and overseeing the work that they do.
Mr. Maddex: What will be the original source documents? Where will you choose these?
Fr. Peter: For the services, we’ll be translating directly from the Greek. I’m used to doing that from my work with the Kogi in Colombia. We always did everything straight from the Greek.
Mr. Maddex: And your plan is to go to Guatemala when? What’s the date?
Fr. Peter: We’re planning to go sometime after Pascha in 2014, next year. We have a young man in the parish who’s going to be ordained to the priesthood next month, so I’m going to start training him so it’ll be a smooth transition in our parish. I’ve been in our parish here in Buffalo for the last 15 years, so I want to make sure that everything’s left in good hands and not just drop the ball.
Mr. Maddex: Of course. What parish is that, Father?
Fr. Peter: This is St. Theodore Russian Orthodox Church in Williamsville, which is a suburb of Buffalo, New York.
Mr. Maddex: They’re going to miss you, I’m sure, after all these years.
Fr. Peter: Yes, and we’re going to miss them. It’s a wonderful parish. It’s a wonderful community. We’re not leaving because we want to leave.
Mr. Maddex: Has it been your desire ever since coming back from Colombia to go back into the mission field in the Latin American countries?
Fr. Peter: Absolutely, and especially in the area of seminary. We’ve been praying for years that a Spanish-language seminary would start up in Latin America. So this is really just the answer to our prayers, and to be able to have the privilege and the opportunity to go down there. It’s not going to be a picnic, but we’re very excited, because it’s going to be the first Spanish-language seminary in Latin America.
Mr. Maddex: Yes, it is. There’s a lot of wonderful things happening in Guatemala. One of our partners is the Hogar Rafael Ayau Orphanage down there. Of course, they just moved into their new facility for the children. This work happening now under the Greek Archdiocese—it’s wonderful to see how God is blessing in these lands. We’re very grateful for the work that you’re going to be doing there as well.
Fr. Peter: We’ve met the nuns down at the Hogar, at the monastery, and they’re doing a tremendous work. We do want to get the word out, though, that there’s a lot more going on in Guatemala than the orphanage.
Mr. Maddex: Yes, and that’s kind of the only thing we hear about. It’s wonderful as it is, but there is more happening, and especially with these 150,000 converts coming into the Church at once. What is it going to take to get you there? I know any time you talk about missionary work, there is a certain amount of fundraising that has to happen in order to pay the bills. So where are you and what can we do to generate some support?
Fr. Peter: We’re being sent officially by the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, so we do need regular monthly pledges. It’s what we really need. One-time donations are gratefully accepted, but that’s not going to cut it. We need regular monthly pledges to be able to live there for a number of years. We’re going to live there to get the seminary going, to get clergy trained. So if people feel called and led to help out in this historic, amazing event that’s happening in Guatemala, you can go to the OCMC website. You can go to ocmc.org/thejacksonfamily. If you go there, you’ll find all the information you’ll need. You can read more about us, and it’s an easy way to make your pledges and donations there.
Mr. Maddex: Just give our listeners an idea, Fr. Peter, and we’ll give that website again, but give our listeners an idea of what is an average monthly pledge that people could be thinking about.
Fr. Peter: Anything from $10, $25, $50, but there’s no such thing as too small of a pledge, because it all adds up.
Mr. Maddex: Yes, that is my point, because we know that $10 a month comes out to $120 a year, obviously, and that’s very helpful and significant. We always encourage our listeners to be involved financially in the work of Christ around the world, whether it’s through the support of OCMC missionaries or IOCC or FOCUS North America. There are so many worthy outreach ministries out there that need your support. This may be something that tugs at your heart when you think about 150,000 new converts to the Orthodox Church, and eight clergy. So you know the need is great, and here is a family that is now committed to go to Guatemala and be a part of the solution there: through translation work, through clergy training. And we have an opportunity to help support that effort. That website again is ocmc.org. I think most of you are familiar with that, but if you want to get specificly to Fr. Peter and Mat. Styliana’s site, you’ve got to put a /thejacksonfamily. Even if you don’t remember that, you’ll be able to find it at ocmc.org. They have a list of their missionaries readily accessible.
Fr. Peter, anything else you’d like to share with us about this ambitious task ahead?
Fr. Peter: Please do remember the Guatemalan Church in your prayers. Again, we can’t stress how historic this event is. I’m sure that many people want to be a part of it. So if you can’t support us financially, please do pray for us. Pray for the Church in Guatemala. We also have a Facebook page. I’m sure a lot of you are on Facebook. You can find us at The Jacksons’ Orthodox Mission to Guatemala on Facebook and follow what we’re doing.
Mr. Maddex: All right. Thank you, Fr. Peter Jackson, a newly appointed missionary, along with his wife, Mat. Styliana, to the land of Guatemala for training of clergy and translation work for this influx of 150,000 new converts to the Orthodox Church. Thank you, Fr. Peter.
Fr. Peter: Thank you, John.