Mayan calendar draws spotlight; a troubled culture struggles

Baptist Press
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Posted: Apr 02, 2012 4:52 PM
Mayan calendar draws spotlight; a troubled culture struggles
QUETZALTENANGO, Guatemala (BP) -- Because the ancient 5,125-year Mayan calendar will end on Dec. 21, 2012, global interest in Mayans has skyrocketed in recent years.

Some New Age philosophers predict the beginning of a new era of enlightenment for mankind. Others say it's a countdown to the end of the world. Although many scholars dismiss these claims, tourists from around the globe are flocking to Mayan ruins in Latin America. The calendar itself has been the subject of many books, movies, news specials and college lectures.

But most Mayans aren't concerned about the ancient calendar, according to International Mission Board missionaries who work among Mayan people groups. In fact, the real Mayan story isn't about the calendar at all, they say. It's about the Mayan people.

Jeronimo, for example, is one of nearly 5 million Mayan descendants living throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. He was an alcoholic before IMB workers with Guatemala's Tajumulco Mam people group came with a message that changed his life.

Jeronimo accepted Christ as his Savior, and soon his wife and children did the same. Later he started the first evangelical church in his community. Then he began sharing Christ and planting churches in other villages. He also translated parts of the Bible and other Bible storying materials into the local language so others could hear the Gospel.

Despite success stories like Jeronimo's, many Mayans remain trapped in a spiritual darkness drawn from old traditions, said Gary Stone, IMB missionary among the Tajumulco Mam.

"The Tajumulco Mam have always been known as a fierce and warlike people," Stone said. "Villages feud between each other and land wars are never ending. The culture is broken, and there is much darkness in daily life. Incest, stealing, lying, alcoholism, multiple partners, greed and other sins keep the Mam people in darkness."

Like many Mayan groups, the Mam cling to their heritage and live in small rural villages of between 50 to 100 families. They depend on crops like potatoes, beans, corn and peppers to survive. Most still wear traditional handmade Mayan clothing.

Poverty and lack of jobs sometimes force them to find work elsewhere.

"Many travel to the U.S. to make their fortunes," Stone said. "Instead of finding the riches they desire there, many of them come back to Guatemala with addictions, venereal disease and broken relationships."

The traditions that give Mayan groups their unique identity often are a barrier to the Gospel, missionaries say. Many groups have adopted Catholicism in name only and still worship Mayan spirits linked to the names of Catholic saints.

"The primary religion is animism with a veneer of Catholicism overlaying it," said Alan Lyons, a strategy leader for IMB work among Mayans. "There are obvious examples of animistic, indigenous practices, like sacrificing chickens on the steps of the church. Many church members have difficulty explaining what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and in times of crisis, they often revert back to animistic practices instead of trusting Jesus."

Many Mayans do not read and only speak one of the 69 Mayan languages. Stone and other missionaries are working with national believers to present the Gospel in the groups' heart languages through oral Bible storying, Gospel recordings and drama.

Stone hopes that the current upward trend in education will also help, as young people stay in school longer and learn to read.

Despite these difficulties, God has been moving among Mayan people groups.

"When we arrived to work with the Tajumulco Mam, they were considered an unreached people group," Stone said. "Through the work of missionaries ... the Gospel has been liberally sown among the villages. Today, by God's great grace and mercy, they are no longer unreached."

God also has been working among the K'ekchi' people, a Mayan group in Guatemala, where IMB missionary David White has served for five years.

"During our time with the K'ekchi', we have been blessed to see several new groups and missions started," White said. "When a K'ekchi' person is saved, they use the word 'pabanc.' It means 'to believe and obey.' This combination helps to solidify their faith in Christ. They know that to publically accept and follow Christ is to not only believe, something you do privately, but also obey, something that will be lived out publically."

During the past decade, the K'ekchi' have experienced a church-planting movement -- a rapidly multiplying increase of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment.

The K'ekchi' also take up an annual offering to support their 18 national missionaries who are spreading the Gospel to other indigenous groups.

"The K'ekchi' have a heart for prayer and evangelism that is foreign to many believers," White added. "Weeping over spiritually lost people and faithfully witnessing is at the forefront of the K'ekchi' church."

White also said the K'ekchi' are committed to studying God's Word, despite being nonliterate.

"K'ekchi' believers do an incredible job of memorizing Scripture," he said. "The majority of the people still cannot read or write. Each Sunday they take the memory verse very seriously. They will repeat the verse until everyone is satisfied they know it."

Through their faith in God and understanding of Scripture, the K'ekchi' have moved beyond traditional Mayan religion. Now, instead of praying to spirits for a good harvest season, the K'ekchi' attend a worship service before planting day -- trusting God with their survival.

IMB missionaries among Mayans asked Southern Baptists to pray that other Mayan groups will follow the K'ekchi' believers' example.

"Pray God will break down the walls of tradition that keep so many Mayan peoples from knowing Him," one missionary said. "Pray that He will raise up local pastors, church planters and missionaries to other Mayan groups who have yet to hear ."

Emily Pearson is an IMB writer serving in South America.

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