ALTA VERAPAZ, Guatemala - After living among the K'ekchi' people of north central Guatemala for more than 20 years, Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM) workers Galen and Phyllis Groff have said goodbye to the community they've called home.
"Our ministry had the general theme of working ourselves out of a job," Galen said. "We wanted to empower others to do ministry and call on others to step up. We dream that the K'ekchi' will continue to evangelize in the unreached areas and send out their own cross-cultural missionaries."
"We are seeing the fruits of Galen and Phyllis' faithful work in Guatemala," said Nelson Okanya, president of EMM. "The Groffs exemplified EMM's core value of multiplication as they trained leaders to take their place and offered humble servant leadership."
"They were engaged with the culture, becoming fluent in both K'ekchi' and Spanish and learning K'ekchi' traditions and customs," Okanya said. "The church benefitted from their special gifts."
Although it was difficult for the Groffs to leave the K'ekchi', they believe that the timing was right.
"Amos Stoltzfus, EMM's strategic coach for Guatemala, encouraged us to pray for and bless the people we were saying good-bye to," Phyllis said. "It changed the nature of our farewells and made them less heavy. It is right for us not to be there at this stage of the church."
Phyllis and Galen went to Guatemala for their first three-year term in 1985 when their three children, Tim, Cindy, and Rose, ranged in ages from 8 to 12 years old. EMM workers first started working with the K'ekchi', an indigenous people group descended from the Mayans, in 1968. When the Groffs arrived 17 years later, there were 50 churches among the K'ekchi'. All EMM workers faced the challenge that the K'ekchi' live over an area of several hundred miles in a very rural region.
During Galen and Phyllis' time there, the K'ekchi' Mennonite Church has grown to 125 congregations with a worshipping community of approximately 10,000 people. There are currently six church districts with a seventh in formation.
"I believe prayer is why the church has grown," Phyllis said. "The K'ekchi' believers are always seeking God. Prayer has always been a part of the culture."
Steve Shank, EMM pioneering coach, said that in addition to the K'ekchi's reliance on prayer, Galen and Phyllis' relational abilities also contributed to the growth of the church.
"Galen has a gentle spirit, he communicates in a way that the K'ekchi' could trust. They could confide in him. Phyllis has a special ability to work with women. Women's ministries have really flourished in the church."
In addition to the growth in congregations, the church has also developed various holistic ministries, including Bezaleel Education Center, a church-run high school with 170 boarding students; FUNDAMENO, a non-profit foundation whose health program provides basic health care to several hundred rural villages; and a Bible institute that serves approximately 70 students including pastors, young people, and emerging leaders in the church.
When the Groffs first moved to Guatemala, they faced several issues. Staying healthy, learning to buy food in the markets, and finding a good source of clean water were all new aspects of their life among the K'ekchi'. Learning the languages of both Spanish and K'ekchi' simultaneously also made for some unusual situations.
"Our son was playing with neighbors - they thought something was wrong with him because he didn't speak," Phyllis said. "But someone else said they could hear him speak English to his parents but others didn't believe that. After all, who could ever learn English if you didn't even know Spanish! We laughed and laughed."
In 1987, while in Guatemala City, the Groffs experienced a carjacking and robbery. Two armed men got in the car that Phyllis, Cindy, and Tim were waiting in. The men drove the car a short distance before stopping and telling them to get out. The family was shaken but unharmed; their car and possessions gone.
The Groffs returned to the States in 1988 when their term ended and wouldn't return to Guatemala for seven years. Galen was enthusiastic about returning but Phyllis remembered the trauma of the robbery and worried about their children's safety. As she prayed for clarity about her calling, she felt God releasing her from fear and healing her memories of the experience.
When the Groffs returned to Guatemala in 1995, their children had graduated from high school and were in college. The church continued to grow. Phyllis developed her own ministry areas: medical outreach and ministry to women. Galen was teaching at the Bible Institute and was writing materials as well as walking alongside church leaders.
As the Groffs' ministry expanded, they began to train local leaders to multiply the ministries of the church.
"There came a point where the Lord said I don't want you to teach; I want you to empower women to teach," Phyllis said. "Women are totally leading their own work; about 100 women attend district meetings and retreats now."
One of these leaders, Vicenta Pacay, had never attended school. But when she became a believer around 30 years of age, she wanted to learn to read the Bible. "She fasted and prayed for two weeks," Phyllis said. "Afterwards, she opened a book and realized she could understand many of the words! Now she is a leader in both the church and community."
While the church has grown significantly over the past two decades, the K'ekchi' still live within a challenging context. There is significant prejudice against the K'ekchi' and many doctors will prioritize Spanish-speaking patients over K'ekchi' patients who often have limited Spanish.
The K'ekchi' must also face the daily reality of living in the aftermath of a 30-year civil war.
"Guatemala was a country in the middle of a civil war with a military government when we first went," said Galen. "The war is over and the government is now elected, but violence and corruption makes the situation just as scary as when it was open war."
Despite these challenges, the Groffs believe the K'ekchi' will continue in faith.
"The K'ekchi' traditionally have an animistic belief system but they pray about everything and anything," said Galen. "There is a consciousness of prayer in the K'ekchi' culture."
The Groffs enjoyed a four-month sabbatical in the U.S. and are planning on moving to Central America to continue in ministry.
"We will team together with our son Tim and his wife Julie and their children. They plan to be missionaries in Belize and work among the Garifuna people," Galen said. "It will be a mentoring relationship, combining energy and experience. We will continue as regional representatives for EMM."
The Groffs will miss the friends and colleagues they have left behind. "We have a very large family in Guatemala because we had an extended table. We invited many to sit at it," said Phyllis. "It has been a very good life, very fulfilling."
"I would certainly do it all over again," Galen said.