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Before and after: two simple words frequently used to describe a city in western Guatemala named Almolonga. The locals consistently refer to their city in terms of two eras: before the power of God came in the mid- 1970s, and after, when it is reported that 90% of the 18,000 residents became born-again Christians. The way the people of Almolonga say “before” is reminiscent of how others might say, “in the dark ages.”
After: The word signals a new epoch for the city, marked by family harmony, prosperity and peace in the Holy Spirit. The contrast is stark and real to these people who remember how, just 25 years ago, demons, fear, poverty, disease, idolatry, and alcohol dominated their region and their families.
Some call Almolonga the “Miracle City” because of the radical transformations in many dimensions of this ethnically Quiché society (descendants of the Mayans). Some Christian leaders say Almolonga is the best example they’ve seen of how intercession, spiritual warfare, and evangelism can transform a community.
Driving into Almolonga, one is immediately struck by the brilliant green hues of the fertile fields spreading throughout this magnificent valley. Even before the onset of the rainy season, when much of the Guatemalan landscape is still dry, Almolonga remains vibrant and lush. Hence, Almolonga is nicknamed “America’s Vegetable Garden”.
A weak church
But it wasn’t always so. About 25 years ago, the Church was small and weak, the fields were undeveloped and the city was characterized by an alcohol-induced lethargy – the fruit of serving an idol named Maxirnon. This perverse idol is associated with the vices of smoking, drinking liquor, and immorality. Maximon is a 3-foot idol consisting of a clay mask and a wood and cloth body. He receives the kisses of the faithful who kneel before him. Placing at his feet bottles of liquor purchased with their meagre earnings, they hope against hope that their offering will bring blessing and healing. The priest offers lit cigars to the idol, and taking a mouthful of the liquor offering, spews it over the devotees. The followers leave expecting a blessing, perhaps receiving a demonic display of power, but nonetheless slipping deeper and deeper into an abyss of oppression.
Sadly, his influence is so strong that he is considered the patron saint and protector of many Guatemalan mountain villages. In addition to serving Maximon, many of the residents of Almolonga once sought the blessing of other idols as well. Pastor Genero Riscaiché, one of the pastors at Almolonga’s largest church, Mission Evangelical Monte Calvario, notes, “Before, this was a very idolatrous town. There were many different types of idols. Many worshipped the silver image of Almolonga’s patron saint, San Pedro.”
But in 1974-75 the Kingdom of God dramatically started clashing with Maximon and the ruling powers of darkness controlling Almolonga. Following the pattern of historic revivals, God first began this community transformation in the heart of one of his consecrated servants. Mariano Riscaiché (no relation to Genero), now the pastor of El Calvario Church, was a typical young man of Almolonga who sought the protection and blessing of idols before he encountered the living God.
At his conversion, Pastor Mariano heard the Lord say, “I have elected you to serve Me.” He said it was like waking from a dream; his understanding was opened and the promises of the Bible became real. Pastor Mariano’s burning desire was to see people come to Christ and find freedom. Then, one by one, his own family was saved.
A new season of power encounters with Maximon began shortly after Pastor Mariano’s surrender to Christ. Mariano and other pastors in town, such as Guillermo Satey, founding and senior pastor of Mission Evangelical Monte Calvario, saw more than 400 people delivered from demons. When believers asked a demon to identify itself, “Maximon” was sometimes uttered by the oppressed one. This mass deliverance was similar to the book of Acts where people burned their possessions that linked them to a past consumed by witchcraft and idolatry. “Those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them.” (Acts 19:19, NASB). The eviction of these demons not only brought freedom to individuals, but the spiritual oppression over the city began to lift as well.
The early days of spiritual warfare were extremely intense. Those being set free were sometimes thrown across the room, and at times coughed up blood. The Church continued steadfast in intercession, spiritual warfare, and evangelism as the name of Jesus was demonstrated to be the dominant force in this battle. Pastor Mariano asserts that the enemy had to be confronted directly and boldly.
One of those set free from demonic control was a powerful priest of Maximon named José Albino Tazei. Many people in Almolonga sought him out to heal their illnesses, foresee their future, and to bless their businesses. But one night, José, near death after a month-long drinking binge, cried out to God to save him. At 11:00 pm, José woke his family to share the glorious news of his new-found freedom in Christ. In repentance, the family burned all of their idols and witchcraft paraphernalia. The following day José went to the mountains to fast and seek the Lord.
Witnessing this well-known slave to witchcraft come to Christ intensified the Church’s intercession for God to transform not only individuals like José, but their whole community as well.
Before his conversion José would abandon the family for eight to ten days at a time to drink and conduct witchcraft activities for Maximon. He often left his family without any money for food. As his dedication to Maximon grew, so did his addiction to alcohol.
José’s oldest daughter, Francisca, grimaces and lowers her voice as she recounts the memory of herself and the other children kneeling before Maximon, burning candies and bringing their offerings. But quickly she diverts the subject to “after we surrendered to Jesus” and joyfully asserts that God changed everything 24 years ago. She proudly inserts, “We were some of the first converts during the mid 70s.”
“Before we received Christ, we didn’t have any money, little food, or a decent house, and only clothes discarded by others,” she continues. “My father started seeking God and fasting. He began a business and started working diligently. Now, God has given us a house, a small store, and a calm, hard-working, godly father.”
Francisca recounts, “The church accepted us and didn’t leave us in the middle. They loved us and visited us, and really struggled with us as we became established in Christ.” This care for new converts is one of the key ways God has used to maintain and deepen the effects of this revival.
As his grip started loosening, the evil one instigated a persecution against the Church. Some merchants would not even sell food to believers recently set free from the old ways. Enemies of the Gospel would go into church and do witchcraft to disrupt the services. The believers suffered under this backlash for years, but one particular incident stands out in Pastor Mariano’s memory. Six men attacked him, tying his hands behind his back. They knocked his front teeth out, then one man shoved a gun in his mouth. Pastor Mariano prayed for God to cover him, and as the Lord’s presence descended he heard the “click… click… click” of the gun, unable to fire. Bewildered by this divine intervention, his attackers ran away.
Pastor Genero, a native of Almolonga, describes the early resistance to the Gospel as follows: “If a person from outside Almolonga came to someone’s home to share the Gospel, people would kick them out of their house with sticks, stones, and even shovels. It was terrible! They didn’t view the Gospel as Good News, but as something offensive. Unbelievers circulated rumours about the Church and accused the Christians of being lazy.” Some of the unbelievers threw stones at houses where the church met for prayer. Pastor Genero notes, “Many of those who threw stones are now leaders in the church. Things have now changed, for even the non-Christians respect the Gospel.”
As one who has pastored a little over one year in Almolonga, Pastor Joel Pérez agrees and says, “Even unbelievers in Almolonga recognize the marvellous work of God. These few unbelievers acknowledge that the advances in their society and agriculture are due to the Gospel. They do not resist the Church now, as we heard about in the early days. More than once, I have been eating in a restaurant and someone has said, “You are a pastor, aren’t you? I’m not a Christian, but let me buy your lunch.’”
Since the power of God started transforming the community, crime has taken a definite downturn. Donato Santiago, chief of police, can sometimes be spotted resting in the shade during market days. Armed with a whistle, this tranquil brother has seen it all during his 23 years as a policeman in Almolonga. “We used to average 20 to 30 people in jail each month,” he recounts.” Crowds would gather just to watch the drunks fight. It seemed like I had no rest. I was often awakened in the middle of the night to stop family violence. Before, we had four jails and that was insufficient to adequately house all of our prisoners,” Donato recalls. “Things were so bad we enlisted around a dozen citizens at night to help the officers patrol the streets. But now things are different! The people have changed their attitudes. Crime has risen in many places over the past 20 years, but not here in Almolonga.”
What accounts for this dramatic change in the townspeople? Donato is quick to respond, “The Word of God! Once people were converted they changed their customs and left behind drinking. They gained respect in the community. Day by day the rest followed and joined the church because of the changes they saw in the lives of Christians. People living with a deep respect for God accounts for the changed attitudes. Crime and drinking are now viewed by the people as a waste of time and a waste of money.”
The last jail closed in 1989! Now remodelled and called “The Hall of Honour,” it’s a place for celebrating weddings, receptions, and community events. In addition to the drop in the crime rate, great societal changes can also be observed by the absence of prostitutes and the number of bars turned into small stores with new names like “Little Jerusalem” and “Jehovah Jireh.” Before, there was a house of prostitution and people often waited in line to get into the packed bars. “There was even a custom in which we threw a party and gave alcohol (in small portions) to the little ones,” says Pastor Genero. In the 1970s, 34 cantinas did a brisk business in Almolonga; today there are only three. After the bars started shutting down, a new one opened but the owner closed the doors when he met the Lord three months later. He now plays in a Christian band called “Combo Israel.”
God’s mercy over Almolonga is evidenced in many ways, but one often-repeated display of grace is the incredible number of miracles. Many have come to Christ through signs and wonders. Teresa and her family found new life in Christ after she received a last-chance miracle. In 1984, the incision from her poorly performed Cesarean section became infected. This gangrenous state progressed to the point where she couldn’t eat; drinking was extremely difficult.
Teresa continued to weaken. Different doctors each said that she was in a very dangerous state. Valeriano, her husband, remembers the days of just hopelessly waiting for her to die. She died about 10:00 pm one night. Her husband checked for a pulse and placed a mirror beneath her nostrils to see if she was breathing, but there were no signs of life. For three hours she lay motionless. Grief stricken, at 1:00 AM Valeriano went to look for Pastor Mariano to make funeral preparations. As Pastor Mariano and Valeriano were walking back to the house, Pastor Mariano heard the unmistakable voice of the Lord saying, “Do not prepare for the funeral; pray for her. I will lift her up.’
Pastor Mariano recalls coming into the home seeing distraught people frantically running back and forth. He grabbed Valeriano and they began to pray for God’s miraculous intervention. After 10 minutes, Teresa suddenly began stirring. Her colour returned and she sat up on the bed! Valeriano was astounded at this display of God’s power. Pastor Mariano began to preach the Gospel to all the neighbours and family who had gathered at the home that night. And in the days that followed, many believed.
Teresa’s strength was restored day by day. In deep gratitude, she and Valeriano also gave their lives to Christ. Now people come to their home to receive prayer for healing. Remembering her miracle inspires faith when Teresa prays for others; she has witnessed many miracles as a result. Valeriano now preaches the Gospel and testifies of a miracle working Heavenly Father. He joyfully says, “God is the only one who is on our side and only he can do these miracles.”
Just as Vateriano and Teresa’s family opened their hearts to the Gospel after this powerful miracle, in many cases the revival has spread through family units. Pastor Mariano articulates a truth held dear in Almolonga when he says, “True success is when your whole family comes to the Lord.” Therefore believers seriously fast and pray to bring their family into God’s family.
Although the women still weave and wear the beautiful indigenous dresses and carry heavy loads upon their heads (like Quiché women have for hundreds of years), they walk in a new dignity – a result of the redemption of the family. Prior to God’s inbreaking, Pastor Genero recalls, “The majority of men drank and the homes were disorderly. Neglect and physical abuse were rampant. It was common for men to hit their wives, sometimes even with sticks.”
“The family system before was at the bottom,” comments Pastor Francisco Garcia of Iglesia de Dios de la Profecia Universal. Women were largely viewed simply as servants. Pastor Genero comments, “Before, the custom was that only the men would study. We believed that schools were not for women. Since the Gospel came, we teach that both sexes have the same opportunities. Today we see some women who are professionals.”
Ramon Cotzoy’s wife recalls the earlier days. “My husband would sometimes treat me harshly and try to throw me out of the house. Things have changed. Now he is a humble man of God.”
Ramon admits that he neglected and mistreated his family prior to surrendering to Christ. Now he ministers to men in the community and exhorts them to stop drinking and start loving their families. Ramon observes, “Because the unbelievers see the peaceful example of how the Christian men are living with their families, they are treating their wives better now.”
“Today there is more communication within families and very little abuse in Almolonga. In the church, we teach a lot on biblical family orientation,” says Pastor Genero. “Couples solve their problems through dialogue and communication.”
This renewal of family harmony has opened the way for the Spirit of God to span the generations and impact all age groups, including the youth and children. The youth do not view Christianity as simply something for the older people. There is a new thrust of youth-motivated home groups with the focus to bring the remaining unsaved youth in the city to Christ. Pastor Joel observes, “The youth are getting hold of God. In different churches some of the youth groups even go on special fasting retreats.”
Chief of Police Santiago says, “The parents are taking better care of their children now.” Santiago explains why there aren’t teens loitering around town. “The youth work hard to buy farm trucks. This atmosphere of diligent work is the best atmosphere to grow up in.”
Seeing the youth and children cheerfully working alongside their parents in the fields and marketplace evokes a smile in visitors to Almolonga. Pastor Mariano’s father, one of the oldest men in the city, observes, “Everyone in Almolonga works. Even the 12-15-year olds fill a truck with vegetables to sell. They throw themselves into God and into their work.”
This work ethic has produced an economic renewal, an incredible dimension of community transformation throughout Airnolonga. There is no evidence of the unemployment, the beggars, the drunkards asleep in alleyways, or the loiterers that so often characterize similar places. In other cities around this region people often appear exhausted with life. Not so in Almolonga.
The people’s diligence and tenacity have seen this valley come alive with multiple harvests each year. Celery, leeks, cauliflower, turnips, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, radishes, and watercress thrive under the skilful care of Almolonga’s farmers. These vegetables are often incredibly larger than the size of those grown in the surrounding villages. Pastor Joel attributes this agricultural blessing to the Lord of Glory. He mentioned a time when agronomists from the U.S.A. visited Almolonga to test their scientific principles to produce better crops. The result? Pastor Joel says, “The wisdom God gave the farmers of Almolonga produced more than the scientific methods yielded.”
A subterranean stream provides a constant source of water for the farms. These lucrative products have elevated the lifestyles of many of the believers. Pastor Mariano’s father was one of the former bar owners who now runs a tienda (small store) and raises vegetables. He reports that the greatest changes in commerce came in the 80s because the farmers not only quit spending their money on liquor, but they began to incorporate principles from God’s Word, saving and investing their profits. Before the farmers would farm just enough to support their drinking habit; they had no vision beyond that.
Then God started giving the farmers understanding. They began to plan ahead and invest in topsoil and fertilizers. Some farmers have even paid cash for Mercedes trucks, emblazoning them with names like Regalito de Dios (“Little Gift from God”). Many farmers have now hired others to work their fields. They are even developing farms in the surrounding communities as they shift from being farmers to businessmen. Mariano’s father marvels, “We never dreamed of selling our produce outside of Guatemala, but now we export to other nations.”
Since this relatively small town has so many growing churches, a question often arises concerning the relationship between the pastors. Pastor Joel describes the fellowship among pastors as “a tight fraternity of ministers.” He further notes, “We have an agenda of prayer and fasting. We go outside the city to a hill to pray and earnestly seek the Lord … When we have little things come up or if the enemy tries to interrupt our unity, we quickly restore it through seeking the Lord for more souls to come into the Kingdom.”
Pastor Genero says, “Presently we are strengthening our fellowship. Years ago there was an association of pastors, but it faded out because of individuality. This year we have restored the pastoral association again.” Two Christian radio stations service Almolonga. Pastor Joel reports that these stations enhance unity by allowing air time for all the evangelical pastors to use for a token price.
Reaching 90% of the city with the Gospel doesn’t satisfy the pastors’ evangelistic zeal. Pastor Francisco emphatically asserts, “We are applying God’s guidance for the churches to keep growing. We have the goal to reach the whole town!”
Pastor Mariano believes God is giving the Church insight into the strategies to deepen and extend this community impact into future generations. His heart breaks when he hears about powerful revivals which were not passed along to the next generation. To maintain the results already reached in Almolonga, Pastor Mariano’s strategy encompasses a fivefold focus:
living in the fear of the Lord,
maintaining intense prayer and fasting,
building Christian schools,
caring for new converts,
and establishing strong families.
Firstly, he urges his flock to, “always live under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Live your life in the fear of the Lord as a good testimony. When we truly live the Christian life, demonic principalities are more easily overthrown.”
Secondly, to maintain the results won through intercession and spiritual warfare, the Church must continue steadfast in prayer and fasting. Long past the breakthroughs in the 70s, many believers in Almolonga continue weekly disciplines of prayer and fasting. At El Calvario Church, people are held accountable to participate in prayer and fasting.
Thirdly, Pastor Mariano is taking steps to build a Christian school, which he believes is critical to sustain the revival. He says that the children not only need an education, but a Christ-centred education taught by Christian teachers. “Education without Christian teachers can set up a counterattack from Satan by introducing traditions outside of Christianity. Then all that we have reached [in the revival] can crumble.”
A fourth ingredient to maintain revival is an intentional plan to care for the new Christians. Someone from the church personally visits the new believers. They hold special discipleship meetings focusing on basic Bible doctrines. Deliverance and a clear break with their past life are important. “We inspire them toward diligent hard work, debt reduction and to live in the fear of God. New believers are instructed to prepare themselves for baptism. Fasting is one of the first spiritual disciplines taught to the new Christian,” reports Pastor Mariano.
The fifth and final major focus to sustain the revival’s impact is establishing strong families. Christians are instructed to only marry fellow believers. One counter-cultural measure El Calvario introduced in the late 1970s was the concept of letting people decide for themselves whom they would marry. Today, parents are consulted and there is a process of obtaining parental blessing and approval in mate selection, but the decision rests with the couple. Before, the parents would determine whom their children would marry. A courtship period was also unheard of in their culture; now they recommend a 6-month to a year courtship during which the couple gets to know each other. This has increased marital harmony within the Christianity community. Consequently, other churches in the community also follow similar plans.
Testimonies of individuals being changed relationally, spiritually, and financially by God’s power are common in Christianity. But the amazing distinctive of Almolonga is that Christians there tell their testimony not simply as individuals, but collectively, as families and as a people.
Visiting a service at El Calvario Church is a little taste of Heaven. The church building is one of Guatemala’s largest and most beautiful. This debt-free sanctuary (seating 1200+) is the gathering place of exuberant worshippers. Their release of emotions toward the Son of God is noteworthy because culturally these people are generally stoic and very reserved in expressing their emotions. To watch this passion for Jesus, especially among the youth and children, it is hard to imagine that only a generation back, their families were in bondage to alcohol, idols, and demons. Perhaps that legacy of suffering explains the great abandon with which they worship Jesus: these people know they have something to celebrate!
Mell Winger has a Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.
This article is reproduced with permission from Chapter 17 of The Transforming Power of Revival, edited by Harold Caballeros and Mell Winger (Peniel Press, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1998).
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