Chiapas and her Tenzel People

 

The windows were mud-spattered and the trip had been mostly sleepless as we laboured to a stop. Thoughts of a short nap crowded into my head. However, twenty-four people met me when I arrived in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. They had been waiting for over four hours at the bus depot in the beautiful, colonial, seventeenth-century town, one hour from Oxchuc, Xerggyo's home town. One woman presented me with a huge basket full of delicious fruit.

They had two collectivos (minibusses) to take us to the Sumidero Canyon tour. It was amazing!  The canyon walls rise 1,000 metres on either side extending all the way to heaven. There are four power dams on the lake formed in the area. Monkeys swung from the trees, a sun-baked alligator meandered into the cool waters and egrets clung to the sheer cliffs.

However, it is not the majestic canyon walls, but the people here that are God's real treasure. When we arrived in Oxchuc we stopped in front of #15, Xerggyo's family home. I imagined a quiet evening. However, when the door was opened, a welcome party of some eighty enthusiastic, smiling faces greeted me playing guitars and a Mexican guitarrón (acoustic bass guitar) and singing in impressive, melodic voices. I was escorted through the crowd to the head table where I was asked to bring greetings from God's Word. I did a short devotion on a favourite verse in Philemon. Xerggyo translated and, I hope, added some value to my scattered thoughts. They were the ones sharing with me. After several prayers it was time to eat—already 10:00 p.m. There was a special presentation from one poor family of two huge, potato-like vegetables, which we would eat the next day. That made my welcome complete.

The meal was meat and potato in a pleasant stew with plenty of tamales and tacos. Jhon, one of the elders from Xerggyo's church, had spent all night hunting to provide a deer for this occasion. Their meeting and fellowship—in the true sense of the word—went on until midnight. Many folks were spontaneously speaking and praying. Some would travel up to two hours to get to their home, in the steady drizzle, which made their trails like patch-ice.

However, I found it hard to sleep for a long time—this time because of joy.

 

Over the Mountain with Mrs. Florenzia

After more venison for breakfast (nothing is wasted), with tamales and fresh tortillas and black beans, we sped off in Xerggyo's 1972 Volkswagen Safari. Up the mountains and down the valleys—doubling back on ourselves, like a slithering serpent in a rock pile—undermined by countless topes (pronounced “toe-pays”)—brutal speed bumps. Our faithful rear engine purred, the lime-green vehicle taking the ordeal in harmony with its surroundings like a faithful pack mule. When our steed got thirsty, we pulled over to a rural gas station. An elderly man beamed to see Xerggyo. There was embracing and lots of chatter. On his table were four ten- and two five-litre jugs of gasoline for sale. His filler pipe was a Coke bottle with the bottom cut off and a hose attached. The smell of fumes wafted into the fresh air but dissipated just as quickly. Then we purred off again, with handshakes all around. This is the way of doing business with another Christian here. Lurching off again, we turned onto a very basic road. Xerggyo said that the people who lived in this area had made it with only hand tools. It is totally passable and extended for more than three kilometres. When we could go no farther, we jumped out and started up the twisty mountain trail to Mrs. Florenzia's home. We climbed for almost an hour—without me. The others might have just spent half the time, I'm sure. The vista along the way was indescribable: mountains rising beyond mountains, fading into the clouds brooding serenely above. When Xerggyo, twenty other folks from the church and I got close to her house, Xerggyo told me to go ahead and surprise Mrs. Florenzia. So off I stumbled, around the trail to her very humble home. There was another surprise for me. Mrs. Florenzia had invited twenty more friends to join her to welcome the Christian from Canada. I passed under a low cedar arch (actually I am tall here!) and through her home. There at the end of the handshake-greeting line was Mrs. Florenzia and her daughter. When we greeted each other, she held on to me for so long, sobbing without shame—not common for Tenzal. Her tanned leather face was almost angelic. It felt strange like greeting your mother in heaven.

 

 

She had steamed fresh tamales and corn drink for the group of us, nearly fifty by now. A concrete slab was strewn with pine needles and we sat on improvised benches for the occasion. Mrs. Florenzia, now eighty-five, has been the greatest influence in Xerggyo's life. She constantly reminds him that, “Many years ago some Christians came to share the good seed of God's Word in our mountains. Many of our people treated them very badly, but still, they loved us. Now the seed has grown to 400 large churches, and God has blessed our lives so much. We cannot be obedient Christians unless we want to plant that seed again in parts of the world who have never heard such great news.” She has earned the respect of young and old in the Tenzal area. Many seek her advice and she is never afraid to stand up for Her Lord and God's Word. We prayed together, sang together. There were two sermons—and I was asked to give greetings and tell them about her distant sister, Mrs. Pearl Dobson. Another amazing thing is that Mrs. Florenzia and other faithful Tenzals are praying for people that Xerggyo has brought back with him from Canada in his stories: Mrs. Pearl who became his close sister, Diana Wadsworth who loved him, Señor Calvin who although sick, praised God in Turkish, Albert and Samia Saif from Egypt, Señor Carluci dos Santos who gave Xerggyo that amazing guitar that he plays all over, Flora McKinlay who corrected his English pronunciation, Bill Wood with the guitar, who feeds so many young people, Ali who had to flee his country because he became a Christian, his grand amigo, Juan Reaves and his beautiful wife, Jane, and son Jimmy and all the people in Knox church, to only mention a few. She talked about our mutual friends as if we both knew them equally well. To her, and her friends, I represented you to them. There were musicians who had carried their guitars and a guitarrón up the trail to serenade us. When they sing, it is usually without instruments. Voices, united in harmony on the mountain top, must be the most amazing choir of all.   

 

Then we had the meal, prepared without any fuss over an open fire in Mrs. Florenzia's home. All fifty of us were fed and there were basketfuls left over. Men usually waited on the tables, but not exclusively. Although we all wanted to stay on this mountaintop forever, we had to descend. Know that you are loved in these mountains—even if you have never climbed the slippery trails. The smoke from the cooking fire hung heavily in the home and I am sure that is what made my eyes get very misty—I am sure of that!

 

 

Unobserved, darkness had stolen over the mountains. The stars looked so close and bright—as if you could pick the hanging vines of heaven and fill a basket of everlasting light. The trail was much steeper and more slippery than I had remembered five hours before when we had ascended. Xerggyo hung onto my shirt to keep me from slipping, but alas that was not enough and down I went, dragging him with me. We all laughed and everyone took their turn tripping and falling, especially the kids. I think they were trying to make me feel good. They are like that. At one point Xerggyo asked everyone to stop, turn off their flashlights and just look at the stars. The unspoiled skies, the smell of the air of creation and the love of God's people blended into a harmonious chorus!

As we continued our skidding downward, I looked back and saw the lights of many flashlights snaking their way along the rugged, rocky stairway. It was almost as if the stars were melding into that twisting stream of lights as if earth were a continuation of heaven itself.   As we clambered into our Safari, Xerggyo reminded me that Mrs. Florenzia walks these trails in the dark after a church service several times during the week. It is along the same trails that she carries her corn husks to sell at the market to raise money to support her missionary Xerggyo. These are rocky, root-strewn paths, and in the dark, after a rain, how anyone, let alone, an 85-year-old saint can navigate them, is open to your own conclusions.  

Finally homeward bound, we made our final stop at the home of another friend of Xerggyo's. (It seems like everyone in the area is Xerggyo's friend. His love for the people and their love and respect for him is the one thing that seems logical. Their relationship is heaven-crafted). The family had hand-carved a parking pad on the edge of their mountainside property for our arrival. We were invited for a Tenzal steam bath. It is a small mud-walled enclosure with a fire glowing under rocks at one end. You stretch out on the plank floor in the pitch darkness. The host pours water on the hot rocks. He then whisks you all over with a palm branch and hot water, as you rotate yourself like a chicken on a barbeque. When you are completely hot and steamy, you scratch yourself all over with your fingernails to get all the pores cleaned. After about an hour of steam and social chit chat, you are given a bucket of water and soap to complete the revitalizing procedure. The sauna is a family affair and until recently, many women would go to the sauna to give birth!

 

 

 

Almost to the Blue Water Cascades

At my adventurous yet inexperienced suggestion, we took the topless Volkswagen Safari to the 1,000 metre, Blue Water Cascades—another of the amazing natural attractions of Chiapas. I anticipated a short tourist-type day. Before we had motored far, we stopped at the familiar gas station to top up but this time we invited the family to join us. The husband, his wife, and daughter piled into the back seat. As we weaved along, they kept trying to get me to teach them English. Then we made another pit stop and this time, another family of five got into their van and followed us. Their daughter, a brilliant little five-year-old, held my hand as we walked and called me amigo. She was able to pick up so much English in such a short time. Her bright red dress, fathomless brown-black eyes, glistening long black hair, and winsome smile made her so special. These are bright, beautiful people.     

    

Tenzal people know how to laugh. This is since Christianity came, I was told. I have not laughed so much or so deeply for ages. As we neared the falls, the cloud cover became our shroud and the slight, chilling drizzle became a torrent. My sunny-morning choice of the open Safari did not seem all that sensible now. In the open rear seat, the husband took off his shirt and wrapped it around his shivering wife and huddled in his t-shirt. We had to stop. We struggled with the top, while the women and kids huddled in a wayside shelter. The canvas top was a bit in tatters. After all, the Safari was over 39 years old. Finally, the cap was almost in place, windows missing here and gaps there. Now it was too late to make it to the falls, so we sat on some chairs and had our falls-planned picnic. The Tenzal eat heartily—always rice and black beans, meat and fruits. They keep slim with their constant activity and all the climbing they must do. Eating is a part of life, a part of sharing, a part of the fellowship.

We continued to a church that was holding its mid-week service. Their building is under construction, but what an amazing structure—sort of a cross between a simple cathedral and a European railway station, complete with balcony and capable of seating 600. (Xerggyo assisted in the design of this church). The whole congregation started the construction one year ago and it is close to being finished. They have used the building during construction with its mud floor and mud ramp leading up to the platform. It was only a mid-week service. Yet 400 had gathered.

Click the photo above to see a clip on the elders singing

 

 The music was incredible. A violin, guitar, accordion, and a guitarrón and a rich, crystal clear, solo voice were eerie in their excellence. Xerggyo assured me that they were just the elders! The sound system filled the auditorium, loud and clear. Xerggyo asked me to bring greetings from Canada, and then he sang Blessed Assurance in English. He told them that I was lonesome for my English people. The service sped along for two hours with lots of Scripture and strong preaching. It is in another dialect that Xerggyo does not know really well, so I had to often receive a triple translation. When they pray, someone leads, but everyone prays out loud—a rather mystical babble but so meaningful. Although I understood little more than Xerggyo's song to me, I wanted the service to go on and on. I dreamed of having the group come to Knox for all to hear. Music flows in the veins of this Christian community. When the service was over, we were invited to attend a birthday party for a one-year-old boy. 

We stopped at the small concrete house on the edge of the village and crammed into the already full room. Over sixty of us were there for Eduardo's first birthday. He was dressed like a little man for the occasion. We sang and the pastor gave a brief message and each elder greeted the mother and little boy. Xerggyo sang for the boy and his mother, while the father stood silently by. This was their day. Then there was the prayer dedicating Eduardo to the Lord for his life. Next, food arrived from the pots over the open fire in the outdoor kitchen—plenty for everyone. The family had prepared so much food although they were obviously not rich. Eduardo's party finished with a birthday cake, handed through the open windows to those who were not able to squeeze inside.

 

On the trip back the wind whistled through every opening, of which there were many. The three in the back huddled together as we drove through banks of icy mist. Every tope seemed bumpier than on the morning journey although they were the same ones. It was surprisingly cold and we shivered as the mist sank deeply into every renewed pore and whipped around our necks. At midnight we reached the gas station, our final drop-off. In Tenzal culture just dropping someone off is not the way it is done. Because it was cold, we were invited in for hot corn drink, sweet bread, and cheese. They quickly lit a fire for us in the house and they searched around to find coats that would fit Xerggyo and me.

 

Our Safarilurched off at 1:00 and we got home at 1:30 All of us, including the Safari's muffler, bore various bruises of the amazing day.

 

 

 

Market Rats

 

This morning as we squeezed our way out of the front of Xerggyo's family home into the market, three musicians were playing Christian songs and witnessing to the hordes that had gathered. Two elders arrived to show me around Oxchuc's weekly market and gently eased me from these wonderful Tenzal sounds for now. We wormed our way through the vibrant colours of fruits and vegetables, stacked in beautiful piles. The meat shop owner was hacking hunks of meat with what looked like an ax. Every part of the beast was for sale in this land of no waste. A small group dressed in weird animal skin masks for carnival, gently harassed various shopkeepers, sticking some sort of dried animal in their direction and insisting on something from their stall. Stall-minders and shoppers greeted Xerggyo as we became part of this human mass. Xerggyo stopped at one simple shop selling small items for women and girls, everything for a few pesos. “These are the people that are making it possible for me to serve as a missionary,” he shared, with evident emotion as he picked up a little girl's fancy elastic hairband selling for one peso. (8 cents)

 

 

The elders had arranged a surprise marketplace encounter with Mrs. Florenzia. She had walked the two hours to treat me to hot corn drink and sweet bread. In a little enclave, amid the chaos, we looked at each other with a babble of words that neither understood. I was beginning to see how this solitary woman has impacted Xerggyo—but not just him alone. So many in this area admire her relationship with her Lord. Young and old love her. Mrs. Florenzia bought a slingshot, carved like a deer head, to take to a young kid in Canada. As we moved on, I was almost afraid to look too long at anything or the elders would want to buy it for me. One offer of organic, forest rats, patiently pine smoked and covered with spicy oils was for sale, but they knew their money was safe on that score. Nor was it something they would eat. However, they are a delicacy for some on a limited income.

 

 

A man stood, in the shade of an overhead tarp, supported on his tree-branch cane. He heard Xerggyo's voice and stretched out his weathered hand and Xerggyo let himself be pulled to him. He wanted us to visit and to pray. Xerggyo promised to try.

 

After lunch we headed off to yet another large church. They had used my visit as a reason to join together in worship and offer hospitality. This time we took Xerggyo's father's truck. Our market musicians accompanied us with their guitars in the back. After a bone-bruising forty-minute drive, Xerggyo stopped in front of the home of the man from the market. We climbed his treacherous rock steps to his house where he sat by his tired-looking wife on the edge of their bed. He had suffered pain for four years. But now he was not able to dress himself and he was steadily losing his sight too. Xerggyo shared from the Bible. The singers filled the twelve by twelve home with their magical balm and then the old man asked if the Canadian could pray for him. What can one pray for? He wanted to pray on his knees, so he slid feebly from his bed onto the floor, almost toppling into my arms yet steadied by his faithful wife and Xerggyo . You have not prayed in Tenzal if it is not long, so I did my best to remember every aspect of his drama, his wife's burdens and the steep steps he is forced to navigate. (This time there was solace in the language barrier). As we rose to leave, the room seemed fresh and his dimming eyes filled with refreshing tears as he held onto us. Having to leave this cherished experience is one of this life's great sorrows. Others had seen Xerggyo's truck and before we left, the room was crammed with people, squeezing his hand and embracing the old man as he stood with the aid of his wife and his obligatory cane. These Christians care for each other with abandon.


Then we continued along the road toward the church. Again I was not prepared for the sheer joy of which I would become a part. Singing could be heard as we parked the truck in the church parking lot, levelled for a total of four cars. As we walked up the rocky slope, I could see the endearing sight of Tenzal women in their beautiful dresses, eager to share with their visitor. A young girl kept ahead to shower me with confetti. I shook hands or embraced many, and after the line of women, stood the men. (Tenzal men provide for the family and their wives do the cooking for their household). Christianity has brought much to the families. Usually the woman carries her child in front, slung from a beautiful cloth—but it is common to see children hanging from men's shoulders as well. These people have so much to re-teach us! Jhon, Oxchuc's resident photographer and elder in Xerggyo's congregation—the one who had hunted the deer for my welcome dinner—was faithfully recording the event. Jhon is an amazing fellow. He has a rather narrow, distinctive face. His two children are equally handsome and beautiful.

 

As the worship began our travelling music group, Dueto de Dios, filled the sanctuary with their joyful sounds. The lead musician strummed lightly on his Fender guitar and shared his testimony. He had ignored his wife to go drinking and carousing. Then a friend told him about Jesus and he trusted Him. The trio's theme song was his testimony, “I lived my life in the garbage heap and my restaurant was a bar...”

 

The service continued for three stimulating hours—music and speaking. Although I understood little, the time flew. It was like being present in the early church of Acts. Then we all moved to another area, where steaming food was placed before us. The attentive waiters were the elders from the church.

 

On our way home, we made another stop to pray for one of the church leaders, Jeremias' wife and family who were very ill.

 

Xerggyo's Church Family

 

This was my final day and the special day that we would go to Xerggyo's home church. We piled into Xerggyo's Dad's truck and headed along the now-familiar road out of town. By now I could anticipate the topes and which bones they were sure to jar the wrong way. We passed the stretch of road that was always wet due to the overhanging lush trees, past the home with the steam bath, past the gas station with its plastic jugs of golden liquid and past the home of the family who had provided hot corn drink to ward off the midnight cold. Xerggyo beeped a greeting as we passed Sebastian's house, (the man from the market who was becoming blind) steep above the roadway. Then we turned onto another homemade road for a short distance. From there we would walk half a kilometre to the church. Around a bend in the wide path, I was greeted with a colourful ribbon of women dressed in their vibrant Tenzal dresses, extending all the way to the church. They put a Tenzal man's gown on me, and the musicians accompanied me up the path. The church is an amazingly beautiful structure, perched on the mountaintop, glowing golden in the morning sun. (This is the church that Xerggyo and the people had constructed by hand). Ten fifteen-metre, hand-finished, pine beams, span the auditorium. Inside, the front of the church is panelled in rich redwood. Four long homemade sofas span the front to accommodate many folks who take part in a typical service. Outside a concrete balcony extended across the front, providing a panoramic view of the valley below.

I was escorted to the front of the church by the elders and seated beside Xerggyo. (Xerggyo is the perfect host. He is never far away). The worship began with prayer and singing. Then the mission committee greeted me. They hung colourful handmade bags around my neck and then a dozen elders gave me similar gifts. Another group, headed by Mrs. Florenzia arrived with gifts and much embracing. One woman arrived with an exquisite hand-embroidered vest. I struggled to get it over my head. It was very heavy and amazingly beautiful: deep greens and blues. (It had taken over three months to make).

 

The church of 490 has two choirs and various other singing groups. Xerggyo had brought our three professional musicians along too. I was asked to speak and Xerggyo translated, often adding the cultural context of his own. I spoke of friends back home and told of Mr. Calvin, who had just had his leg removed, and had commented, “Life is hard—but God is good!”


The congregation knew him from Xerggyo's reports and had been praying for him, so Calvin was their friend too. Many names meant a lot to these people. I shared Psalm 51:12, emphasizing that their joy and overwhelming kindness had restored the joy of the Lord's salvation to me. We had arrived at 9:00 a.m., had breakfast, and now it was 2:00 in the afternoon and the worship was finishing. No one was in a hurry to go. I stood at the door to greet each of the 490 worshippers as they headed out onto the spacious balcony, overlooking the amazing valley and the trails down to their homes.
 
After leaving we stopped at Paulina's home to pray with her. (She had been the constant companion of Mrs. Florenzia and Xerggyo as they walked the mountain trails with the Good News). She was older than Mrs. Florenzia and now bedridden. She lay on her plank bed, her head framed by beautiful long hair with only the slightest touch of grey. A fire close to her bed had two pots of boiling liquid. She was unable to sit up fully and Xerggyo sat close. Others continued to arrive, greet Paulina and offer her food. We prayed with her and sang together. As we left, she continued to smile and thank us for our visit.

 

 

Xerggyo agreed to assist in the dedication of a new spring well. (There is a lot of rain in these mountains, but not a lot of safe drinking water). Nine families had worked for over two years to provide the community with this spring source. At the end of the road we continued for half a  kilometre along a trail that constantly descended. A thin electric cord snaked along the path, supported in the V formed with tree branches. (Later I discovered that this was to provide electricity for the musicians' amplifier). When we arrived at the well, benches and tables had been set up, with table cloths and glass dishes. About eighty were gathered. The well looked very much as if it were from Bible times. A stone-walled walkway led down twenty steps to the spring. The spring was contained in a concrete basin and two taps stuck out. Following our prayer dedicating the water from this well, I cut the ribbon and opened the gate. Then I went down and had the first cup of icy spring water. Next, everyone made their way down the steps to sample the water. One young fellow filled his plastic bottle for later. Springs of bubbling water would now provide for many in the area. The food, the music, the prayers and the comments of gratitude continued until the sun began to caress us with the golden blush of evening.

Now with the last official gathering over, we drove home in silence. Here the Christian community comes together to celebrate their joy. I saw the love of Christ in the eyes and actions of the young and old. What an untold privilege these few days have been. I am amazed and grateful to God for having been given the rare privilege of knowing Xerggyo, his mother, father, and many amigos. His compassion is unsurpassed and the joy that he radiates is infectious. Xerggyo means so much to so many in their area. As they look to the distant, unknown shores that need to hear of Christ, they are willing to send their very best. His departure will slice deep into the hearts of so many, like the deep wound of a dull machete. Yet, these are the people that received the Good Seed some seventy years ago, and now, in the words of Mrs. Florenzia, “The tree has matured and is producing beautiful fruit, so we must share this precious fruit with the world beyond our mountains.”

 

 

 

With thanks for the editorial suggestions of Danny Fingas and proofing by Nel Carpen, Ian Mason and Elaine Bullard.

 

 

 

 

 


Other articles by Don:

Whiskey and God's Grace    About the changed life an alcoholic father in the mountains of Mexico

In Tanzania    About a visit with Hanneke and her work in Tabora, Tanzania

Xerggyo's Dark Ride    About Xerggyo's near death journey on his motorcycle

Chiapas, Mexico    Recollections of the wonderful people of Chiapas State, Mexico

Casavant Mouse    Five mystical encounters designed for kids of all ages about a wonderfully brilliant church mouse

My Encounter    Near drowning experience off the coast of Liberia