Christians in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas have seen more than their share of persecution.
At the same time, their faith has spread faster than anywhere else in Mexico. The explanation goes back to the work of two single missionaries who brought healing to the body and soul of a tribal people. This year, those same people celebrated 70 years of progress.
Tomas is a descendant of the ancient Mayas. He remembers back in the 1940s when Wycliffe missionaries Mariana Slocum and Florence Gerdel came to live in Chiapas, Mexico.
His friend Tomas Kituk became a helper to the missionaries. He says before they arrived there was a lot of fighting and no forgiveness in the people's hearts. and there was a lot of sickness. But then, God changed everything.
Slocum and Gerdel learned the Tzeltal language, cared for the sick, translated the Bible and taught the people to read.
Wycliffe missionary Jeanne Jarvis arrived in 1961. Her husband, an agronomist, taught the Tzeltal to grow better crops. This year the community training center they started became the venue for a major celebration
Hundreds of Tzeltal gathered to celebrate 70 years of progress since the missionaries arrived in their community.
"Since the word of God arrived, it's been a change for them, a life that they enjoy with great freedom," said Presbyterian pastor Hermenegildo Sanchez.
the change caught the attention of outsiders. Jarvis remembers an anthropologist who asked Slocum, the missionary, a question.
The Bible, lovingly translated by Slocum, was the seed of great material and spiritual change. Today, local believers can hear the Bible preached in their own language in over 400 evangelical churches.
When the translation ended of the New Testament arrived in 1965, the Tzeltal Christians commissioned Slocum and Gerdel as their own missionaries to another tribe, the Paez indians of Colombia. It took another 20 years to translate the new testament into that language.
As the Tzeltal remembered the work of Slocum and Gerdel this year, they honored other missionaries who have served them as well. Dorothy Myerink is from the Reformed Church of America.
Myerink and her husband helped finish the translation of the Old Testament.
"As soon as the people had the word printed in their own language they wanted to learn to read and to hear more about God," she said. "And some of them said to us, 'before the missionaries came we didn't know where God was.'"
Although Slocum and Gerdel --both in their 90s-- missed the celebration, their work is not only remembered, it carries on, led by a new generation of christians.
Chris Jarvis grew up with the Tzeltal as a missionary kid with a knack for inventions. After training abroad he returned to help his friends build and sell everything from construction blocks to coffee pots. At one point he designed a metal stove, but the people didn't agree.
So they worked together and finally came up with a design they liked.
"And it was a huge success," he said. "He made 25,000 of them."
Jarvis says it's all part of taking the Tzeltal to the next level.
"The next level is now bringing in real new technologies, training up the young people, and we have bright young people," he said. "They are sharp. But there's no opportunities. So you train them up and give them opportunities in practical things. And I think that's part of my contribution."
Some of the new generation are looking beyond the borders of Chiapas, inspired by the missionaries' strategy.
"Seventy years ago they took a small seed and they planted here in my culture," said Sergio Gomez a Tzeltal missionary candidate. "But now this is a very big, big tree. But we have fruits. But we need to send this seed in other cultures. But this is a very big job for us."
The first Wycliffe missionaries in Chiapas probably never thought that some day, young Tzeltal like Gomez would prepare to carry the seed of the gospel to the Middle East.
"To send our missionaries from here to the other country, to the other culture, we need to learn culture, language, the political situation, everything we need to learn for to send the gospel in other culture," Gomez said.
"Whatever he does we're glad to see the church has come full circle," Myerink added. "From being recipients of the word, they are now ready to go out and give the word to others in other countries."
*Originally published June 15, 2009