The Garifuna Story

A Tale of Overcoming Obstacles

By Pastor E. Omar Guzman

LMC has a number of Garifuna Mennonite Churches. LMC also has connections with a network of Garifuna churches around the USA and in Central America. This group of churches does amazing Kingdom work. So perhaps, we should ask, “Who are the Garifuna?”

The story of the Garifuna stands as a modern tragedy in western civilization. The people called Garifuna originated from two migrations, one voluntary and one forced. It is believed that some African peoples crossed the Atlantic, perhaps as early as 1300, and came ashore on some of the islands in the Lesser Antilles chain off the northern coast of Venezuela. Here, they intermarried with other tribal groups in the Caribbean. Other Africans came to the Caribbean as a result of the western slave trade. When slave ships ran aground on the reefs and islands of the Lesser Antilles, survivors of those wrecks found refuge and intermarried with other Caribbean groups. They are sometimes referred to as Black Caribs.

By 1635, one large community emerged on Saint Vincent Island in the Lesser Antilles. Although few mineral resources existed on the island, its shores contained abundant fish. Saint Vincent was largely ignored by the colonial powers because of the lack of resources. However, by the early 1700s both
French and British navies sought to take over Saint Vincent. By 1795, the British controlled the island,
slaughtered most of the Garifuna population, and murdered the leader, Joseph Chatoyer. The British
captured the remaining Garifuna, perhaps as few as 5,000, and expelled them from the island. Many were exiled to Roatán, a small bay island off the coast of Honduras. By 1797, with the approval of the Spanish government, many Garifuna migrated from Roatán to the Honduran coast.

In the 20th century, the growing Garifuna community, which was mostly employed as fisherman, began to move into agriculture, textiles, and service industries. Unemployment concerns also generated emigration pressure to neighboring Central American countries and to the coastal urban centers such as the USA and some coastal European countries.

Today as many as 300,000 Garifuna live along the coasts of Belize, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and especially Honduras. More than 100,000 have emigrated to the USA. The Garifuna language is a mixture of Arawak (the native language), Spanish, French, and other Caribbean languages.

EMM missionaries started a Garifuna congregation in Honduras in the late 1940’s. In 1986, EMM began a Garifuna congregation in New York City, the Evangelical Garifuna Church in the Bronx with Celso Jaime as pastor. In 2006 after much discernment, the Bronx church sent me to Manhattan to start a new congregation, the Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan.

From this beginning in New York City, a multiplication movement, the Mennonite Garifuna Mission, emerged. Over the last 10 years new congregations opened in Brooklyn, a second congregation in the Bronx, and one each in Miami, Houston, New Orleans, Boston, Seattle, Wilmington, NC, and Los Angeles. Mennonite Garifuna Mission also started two churches that are not necessarily Garifuna churches. Mennonite Garifuna Mission also supports other Garifuna churches that are not Mennonite churches.

Four churches were planted in Honduras,one of them in the capital, Tegucigalpa. Over the next few years, we are preparing to start new churches in Spain and France. We hope to send missionaries back to Africa in the future.

Many of the new Garifuna churches emerged from the Manhattan Garifuna Church. In Manhattan, we regularly identify, train, and send one, two, or three young couples to new places to start churches. When the Manhattan church decided to plant our first church in Brooklyn, we only had 30 members, including children and young people, at the time. A church need not be large to start another congregation. We choose young people to send before they are locked in to buying homes, getting a good job, and other western, materialistic temptations. We select the candidates carefully, and then mentor them in the home congregation for six months to two years until they are ready to go.

Being Garifuna connects a person to a language, a culture, and a history — in this case a history of tragedy, a culture of defeating obstacles, and a commitment to God’s mission. Employment and financial security have been consistent obstacles over the centuries, which have created emigration pressure. The search for work pushed the Garifuna people to major urban centers around the Atlantic basin and the western Pacific coast. The Garifuna communities that gather in these urban centers become locations of interest for Mennonite Garifuna Mission church planters.

Leaders of Mennonite Garifuna Mission travel constantly to visit these families and help them to define a strategy to follow in the area and stay well connected to them. These leaders bring reports to the other churches in the network, and we do not abandon them if difficulties emerge. It can take two to five years for a new church to form and gain enough strength to function on its own.

Spiritually, we bathe our spiritual life in prayer. Congregations generally hold a prayer meeting every Sunday night for intercession. Prayer occurs regularly during the week. Prayer and fasting occurs once a month as a congregation. The churches commit to fast in January, June and October each year. Prayer and fasting takes place in the context of intentional discipleship. New believers and emerging leaders have a mentor that walks with them on the Christian journey in order to provide some accountability. That is what we mean by intentional discipleship. Mentors are typically drawn from the leadership team in the congregation. We believe the preparation of new and young leaders that we send to new locations, must be done by leaders.

Pastors who do not want to lead in this fashion — discipling and sending — are replaced by those who do have such a vision. Creating a growing, expanding movement cannot take place any other way. Our vision is to spread what God put in us to the church, and then the church sends more leaders into the world to new places to repeat the process. We are now beginning to see some of the congregations we have started to begin the process of starting new congregations themselves. This is multiplication vision. To God be the glory.

Omar Guzman is the pastor at Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan, lead church planter for the Garifuna Church Planting network and church multiplication coordinator for LMC under Church on the Other Side (COTOS).

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