Guatemala, we gave you no justice. From Puerto Cortés on Honduras’s northern coast we rode along the beach to enter Guatemala’s truck-stop border. But our goal was Belize that day. Since the highway from Guatemala to southern Belize is not yet built, we had decided to take a ferry. After the friendliest passport-stamping yet (how that agent was so genuinely friendly to every entrant we still don’t know), we blitzed west through banana plantations to the port city of Puerto Barrios. A boat was just leaving for Belize. The laid-back Caribbean captain spoke English to us and rushed us through immigration to leave the country just hours after entering.
After landing in the southern Belize port of Punta Gorda, we were thrust into an entirely new language of Kriol. This is a Caribbean form of English with an African and Amerindian-influenced grammatical form and accent. We can’t understand it at all. But Belize, recently independent from British colonization, is the only Central American country with English as an official language, and most everyone learns it in schools. Conversing in English felt slow and awkward at first. Because English is most Belizeans’ second language, both we and locals had to concentrate to understand each other. One Belizean described English as “stretched” Kriol, and with one child we resorted to Spanish to understand certain words. We have kept up our Spanish practice almost every day with the many recent immigrants from Spanish-speaking Central America. Ordering homemade corn tortillas in English just doesn’t feel right.
Belize is a small country chock full of Mennonites–perhaps the largest proportional Mennonite presence in any country. We’ve found a striking amount of religious diversity in Belize, both in and outside the Mennonite sphere. Here are a few examples of who we’ve run into:
- Right away in Punta Gorda we slept on the porch of a Nazarene church overlooking the Caribbean. The pastor, who lived next door, was a Maya Mopan indigenous guy. He and his wife sang us a few recognizable hymn tunes from a book given to him by Mennonites who translated many texts into the Maya Mopan language. The Nazarene church is one of the oldest Protestant churches in Belize and is self-supporting–the missionaries left years ago. A few nights down the road we stayed at another Nazarene church with a dedicated pastor despite numerous tragedies in his life. His house was struck twice by lightning, he had chronic sciatica, and his toe had been amputated after a bad infection. He saw these challenges as a test to his faith that brought him closer to Christ, and his testimony was poignant for us.
- Blue Creek Village near Punta Gorda is home to a small Mennonite community started in part by Iowa Mennonites David and Nancy Stutzman and their relatives. Now the vast majority of the members are from Maya Mopan and Kek’chi families. We stayed with the Stutzmans in their breezy thatched-roof house and had a caldo (chicken soup) and corn tortilla traditional Mopan meal with Craig and Flor Moyer down the road. Flor is Maya Mopan and met Craig, a history teacher with a Quaker background from Ohio, when he was volunteer teaching in the Blue Creek Mennonite school. The Stutzmans’ mission from independent Iowa Mennonite churches is self-supporting, as they own a farm supply store in Punta Gorda. This mission style–moving the whole family with no plans of returning, working in the community to earn money while sharing the word of God– contrasted with the term-based mission work funded by donors in the US that we were more familiar with. We were impressed by their simple lifestyle and commitment to being a part of the community they had moved to. Also, thanks to Nancy for her lightning-fast sewing skills to tailor our baggy jerseys.
- On the road to Belmopan we met a conservative Mennonite guy at a bus stop. We quickly made connections talking about his wife’s Paraguayan Mennonite background and through Levi’s Low German-speaking mother and ancestry. He thought the Spanish Lookout Mennonites were too progressive, which left us, in our spandex bike shorts, feeling firmly outside of his definition of “Mennonite.”
- We entered Belmopan with nothing but a tip that some former Mennonites owned a hardware store. Almost faster than we could explain that we were Goshen College graduates cycling back to the US, Tina Penner invited us to stay at her house. Tina grew up in the Spanish Lookout Mennonite community (even hosting some Goshen College Study-Service Term students in her family), but was left in search of a context in which she could fulfill her calling to be a missionary. She is now active in one of a system of local churches in Belmopan. We had the opportunity to participate in a youth group meeting at her house. The group prayed together, everyone saying “amen” after spontaneous expressions from the Spirit from whoever felt called. The songs, accompanied by guitar, were often about the positive and life-giving power of Christ that gives joy to his community of followers.
- Miriam DeShield has been our wild and wonderful host in Belize City. After she went on Study-Service Term in Belize and fell in love with the country, she returned to Goshen and fell in love with and married a Belizean, Michael DeShield. Raised Mennonite in South Bend, Indiana, Miriam now has been attending a church that meets to watch an online service from the Elijah Center in Trinidad.
- Spanish Lookout brought us back to the experiences we had in the Mennonite colonies of Paraguay. The cooperative-based colony supplies chicken for the entire country, almost 90% of Belizean dairy, and other household essentials such as rice and beans. Our hosts, the Reimers, are leaders of Caribbean Tire, a company with multiple branches in Belize and whose import-export work with multinational companies affords workers the opportunity to travel and meet partners in Asia. Surrounding the colony are Spanish-speaking families, many from Guatemala and El Salvador who come to Spanish Lookout for employment. The colony has provided a school system for these outside towns. These Mennonites call themselves Kleine Gemeinde and emigrated in 1958 from Chihuahua, Mexico. Their Low German incorporates quite a few English words and is spoken widely among community members as well as in the church (different than High German services in the Paraguayan Chaco). Here we were warmly welcomed by three of the many Reimer families. First John and Eva, then David and Betty, and finally Peter and Esther Reimer. They showed us around the rolling farmland, one-room schoolhouses and successful businesses of the community. One of our favorite nights with the Reimers was a pizza dinner on the veranda that facilitated conversations with Peter Reimer and his extended family about faith, farming and challenges they’ve faced. Peter’s inquisitive oldest son, Gary, applies a sharp mind to a variety of projects, including running a greenhouse and studying a Merck manual to pick up medical knowledge. Music is another passion, as well as birdwatching with the whole family (at age 17, he has 400+ species already on his life list). Peter, who met our favorite professor, John D Roth, at a conference in Ohio, would love to see John visit his bookstore in Spanish Lookout. Come on out, John!
Abe’s parents, Max and Lynda, came to visit us for about a week. Stucky family vacations go heavy on the beach, light on stress, and their time in Belize was no exception. We popped out to San Pedro on one of the many offshore cayes that line Belize’s barrier reef. Snorkeling opportunities in the coral–and even with the sharks–abounded. We rented beach cruiser bikes (the most popular in Belize) for rides in the sand among the coconut trees and beach houses. We all loved the downtime with great (real or proxy) parents. They came with us to the impressive Maya jungle ruins in Tikal, Guatemala, and had the chance to visit a family’s traditional tortilla and artisan wood-carving business. There were bags of corn and handmade tortillas cooking on a wood fire on one side, and beautiful wooden bowls and representations of the Mayan corn deity on the other side of the house.
We look forward to visiting Mennonites in Shipyard, Blue Creek (Orange Walk District), and near Orange Walk Town. From there we’ll head through Corozal to the Mexican border.