Churches like Mill River Presbyterian Church in Mill River, N.C., are learning that doing mission work abroad not only increases understanding of other parts of the world, but also promotes growth much closer to home.

The Rev. Randall Boggs, pastor of Mill River, serves as the chair of the Presbytery of Western North Carolina’s Guatemala Task Force, which puts his church at the forefront of the mission work done with the presbytery’s Central American partners.

“The partnership is a three-way partnership involving the presbyteries of Western North Carolina, Suchitepequez and Sur Occidente,” said Grace Boyer, associate for missions at the Presbytery of Western North Carolina. “So it is not just the building of relationships between North Americans and the Guatemalans, but it is also the building of relationships between the Guatemalans in their two different presbyteries.”

When it was established, the partnership was outlined as relationship-driven, not project-driven. The partnership began 15 years ago and was just renewed for another five-year term. Guatemala and North Carolina work together as full and equal partners on all the work done.

“We wanted to avoid that North American attitude of ‘We’re going to go down there and fix those people,’” Boggs said. “There are strengths and weaknesses on both sides.”

For the Guatemalans, it was also necessary to change some ways of thinking. The people there were so used to others coming in and doing things that they had become passive, Boggs said, adding that it has been rewarding to watch them grow and become more involved in making decisions.

“The three presbyteries have worked hard on building this relationship,” Boyer said. “It is a journey with joys and frustrations but always a deepening and growing experience.”

The partnership has five priorities, Boggs said.

The first is to establish church-to-church pairings, in which a congregation in North Carolina works directly with a congregation in Guatemala. This includes visits, communication and a sharing of needs and concerns. Boggs said he hopes these pairings allow the partners to see that the purpose of the church is to reach out to communities and work together for common needs.

“We’ve developed some good relationships,” he said. “(The) presbytery takes two groups per year to Guatemala, and many of the individual churches do as well.”

The partnership also focuses on public health issues in Guatemala such as water projects and low- smoke stoves.

Christian education and theological scholarships for Guatemalan pastors is a third area of emphasis. 

The partnership is meant to be a give and take, and to that end, the fourth priority is helping to establish Hispanic ministry in North Carolina.

“Our church here is mostly white,” Boggs said. “The Hispanic population here was more or less invisible to us 15 years ago and yet it is a rapidly growing segment of the local population.”

Guatemalan pastors came to North Carolina to help with the effort and reach out to the local Hispanic population, and this help from Guatemala was vital to the effort, Boggs said.

“They just felt so much more open and comfortable with the Guatemalan pastors making the first contact than they would have with the white pastors, I think,” he said.

He’s pleased with the results of the effort, noting there is a Hispanic congregation within the Presbytery of Western North Carolina and many of the individual churches, including Mill River, do more to include and welcome local Hispanics. 

The fifth priority is to involve youth. It’s important to give youth groups a chance to visit with Guatemalan partners, Boggs said, adding that he’d like to see a new priority focus on women, connecting Presbyterian Women in North Carolina with their counterparts in Central America. 

“There is a lot of back and forth of people from North Carolina to Guatemala and from Guatemala to North Carolina,” Boggs said. “It’s been beneficial to both sides.  There has been growth on both sides.

“The people in Guatemala have things to teach us as well. We here in North Carolina do not know it all,” he said. “I hear it said so often: ‘I went thinking I would give and I received more than I gave.’”

All three presbyteries help support the work of Dr. Barbara Nagy, a PC(USA) mission co-worker in Nkhoma, Malawi. The children and churches in Guatemala have been collecting aluminum cans to raise money for Nagy, who works at Nkhoma Hospital, an institution of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian.

While life their life is difficult, Boyer said the Guatemalans realized that Malawians need help too.

“After listening to the latest Malawi update in November, one of the Guatemalans put it this way: ‘The vultures are flying high over Guatemala waiting for the child to die, but the vultures are flying much lower over Malawi,’” Boyer said. “This connection to Malawi, this Triangle of Love or Trinity of Love of the three presbyteries, has been a tangible way for the Guatemalans and the Presbytery of Western North Carolina to sense their participation in the worldwide church.”