This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Converts become leaders of growing Garifuna network

NEW YORK — When Omar Guzman came from Honduras to New York City the month after 9/11, he was an unbeliever, imprisoned by a lifestyle that brought emptiness and despair.

His wife, Tania, had moved to the city in 1998. To join her, he left a cruise-ship job and the management of a disco and moved to New York City. She was attending Evangelical Garifuna Church, a Mennonite congregation in Bronx.

Pastor Celso Jaime prays for a worshiper at Evangelical Garifuna Church on Oct. 21. — Laurie Oswald Robinson for MWR
Pastor Celso Jaime prays for a worshiper at Evangelical Garifuna Church on Oct. 21. — Laurie Oswald Robinson for MWR

Guzman began going to church with her but was initially turned off by the weeping men who went up for altar calls given by Pastor Celso Jaime. Yet he soon found himself in their ranks as the Holy Spirit reached his soul with the good news of Jesus.

“Celso was preaching that day, and I felt someone, something, calling to me to come up front,” he said. “My heart was beating more than normal as he began praying for me, and I began weep­ing, not knowing what was happening. . . . But as all emptiness in me was being filled, I knew I must give my heart to Jesus.”

Guzman’s heart has not stopped beating in time to the good news that he received and that he is passing on to other Garifuna souls across the United States and Honduras.

The Garifuna share a blend of African and Caribbean ancestry and speak Garifuna and Spanish.

Guzman is one of Jaime’s many sons in the Lord. Jaime is the main driver behind today’s Garifuna church-planting movement. His own conversion was conceived through Eastern Mennonite Missions’ work in his Honduran childhood village. The present-day network is supported by LMC (formerly Lancaster Mennonite Conference) and EMM.

About 100,000 Garifuna have immigrated beyond their homeland of the Caribbean to New York alone. Four of the fast-growing network of 11 congregations have been planted in NYC: two in the Bronx; one in Manhattan; and one in Brooklyn. Other U.S. Garifuna church plants are in Boston, Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Seattle and Los Angeles. The network’s latest church plant is solidifying in Atlanta.

“We work on developing new leaders, and three times a year, we start a new leadership group — teaching, providing formation, walking with them in many common and daily ways,” Guzman said. “It’s not about relating to them within the four walls of a church building.

“I spend one-on-one time with them, visit with them in coffee shops and at their kitchen tables, take them on a trip with me. I let them see what I am doing and have them start moving in that direction. This is exactly what Celso did with me.”

Doing it ‘without money’

As well as being moderator of the New York City Council of Mennonite Churches, Guzman chairs LMC’s church-multiplication network. It hopes to duplicate the passion and method of Jaime and Guzman in other sectors of the conference, said Keith Weaver, LMC moderator.

“The hope of growing multiplying congregations in New York City rather than struggling diminishing congregations is a new source of excitement,” Weaver said. “The amazing thing about it is, they are doing it without money.”

As much as the wider church is grateful for the level of growth, Guzman is not resting from his labors. There is much more work to be done.

“If we don’t establish new disciples, we are not going to have new leaders,” he said. “If we don’t have new leaders, we will not find new pastors and will not be able to plant new churches. . . . It takes a lot of work to identify and reach out to new leaders.”

Nearly two decades ago, Jaime embraced the hard work of tapping the shoulder of a hurting young man who is now helping  to bring the hope and healing of Jesus to their people.

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