COROZAL, Honduras — When 30 Garifuna believers gathered for encouragement and inspiration 25 years ago, they were the only Christians from that ethnic group that Eastern Mennonite Missions workers knew of.
What a difference a quarter of a century makes.
In July, the 25th annual meeting of the Garifuna Missionary Association drew more than 1,000 Garifuna believers to Corozal.
“Never would I have imagined there would be this kind of growth,” said Steve Shank, pioneering coach at EMM.
While the meeting was for all Garifuna Christians, the majority of leaders were from Mennonite churches.
“I believe every Garifuna church in the U.S. was represented,” Shank said.
The Garifuna, an indigenous group, are descended from West Africans who were taken as slaves to St. Vincent and intermarried with the Arawak people. After the British forced them to leave St. Vincent, they settled along the coasts of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Now there are Garifuna communities in New York, New Orleans, Miami, Dallas, Houston and Oregon.
Shank and his family served in Dangriga, Belize, among the Garifuna from 1979 to 1984. The Garifuna were largely an unreached people group, with less than 1 percent being Christian. An animistic group, the Garifuna suffered discrimination and persecution.
Several dozen church leaders from all locations of the Garifuna nation spoke at the convention.
“It is a time where the Garifuna come to pray for their nation, to be inspired by teaching and preaching, to worship in their own language and to plan to plant more churches,” Shank said.
Shank and Steve Morris spoke and were honored at the 25th anniversary. Morris was a student at a Bible institute where Shank was teaching in the U.S.
“He shared the vision and had the calling to work among the Garifuna,” Shank said. Morris served from 1985 to 1991.
“I shared how it all started and my dream,” Shank said. “I gave thanks for what God has done. Then I asked them, ‘What will you do about the other Garifuna villages that don’t know about Jesus? What will you do about the West African villages your ancestors came from?’
“A dozen people in their 20s and 30s stood on their feet in response, and later a half dozen approached me and asked for training to go.”
Garifuna Mennonite leaders from New York City are sending missionaries to plant a church in El Triunfo, Honduras. They also plan to start a training center to prepare Garifuna for mission.
“The Garifuna are very open to the spiritual world; it is more real to them than the material world,” Shank said. “And that’s the way it’s supposed to be for Christians.”
Early EMM workers among the Garifuna included James and Beatrice Hess, who went to the Garifuna village of Santa Fe in Belize, serving with EMM from 1951 to 1970. They founded the first Mennonite church in Honduras that was Garifuna. Henry and Millie Buckwalter also worked among the Garifuna in Belize, serving from 1972 to 1986.