Several years ago, while strolling through a farmer’s market just outside of Guatemala City, I encountered a group of teenagers dressed in distinctive, conservative Mennonite garb but speaking fluent Spanish to each other and to the vendors. Intrigued, I asked them about their story. The young people were part of a longstanding mission established by the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church in 1972. Several had been born in Guatemala, but all considered the country to be their home.
Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church has its roots in Lancaster Mennonite Conference. In the mid-1960s a group of ministers coalesced around the leadership of Benjamin Eshbach, a bishop in the Manor District, who was frustrated that the Lancaster Conference Bishop Board was not consistently enforcing the conference’s rules, particularly in regard to television and dress.
In 1966 the group formed an alternative Voluntary Service unit for its youth under a newly created “Mennonite Messianic Mission.” Three years later it was clear that the 1968 “Rules and Discipline” of the Lancaster conference was relaxing its prohibition of television, so 27 congregations withdrew to form the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church.
The conference has grown to become one of the largest conservative Mennonite groups in North America, with 67 congregations and more than 5,000 members. It has a strong emphasis on evangelism and an active publishing ministry that produces school materials, tracts, devotional aids and more.
In 2007, the Eastern Pennsylvania congregations in Guatemala established a 16-page bimonthly newsletter called Sendas Derechas (Straight Paths), committed to providing “biblically based instruction and inspiration for Spanish-speaking Christian homes.”
Every issue is organized into four sections, each identified by an imperative. “Enter Through the Door” offers an editorial, usually a devotional arising out of a biblical passage. The second section, “Pursue Holiness,” focuses on specific doctrinal teachings. An article in the current issue is titled “the sanctifying power of blood.” Recent articles were on topics like marriage, authority, reconciliation and truth telling. A section called “See How to Walk” has several edifying stories. They are short and simple, addressing practical issues such as nonresistance in daily life, avoiding temptation, or specific examples of nonconformity to the world. The fourth segment in each issue, “Let the Children Come,” includes stories for children and generally concludes with a teaching directed at parents on topics like discipline. Each cover includes a poem or hymn with other poems or simple line drawings scattered throughout. In 2012, Eastern Mennonite Publications reported a print run of 2,200 copies.
As in every mission setting, the Eastern Pennsylvania church in Guatemala faces the challenge of maintaining a distinctive identity while adapting to the context of its local culture. Sendas Derechas consistently includes line drawings of Guatemalan parents and children; some children’s stories are set in a Central American context, and the Spanish vocabulary is clear, simple and direct. But the larger impression from Sendas Derechas, consistent with the verse from Heb. 12:13 in its logo (“make straight the paths for your feet”), is that the “straight path” does not bend very far to accommodate cultural difference.
John D. Roth is professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism.