History of El Chal
Forty years ago El Chal was a brand new little mission post of the newly formed Mennonite Air Missions. MAM was founded by Harold Kaufman with a vision to take the gospel to the remote and unreached regions of Guatemala. Harold was a pilot, and flew a Cessna 185 to reach deep into the jungles, where travel by land was extremely difficult. Many of the Mennonite churches in Guatemala today are a result of his work.
El Chal today is no longer little, remote, or in the middle of the jungle. It has become in the last years a bustling place.When it’s not bustling it’s booming. A paved highway splits the town in two and the jungle has been cleared to make pastures for raising and fattening cattle. Today, high speed Internet is available, children carry smartphones, and transport trucks rumble through town. They carry everything from new motorcycles, to ice-cream, to cattle, to building supplies, or sea-land containers. The twenty first century is coming to the El Chal, and the problems that come with it are not far behind.
There are many needs in this community. The Tree of Life school is meeting a need and a desire for quality, orderly education with Christian values. Although there are many “Christians” and Christian Churches there is not one Christian school in a 40 kilometer radius. Twelve years ago, we started accepting community children, whose parents agree to pay tuition and support the vision of the school. We are faithfully planting seeds in the young lives of our students, not only in Sunday school or Children’s Clubs, but through the everyday routines of Christian education. The school has steadily grown from 17 students to 215. New classrooms have been built and many teachers have been trained.Countless lives are being impacted by the Love that can only come from God.
The Good Samaritan Clinic is a busy and crucial part of this community. On average 40 patients come daily from El Chal and surrounding communities to find quality medical attention. The staff give a sincere diagnosis, and maybe more uncommon elsewhere, kind and compassionate care. The clinics roots can be traced back to a Canadian nurse who started to dispense medications from the back porch of the mission house many years ago. It has grown into a ministry of help and hope for those who need it most.
The church in El Chal started as a result of Brother Harold’s work to spiritually support the three Estrada brothers from the church in Chimaltenango. They moved to Guatemala’s northern Petén region in search of a new life, free land, and unfolding opportunities. The church has grown steadily in the past years. Many missionaries have invested time here, and though the church went through difficult times during Guatemala’s civil war, it has continued to grow. God has blessed the church with several complete families, many young people, both North American and Guatemalan, and a few brothers and sisters who have been faithful members for more than thirty years. In August 2015 MAM formally announced their consideration of El Chal becoming part of the newly formed Jungle Breezes Youth Ministries. Since then the church family here in El Chal has chosen to become an independent church, willing to work with JBYM input, but no longer under MAM administrative structure. We desire to maintain spiritual fellowship and working relationships with all the other MAM churches.
On October 1, 2015, members from both the MAM and JBYM boards met together to discuss the future of the work in El Chal. The meeting made it abundantly clear to everyone, of JBYM’s respect for MAM’s years of investment in the El Chal work. MAM expressed their love and appreciation of the El Chal brotherhood, the foreign workers there, and gave their blessing to the vision and mission of JBYM. MAM feels the type of work being done in El Chal may mesh well with Jungle Breezes’ goals. JBYM sees the value of El Chal’s functioning congregation and close proximity to La Anchura in providing fellowship for their workers and an ideal mission base. January 1, 2016 was a big day for us as JBYM officially took responsibility for the operations in El Chal and the personnel stationed there. We look forward to another busy school year, new personnel, much discipleship, and new challenges.
History of JBYM
In 1972, Elam and Barbara Stoltzfus left the comforts and security of Pennsylvania and headed to the Petén region in Guatemala. After spending seven years living in a houseboat and traveling up and down the Passion River sharing the gospel and establishing churches under the name “Nueva Vida” or “New Life”, they felt the need to settle down with their growing family. They purchased 500 acre parcel of land alongside the Passion River, which became known as La Anchura.
Elam became a self-trained doctor and Barbara evolved to be an experienced and well-respected midwife. In later years, the New Life Medical Clinic was indisputably the largest ministry. During the civil unrest and years of guerrilla warfare in Guatemala, Elam and Barbara helped many people who were wounded and otherwise affected by the scrimmages and ambushes nearby. Their son Virgil, who is a pilot, provided emergency medical flights to Guatemala City and other established medical centers. Because of their assistance to the Guatemalan soldiers, one night the leftist guerillas came and burned to the ground what the Stoltzfus’ had spent years building. Their house, the clinic, the cannery, the airplane… everything was destroyed; everything except a pavilion and the carpenter shop, where all the tools were kept that they needed to rebuild it all.
Over the next several years they constructed a clinic, barn, airplane hangar, a chicken house, a residential house and cleared much land for pasturing cattle. This became the base for the New Life churches in the area. Pastors could go to receive training and numerous young people attended Bible Schools and youth retreats which were organized by the Stoltzfus’ and other Guatemalan church leaders.
When Elam passed away after a battle with cancer, the vision and energy to maintain and continue this great work began to wane. Barbara began her search for the right people to take over the property and continue using it for the Lord’s work. She met Stephan Gingerich at a Missionary Networking Meeting held in the Petén and was inspired to reconnect with the mission in El Chal. Barbara prayerfully contemplated who might be interested in purchasing the base that her family had built up over the past 25 years. She contacted Stephan to see if he would be interested in accepting the challenge of administrating the property or finding another Christian organization that would. Stephan, knowing it was not possible to personally accept the challenge, referred Barbara to a friend whom he thought would be interested, to no avail.
More than 5 years later, after various other doors closed, Barbara came again to Stephan and implored if there was any possible way he could see his way clear in taking over this endeavor. By this time Stephan had seen God moving in obvious and incredible ways toward such a venture, and agreed to contact several brethren to seek their advice. Each one of them felt it was an opportunity that should be further pursued.
In early December, 2013, three brethren, Danny Beach, Keith Wadel, and Kevin Bauman, along with Stephan Gingerich, and their wives, took a trip to Jungle Breezes to investigate further. After much prayer and discussion, the decision was made to take this incredible opportunity and create a setting where youth from dysfunctional homes can learn practical life skills and most importantly, come to trust in Christ as their personal Lord and Savior through the powerful influence of Christian families.
In December 2014, Tim and Sara Martin from Ontario, moved to this location to begin the daunting task of rebuilding the mission. One month later, Conrad and Naomi Gingerich and their family, from Ohio joined them to assist with this great work. Together they have been diligently working to make the improvements needed to make it usable again.
Our goal with Jungle Breezes is to utilize the property to create an environment where boys can live with a Christian family while discovering and developing their skills in farming, woodworking, gardening, mechanics and whatever other opportunities arise in the ongoing reconstruction project.
If you wish to learn more about the history of JBYM through Dara Stoltzfus’ book, “Jungle Breezes”, click here.