Mennonite Air Missions, Guatemala

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Mennonite Air Missions





Presiding Officer

Ismael Quinonez


2 Ave, Lota 26, Zona 7, Guatemala City Guatemala


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This group began in 1972 as an outgrowth of Conservative Mennonite Fellowship mission work. Using airplanes to reach isolated areas in the roadless interior of the country, the Air Missions group has established 17 congregations with nearly 275 members.[1]


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Origins - Setting the stage

Mennonite Air Missions is located to the Northeast of Guatemala City, in the area known as the Department of Quiché. This area is populated by the descendants of the Quiché Mayas who were forced out of their land by Spanish conquistadors. During this time, Quiché culture was all but erased. Even the sacred Popol Vuh disappeared along with many of the legends and traditional folklore that were contained inside. To avoid Spanish persecution, the Quiché hid in the mountains.

This persecution led to an intense cultural pride as well as a hostility toward both strangers and change. This resentment of change can be seen in the local religion prior to MAM. Before Catholicism was forced upon the native, the mayans sacrificed youth to the sun god by removing the still-beating heart. Though this practice was removed, there were many pagan and Catholic rituals combined. The official leader of each town was the mayor, but the priest and the witch-doctors consumed all the real power.

Quiché people also had a resentment to gringos, white people. "They said the white man plants the head of an indian child into the hold every electric pole he erects" (Sharp 9). "They told us," writes Sharp, "one of the rumors circulating in those hills was that the gringos Despite all of these hostilities, Harold Kauffman and Angel Tortola set out to San Bartolome with the intent to scout the area and possibly begin a mission.[2]

Timeline of Important Events

1972- Mennonite Air Missions is established in Guatemala City. Lirio de los Valles, the first church in Guatemala is founded in Guatemala city.[3]

1973- San Bartolomé is considered as an ideal place for the second mission. The village is scouted twice before Victor and Anita Ovalle are sent to be the missionaries. The first villager are baptized in the following year. 6 were baptized on November 10, 1974. San Andrés is the first mission created outside of city limits. The church thrived in San Andrés, so Harold Kauffman and others decided to begin looking for a second town.[4]

1977- Water was finally struck in San Bartolomé's well. Digging the well took 7 months and the well was 325 ft deep. All of the labor was by hand and all the villagers participated in one form or other.[5]

1979- As guerilla tacks increased, there were more threats made on the lives of missionaries and church leaders. Also in 1979, Modesto Lopez is anointed as a deacon of Mount of Olives chapel in San Bartolomé just prior to the first Bible Conference which was also in San Bartolomé.[6]

1981- September 13, John Troyer is dragged out of his house in Palamá, and is murdered. Gary Miller was also shot but after feigning death was able to recuperate and return to the United States. This set about numerous political actions. The American Embassy informed MAM missionaries that they should leave Guatemala temporarily and, following policy, they agreed. This was a critical time in the life of the local churches. Though there had been some native leadership, much of the responsibilities had rested on the shoulders of Harold Kauffman and the other missionaries. During this time Victor Ovalle hands leadership of the San Bartolomé church to José Benito and takes leadership of MAM from the headquarters in Guatemala City. [7]

1982- The last guerilla attack in a MAM village was recorded in August. Modesto Lopez, then excommunicated member, but still a participant of MAM and mayor of San Bartolomé requests the assistance of José Benito in a nearby village. Upon returning, the truck is ambushed by an explosion of dynamite. All nine of the passengers in the bed of the truck are killed, including Modesto. José, though badly injured survives with two other guards who had been riding in the cab. [8]

1983- There is a bloodless coup that begins to bring more order to the countryside. Eventually the guerilla bands are disbanded and MAM workers are allowed to return to the still dangerous country. Alposento Alto is founded in the Solola state.[9]

1983- Semilla, an Anabaptist seminary is founded by numerous North American Mennonites including Lancaster Conference, Conservative Mennonite Conference, Mennonite Brethren, Evangelical Mennonite Conference (Canada), Franconia Conference and Brethren in Christ. It is run with by a board of directors, each representing one conference.[10]

1985- Jesus es El Camino is founded in Hiebra Buena, in the state of Guatemala.

1986- La Nueva Jeruselan is founded in Joya Grande, Chimaltenago.

1987- Alposento Alto is founded in Los Achiotes, Jutiapa.

1994- Rios de Agua Viva is founded in Oratoria, Santa Rosa.

1995- Emanuel is founded in San Christobal, in the state of Guatemala.

1998- Galilea is founded in Por Venir, Santa Rosa.

1999- Rios de Agua Viva is founded in Santa Rosita, Peten.

2010- By this time MAM has establish 17 congregations with a total membership population of 262. [11]

 Contemporary Life

Identifying with the Global Anabaptist Church

This group has, until recently only practiced re-baptism. This is identical to the first Anabaptists who also had to deal with the political and social persecution of the Catholic church. 16th century Anabaptists were no longer allowed to be citizens if they were not baptized in the church. In the same way some of the villagers stopped interacting with those who were Mennonite.

Mennonite Air Missions has proven that through even the most difficult times, times of persecution, that nonviolence is a plausible answer. This is directly connected with 16th century Anabaptists who for the same reasons refused to fight or participate in wars. This group has even dealt with the problem having a government position can bring, in terms of violence. Modesto Lopez, once a deacon in San Bartolomé, was excommunicated by his church because he, as mayor, thought it was necessary to have armed guards performing night watches. Modesto continued to participate in the church on Sunday mornings with his wife but was removed of his title of deacon. 

One difficulty that this Quiché group of people must deal with is embracing a tradition that they may not completely understand. Though duplication of tradition is very bad, it is also important to sift through Anabaptist ideas and remove North American culture and allow for the traditions to become very much Guatemalan. One Anabaptist tradition that the churches have already embraced is the simple chapels. Unlike the Catholic churches, which has candles, incense, ornate designs and public and boisterous prayers, MAM's chapels tend to be simply laid out filled with simple benches and the sound of hymns.

Major Challenges facing Mennonite Air Missions

There are numerous challenges that face MAM today. One of the foremost is keeping the fervor that early followers had. As time continues we will see a second generation of Guatemalan Mennonites be born and raised into the church. It is of dire necessity that these new followers keep the same intensity and devotion as their parents and grandparents.  Another difficult situation is the Mennonite infrastructure in Guatemala. Semilla is the only Anabaptist seminary in Guatemala and is relatively small. Though there are not many Mennonites there, it is important to keep the spiritual education as well as the academic education as a focus. Doug Hodgins, in the late 70's pushed the importance of Mennonite education and it is still important today.

Other important, but not necessarily Mennonite infrastructure issues are the roads. There are few good roads and many bad roads. As a whole, transportation in Guatemala is dangerous and quite terrifying. Health care is another challenge for MAM. Though conditions have improved drastically over the past number of years, hygiene and clean water seem as though they continue to be overlooked. One improvement that many, especially the wealthier of the lower and middle class have been able to afford are tanks that can collect runoff from the rain. Though this water still is not the cleanest, it allows for less walking to get water. Wells have also become more popular and many communities share one.

The Quiché language is a very difficult thing to master. If MAM is still interested in sending missionaries into the Department of the Quiché then they must think about learning this new language as well as the more traditional Spanish that is spoken in Guatemala. It is also important for the churches in Guatemala to continue to learn Spanish or another popular world language to be able to continue to be a part of the global Anabaptist movement. With a means to communicate, it is very difficult to be in community.

Future of Mennonite Air Missions

In the next 5-10 years (2011-2021), it is important to continue to depend on internal leadership. Since native leadership has begun, it cannot stop. With proper education, which Semilla provides, these leaders will positively impact the future of these churches. They will grow as long as they can continue to be a community to people outside of their churches. This is how they can continue to evangelize. The church will also begin to grow more rapidly as health care improves. When it is less difficult to have children and keep them healthy, the church will naturally grow. The bottom line is that, with continued enthusiasm, Mennonite Air Mission churches will grow in members and in churches. However, there will need to be a name change as "air missions" will stop being a focus. As the roads improve there will be less of a need for plane rides into remote areas. 

In the next 5-10 years, it will also be interesting to see how Guatemalan's interpret and own the Bible. Though MAM has brought the Conservative Mennonite some culture in, it is essential that the culture fully shifts to being Quiché.

In 50-75 years (2011-2086)  there will be a shift from the Catholic majority to Anabaptists. This will not be drastic. This shift will take a long time and will go unnoticed. With continued zeal for Christ, there will be an increase in churches across the country. Mennonites in the current churches will begin to solidify into their own areas as well as start to mission to those outside of their areas. The future is bright for the churches in MAM.

Important Individuals in the Life of the Mennonite Air Missions[12]

Harold and Darlene Kauffman- This missionary couple were the pioneers of MAM and have continued to work with the mission for over thirty years. Harold was a pilot, who used his plane to bring supplies and water to the various village churches that had poor road access. 

Urie Jonathon Sharp- This missionary turned author wrote a book titled "Under His Wings" which is the largest collection of information on MAM to this day. Sharp's daughter, also an author, wrote a book entitled "Awaiting the Dawn". This narrative tells the story of the murder of John Troyer and attempted murder of Gary Miller by a Guatemalan guerilla group.

Angel Tortola- This indigenous Quiche speaker accompanied Harold Kauffman on the first trip to San Bartolome.

Fransico Ovalle- This indigenous Quiche speaker was asked to scout San Bartolome in a second trip with Ismael Quinonez. The hope was that the two natives would be able to more easily interact with the villagers.

Ismael Quinonez- Accompanied Fransico Ovalle to San Bartolome. Later he became a pastor in San Andres

Juan Alpirez- Was a teacher in San Bartolome when it was first visited. Originally he was skeptical but reconsidered after being invited to a church meeting by his future wife. Later he became the pastor in La Sorpresa and at Oratorio.

Modesto Lopez- This promising leader and deacon of the church in San Bartolome became mayor. When the guerilla groups became more numerous, he was excommunicated for his participation in the night watch. He was later killed by guerillas in an ambush.

Miguel Tum- This former president of the Catholic community was strong opposition to the Mennonite missionaries. At age 90 he was baptized into the San Bartolome church and continued to be the caretaker of the chapel through the guerilla raids until his death at age 96.

Doug Hodgins- This veterinarian was a missionary in Guatemala who strongly emaphasized the need for better healthcare and stressed the need for native leadership in the MAM churches. He also had a portable clinic in the back of a truck that he used in his missions in San Sur.

Jose Benito Xotoy- This one-time president of the Catholic community, mayor of San Bartolome and strong critic of the Mennonites, was baptized in 1977 before being ordained in 1980. Along with Modesto Lopez, he was ambushed by guerillas. Though 9 of the other passengers were killed, Jose and two others survived the dynamite blast. Jose played a vital role in the continued mission of MAM.

Carlos Urizar- This pastor in Mixcolaja was forced to participate in the military. Rather than participate, Urizar evaded the military and moved away.

Ragael and Catalino Segura- This couple were leaders of the church in El Chal after the foreign missionaries were forced to leave in 1981.

Tacinto Toc and Juan Antonio- These men were the leaders of the church in San Sur after the foreign missionaries were forced to leave in 1981.

Rolegio Pichiya- This man was the pastor of the church in Zargosa around 1981.

Juan Ovalle- Grandson of Fransico Ovalle and son of Victor Ovalle, led the believers in Novillero around 1981.

Victor and Anita Ovalle- Parents of Juan Ovalle, this couple was the foundation of MAM in the early 80's after the foreign missionaries were forced to leave by their own embassy. During this time Victor performed all baptisms, weddings and communion. Victor was also in charge of MAM headquarters. Prior to this, Victor and Anita were the first missionaries and pastors in San Bartolome.

John Troyer and family- This family were missionaries in Palama with Gary Miller when, on September 13, 1981, they were attacked by guerillas. John was murdered and Gary was shot and left for dead. Troyer was also the first to begin alternative service in regards to night patrols. Instead he performed roadwork and kept detailed records for the local authorities.

Gary Miller- This missionary worked closely with the Troyer family in Palama. After being left for dead by the guerillas, he recuperated and eventually married John's widow, Marie.

Tereasa Calel- This women though at the time a child, was one of the first supporters of the Mennonite missionaries in San Bartolome. When the guerilla attacks increased, her father, brother and husband were all murdered. 

Don Donaldson- Though not an official member of MAM, this pilot was essential to the early life of MAM. Before Harold Kauffman had gained the needed hours to land in the treacherous mountains, this Mission Aviation Fellowship member, helped deliver supplies.

John Driver- This author and missionary is well known in Central America for Seminars that he gives. He has been asked numerous times to give seminars in Guatemala both at the Anabaptist Seminary, Semilla, as well as in the countryside.

Electronic Resources

"Guatemala." CIA - The World Factbook. <>.

Bienvenidos a SEMILLA. <>.

Annotated Bibliography

Hoover, Dorcas. Awaiting the Dawn. Christian Light Publications. 1992.

This nonfiction narrative tells about John and Marie Troyer and Gary Miller who, as missionaries for MAM were attacked by terrorists. This story is very centralized around 1981, the year that this attack took place. This also includes a bit of the personal life of Marie Troyer and Gary Miller which does not pertain to the goals of this research.

Sharp, Urie. Under His Wings. Christian Light Publications. 2002.

This nonfiction narrative tells about Urie Sharp’s encounter with Mennonite Air Missions and the pioneers of this movement, Harold and Darlene Kauffman. The story ranges from the years 1973-1983, the same years that planted the foundation for MAM. This also contains various stories collected from indigenous leaders of the village churches especially in relation to San Bartolomé. Among the many stories there are many faith and spiritually moving devotions about leaders' close encounters with guerilla groups and other life threatening events. 

Donald B. Kraybill, Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 230.

This encyclopedia entry was short and concise about Mennonite Air Missions. It includes the numbers of members as well as the number of churches and a very brief history. 

"Guatemala." CIA - The World Factbook. Web. 1 Apr. 2011.

This is a fact-filled webpage that allows the viewer to easily gather up to date information on Guatemala. Information includes geography, people, government, economy, communications, transportation, military and transnational issues. Also contained on this page are comparisons to other countries in the world.

Bienvenidos a SEMILLA. Web. 3 Apr. 2011. <>.

This is a very short webpage that contains a very brief over view of what Semilla is and a bit of other historical information.

Mennonite Directory. Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 1999. Print.

This short entry was very sparse on information. It contained the chair of MAM and the address in Guatemala City.

"Mennonite Air Missions (Guatemala) — GAMEO." GAMEO. Web. 18 Apr. 2011. <>.

This encyclopedia entry was full of information on church participation numbers. This also contained some dates that were important in the life of the church. It also contained all the different church names and number of members as well as the dates that the churches were founded.


  1. Donald B. Kraybill, Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 230.
  2. Sharp, Urie. Under His Wings. Christian Light Publications. 2002.
  3. Sharp, Urie. Under His Wings. Christian Light Publications. 2002.
  4. Sharp, Urie. Under His Wings. Christian Light Publications. 2002.<br>fckLRfckLR1974- Monte Horeb is founded in the town of El Novillero in Solala.<br>fckLRfckLR1975- Getsemani is founded in El Chal in the state of Peten. El Buen Samaritano is founded in the state of Santa Rosa.<br> 1976- On February 4, an earthquake rattles the country with a magnitude of 7.9. The following day another quake, this time a 5.7 on the Richter scale, shakes the country. In the aftermath of these two large earthquakes and the numerous tremors, 22,000 people are killed and 75,000 are injured. 300 villages were completely destroyed. In response to this, MAM participated in "Operation Quake," which sent support in the form of money, medicine, tents, supplies, food, clothes, construction materials, tools, emergency equipment and volunteers from many different international organizations and churches. As a side note, the local Catholic church in San Bartolomé was rebuilt before any of the workers began reconstruction of their homes. Also, Sinai is founded in Mixcolajá in state of Quiché.<ref>Sharp, Urie. Under His Wings. Christian Light Publications. 2002.
  5. Sharp, Urie. Under His Wings. Christian Light Publications. 2002.
  6. Sharp, Urie. Under His Wings. Christian Light Publications. 2002.
  7. Hoover, Dorcas. Awaiting the Dawn. Christian Light Publications. 1992.
  8. Sharp, Urie. Under His Wings. Christian Light Publications. 2002.
  9. Sharp, Urie. Under His Wings. Christian Light Publications. 2002.
  10. Bienvenidos a SEMILLA. Web. 3 Apr. 2011.
  11. Donald B. Kraybill, Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 230
  12. Sharp, Urie. Under His Wings. Christian Light Publications. 2002.