The Iglesia Nacional Evangélica Menonita Guatemalteca (INEMGUA), Kekchi Mennonite Church consists of 128 churches divided into six regions throughout mountainous Alta Verapaz, Guatemala — home to the Kekchi, an indigenous people of Mayan decent — and extending into Baja Verapaz and the Petén, a remote area.
Deborah “Deb” Byler, a Mennonite Mission Network international service worker, lived in San Pedro Carchá (site of the Kekchi Mennonite Church offices) for 16 years, supporting women leaders in further developing their gifts for ministry. In partnership with Indigenous women, Byler developed and distributed materials in the Kekchi language to Kekchi pastors and hundreds of women, sponsored Bible studies, facilitated trauma healing workshops, and held Sister Care Seminars (a Mennonite Women USA program), all while encouraging confidence, leadership skills, and trust in one another. She also provided spiritual direction for a few of the women.
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might... Ecclesiastes 9:10 (NIV)
Byler grew up in West Liberty, Ohio, and attended Bethel Mennonite Church. At Goshen College, she was inspired to work in another country after a Study Service Trimester in Costa Rica. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and moved to Springfield, Ohio, to teach third and fourth grade students in Springfield’s Northeastern School District.
“My grandmother had a vision for being a missionary but was never able to do that. She prayed that her children and grandchildren would go into missions," said Byler.
Two of her grandmother’s children and several of her grandchildren did go into missions — some for several years and some for a lifetime — including Byler. In 1984, she went to Guatemala with Eastern Mennonite Missions and worked with Kekchi women in individual church groups with a focus on literacy.
Twelve years later, Byler left Guatemala and completed a Master of Divinity degree at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in 1999. In 2000, she began working in Mission Network’s Human Resources department where she served in various roles, including director of worker care.
In 2015, Byler earned a Doctor of Ministry degree at Columbia International University; and she later trained at AMBS as a spiritual director and began providing spiritual direction for mission workers at Mission Network.
“I always wanted to return to Guatemala, but my mother was still living so I did not feel a release from God to leave her. When my mother died in May 2016, I thought I was too old to go back. Four months later, I awoke in the night and sensed God saying to me, ‘It’s time to go back.’”
Byler was surprised and excited. She checked in with the Kekchi Mennonite Church staff and former mission workers active in communicating with Kekchi Mennonite Church leaders, and they confirmed there was a need for her to return to Guatemala.
In 2017, Byler transitioned from her position in Mission Network offices to ministry in Guatemala.
“For approximately eight years while I was in the United States between terms, I experienced serious depression and could not see or experience God walking with me. God was silent. Now, I can see God was shaping me at that time to be able to later identify with the vulnerable, human, and very dedicated Kekchi women. God was with me whether I knew it or not. I know now that God is always at work.”
Every region of the Kekchi Mennonite Church now has a women’s committee and a woman who serves as supervisor. The supervisor travels to the churches of her region to visit women and encourage the women leaders. The Kekchi Mennonite Church is large, and this level of organization creates opportunities for women throughout the church. Currently, 29 Kekchi women are studying theology at Instituto Biblico Mennonita INEMGUA in Carchá thanks to small scholarships from Mission Network’s International Leadership Training Endowment.
Once completed, they can study at the next level with SEMILLA (Latin American Anabaptist Seminary) which sends teachers to Carchá. Four of the 29 women who are receiving scholarships are already studying with SEMILLA teachers.
Byler noted that gaining confidence is challenging work for Kekchi women, “I have seen amazing growth in just five years. Many think they aren’t as intelligent as men — can’t lead like men. I am impressed with the dedication of the Kekchi women leaders who are sometimes challenged by pastors who don’t understand the need for the women’s organization.”
Culturally, Kekchi women are reserved and have not shared deep pain with each other. Significant growth took place in the Sister Care Seminars as the women experienced the care they received from each other. They discussed the story of Ruth and Naomi — a story of loving and caring for each other and developing a respectful relationship. The seminar participants took this example, dramatized it, and shared what they learned at the Sister Care seminar with women at other churches.
Julia Xol, president of the overall Kekchi church women’s organization, said she liked traveling with Byler to distant communities and working with women leaders. “Women in some regions were not organized. Deborah encouraged the organization of committees and selection of women supervisors for women’s groups in every region, and we learned in Sister Care Seminars to support each other,” she said.
Byler said Xol did much of the organizing, she valued working as a team, and she could not have accomplished alone all that the two of them achieved together, "Julia knew the culture and had years of experience working in her region, first as a supervisor and then as a committee member. I had expertise and broader experience in other settings to contribute to the process. I am amazed at, and grateful for, the way God used us as a team.”
Beginning in August 2022, a church in each INEMGUA region held farewell services to say goodbye to Byler. She said she did not look forward to the farewell events as she was experiencing significant and deep grief, but admits they were a blessing.
At each of the services, the women and pastors shared their gratitude. One woman gifted her a Kekchi skirt and blouse to wear to the farewell services, others expressed appreciation with cloth and small gifts for teaching them and raising them up as women with dignity.
Kekchi missionaries Maria Chub and Maria Santos Tiul will visit the regions and provide pastoral care for the regional leaders and supervisors. Xol will oversee finances and make sure Chub and Tiul have the resources they need to accomplish their goals. Women supervisors will work with committees to continue to strengthen the women in their regions.
“We need to carry forward all that Deborah taught. She is not taking the Unión Femenil (Kekchi Mennonite women’s organization) with her. We are here to continue serving. I am very grateful to her. She has taught me many things,” said María Chub at the Carchá farewell service.
Byler recently made her way back to the United States to retire in Goshen, Indiana. She admits she will miss her dear friends and the beautiful place in which she lived. Byler said she will especially miss the sound of patting tortillas and the taste of those hot tortillas with nearly every meal.
“I never learned to make tortillas properly. The women laughed at my attempts!”
Still, she is looking forward to a less hectic life and to what else God has in store for her.
“I experienced many surprises throughout my life and career. We always need to be ready for the surprises God has for us.”
Note: INEMGUA has its roots in mission work from Franklin Mennonite Conference in Pennsylvania, along with Eastern Mennonite Missions. They began relating with the Kekchi people in Alta Verapaz in 1968. The first baptisms took place in 1972. By 1980 the Kekchi Mennonite Church was organized.