There are a few events around Riverview Baptist Church that I consider extraordinary. Now, maybe that’s just because I wasn’t born and bred in these parts, but I doubt it. One is the annual Sportsman’s Banquet – to be discussed in a subsequent feature – and another is the Guatemala Auction, where thousands of items (and services) are donated by numerous individuals and businesses, arranged in the church’s gymnasium, and then auctioned off on a designated summer day in July. All the proceeds raised go toward funding a missionary endeavor in Guatemala. This last summer, the auction raised over $18,000, all of which would be used in ministry to pastors there. Heavily involved in both, and the greatest force behind the Guatemala auction, is a Mann named Rodney.
It wasn’t easy pinning Rodney and his wife Heather down for a chat, but I finally got my interview a couple of days before they - along with 23 other members of Riverview - embarked on this year’s trip to Guatemala.
I wanted to start with a little history on the Manns, so my first question drew a laugh. “How long have you two been married, I asked?”
“Goodness gracious!” Rodney exclaimed. “Aren’t we supposed to be talking about missions here?”
“Well, of course!” I chuckled back. “I want a little back-story.”
“23 years in 10 days!” He told me. There was a hint of pride in his voice.
Heather was laughing too when she added an interesting detail. “We’ll be in Guatemala for our anniversary!”
“For the last fourteen years for our anniversary I’ve taken her to a beautiful, beautiful lake setting!” Rodney said.
“With lots of our friends.” Heather beamed.
“With from 25 to 70 of our friends.” He grinned. They were both clearly enjoying this rather atypical family fact.
“And always outside of the country.” I finished with a smile. "That’s fifteen successive anniversaries spent on the mission field in Guatemala." I thought. And they were loving it.
“So, you told me that you’ve been going to Guatemala for 14 years?” I asked Rodney.
“My first trip was in 2006.” Heather explained.
“I went for the first time in 2007.” He clarified.
“So, Heather was the first person to go?”
“I sent her first to make sure it was safe." His characteristic humor was in full swing. "I didn’t want to go over there and get hurt or something like that!”
“So, how did this start for you, then?” I asked her.
“Well, in 1999 I took my first mission trip with the wife of one of Rodney’s friends. We went to Belarus. Then God closed the door on that, but I knew that God wanted me to be involved in missions. So, one of Rodney’s cousins had been hounding me for probably five or six years, but we were still very connected to Belarus. We were hosting kids over in our home after I’d been, and sending packages and just really occupied with all that, but finally I just said 'ok, I’ll go!'”
“In 1999 she went to Belarus, and in 2000 we hosted six kids and in 2001 we hosted seven.” Rodney explained.
“So, when you say you hosted kids, are you saying you had them over from Belarus?”
“Yes!” They answered together.
“They were children affected by the Chernobyl disaster.” Heather clarified. “We heard that coming to America for the summer added years to the lives of these kids.”
The Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear accident that occurred on the 26th of April 1986 at the "number four" nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Complex near the city of Pripyat, lying about 80 miles north of Kiev, Ukraine, and less than 13 miles south of the border with Belarus. It is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history.
“So, how long did they actually stay?”
“Six weeks.” Rodney replied. “They stayed all of July and half of August before they went back”
“We had a doctor here who helped them with the thyroid panels and the blood-work they needed; and we got them free dental services from two dentists and filled their cavities and things like that. It was amazing the support that we had.” Heather said. “We took them camping and horseback riding and it was just so many little experiences for them, it was incredible!”
“Wow!” I was fascinated. This was turning out to be a better back-story than I had imagined. “What were the ages of these kids?”
“From about seven to about 13 or 14, and the interpreter was about 17.” Rodney answered.
“So, they didn’t even speak English.” I gawked at him.
“One! The interpreter.”
“But every time we got together we would present the Gospel through her.” Heather continued. “We showed the Jesus film, and all but one, maybe, made professions of faith. They’re adults now, so that was all really neat!”
“But,” she said, “I knew that that door was closed and I knew that God was not swinging it open. And so, it really was the relentlessness of his cousin Robert and I was just like ‘Oh my goodness, Robert! I’ll go!’”
“And once you went, it got into your blood.” I commented.
“Yes, but it was a little slow going at first because Rodney went the second year and then pastor Shahn came to us and asked whether we would consider leading a team from the church to go, and I said ‘no! I don’t think I could handle all that!’" She said laughing.
“The distinct thing that I remember,” Rodney interjected, “was while we were eating on Sunday night, and Pastor Luis, who I had just met the previous Friday, came up to me and said in that sweet voice of his ‘Rodney, do you think you can bring a team from your church?’”
Heather was already laughing again, but I didn’t know whether she was humored by the horrible job her very southern husband was doing trying to imitate the Guatemalan accent.
“So I sat down with Heather,” Rodney continued, “and I said ‘you know, Pastor Luis wants me to bring a team from our church.’ She said, 'he tells everybody that, Rodney! Don’t you think you’re something special!'"
I joined Heather laughing.
“So, 2009 was our first Riverview trip with a team, and we took eight.”
“So, eight went the first time, and how many went the second time? Did it jump?”
“Eight, the first time, then 24, then 24 again the following year.”
“What was the highest number you’ve had?” I asked him.
“In 2015 we had 63, that was our peak.”
“How many would be going this time?”
“How long do you actually spend on each trip?”
“10 days, typically.” He answered. “Friday to Saturday. We’re back in the US somewhere between eight on Saturday night and five Sunday morning.”
"What is the trip like? What do you do there at this point?”
“There’s a little bit of the old trip still involved, but things have changed over the years. In the early days we’d go build a family a house, and while we do that we’ll go do other activities. Now, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are days for the medical teams. There’s anywhere from two to twenty on a medical team. We hire a Christian Guatemalan doctor that we’ve known now for 14 years. He travels with us and speaks about as much English as I do Spanish.”
“He specializes in infectious diseases.” Heather added. “So, on Saturday, if all goes well and we make it up onto the mountain, we’ll have the medical clinic, we’ll have a big open-air Bible school type day going on, then after that we’ll have Happy Feet where we take baby wipes and wipe their feet and put shoes on their feet. Happy Feet usually lasts four to five hours. It’s pretty long and exhausting.”
“On Sunday, we go back down to the lake area where the compound is and it’s a much more relaxed day, There’s worship, we usually do a hike and go out into the village. The teens can take tuktuk rides and shop a bit, and then get ready for church that night. We try to organize our suitcases to get ready for the week. Then on Monday on another mountain we’ll do exactly the same thing we did on Saturday with five home visits added to that as well.”
"We’ll have a big VBS, a medical clinic for the village, Happy Feet if there’s time, and then we go into five of the homes from the feeding program and take food and pray with them."
"And then Tuesday to Thursday is the pastors’ conference, and the ladies conference. And while that’s going on, the others are at another site doing VBS and other things."
"Then on Wednesday we’ll have a big basketball game that involves the pastors and Pastor Shahn will do devotion; and then all the local pastors will themselves minister to those who come forward with any kind of spiritual need."
“That’s how we came up with this basketball game.” Rodney said. “It’s their people and we don’t have to translate. These games are like 1400 people who come out to see this. The Americans are playing the Guatemalans.”
“Incredible!” I said. “So, tell me a little bit about your testimonies. How did you get saved?”
Rodney answered first. “I was actually led to the Lord by a girl in high school and she happens to be sitting right here.”
“Oh really! You guys have been interested in each other for a while. So, How did you become a Christian?” I asked Heather who was still smiling.
“I accepted Christ when I was six in 1980 at a little Vacation Bible School in my country church. The Lord had been dealing with me for a long time and I remember talking to everybody. I’d spend hours after church talking to my pastor and my grandmother lived close to the church and we’d go down there and get on the swing and talk for hours, and finally it just took hold and the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart. That was at that little country church.”
“Ok.” I said. “Now for one final question. This ministry is clearly something that you’re passionate about. You spend a lot on time and energy on this. What is it about Guatemala that got this trip so deeply embedded in your psyche?”
“For me it’s a two part answer there.” Rodney offered. “First, there’s the team. Once you’ve been on a Guatemala mission, you’re never going to walk down the church isle, or sit on a church pew, or walk through the hall together and not see somebody you’ve been on a team with. And once you’ve been on a mission trip literally 24 hours a day with them, you’ve going get to know them. You spend ten days on a mission field with someone and you literally make up 20 years what coming to church on Sunday and Wednesday would do.”
“I completely understand that!” I mused out loud.
“It’s just a special thing.” He said. “It’s kinda like going to war with somebody. It’s hard and it’s stressful, but the cream always rises to the top. And then, of course, there is the people in Guatemala. There’re two sides to it”
“It’s a lot of work, to say the least.” Heather added. “But once those pastors - and for me especially those women - come through the door and you see their faces and they’re just so happy to see us, and we’ve built relationships with them, it makes this all this effort worth while. And then, of course there’re the salvation part and to know that they’re going back to their church’s and they’re training others, and for me, if there’s just one person in Heaven because of this, it’s all worth it.”
Her passion was audible.
“For me, it’s an obedience issue. “ She emphasized. “I’ll stop when He says stop, and I’ll go wherever He says to go. I’ve already purposed that. It’s hard sometimes, we sacrifice a lot of time and our kids sacrifice a lot because of our involvement with Guatemala, but it’s ok. One of these days they’ll see that it’s worth it. We have to sacrifice something, even if it’s just our time and resources, we can do that for Christ.”
“Thank you!” I said. "This has been wonderful!"
To date, some 389 people have gone to Guatemala from RBC with the Manns, and interestingly, Heather anticipates a return to Belarus with a ministry team from Riverview during the month of August 2019 - the answer to a prayer she has held in her heart for 20 years.
From time to time I'll be interviewing noteworthy Christians within the Riverview church family for short features. There are many, many great stories to tell.
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