Excommunicated are welcomed
Belize church accepts those who’ve been cast out of colony’s closed society
An evangelical church plant offers excommunicated Old Colony Mennonite families hope and opportunities in the heart of Shipyard Colony in Belize.
Gospel Fellowship Chapel counts 60 attenders, but the number of lives it has touched over a decade is far greater, said Pastor Henry Redekopp.
The church is partially supported by the Canada-based Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference. The church is one of three EMMC has in Belize.
“We are mostly a transitional place,” Redekopp said while on sabbatical in Manitoba. “That’s not as exciting, because we’d like to see the church grow. It is [growing], but it’s not being seen there because the new believers leave.”
Though the church is physically close to the 3,500 people who live in the nine-mile by seven-mile colony, cultural barriers within the closed society magnify distances.
Redekopp explained that Gospel Fellowship’s flock of 60 just doesn’t have the economic base to welcome more.
“When people decide to choose Christ, they decide if they want to be silent and stay in their communities, or if they want to be outspoken,” he said. If they speak out, “then surely they will be excommunicated and their livelihood will be gone.”
Excommunication — be it for attending Bible studies or a different church, working outside the colony or operating a vehicle or tractor with rubber wheels — carries loss of job, and children’s jobs. The shunned can’t buy groceries in the colony store. Teenagers can no longer date their boyfriend or girlfriend. With so many restrictions, most leave to start a new life elsewhere.
Redekopp said very few people are excommunicated because of actual sin. He hasn’t met such a person in his four and a half years in the colony. He said if someone worked outside the colony or drove a vehicle for a job, they don’t see a connection between providing for their family and church discipline.
“I know it does happen, but people excommunicated for sin like adultery and some such, they don’t come to our church, because they feel they have been justly excommunicated,” he said. “So they go back and repent, and they submit themselves back to their leadership.”
Gospel Fellowship reaches out to colony members in a variety of ways. Three to four times a year, the church holds well-attended concerts in a pavillion not visible from the main road. Redekopp and his wife, Tina, try to organize the events to always include a sermon or testimony.
Evening worship services and revival-style meetings share the gospel in Low German, the main language used in the colony. The official language of Belize is English, and the church also offers lessons in that as well.
“Our deacons try to get in the homes of the people, and we try to build relationships wherever we can,” Redekopp said.
Though the horse-and-buggy community does not allow electricity, radios, phones, computers or the Internet, many colonists contact Redekopp through their email addresses asking for help with technology issues, such as working with the wireless Internet in their homes.
“We don’t try to blend in,” he said. “We’ve considered it and talked to people, but we were advised people would know we were trying to blend in, so we should just be who we are. . . .
“I often will give people rides, and it gives me an opportunity to communicate, and if they have technology problems they come to me because they can’t go anywhere else. They aren’t big on education. A lot of them are Canadian citizens and want help for their information to be up-to-date.”
Though the Redekopps’ lifestyle could seem like an affront to the colony life surrounding them, opinion varies.
“The leadership would rather see us leaving than staying, and some of the people feel the same way,” Redekopp said.
Others are thankful for the evangelical presence. He said he has been told by others who don’t intend to leave the colony that the church’s existence has caused leaders to be more cautious and use less power.
“At least they are discussing things a bit more,” he said. “They aren’t as quick to excommunicate because they know there is another option.”
Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.