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A Foundation of Trust Built on Green Beans

Ibitayo, Kristina

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Journal of Christian Nursing: January 2009 - Volume 26 - Issue 1 - p 49-52
doi: 10.1097/01.CNJ.0000343928.09175.50
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In Brief

My father, Stan McMillen, was a missionary. Although he and my mother translated the New Testament into a previously unwritten Guatemalan Mayan dialect (Uspanteco), provided basic healthcare services, and conducted literacy classes, my father defied the image of a Bible-thumping missionary. Instead, the motorcycle was his vehicle of ministry (B. McMillen, personal communication, March 15, 2008).

Don Tano*
Don Tano and his wife Margot standing above the village square of Las Pacayas in 2000.

Throughout the countryside of Uspantan and its outlying villages, the people knew my father simply as Don Tano (Don means “mister,” and the “s” in Stan was dropped because of pronunciation). For more than 30 years, Don Tano blasted through their tiny villages on his motorcycle, leaving a dusty trail, on his way to agricultural projects and various errands.


During the mid-1970s my parents ran a small, bare-bones clinic in one room of their home. They lived among the Uspantec people in the village of Las Pacayas. As with most missionaries of that era, providing basic healthcare was something my parents did to meet the people's essential medical needs. Without their assistance, any medical care, even a storefront pharmacy, was a full day's walk away. I clearly recall three village clinic situations that left a profound impact.

The first incident occurred the night our family woke up to a woman screaming for help, pounding on our home's wooden shutters. As a teenager, home for the summer, I witnessed my parents perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a small child and start an intravenous drip. They were successful, and the child survived.

The second situation was the morning my sister had an appendicitis attack. Her diagnosis was made via short-wave radio communication from our kitchen to the capital city of Guatemala, and by late that evening she was in Guatemala City, prepped for emergency surgery.

The third experience was a blend of regular clinic occurrences: round-worm medication treatment, fever and dehydration treatment, vitamin shot regimens, and machete wound suturing. Every summer I assisted my mother in the clinic, which was the impetus for my becoming a nurse.

These clinic events occurred before the construction of a dirt road into the village, and my sister was fortunate to arrive in the capital city before her appendix burst. In his usual fashion, Don Tano oversaw the road building near the village, making sure the horse trail was widened enough to accommodate a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Together, he and the men used pick axes and shovels to gouge stone and dirt wedges from the mountainside. In later years, this road was widened to accommodate small bus transports, extending below the village of Las Pacayas.


Don Tano had the ability to make almost every stranger his friend, and one of these tools was his blunt Iowan manner of approach. As the years progressed, he asked people in local communities whether they wanted agricultural help to improve their lives. Then he showed them how to plant alternative crops, such as green beans substituted for corn, on land worn out from yearly corn production.

A man aware of his weaknesses, Don Tano determined with the Lord's help to make life better for the Uspantecos and another Mayan group, the Quichés. In his limited sphere of influence, he was a legend. Don Tano filled every room with his energetic force of will. In casual conversations with friends and family, he was determined to make the last sentence his.

With this same forthright forceful manner, he decided that the Guatemalan government needed to hear his new plans for the people. So he helped form the local Chamber of Commerce and approached the President's aide to lay out his vision for government road construction over a nearby mountain range into the remote Zona Reina area. This road opened access to a land-locked area where people were trapped in poverty. He believed all people should have the right to a better life.


But my father's real story is the story of green beans. He believed you must give a man not only the Scripture to feed his soul, but also food for his stomach aching with hunger. In one local area, he worked with a group of 40 widows, showing them how simple irrigation methods, alternative crops, and community resources pooled into a cooperative venture could result in increased income.

According to my father, a crop of green beans produces six times more than the revenue of a traditional corn crop. After Don Tano figured out how to make fancy green bean production a success in various local communities, he approached an agricultural cooperative in Guatemala City for provision of fertilizer and seeds. He had them commit to sending a refrigerated truck to the area every other day for purchase and pick up of the locally produced green beans. Don Tano served as liaison between the cooperative and the farmers, keeping an account of receipts for fertilizer and seeds, deducted from the produce sold, and for monies remitted by the cooperative (M. McMillen, personal communication, April 27, 2008). He loved to tell Americans that if they ever ate fancy green beans purchased from supermarkets in the United States, there was a slight chance they'd be eating green beans imported from the Uspantan area of Guatemala.

Once my father believed in a just cause, he persisted in this cause until others eventually backed his bold plans. There were failures along the way: fish ponds did not translate into changed local dietary habits; fancy potatoes for anticipated export to McDonald's restaurants could not grow in the region's mountainous climate; and his retirement dream home was a small 1-room structure accessible via a motorcycle trail. Yet, Don Tano dreamed his grand dreams and lived as a prince in God's kingdom. His belief in God covered his mistakes, and God carried his successes further than he dared to dream. Don Tano's green beans fed the people, who now began to live by the Word of God, heard and understood in their own Uspanteco language.


Recently, my father died in the United States after a 2.5-year battle with cancer. After his death, the Uspantecos gathered in the village of Las Pacayas for two memorial services. One was conducted by a joint effort of the local churches just after his death. The other village-wide event was held when my mother returned to pack her village belongings, give up her Guatemalan residency, and relocate to the United States.

At that memorial service, Uspanteco villagers who knew no English requested the replaying of Don Tano's testimonial video. They wanted to hear Don Tano's voice and see his face one last time. He spoke in English, testifying that life is about forgiveness and giving God the glory for any good done in one's life. “One little old lady in the front row had tears streaming down her face” (M. McMillen, personal communication, April 27, 2008).

Green beans fed not only the people's bodies. Beans also fed their souls, providing a way to connect hearts of different cultures in God's grand plan. Now the Uspanteco New Testament has a fertile ground in which to be heard, a foundation of trust built by Don Tano's green beans.


My parents were committed to long-term missions. They lived among the people and learned what made them a unique Mayan indigenous group, honoring traditions that did not conflict with Christian principles. For example, my mother purchased Uspanteco distinctive cotton shirts with multicolored ribbon strips sewn on horizontally along the back. My mother, sister, and I wore these shirts in the village and on deputation events, displaying the unique pattern to mission supporters in the United States.

Every indigenous group in Guatemala has a different women's top, and the Uspanteco top is simpler than many others. However, in an effort not to violate Christian principles, my parents refused to attend village events sponsored by the local witchdoctor, even though villagers might not understand this seemingly standoffish behavior.

My parents first taught the Uspanteco people about Jesus by learning their language and being open to misunderstandings and mistakes made in the language learning process. They showed Christ's character of perseverance and willingness to work toward the larger good. Gradually, Bible booklets and previously unwritten generational stories were produced and used as examples in local literacy classes. My parents honored the people by using Uspanteco stories in the teaching process.

Green beans ready for picking.

In this language and cultural immersion process, my parents had to trust God not only with the process of Bible translation, but also with the well-being of their children who attended boarding school. Secure in their faith, they dared to invest time, energy, and soul in the people, caring holistically for their physical, spiritual, and economic needs. At times there were setbacks and questions. My parents did their part, and it took many years before a single soul was converted from animistic ways to Christianity.

In a healthcare mission project, my mother initiated a year-long nutrition program for pregnant and lactating women, as well as infants and children up to 5 years of age, obtaining baseline weights and weekly weigh-ins. Five mornings a week they were given a cup of powdered milk, a bowl of Incaparina gruel (protein-rich dietary supplement), and age-appropriate vitamins.

Throughout my parents' term in Guatemala, they worked with or knew of short-term mission projects. Short-term mission groups have a specific focus with a limited time involvement, usually consisting of a few weeks. An unintended negative consequence of short-term missions and the freebies offered can be the local people's tendency to devalue local healthcare provision or to ignore their family's immediate healthcare needs, desiring instead to wait until the next short-term healthcare mission arrives. To counteract this philosophy, my mother charged a minimal fee for medicine dispensed or suturing performed. As she explained to me, “Even if it is a few pennies, the people will value the medicine they receive more if they can pay something for it.”

My parents worked to collaborate with short-term mission groups. As a teenager, I worked a few days with a U.S. church youth mission group in a nearby town. They were constructing cement block one-room church buildings in various local towns, and my parents thought it might be a fun for me to interact with American teenagers.

The Flying Dentists came to our Las Pacayas village once a year to extract teeth. Several dentists stayed for about a week, bringing supplies in their private planes. This was a big event for the village and the surrounding countryside. I often served as a translator or group facilitator, trying to keep the line of people flowing smoothly.

During that first year, the U.S. dentist began teaching my mother's Uspanteco language helper, Xayo, how to inject Novocain, extract teeth, suture gums, and sterilize instruments. Dental instruments were left for Xayo's use during the dentist's absence. This new skill served the people well, complementing Xayo's basic healthcare knowledge taught by my mother from Werner's (1977) book, Where There is No Doctor: A Village Health Care Handbook.

My mother gave Xayo the Spanish version of Werner's book, which he learned backward and forward. In the late 1980s, Xayo's limited medical knowledge was in great demand. People walked for 2 days to see him for health and dental needs.

Later, the leader of a remote mountainside village invited Xayo to live with them for several days every month because they had no access to medical care. Xayo told people about God while providing for their basic healthcare needs. He also prayed extensively due to pervasive black and white magic within the community. Thus, the holistic ministry of my parents was carried further than they could have anticipated.

Today, I own our family's dog-eared copy of Werner's book. My mother gifted it to me, remembering how much I had enjoyed leafing through the book as a child, learning basic healthcare routines.


Healthcare professionals in mission settings need to collaborate with agriculturists, government officials, businessmen, clergy, and church laity to improve the overall health of the people. Don Tano's life work is proof that wholistic ministry—caring for the physical, spiritual, and economic needs of people—along with solid local collaboration, works. Last year, the Guatemalan government constructed a permanent clinic in Las Pacayas and began providing a nurse a few days a week each month. A Rotary Club in New Mexico funded a water chlorination project for Las Pacayas. My mother provided community liaison support for a nonprofit agency that performed surgeries in Uspantan for several years. She provided advance information to the people about the surgical team's arrival and how they planned to provide free surgeries over a 5-day period.

Don Tano with a corn project and with his motorcycle on one of the mountain roads.

The mode of delivering Jesus Christ's message to the Uspanteco people was via multiple venues including green beans, Bible translation, and healthcare. Whatever the mode, the message of Jesus was preached, and all glory goes to him.

Werner, D. (1977). Where there is no doctor: A village health care handbook. Berkley, CA: Hesperian Foundation (2nd edition by J. Maxwell, C. Thuman, & D. Werner, 1992).

*All photos courtesy of the author.

Copyright © 2009 InterVarsity Christian Fellowship