To the Heights

For missionary Reed Skinner, advancing God’s kingdom is quite literally an upward climb.

Rain patters on the soil as Reed Skinner emerges from the cornstalks into Rincón, an indigenous village in the upper elevations of Honduras. Skinner shakes a few hands and pats the backs of the children crowding around him as he makes his way toward a canopy of trees. A group of Tolpan boys hurry over from their soccer game, while a few young mothers inch into the loose circle, nursing infants under patterned umbrellas. The elders are last to arrive, cresting the hilltop from unseen huts sprinkled below the summit.

Reed Skinner stops to chat with a weaver working on a canasta.
 

Skinner knows only a few phrases in the people’s heart language, but the Tolpan do well with his excellent Spanish. He stands in the midst of them and shares a short Bible lesson, ink running off his notes and staining his fingers as he reads. The community is quiet yet receptive. Though unaccustomed to outside visitors, they are grateful for his attentive presence.

Skinner gets help from Mauricio, a young Honduran pastor from nearby La Ceiba. Together, they distribute In Touch Messengers, one to each family standing dripping wet under the branches. One man refuses to accept the device. Speaking in Tol, Mauricio tells him, “We don’t want anything from you. Take it—it’s good.” Skinner and Mauricio make sure to show how the audio player’s buttons work, teaching the people how to switch from the New Testament to biblical teaching.

The short visit ends with a promise to return soon. Since the Tolpan are spread out through the mountains, Skinner must keep moving to reach them all. There’s an hour of hiking to get back to where his Land Cruiser is parked in La Ceiba. And though he’s spent the whole day bouncing along dirt roads from the capital of Tegucigalpa to get here, he has another village to see tonight and more hiking tomorrow.

A young mother in Rincón.

Transformed by the gospel at the age of 30, Skinner had a profound desire to follow the Lord in a foreign assignment. After several years of praying and missionary training, he and his wife Kim left the United States with their three young children to run boys’ and girls’ dormitories in a Honduran orphanage. The experience was rewarding but difficult. Overseeing about 160 children meant that their own children weren’t getting a lot of personal attention. And Skinner felt restless. Though Scripture was shaping the orphans’ lives on a daily basis, he was convinced there were others who needed his help more. He wanted to go where the gospel was not being heard.

For a time, Skinner was deeply involved with the Miskito tribe, paddling his way through the jungle interior in a dugout canoe. It was exhilarating work, and the people were responsive to the gospel, but he continually ran into the authorities patrolling the waters to intercept drug trafficking. After a couple of years, he was ordered out of the area for his own safety.

When he could, he also shared the gospel in the mountains, where he’d met a missionary serving the Tolpan people in the village of San Juan. Soon after Skinner’s departure from the jungle, the missionary announced he was leaving to serve in Mexico. “The Lord had me there for that time,” says Skinner, who took over the work among the Tolpan.

Skinner pauses to catch his breath on the hike to Monte Negro.

In La Ceiba, Skinner retrieves his Land Cruiser and rattles over the craggy road to nearby San Juan. Arriving, the vehicle descends a rough channel of grass into the village, where Skinner parks in front of a narrow church. As he unloads his supplies, including boxes of rice, children race to his side. They remind him that he’s promised to show them a movie this week. And though tired from the long day, Skinner keeps his word, lugging out the equipment and setting up the worship space for a midweek screening of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, based on C. S. Lewis’s 1952 novel by the same name. As the sun dips below the mountains, families squish together on the benches, excited for this rare entertainment.

San Juan is home to over 70 families, each with a simple house settled atop the rocky and rutted village floor. For generations, the Tolpan were an animistic people, with no words for God or worship. There was no written language until 1996 when Wycliffe Bible translators arrived to develop a Tol New Testament, adopting Spanish words where the native language seemed deficient. As the people of San Juan began coming to Christ, the village was evangelized and enjoyed a long season of stability. When Skinner arrived, he was committed to placing a Honduran pastor in the village, with the hope of one day seeing the Tolpan people discipled and leading the church on their own. Skinner has patiently prayed about this, and he believes the time has come to unfold the plan among the people.

On the evening after the movie screening, Skinner is preaching in Spanish to a full house, calling the believers to full engagement in the work of the church. While speaking on Matthew 16 and the confession of Peter, he asks, “Where is the evidence of faith in your day-to-day life? Where is the fruit?” Then he urges the men to be praying about their involvement. “We’re going to have deacons,” he tells them. “I’ll be coming to some of you.”

A young boy listens to his Messenger.

Among the Tolpan, Skinner’s focus is on the men first. “They are the center of influence,” he says—that is, the ones most likely to persuade the rest. Once the new deacons are trained, he’ll call elders, who will be challenged to preach and teach. Skinner’s ambition is to replace himself as pastor, so he can spend more time in the higher elevations, among the more remote Tolpan. And in time, he wants the local believers invested even in that work.

By hiking from La Ceiba on a trail that bends round a rim of forest, Skinner reaches Monte Negro, one of the least accessible villages he visits. He crosses a river via a downed tree and then begins the sheer, unforgiving climb to the first of many dwellings scattered along the mountainside. Mauricio once again accompanies Skinner, the two men encouraging one another in the gospel as they hike. A man named Ricardo is there, helping on a Tol translation of the Old Testament. Skinner has been doing a ministry of reconciliation with Ricardo, who after a time of falling out with the church has been slow to experience graceful restoration from the people in San Juan.

Skinner prays with his dear friend Hymie, a 100-year-old man from San Juan.

There is no central gathering place for the Tol of Monte Negro, so Skinner makes short pastoral visits to successive homes along the ridgeline. The men have been up since long before daybreak, coaxing a crop out of the mountain inclines, but the women and children are home. Skinner sits cross-legged in front of their homes, reaffirming the gospel among them, and praying. With many others to reach on these climbs, it will be at least a week or even several weeks before he can come back here. So he leaves a Messenger for the family to share, but wishes he had enough to leave two—one for the husband in the field, and one for the wife as she cooks and cleans and cares for the children. Skinner concludes the visit with a happy conversation, speaking to a woman lying paralyzed in bed. She tells of the great joy and companionship her Messenger has given her in the lonely hours when family members are busy with work.

On Thursdays, Skinner is back behind the wheel of his Land Cruiser, eager to spend the long weekend at home in Tegucigalpa with his family. Somehow he finds a way to recharge, though his days remain full. When he’s not with the Tolpan, he’s busy with administration and preaching two Sundays a month where his family worships.

Now with nine years invested in Honduras, Reed and Kim Skinner have become mentors to many of the other missionaries stationed in Tegucigalpa, the densely populated capital. They provide biblical encouragement for the unique challenges of missionary life, and marriage counseling for some of the couples serving there.

As he presses on, Skinner prepares for a day when more native Hondurans serve the spiritual needs of their country. Though their church is poor, he says the people are spiritually strong. “Their faith is generally more tried and tested than [one finds in] a lot of western culture, and they’re about going and making disciples.” So Skinner has come alongside these believers to encourage them on toward maturity, praying for the day when both the city and the mountains will overflow with laborers.

 

Photography by Ben Rollins

Related Topics:  Evangelism

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