By Tony W. Cartledge

I’m teaching this week at the Baptist Bible School of Belize, which meets three weeks each year at the Baptist Training Center of Belize in the tiny village of Camalote, near the capital city of Belmopan. 

The school grew out of an effort begun by concerned folks from First Baptist Church of Lexington, N.C. A friendship between pastor Ray Howell III and then-International Mission Board (IMB) missionary Gene Scarbrough led to a number of mission trips by church members. With support from the church, members built, over the years, several buildings on land that Scarbrough and another person had purchased independent of the IMB. 

As the IMB reduced convenient opportunities for theological education in Latin America during the 1990s, the late Dennis Hipps, a member of FBC Lexington, saw an unmet need for training pastors. He started holding weekend sessions at the training center.

Several years later, Robert Lamb, who had retired as founding dean and dean emeritus of the divinity school at Gardner-Webb University, came to teach at one of the weekend sessions. Lamb envisioned and offered to lead a change of direction that would expand the program to three weeks scattered through the year, with a programmed course of instruction involving both classroom learning and individual study. 

The first sessions were held in 2005; this week begins the 15th session. Typically, three classes are taught each session. Pastors, nearly all of whom are bivocational, take a week off from work and travel to the training center, some coming via a bus ride that can take up to eight hours. Churches and individuals contribute to a fund managed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina to provide financial assistance that provides scholarships and meals for participants.

I arrived on Saturday, along with octogenarians Lamb (who continues to act as stateside director) and Graham Hall (a retired systems analyst from FBC Lexington who handles the logistics), and other members of the team. The Belize City airport, I discovered on landing, has just one runway and no taxiways: jets do a U-turn at the end of the runway and taxi back the way they came. The airport can handle up to three planes, using portable stairways to the tarmac. The temperature was 83 degrees when we arrived.

Our team got off to a rather adventurous start: after renting a 15-passenger van from “Pancho’s Auto Rental,” we were making our way toward a local pastor’s house when we attempted a left turn just as a speeding driver, who had paid no attention to the blinker, tried to pass us. He lost control and spun out in a ditch.

As a result, we spent the next three hours waiting for the police to arrive, then driving back into Belize City for a lengthy session at the police station — where we learned that in Belize, people making left turns or U-turns are expected to pull off the right side of the road and watch for passing traffic before making the left turn. At least that’s what the policemen told us.

The training center is more than an hour west of Belize City, so we were all quite tired by the time we arrived, several hours behind schedule.

The welcome was much warmer on Sunday morning, when we drove back to Belize City to attend Galilee Baptist Church, where Ruperto Vincente, president of the Baptist Association of Belize, is pastor. The sanctuary was a large open room where seven ceiling fans and five oscillating pole fans kept the warm air stirred up during a time of lively worship that included reports from each Sunday school class; lots of choruses sung to the accompaniment of an electric guitar, keyboard, and drums; and a sermon from John 15:9-17 on the importance of obeying Christ’s command to love one another. 

Students arrived on Sunday evening, and classes begin on Monday: I’m expected to teach Old Testament in the morning and preaching from the Old Testament during the afternoon. Mike Browder, pastor of a Methodist church in Hopewell, Va., is teaching New Testament. 

It should be an interesting week. I hope to post travelblogs with photos along the way. Keep reading, and learn more about Baptist believers in Belize.

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