For six hours he sweated and shivered with a fever of unknown origin; he was lying on a hospital bed, under a tin roof, deep within the interior of Brazil. In a bed on one side of him was a mother and her hours-old baby, and on the other side, a woman dying of malaria.
For seven years Jonathan Reed and his young family lived on the rivers of the Amazon Basin, bringing the name of Jesus to villages where people had never been reached with the gospel. EMT-certified, Jonathan functioned as a jungle doctor, running an extensive medical clinic on his family houseboat. Now he wanted to know what the attending physician was putting into his IV. “Don’t worry about it,” he was told. Jonathan had survived four bouts of malaria and one of dengue fever, but this case, which included joint swelling and pain, was different. So with the thought, I’m not dying in this place, Jonathan slipped out his IV and took a mototaxi back to the house.
It would be days before the next boat arrived. As Jonathan clung to life, his wife Jessica packed their things and kept in contact with specialists in the U.S., who prepared her for the worst. Once aboard the riverboat, he collapsed and slept through the four-day journey, while Jessica kept an eye on him and their three young daughters—Kezia, Maggie, and Kate.
But God preserved Jonathan. Sweating and running a fever during the height of the Ebola scare, he somehow made it back to the States. While specialists ran tests that yielded no answers, he slowly regained his strength. No one, from his doctors to his mission organization, was prepared to send him back to Brazil. Yet three months later Jonathan was back in the Amazon, distributing hundreds of In Touch Messengers. “I had this plan for months,” he says, “so I just recuperated well enough. I asked the doctor and she said, “You can do a short trip, but you just can’t live down there.” And though his strength was low, he took advantage of the good days and traveled with a missionary friend. In one month they made their way to 18 remote villages and experienced the joy of seeing many people come to faith in Christ.
The trip also brought him into contact with a doctor who was able to diagnose his strange condition: Chikungunya, a mosquito-borne virus that can result in intense and often incapacitating joint pain. While most sufferers will overcome the virus after weeks or months, Jonathan has a chronic case for which there is no cure. His first year after infection would be spent in and out of bed as he learned how to live with this new lifelong companion. Rest would be a difficult prescription for a man so hungry to bring Christ to unreached native peoples.
Under a high metal roof, before a congregation of about 40 people, stand two K’ekchi brothers-in-law. One is the village chief, the other its pastor. The chief holds a stack of tortillas wrapped in tinfoil, while Pastor Juan Ishim grips a chalice of grape juice in both hands. As members of the congregation step forward, each one pinching a tortilla from the stack and dipping it in the juice, Pastor Juan says, “The body of Christ, broken for you.” It’s the first communion for this church in San Pablo, Belize. And for Jonathan, it’s a moment that was three years in the making.
After a year of rest and recuperation, Jonathan proved himself ready for a return to the field full-time. With a growing knowledge of his physical limitations, the family moved to Belize, where they’d never be terribly far from an airport.
This new base offered a quieter, less rugged life. But they were almost tripping over other missionaries and the mission teams that frequently visited from the States. The Reeds struggled to find their place within this heavily evangelized area. Jonathan and Jessica shared a conviction that they were to go where others had not been.
Though grateful to be back in the field, they prayed for a situation where they could be more useful. Then their housing arrangements went sideways—a fire, a landowner’s broken agreement, and a fruitless search for some kind of semi-permanent residence incrementally pushed them south toward Punta Gorda. A natural networker, Jonathan began partnering with other missionaries in the area, until one day he was asked to follow up with a persistent K’ekchi pastor named Juan Ishim. Jonathan was eager to meet with him and would soon discover that Juan was the key to everything.
All Juan needed was a good mentor—for four years he’d been asking missionaries in the city to come and train him. When he’d started his congregation, he knew nothing about the Bible but was trying to function in the role he’d been given by the chief. And Juan wasn’t the only K’ekchi pastor out and away from the cities. There were dozens of others, many who, like him, had been thrust into spiritual leadership without training.
In time, a comfortable give-and-take relationship began to develop between Jonathan and Juan. For the first six months they used the Messenger as a gateway to conversation, with Juan absorbing all the messages stored within. As Jonathan discipled Juan, he also provided pastoral training—how to interpret a text, preach a sermon, lead a congregation, and administer the sacraments. Soon what began as a mentor-mentee relationship developed into a partnership. Juan put Jonathan in contact with still more K’ekchi leaders, and together the two men moved out into the byways, leading dozens of pastors into a deeper relationship with God and His Word.
On a Tuesday morning, the Reed family is on the road by 6 a.m., Jonathan behind the wheel in his open-air Land Rover, with Jessica following in their air-conditioned Chevy Suburban. It takes two vehicles to transport the family, Juan, and the pastors they’ll pick up along the way to today’s destination—a village named Delores. It will be the last full session for these pastoral students, who will receive certificates for completing their first course from the K’ekchi Bible Institute (KBI) Guatemala.
The Land Rover rattles down the uneven dirt road, with 5-year-old Kate curled up close to her father’s leg. Jonathan barrels along, worn out from lengthy travel days and the work of coordinating visits and mentoring. He’s often on his phone, counseling the K’ekchi pastors through the challenges that arise within their congregations. A month earlier, the stress and exhaustion caused his chikungunya to flare up, and he was forced to take a few weeks’ rest. Now he’s feeling close to burnout again. And last night’s conversation with his 8-year-old daughter, Kezia, is weighing on him. She came to him in tears, asking when they could just sit and talk. When we’re not so busy, Jonathan said, consoling her. “When is that?” she asked. “We’re always busy.”
Aware of Kate beside him, Jonathan punches the hub of his steering wheel and it emits a funny little beep. It makes Kate laugh, and she’s soon sitting up straight, making a tight fist of her own, beeping the horn, too. They ride like this for a while, making a lot of racket for no one but themselves.
In Delores, 19 pastoral students sit on benches in the stifling heat, listening as Juan translates Jonathan’s teaching from English to K’ekchi. The Reeds had picked up 11 of them on the way here—the other eight live nearby, and that’s precisely one of the challenges in Belize. The ministers serve in close proximity to each other, teaching the same Word, believing the same truth, enjoying the same worship style. A sense of competition can easily rear up between them, and frustrated church members often wander up the road to another church.
A number of the pastors ask Jonathan what to do with “a bad deacon,” and while Jonathan offers the group biblical guidelines and practical suggestions, he knows much of the problem lies in the foundation of these pop-up congregations. If the pastors are only now being trained, what is the state of the laity? The challenges are more than one man—or even two working in partnership—can adequately handle.
But later, as the sky begins to dim and the stars kindle to life in the vast expanse, the K’ekchi people in and around Delores make their way to an empty field. With some walking an hour or more, they gather as a community for the area’s very first screening of The Jesus Film. A forgotten cable nearly derails the event, but a troop of boys heads off in a race against the setting sun to locate a work-around. Jonathan reroutes his projection system, and with his generator kicking to life, the Garden of Eden appears on the screen hanging against the building’s exterior wall. Six hundred K’ekchi people pack the area—some leaning against Jonathan’s truck and others standing far off on a rise of earth—and watch, transfixed by the story. Afterwards, Pastor Juan speaks to the throng, emphasizing that what they’ve seen is real, but it is not the end. “Jesus is coming back.” He invites each one to consider the life of Christ and receive Him as Savior. Then, taking note of the high concentration of pastors who’ve been in the village for training, he adds, “Speak to any pastor you wish. We would be very happy to hear from you.”
Moving to Belize was meant to lighten the burden for the Reed family, but the work became taxing. It was clear to everyone that Jonathan needed to slow down. Yet he knew his mission among the K’ekchi was the leading of God, with much more yet to come. Then a solution came into focus: If the Reed family moved to the other side of the K’ekchi region, they could work directly with KBI Guatemala. The institute needed an experienced ministry leader to help the new graduates plant churches, and Jonathan needed a support structure to keep him from doing everything on his own. Juan and his family came along, too, so that he could be equipped to start a future KBI center in Belize.
Today, the Reeds are well rested after six months of language school. They took time to explore their new area, learning where to shop and getting to know the neighbors. Jonathan has begun to work alongside newly trained pastors as they put down roots in the more than 1,000 K’ekchi villages that have never had a gospel-centered church. Not only will these pastors be well-grounded in Scripture, but they already have an intimate knowledge of the life, language, and culture of the flock they’re leading. That’s a good foundation for their ministry as servants to their own people, growing the family of God.
Photography by Ben Rollins