On a spring afternoon in Guatemala, I watched Patrick Melder, a 55-year-old missionary, find a potential convert. He began his pitch with the cadence of an experienced salesman.
“We’re here to talk about bitcoin,” said Melder, who wore a khaki Panama hat he had bought in New York City, an Apple watch, and a bag slung over his shoulder with “Guatemala Bitcoin” stitched on its side.
Juana Antonio Coc listened to Melder’s translator with skepticism. He was urging her to accept bitcoin as payment in her small tienda, which sells alcohol, ice cream, and fishing lines in Panajachel, a vacation destination that borders a deep-blue lake and four looming volcanoes. “I’m not good at technology,” she said in Spanish.
Melder, white and wiry with short-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair, wasn’t deterred. “You have a smartphone. I saw it. That’s all you need. I’ll give you free bitcoin right now,” he coaxed Coc, who was wearing a rose-colored traje, a traditional Mayan dress. Periodically, customers who wanted beers or watermelon-flavored popsicles interrupted Melder. “She will get 146% per year,” he said at one point to his translator, referencing the average annual growth of bitcoin since 2009.
Just two days earlier, the price of bitcoin had plummeted more than 20%. Investors were suddenly short millions of dollars, and the global market capitalization for all cryptocurrencies had lost almost two trillion dollars since its peak in November 2021. Why was Melder, a retired ears, nose, and throat surgeon from Atlanta, trying to persuade a small shop owner in another hemisphere to use a volatile cryptocurrency that was crashing in value?
The answer, simply, is faith. An evangelical Christian who has preached the gospel across four continents, Melder believes bitcoin is “objective truth.” Like Christ’s second coming, bitcoin’s eventual dominance is inevitable, he says. Since November 2021, he has traveled multiple times to Panajachel to persuade businesses to accept bitcoin, educate children about the cryptocurrency, and encourage residents to mine it.
“In the not-too-distant future, those who adopted bitcoin early will be immensely wealthy,” he writes in his self-published book, The Christian Case for Bitcoin.
Melder’s unyielding belief in bitcoin isn’t unique. Bitcoin maximalists, or those who believe Bitcoin is the one true cryptocurrency, have continued to buy and sell bitcoin despite its recent downturn. Other Christian-turned-bitcoin missionaries are also spreading the good word of the blockchain to the world’s poor. Deeply committed to both bitcoin and god, Melder and those like him are blurring the boundaries between faith in technology and faith in god. As I followed him on the streets of Panajachel this past spring, he said he doesn’t see much distance between the two.
“Bitcoin has all the trappings of religion,” he told me. “No question.”
An experienced Christian missionary, Melder says the techniques he uses to spread bitcoin belief—teaching children, promising riches, door knocking—are similar to what Christians do when they spread the gospel. “Bitcoin evangelism is no different than Christian evangelism,” he told me. “It’s the same.”
And he recognizes that bitcoin belief and belief in god are not as far apart as they seem. “Bitcoin is a religion,” he flatly asserts in the first chapter of The Philosophy of Bitcoin and Religion, another book he self-published.
He may not be far off. Like Christianity, there is a prophet: Satoshi Nakamoto, the anonymous founder of Bitcoin. There is a sacred text: Nakamoto’s white paper, a blueprint for the cryptocurrency. And there are die-hard believers. “Like all religions, those who experience Bitcoin experience the transcendent,” writes Melder.
Before he found bitcoin, Melder found God. When he was a high school freshman in Houston, a classmate taught him about the Christian afterlife and “scared the bejesus” out of him. “I didn’t want to go to hell,” Melder said. So, he joined a fundamentalist church and preached the gospel on the streets of Houston during the weekends. After developing a distinct libertarian streak, he went to college and medical school. Once he finished his residency, he accompanied Christian missions to southwestern India, then to Kyiv, Ukraine, and finally Guatemala. In 2012, he and his wife set up an art camp at a private Christian school in Panajachel. For the next six summers, Melder and his family returned to the school to teach art and enjoy Panajachel’s “eternal spring,” as many call the town’s balmy climate.
Soon, Melder became an evangelist for another cause—bitcoin. He first heard about the cryptocurrency in 2018, but he didn’t become a true believer until late 2020, when he discovered Twitter’s bitcoin community, listened to bitcoin podcasts, and read bitcoin books. “I was amazed,” he said. The more he learned, the more he thought that bitcoin had the potential to “provide economic opportunity without creating dependence.”
It was around this time that Melder first heard about Bitcoin Beach in the town of El Zonte, perhaps the world’s most famous experiment in community cryptocurrency adoption. For years, Michael Peterson, a 47-year-old evangelical Christian from California, had hosted Christian missionaries at a retreat in El Zonte, where he and his family had lived for years. In 2019, with the aim of helping residents, Peterson secured a large donation in bitcoin from an anonymous donor. It came with only one stipulation: that the donation be distributed in bitcoin, not dollars. Peterson decided to work with members of El Zonte’s community to create a circular bitcoin economy, or market where people buy and sell goods with bitcoin. A gifted publicist, he painted his project in El Zonte as a great success, and the Salvadoran president cited it as an inspiration when announcing that the country would become the first in the world to adopt bitcoin as legal tender. As journalists, Bitcoin enthusiasts, and curious travelers flocked to Bitcoin Beach, it became a mecca for cryptocurrency believers. The town also turned into a training ground for those who wanted to learn how to perform crypto-conversions elsewhere.
Rich Swisher, a 53-year-old evangelical Christian from California, visited El Zonte after he had founded his own bitcoin conversion project. Having accompanied numerous Christian missions to Peru, he and Valentin Pompescu, a 42-year-old Romanian, decided to bring bitcoin to the communities where they had also ministered. They called their initiative Motiv, which “empowers the disempowered and emancipates people from oppression using bitcoin,” according to its website.
Melder similarly visited El Zonte to pay his respects, and he then launched his own initiative in the lakefront community of Panajachel. Like Peterson, he wants to “bank the unbanked,” or give those who don’t have bank accounts a means of saving money. And he believes bitcoin is a natural hedge against inflation. “Bitcoin is your bank,” he later told me. In a nod to Peterson, he dubbed his project along Lake Atitlán, Central America’s deepest lake, Lago Bitcoin, or Bitcoin Lake.
When I shadowed Melder for more than a week, I wasn’t the only one to join his bitcoin mission. There were Guatemalan podcasters, a red-meat-loving representative from a bitcoin mining company, an elderly inventor from Texas, two bitcoin devotees from Switzerland, and a family—a father, his teenage daughter, and her friend, who all flew out from St. Louis.
For Kate and Madaket, the teenagers from St. Louis, traveling to Guatemala for the first time was a treat at the end of their senior year of high school. However, their time in Panajachel wasn’t merely a vacation. They came to lead a class on bitcoin.
The day after Melder spoke to Coc in her small tienda, we met up with the teenagers and Bill Whittaker, Madaket’s father. Wearing two black tank tops emblazoned with an orange bitcoin logo, Kate and Madaket were “pretty nervous,” before class began, they told me.
Minutes later, they sat down behind a plastic, foldable table in front of roughly 20 students from the private Christian school where Melder and his wife had run an art camp. “We’re here because we love bitcoin,” began Kate, who was “orange pilled,” or converted into a bitcoiner, by Madaket’s father.
Through a translator, Kate and Madaket explained that, for their high school’s senior project, they had refurbished bitcoin miners—the specially adapted computers used to sustain and operate bitcoin’s network. They then donated three miners to Panajachel, one to South Africa, and another to Zimbabwe. “Bitcoin will continue to increase in value as we get older,” Madaket told the class. “So, you gotta get in it early, so you can get really rich off of it.”
Mining distinguishes Melder’s project in Panajachel from Bitcoin Beach, where bitcoin supplies flow from the original donation and flush wallets. Miners that support bitcoin’s network receive the cryptocurrency in exchange for lending their computer power to the cryptocurrency’s distributed ledger. Melder hopes to use human waste, trash, leaking methane, and used cooking oil from Panajachel to power bitcoin miners and then donate the profits back to the town. The vision is still in its infancy.
As the children looked on mutely at the teenagers, Madaket’s father jumped in to help. A soccer coach and residential advisor at his daughter’s private school, Whittaker is a bitcoin mining fanatic. “It’s as bad as a nicotine addiction,” Melder said of Whittaker’s fanaticism. Every time Whittaker flies, he brings a bitcoin miner—which looks like a “big bomb,” Kate told me—through security. And while he was away from St. Louis, he lined up a babysitter for his pet cats—and the bitcoin miners plugged into his apartment’s outlets.
“The last time we were here, we talked about decentralized and centralized activity,” Whittaker, who is the bitcoin mining specialist for Bitcoin Lake, said to the 12-through-15-year-olds. “And centralized activity typically means that there’s somebody at the top that controls everything that flows down to the people.”
The children stared back at him. Whittaker went on to talk about renewable energy and bitcoin mining. The children seemed similarly disinterested, except for one boy who was fidgeting in the front. The back of his t-shirt read: “¡Mi lago! ¡Mi casa! ¡Mi orgullo! ¡Bitcoin soluciona esto!” or “My lake! My house! My pride! Bitcoin solves this!” (What bitcoin solves, though, the shirt didn’t make clear.)
After Whittaker went on about the average cost of a kilowatt of electricity per hour in Guatemala, he ceded the stage to Melder. Before Melder moved on to the next topic, he made sure the children understood the importance of what they were talking about. “I know all the other parents around here,” he said, “we feel like sometimes our kids come to us because they feel like money grows on trees. Well now, you just put the computer in the wall, and it’s making money.”
“Do you guys have any questions?” asked Melder. No one responded.
For Jason Josephson Storm, a professor of religion at Williams College, Melder’s categorization of bitcoin as religion isn’t unreasonable. Current notions of religion and science date back to the nineteenth century, and since then, new religious movements often blend the two seemingly conflicting categories, he said in an interview. “Once you produce notions of religion and science and claim that they’re in conflict, it makes it very attractive to try and suture the link between religion and science,” added Storm, pointing to the worship of aliens as an example.
And if bitcoin is a religion, it brings with it the same complexities and criticisms that Christianity does. Like Christian missionaries, who tend to preach to marginalized communities abroad, bitcoin and blockchain enthusiasts are experimenting financially with the world’s poor, say some academics. “It’s being sold by these people as if it’s a noble humanitarian mission,” said Pete Howson, a professor at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom.
Oxfam, a nonprofit based in the UK, recently launched a blockchain project in Vanuatu, an island nation that’s one of the most endangered by climate change. The nonprofit hopes to use blockchain to distribute cash for disaster relief. And in Puerto Rico, cryptocurrency investors have gentrified parts of the island as they’ve flocked to the U.S. territory to exploit the local government’s lax taxation policy. Howson and others have called this trend “crypto-colonialism” or “blockchain imperialism.”
“There’s a colonial perception of what is possible in what are these unruly and wild west parts of the world,” said Jorge Cuéllar, a professor at Dartmouth College who studies cryptocurrency communities in Latin America. He added that bitcoin’s volatility makes it a poor choice for those whose everyday finances are precarious. “For the immediate timescale, everyday timescale, the volatility makes it unacceptable and literally unusable.”
Melder, though, believes the opposite. He’s convinced that he is liberating the people of Panajachel from colonialism. The U.S. imposes the global financial system on less developed countries, and bitcoin is the only way out, he argues. “This is not monetary colonialism,” he said of his project, Peterson’s in El Salvador, and others who are spreading the gospel of Bitcoin far and wide. “This is monetary liberation.”
On one of our last days in Panajachel, Melder met with a group of indiginous leaders in the town’s public library. Over 95 percent of residents that live near Lake Atitlán identify as indigenous, according to Guatemala’s most recent census.
As the sun set, Melder launched into an hour-long lecture on inflation, the gold standard, and colonialism. “Four to five hundred years ago, the Spaniards came. They raped your land. They took your gold,” he said. “It is my desire that the natural resources that you have here, which will produce digital gold—bitcoin—which will stay here in the community.” In front of me, a woman’s eyes fluttered as she struggled to stay awake.
After Melder finished, the leaders grilled him and his translator. They asked him how he was going to distribute Bitcoin he would mine using the community’s resources, why he came to Panajachel, and whether he himself has any financial interest in Bitcoin Lake’s success. Melder says he doesn’t. Ultimately, the community representatives seemed wary. Melder had just mentioned their home’s history of colonization, after all.
“Virtual money is the money of the future, but there are many complexities,” Juan Carlos, one of the indigenous leaders present at the meeting, said as the discussion came to a close. “So it would be best to schedule a date for the next meeting.”
As night eased the daily bustle of Panajachel, we filed out of the library. Melder had sensed the leaders’ skepticism, but he wasn’t deterred. After having preached in Houston, India, Ukraine, he knew that for every convert, there were many non-believers. Earlier that week, he said to me, “You can’t sell everybody on everything.”