Panama - Day 1

Panama – Day 1

Where’s my key?

Um…I have to ROOM with Pastor Snow this week???

It has been an emotional, spiritual, exciting and fun start to our exploratory mission trip in Panama! We arrived safe and without issue. The flight is easy with a brief stop in Atlanta and an additional 3.5 hours over the gulf. We arrived late, but Pastor Gillard was still up and we met with him on arrival. The first night was in a very comfortable and modern “Aeropuerto” Hotel.

The next morning we met the rest of the team. There are 5 churches sending two volunteers each. MN, WI and NJ are all represented, and all LCMS congregations. Following a quick breakfast we piled into a van and hit the road for Rio Rita, our destination for the day.

The drive illustrates both the beauty and the poverty of Panama, similar to Costa Rica, Mexico and other Central American countries. It’s very hilly country and homes are peppered up and down the sides of the hills. Homes are all made of concrete and are smaller than our garages, most the size of a single car garage. Steel roofs held in place by bricks and rocks are the status quo. For most, windows are just openings in the concrete. Homes are spaced just feet apart and poverty abounds. Yet happy children are seen playing and couples are walking the streets holding hands. I have not seen a single panhandler.

Pastor Jose and his wife

The first stop was the home of Pastor Jose Angel. Pastor Angel and his wife have 5 children in the village of Rio Rita. Pastor Angel began as a rural farmer, attending a planted LCMS church that originated back in the days of the construction of the canal. As Jose’s faith grew he became more and more involved in the church and then, as Pastors were needed to continue the ministry, Jose went to Nicaragua to become formally trained in the doctrine of the LCMS. That is also where Jose learned to read and write.

Pastor Angel brought us to the school in Rio Rita. Here 1,500 children attend school in a setting that is hard to describe. The contrast between this school and the facilities of the new Chanhassen High School is illustrative of the divide in wealth between our environments. It is open-air of course, but floors are a mix of tile and ragged concrete. The fences that would keep children from falling down a cliff are barely attached. There is a “technology” room but it is nothing to speak of. Classrooms are square concrete rooms packed with desks and the only technology in the room is a fan. We met with Victor, the Principal of the school. The room that we met in is part of a new program of the Panamanian government that is driving English education to kids in grades 4-6. The room is constructed of two converted steel containers, quite nice in comparison. There is a smart board and air conditioning in this room that is 20’ x 20’. While these facilities are incredibly basic in comparison to ours, I’m told that they are progressive in comparison to schools in Guatemala and Belize where other CALMS missionaries have served.

Victor described how some of his kids have gone on to study at the University, to teach and serve in the government. He also described some of the struggles, including violence in the homes that results from the frustration of poverty. And one of the most beautiful discussions that we had is his ability to integrate faith and education in this public school. Teachers can, and are encouraged to read from the bible in the classrooms and provide education on faith. They have curriculum for teaching values to the kids, and to help educate parents on the importance of teaching values to their children.

Our next stop was to meet Jorge, the “Representative” of Rio Rita, the elected representative of this village of Colon. Jorge described how the budgeting system of the government has been decentralized; making some new funding available to these villages that wasn’t previously available. This village of Rio Rita has a population that we estimated at 3,500 to 4,000 persons and the annual budget they receive for infrastructure and local government is in the range of $250,000 USD. One of the most significant projects they are working on is to bring water to the village. Panama is flush with water, and yet these villages are not connected in any way to a water distribution system. Each home has what amounts to a 55gal drum of water with outdoor PVC plumbing to bring it into the home. Jorge spoke of the history of Rio Rita and its transition from a population of farmers to those who are seeking opportunities in villages and cities.

The highlight of the day was when we traveled to Jose’s church. This is a church with a beautiful view of the surrounding hills. There is a main sanctuary, which is just a cement box of about 30×40’. Two small rooms in the back previously functioned as a preschool. We sat with Pastor Jose and his wife, along with two other women of the congregation and 5 of their children. We discussed some of the struggles of the congregation, and they described a shifting culture that mimics the struggles we have in the US. Holding membership as children grow older, keeping men involved in congregations, members wishing to be fed vs. being involved in the ministry. We sang hymns in Spanish and it was very moving for me.

We ended our day with a drive to the equivalent of a truck stop where we spent the evening. A wonderful dinner and great conversation ensued.

I have to end this by describing a centralized theme. There is an overwhelming temptation to identify and focus on projects. What can we build? What can we teach? What can we donate? But a sustainable ministry is not one where these obvious answers are embraced. The mission of CALMS is to bring sustainable missions to these communities, meaning that we focus on education, support, encouragement and the Word. This makes it a lot harder to identify how we plug into a mission ministry. And this is much of the focus of Pastor Gillard – to get us to think differently about how we approach (mission) ministry!

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