Day 4 proves to be perhaps our most moving day yet. We venture west again, but not up the mountain this time. We are told to be “ready”, as we will be visiting an area of extreme poverty. We wonder how it could be worse than what we saw at Rio Rita.
There are three indigenous tribes of people in Panama, and one of them live in a community called Loma Coba, our destination for the day. The church is called Dios de Grande (God is Good). The people are called “kuna” and originated from a series of islands off the north coast of Panama. We arrive in Loma Coba and see the church. It’s a much larger structure than the others we’ve seen, with a more traditional sanctuary and meeting hall. We go to the sanctuary and the president begins to describe his people and his church.
The altar is a replica of a canoe, which represents everything about the Kuna. They move between islands and the mainland on canoes. The Kuna people wear very decorative clothing, and artwork is important to them. This mainland community of the Kuna was established following “Operation Just Cause”, which comes up here often. On the back end of Just Cause, some of the land of the previous regime is donated to the people, and some of the Kuna claimed this spot. Women of the congregation arrive and show us their traditional clothing. The church is without a pastor today and they are actively seeking to call a new man to lead this congregation. They have a vacancy pastor that preaches on Sunday but is not present in the community during the week.
Then we meet Jasmine. Jasmine stands up and says in broken English “I am Lutheran to the middle”. When Jasmine was very young her family was among the founding families of the church, and the church originally met in their family home. Now at the age of 28, she and her siblings are all active in this church. Jasmine leads the children’s ministry. Her energy is high and contagious. She has a huge smile and is very animated as she describes her children’s ministry. For VBS, they might have 100 or more kids.
These people are incredibly friendly. They take us on a walk to show us their gardens. One woman describes losing her father the year previous and how her pineapple trees were planted in his memory. We walk part of the community and then board the bus with the Kuna to see a new area of their ministry. We drive about 10 minutes to a different community where the poverty is more extreme. This is a newer community that is without a church. This is a mission field for Dios es Grande, and this is where they recently held VBS. We are taken to the home of a sponsoring family for this ministry. He invites us into his home and we see a breathtaking view of the community from his porch. Jasmine joins us on the porch and points out homes where they have been invited in to lead services, bible studies and VBS. The patriarch of the family joins us on the porch (a retired teacher) and he describes how the ministry is changing lives in this community. This is “front line” mission ministry, done by the Kuna, for the Kuna.
We go back to Dios es Grande for additional conversations. They describe what they want to do with their ministry, including the hope for a food pantry for the community. We see the upstairs “parsonage” that sits empty waiting for a new shepherd. They ask us for any advice we might have to help them grow, which is ironic because we have so much to learn from them. With so little, they expand their ministry into neighboring communities to tell others of the love of Christ.
We conclude our day with a visit with the President of the National Church and Brian, an LCMS missionary that is a plant from St. Louis. We discuss partnering opportunities and the need to be in conversation about what each other are doing in an effort to make maximum use of limited resources. We then regroup for a debriefing at the end of the day. Days are long; this last meeting doesn’t begin until after 11 pm. This is simultaneously exhausting and SO rewarding.