Friday, July 11, 2014

Panama in Retrospect, Part 1

Holy goodness, it's been forever. I had to read my own blog to figure out where I left off. I'll try not to do that in the future.

Brace yourselves, folks, this one's a two-month long story.

Alright, Panama. What a big topic. We left Kona on March 23rd, flying to L.A., then Dallas, and finally Panama City. According to the journal I kept for the length of the trip, I didn't sleep at all on the plane, yet I somehow managed to stay awake and take in the sights and sounds once we arrived. I "could feel the moment my (assumed to be endless) sweating started."

There was just so much new, it was fascinating. For starters, Panama City was blistering hot, and the humidity was up there. But then Panama as a whole is a pretty conservatively dressed country, so we "gringos" were definitely out of place, with our t-shirts and shorts in stark contrast to the dress shoes, jeans and formal shirts of the people. And still we sweat more than they...I think. Needless to say, everything was Spanish from then on. The traffic was amazing. To me, a sensitive, pampered, American motorist, it was pretty much anarchy, and I've never been so scared of being hit by a car in my life. But then, they are SO much better with their vehicles than Americans are that I eventually came to trust them (with due reservations, I assure you.) Ah, I can't leave this out: with so many people and no sense of environmental stewardship, the place was absolutely TRASHED. Garbage everywhere. EVERYWHERE. I'm not ragging on Panama when I say that my concept of cleanliness had to take a back seat for our stay there. Next up was the ridiculous contrast between the wealth in the skyscrapers filled with offices for foreign companies, situated a mere block away from the hovels of the poor. I had anticipated this difference, but I was not prepared to see the two extremes so close to each other. The thing that stuck out most to me, however, isn't so much the clothes or the temperature or the driving, but what I saw of the people.

During our time in the capital we helped with many ministries, but to start, we had to get a feel for the place. So, Andrea (our fantastic host) took us to a hill called Anćon that overlooked the whole of the City, from the Old Town to the booming business district. Looking out over this bustling metropolis she said, "Alright, so we're all gonna pray and ask about the needs of the city, and just try to listen for what God's telling us." So we prayed individually for about five minutes, and I thought the Lord was telling me about families. Specifically, the disconnect between fathers and their families. Looking back now, that really was God showing me a need: Panama as a whole needs help with its fathers. The times I saw dads investing in their kids were woefully few, and the times I saw and spent time with kids (particularly boys) absolutely desperate for attention from a father-figure were too many to count. To have such strong convictions and be upset about the state of the family in America, and then getting this wakeup call in Panama really got my attention. If you could join myself and the great missionaries and church leaders I met down there in praying into this issue, it would be very much appreciated.

So I mentioned ministries, and Panama City definitely had the most for my team and I. Over the course of the sixteen days there, we did street evangelism (called "treasure hunts", you basically just show up in the city and say, "God, where should I go?" and see what happens), helped at an elementary school (attention starved kids that speak a different language than you are extremely difficult to keep in their seats, let alone teach what "yellow" means), visited two villages (I held a man's head as two of his teeth were pulled), shared about our mission and our testimonies on two radio programs, and helped out at the Panama City YWAM base. And it was here that we learned our frequently performed skits. I gave it a fair shake, but I still loathe skits.

My personal favorite was our visit to the prison in Gamboa, El Renacer, or "Rebirth". Fitting, for a prison ministry. (Side note: Manuel Noriega, the dictator of Panama that was captured in 1989, is held there.) Pastor Bill Wilbur has been leading a ministry there for years and has a small church established among the inmates, and when he invited us along, I was definitely all for it. I thought to myself, "This'll be great, we'll show up, get to pray for these guys, share some testimonies, encourage them, and I'll get to say I've been to a Central American prison." Yes, we did all those things, but I was completely unprepared for what they did for us. After we sang a hymn together (it consisted of singing hallelujah over and over, but it was good) and did our thing, the mic went to them, and they matched us. They gave their personal testimonies, they prayed over us, they encouraged us, they blessed us just as much as we blessed them. These criminals, these who were brand new Christians, and doing time in a prison, because they were in Christ, could do everything we could do. Never assume you are more godly or competent than the newest Christian, and pray against the favoritism in you that you cannot see. Going into this ministry showed me an assumption I'd made without realizing it, and God blessed me immensely through the experience, showing me even more of Himself and of the Family I have in Christ.

So, on the ninth of April my team hopped on a double-decker bus (which was pretty cool, and nicer than a U.S. airplane), and went for an eight hour ride to the City of David, in the province of Chiriqui to the west. We were picked up at the bus station (buses are a pretty serious deal in Panama, so it's quite busy, and reminds me of a train station) by a YWAM Chiriqui van...and I soon found out Chiriqui is, geographically speaking, one of my favorite places. Pine trees and crisp, fresh air were a welcome change from the hot and hazy city, and David was suddenly the model of cleanliness. To us, the Chiriqui base was an absolute paradise. I slept in my hammock every night, and even got too cold a couple times. Looking in my journal, I described the dog there as, " actual dog, hefty and huggable". It was glorious, and my spirits soared.

While at the Chiriqui base, there were less opportunities for ministry, but we still managed to stay busy. We helped with the conference celebrating the anniversary of YWAM in Panama for a few days, visited a nearby boys home a couple times where we did our skits, played soccer, had a bible lesson and shared testimonies, visited a nursing home, and the guys built a cold-room (basically a walk-in refrigerator) for the base. Chiriqui was the perfect place to recharge, and we certainly needed it...

And now that I'm looking back at this post, it's long enough. This'll have to do for part one, and look at me, ending with a cliffhanger. As if I know what I'm doing. (In all seriousness, ignore all grammatical and/or structural mistakes here, I'm just trying to catch up at the moment.)

Onward, to the serendipities in part two.

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