The description of the opportunity for the mission project to Tucumán, Panama was brief: "The church has developed a heart for the children in their neighborhood. The project is to complete the structure the church has begun to build for classroom space and a cafeteria and kitchen for the nutrition program. The church has already begun construction with the resources they have and believe the Lord will continue to provide what they need to carry out the vision God has given them. If you are interested…"
It was with little more information than this that my husband and I stepped out in faith to join one of the three teams scheduled to help this church. Our team of seventeen men and women from six different churches in our district worked together prior to the trip to raise funds for construction materials for the project. After months of planning, the time for the twelve day trip had finally come. Though weary from our early morning flights, our group was excited as we landed in Panama City. The first people to greet us were our two mission guides. Luis, a young man from Costa Rica would be our interpreter. Ryan, from Chicago, would be in charge of guiding us, protecting us, and helping us better understand the culture. They were both volunteers from our denomination, gaining experience that they hoped would lead them into full-time work in missions.
Their first task was to get us safely to the camp where we would be staying. They strapped our suitcases on the top of the bus and loaded us inside. Soon we were getting our first taste of Panamanian driving. We learned that drivers don't stop unless it is absolutely necessary. The roads are narrow and on the busy two lane highways, traffic seemed to be whizzing past just inches from our faces. I never tired of watching. I hadn't anticipated the fascinating scenes along the busy narrow streets: the colorful metal roofed stucco houses, usually surrounded by concrete walls or chain link fence, often topped with spirals of barbed wire. Most windows are merely latticed concrete block, but if a house does have a glass window, it is always covered with iron bars. Trash litters the roadsides in amazing volume. There are people everywhere, either walking or waiting for a bus or taxi. There are dogs as well, skinny and streetwise, walking alone and calmly among the people.
What I had learned on the internet about Panama didn't really prepare me for the Panama that I experienced. In the back of my mind was the impression of lush rain forests, like a page from National Geographic. I had envisioned beautiful walking trails, large tropical birds, emerald-colored trees, and abundant exotic flowers. Where we were on the outskirts of Panama City, I didn't see the beauty that I expected, although it is there somewhere in the distant mountain forests. Instead, I found a different kind of beauty: the beauty of the people of Panama, their spirit, faith, and hope. I am content to view the natural wonders from the pages of magazines. What I experienced here was more valuable to me because it gave me a glimpse of the soul of Panama.
The church we were helping sits in a compound of rough terrain surrounded by barbed wire- topped chain link fence with a locked gate of iron bars. The church itself is a stucco-covered concrete block building with concrete floor and metal roof. There is a drop ceiling to help keep the heat at bay. The windows are open air latticed concrete block. Several dozen metal folding chairs seat the congregation. The front double doors are solid iron on the bottom with iron bars on the upper third. The doors on either side of the sanctuary are strong metal sliding doors with hefty locks. Theft is a problem in the area. We learned that there is a serious drug problem here and the church members feel it is important to impact the children at an early age, before they can be tempted by the drug dealers. We had instructions from Ryan to never leave the compound alone.
A few steps behind the church there is a building with three classrooms. The children attending the little school were from pre-school to kindergarten age. The teachers were all volunteers with only a very small compensation from the tithes of the church.
The tasks we came for were to hook up water and drains to the sinks in the newly-built kitchen building, install ceiling fans, and paint the kitchen, both inside and out. With the classrooms, the goals were to tile the concrete floors, install drop ceilings, run wiring, and install lights and fans in the ceilings. The two sides and back wall of the classroom building still needed to be covered with stucco, sealed, and painted.
The plumbing simply didn't work in the bathrooms, even by Panama standards. It took two or three hours for the toilets to fill up with water. Sometimes there was no water. The city pumps the water into the rooftop holding tanks at night. Some nights they pump and some nights they don't; that’s the only explanation we ever got. But the other problem lay with the tank and the size of pipe and valve that was on it. It was just too small to service what they have. They really needed an electric pump to get enough pressure to feed the sinks and toilets. This was a problem that we realized would have to wait for a later team.
Ryan stressed for us that we were here to build up a church, and, if we find time, we will work on the building as well. As we labored throughout the week on the tasks on our list, we worked, ate, and worshipped alongside the Panama church members. In spite of the language barriers we managed to grow friendships with these people whose daily lives were so very different from our own. We began to realize that bond that all believers should share. Our relationships with our fellow team members deepened as well as, back in our compound each evening, we shared our faith stories and talked of the things we had experienced that day. The bonding extended to our churches back home as each team member had people praying daily for our safety and for God's blessing on our project. Because of that, and the fact that I felt God had led me to this place, I don't remember a moment of fear; not from the food, the water, the traffic, the possibility of snakes and scorpions, nor even on the roller coaster-like taxi ride down a mountain on our outing day.
There near the Equator it was the dry season and temperatures hovered in the low nineties during the day. By the time we arrived back at our camp in the late afternoons the cool breezes had made the air fresh and soothing. The other thing I remember about the early evenings was the sounds: the occasional crowing of the rooster that roamed around the yard of the young caretaker couple next door, the unfamiliar calls of the tropical birds, the cadence of the Spanish chatter and laughter of the ladies cooking our meal, the clanking of dishes and the heavy cooking pots. But the sound that dominated was the bats. I found that there are 120 bat species in Panama; I never learned which ones we were hearing. It would begin with a sudden, fast clicking-like noise that would morph into a shrill drawn-out whistle. It sounded more mechanical than like something that would come from a living creature. Then in the distance another would start, and another, until the sound overwhelmed all the other sounds. It wasn't loud enough to hurt the ears, but it filled the air with something that almost seemed electric in the intensity, eventually fading into silence. It happened every evening around 6 o'clock and in the early mornings.
Part of our experience at the work site was to visit some of the shut-ins in the congregation. My group was led by Rachel, a young woman who was learning English. We walked a short distance to the homes we were to visit. Rachel called out in a sweet lilting voice to the people to announce our arrival. Our first visit was to Luz, a woman in her fifties, and her mother Angelica. They lived with a niece. We were led into their tiny room, just big enough for two twin-sized beds pushed against the walls, a chair, a potty chair, and small dresser. Luz's hands and feet were severely crippled with rheumatoid arthritis and Angelica seemed to have dementia. Luz met us with joy and talked with us about the wonderful things God was doing. She and a group of others fast and pray weekly for the concerns of the church. Rachel read to them from the Psalms and prayed for them. She chattered and joked with them. You could tell that she knew them well and visited often. Then she asked us to pray for the ladies, putting our hands on their heads, and also to give our testimonies. As we spoke Rachel translated for us. Luz's joy and gratitude was evident. She told Rachel that we were a great blessing to her. As we left I thought about the mothers and daughters that I know in America and wondered if they would be able to have a similar attitude if they were confined to living together in one tiny room.
We visited another elderly woman who shared her tiny concrete and tin home with her daughter and young grandson. She was diabetic and had to use a walker. She told us that her husband was gone, but she was grateful that she was not alone because God was with her. Back at the worksite, when we had finished grouting the plain beige tiles in the first classroom, a young man named Sergio clapped his hands together and cried, "Thank you, Jesus!" He explained that now the teachers would be so happy because they would be able to sweep the floors without the dust getting into the eyes and lungs of the children. The opportunity to meet with these precious souls in their own humble surroundings gave me much to reflect upon. I began to see how rarely I recognize the blessings I enjoy and how seldom I remember to give thanks for them.
We met many more members of the congregation and were able to catch a glimpse of their lives. One was the pastor, a woman who had answered the call to start the church when she was just twenty-one. Now, fourteen years later, she was a wife and mother of four children. It can take her as long as two hours to get to the church from her home by bus, depending on traffic. The church is awaiting the necessary permits so they can begin work on a new parsonage. The one that had once been at the compound had been ruined by flooding during the rainy season. The pastor and others in the congregation worked alongside us, mixing stucco by hand, laying tile, and painting.
The days passed quickly. By the time our last workday came to an end, we had accomplished our goals. The physical projects were finished. People were encouraged. Relationships were made. God was praised.
We had depended on our young guides, Ryan and Luis so much. We were amazed at their maturity and commitment to God. They had kept us focused on our goals and guided us with love and gentleness. They had made us laugh and served as examples to us in how to respect cultures different from our own. In the morning before we boarded the bus for the last time, we gathered in a circle for prayer. As Ryan prayed for us, for our safety, for the impressions we would take back home with us, for the future of the church in Tucumán, and for God's blessing on our lives, the bats began to sing their unique song. Then the birds seemed to awaken to the beautiful morning all of a sudden and there was a symphony of their voices adding to our prayers. It seemed so fitting for this to be my last impression of Panama before we loaded onto the bus for our last rush to the airport.
There is value in short term mission trips such as this that goes far beyond the financial and physical benefits to the receiving church. Each person involved receives the blessings of greater faith and deeper love when they immerse themselves in being Christ's hands and feet. I was greatly blessed to be a part of that trip, to learn to focus less on my own disappointments and sorrows and more on the needs of others. I encourage anyone who is able to consider short term mission trips. This one changed and blessed my life. If God ever calls you to something like it, and you answer with an open heart, you will be greatly blessed.