Another Once In a Lifetime Experience

 

Forrest Hershberger

Members of Maxima Mision lead Kuna children in an activity during a Bible school session.

It isn't often a person can experience time in two places at almost the same moment, as if sideways instead of backward or forward.

That happened recently when I had the opportunity to participate in a weeklong mission trip to Panama. Panama is a unique area with its own vacation attractions including white and black sand beaches perfect for swimming, surfing or time to imagine beach music and a classic writer in front of his keyboard. It has bicycle races through amazing mountains and valleys. There are cafes that feel like you're invited into a family dining room, and prices cheaper than a dime store novel.

It also has incredible disparity between the fortunate and those struggling to keep a roof over their head and food in the cupboard. Some areas have entire communities that look like salvage construction, homes apparently built with discarded tin and wood. Additionally, there are populations virtually untouched by the 21st century, deliberately. It is a region where a church can hold an inner city event and only a few hours away launch a boat ride to an indigenous population.


The Nazarene Church has what is called a "Work and Witness" program. Essentially, it involves sharing what you believe and applying sweat equity when needed. This particular journey involved partnering with churches in Panama and a group of young people called Maxima Mision. The young people had a level of excitement that was contagious, a contagion they labeled team shirts: "Contagious."

We nine people from Colorado (and Nebraska) were there to assist Maxima Mision and the local churches. The events including giving gift boxes to children from Samaritan's Purse Imagine having a movie night in the front lawn of a home that drew more than 200 children and parents. Local police stopped to check in on the situation, probably stayed longer than they needed. Imagine the Jesus Film, a film based on the Biblical book of Luke, translated into Spanish and into Kuna, an indigenous people scattered across several islands in Panama.

Imagine getting into a boat and the cargo included four extra five-gallon gas cans for the round trip boat ride. It isn't as easy as crossing Lake McConnahy. Imagine the humility of feeling like you're in a new National Geographic film, meeting people whose only access to people outside of their own is by boat, a people who still dress in colorful yet simple wear defining who is married or eligible to be married, gold nose rings and public utilities that are basic at best. Most of the homes are built of branches and thatch roofs. It is likely sufficient for a tropical climate.

Imagine hearing from a teen about a desire to journey further into the outback of Panama, to where the boundary between Panama and Columbia is a little subjective, an estimated eight-hour boat ride.

We didn't take the eight-hour boat ride, but we did visit three different Kuna villages. We met people who are anxious to build or expand their churches. We spent time with children who we suspected had little or no exposure to even the simplest past times like coloring books. Even the mothers were excited to design their own artwork.

The voyages to the islands required two boats. All said we probably had 25-30 people involved in the Kuna village visits. The one boat is a dugout canoe with an outboard motor mounted on it. The boat has earned its time, reminiscent of a "Frankenstein bicycle" I had, assembled with varied leftover parts. In this case, the teens were in a boat patched with strips of tin and with holes in the bow and the stern enough to cause faith or condemnation from anyone who enters it. The Maxima Mision group were seen baling water most of the way across the lake. But they came back the next day for an even further island.

It is an experience that provides a reality check when a young pastor and his wife live in the back of a church with visions of constructing a pastoral training center, when another young couple will take a public bus several miles across the city for an outreach opportunity while their home is accessible by a 30-inch easement between fences. Shanty-towns, squatter villages if you will, are common in the countryside and near Panama City. High rise poverty is sometimes side-by-side with hotels and tourist shopping centers, big money casinos and the glitz and glamor that comes with them.

I was asked if I would go to Panama again for the same reason. Tentatively, the answer is yes. I say tentatively because each trip has its own dynamics, own challenges and logistics. Given the opportunity, yes I would. This unexpected adventure is proof that one person can make a difference: a relationship lead to an invitation to an island which lead to an effort to purchase a new boat which lead to more relationships with the Kuna people. One conversation lead to three new or expanding churches and the apparent need for a second boat.

 

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