If you've been on Instagram lately, you've seen a handful of pictures from my time in Panama last month. A team of twelve of us went to serve alongside Rhett Thompson, a United Methodist missionary there in Panama, and lend our time and talents to do whatever we could to help out during our 10 day stay. As with every trip, duties were divided, construction and bible school supplies gathered, and devotions written for the week. The unique part about our team was that we had such a broad make up of individuals and not everyone knew one another - we came from 3 different states and ranged in age form 18-87. If I'm honest with you, I was pretty worried about the team dynamic, and quite terrified of being in charge of devotionals that would be able to relate to such a wide span of life stages and experiences. And I was utterly terrified at speaking a a language that had once flowed freely from my lips, but that had tucked away for close to seven years.
In all of my travels, one thing has been constant. I have always left having been changed. We go on these trips, to serve others, to make a difference. Yet, every time, the Lord moves within me and I am the one that is ultimately changed for the better. Any time you join together with a group of people, you are bound to learn something from one another, and if you're lucky, learn a bit about yourself as well. You see, as different as we were from one another, certain commonalities begin to surface when you serve alongside one another. Bonds are formed through sweat, aches, pains, and lack of sleep. Through awkward encounters, the pure novelty of the situation, and reliance on one another for what essentially becomes survival. You become a family when you serve together, embodying the hands and feet of Christ, and speaking His love through action.
During this trip, we went to two different locations that were quite different form one another. After a trip to the beach to break up the bus ride, we arrived in Cieneguita. We stayed at school on cots. While there was there was no air conditioning, there were several fans in our room, and an indoor bathroom complete with running water. Y'all, we had a shower, cushions for our cots, and screens on our windows to keep the bugs out. Fresh coffee and a variety of items for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (read: we never went hungry). I was slightly surprised to be served spaghetti and mac & cheese, however, at the same time I wasn't really surprised at all. I sometimes feel as though we make mission experiences all about our comfort when we are not "actively serving" rather than immersing ourselves in the culture and with the people whom we have come to serve. By requesting more "Americanized" foods for our picky pallets, and by sitting often times alone as a team while the women who cooked scamper quickly out the back to eat their own meal while they wait to clean our dishes. I sometimes wonder if this is merely their expressed generosity in hospitality, or if we're the ones who are refusing to reach out. To learn more about our brothers and sisters in Christ and join in community together. I firmly believe that part of our mission lies heavily within the conversations (whether in words or a variety of charades) that make our experiences extend further than the buildings we put together. Because when we begin to see people as human beings, and not a project to complete, we learn to do our actions with love and not for our own accolades.
The leader for our construction project, Jamie, was one such person that we were able to be in conversation with. I was surprised at how much Spanish came flooding back to me. I could understand vastly more than I could convey, but as the week went on, my words returned, and my passion rekindled. How I had forgotten the beauty of the language is beyond me, but it served as a vivid reminder that if we don't cultivate something, it will never flourish. There were four of us who took the trek (about an hour hike through the jungle) to the work site where a house was being built, while the remaining members of our team stayed in town to visit the school and prepare for Mission Bible School, and do some other projects around the site. Jamie was so full of joy that he literally couldn't contain himself from hugging those around him (his love language was clearly physical touch) and cracking jokes even when he was on top of the roof in the scorching heat, or the rain began to fall, and drench us for the entire journey back to camp. There was no such thing as a "problem" to him, just an obstacle to overcome. With his guidance, we were able to put up posts, crossbeams, and the tin roof in just two days work. Of course we also played with a few scorpions, threw frogs at one another, talked about our families, and shared PB&Js while overlooking a breathtaking site of lush overgrowth these wonderful people called home.
In the evenings, we'd return to camp to share in the Mission Bible School where the guys would act out a story from scripture that was being read, and then the kids were able to color pictures from the story and make bracelets with one another before scampering off to play soccer and essentially just run around in circles fighting for the balls. After dinner time was spent in some combination of devo and song (though let's just be honest there was singing all day long with this bunch), card games, and lots of conversation about everything you could imagine. by Tuesday night it was time to depart, and plat our roots in another location, much further into the mountains.
We traveled by bus, which was not uncommon, but was slightly strange to me in that not only was it
air conditioned absolutely frigid, there were movie screens, and each of us had a row to ourselves. How vastly different than my previous experiences of windows down on dusty roads and the necessity of a "bus hat" to prevent lice. When I tell you we were spoiled, I mean it. "Roughing it" was not what this trip was about. The second location we stayed at, Volcan, was even nicer than the first. It was a site where conventions were held and there were bunk beds, multiple toilets in each room, as well as multiple showers (in individual stalls) which had heating capability as well. The food prepared here was more authentic, and for this I was extremely excited. We could see the volcano (from which the town is named) from our camp, which seemed to ooze a light foggy smoke, hindering us from ever truly getting a glimpse of it's size, but accentuating it's majesty. It was incredible to be so close to something that could bring so much havoc, and yet was such a sight to behold. How marvelous is His creation?
There was some siding to be put on the house, as well as some mortar mixing, however most of the work was in planting around the campus, both for visual appeal as well as use for the cooks. Thankfully for us, one of our teammates does this for a living. Luckily enough as well, our eldest team member had experience with snakes (say what?) and was fearless enough to not only aid us in killing the three extremely dangerous/poisonous snakes we encountered during clean up, urge us to take his picture as he proceeded to grab one with his bare hand and smile victoriously for a snapshot. We spent much of one day gathering supplies and preparing the garden spaces for new growth, and were able to walk around the town a bit, stopping in at a pastry shop, purchasing fruit from street vendors, and pursuing a smaller market for handmade items to remind us of our time. On site there was also a basketball court, and while there were't enough children to have Mission Bible School, there were a handful of kids who we were able to play with and love on in our short two day stay. We rode the bus through the winding roads to a small shop that is know for their strawberries concoctions - fresas con crema, batidas de fresa - you name it. And dear goodness, it was worth every twist and turn to get there to consume such tasty goodness. Coupled with gorgeous views of the mountainsides, and you have the perfect treat location.
Our final stop during our journey was in Panama City itself before flying home. It was quite astounding the difference in the city from the more rural areas we had been all week. It felt much more like the states, perhaps akin to Chicago or any other urban area in our country, rather than some impoverished country. That Saturday we ventured through the old city, el Casco Viejo, took copious amount of pictures like any good tourist should, and perused the marketplace for our special treasures to take home. We also we able to visit the Panama Canal, and despite the extra cheesy video, it was certainly an aw-filled experience given it was the 100 year anniversary of it's use. Our "vacation day" as it is referred to, was filled with immense amounts of tasty treats starting with breakfast. Coffee will always be better when it is that fresh, and juices pressed right from harvesting simply can't be beat. Dinner was luscious, extravagant, and completely decadent - the antithesis of our week which was simple, humble, and without flare. And though the stark difference was more than evident, the camaraderie of our team made the meal flow seamlessly together with the entire trip as a whole. You see, if we continue to focus and luxury versus poverty, and seeing people as an "us" versus "them" view, we miss the point altogether. But if we embrace the reality that Christ is with us, moving among us, whether we are in Panama, Alabama, or the ends of the Earth, we are able to walk away from each day knowing that we are not lacking in anything, and are overflowing with His unending love.
As I sit here, now weeks removed from Panama, and fully immersed in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, I find myself yearning for the simplicity I left behind. You see, the best thing about our time in Panama was not the amount of work we were able to accomplish, the number of children we were able to minister to, or the physical mark we made on the country. No, if we were to measure our experience in numbers and permanent products, I dare say we would be disappointed. If we are honest with ourselves, the impact that we had was scarce to say the least. But the reality is that our efforts are nothing on their own and this trip was the full embodiment of that truth. You see, in the quiet moments of conversation with the people we joined in community with in Panama, the Lord was at work. In the reading of David and Goliath, and coloring with kids, the Lord was at work. In our broken Spanish, the sharing of meals, building of houses, and laughter, the Lord was continually at work, growing His kingdom one heart at a time. And that is what I miss the most. The intentional efforts of strangers brought together by the compassion of Christ to walk together in life. To journey alongside one another, doing nothing extravagant, but doing everything with love.
Be sure to check out the team blog & other reflections on the trip as well. So thankful for the people I was able to share this experience with and serve alongside, building the Kingdom together, watching the Lord work in and through each of us throughout the week. I am beyond thankful for Trinity and the dedication to missions and I can't wait to continue in the relationship that has been ongoing for some time now.
How have you seen God at work this week?