I can imagine that when we post pictures of the things we are doing here in Panama, it can evoke an array of reactions. So for those of you that might have questions allow me to share a little about our work.
I will take this last weekend for example. We took an overnight trip to an Indian village in the jungle along the Chagres River and visited an old contact of mine that I have not seen for some time. My friend’s name is Valerio. Our purpose was to see how he was doing and ascertain how my team and I might be able to help him, his family and his church.
Now before I elaborate, let me say, that whatever you might think that we do could likely be inaccurate. The concept of “missionary” can conjure up all kinds of images, so let me just say that we are not superheroes, nor are we culture-wreckers. We are just Christians. We are just Christians living in a cross-cultural environment, learning to live for Christ here like we would at home in the States. We focus on building up the Church and it’s leaders in order to fulfill the “Great Commission” found in the end of Matthew 28:18-20, which says…
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Now, this information is not new for many of you; nor is it for me. This focus has been part of my DNA since I started in youth ministry years ago and learned it from the Youth Pastor who trained me. The only difference now, is that I am doing this with my team here in Panama! When we approach a ministry opportunity, such as the chance to work with the Embera Indians, an Orphanage or even a church, etc. I start with two basic ideas in mind.
- “Start with the fact that we are all humans.” These words have echoed in my mind and often because my sweet wife has been so good about reminding me. These were Dr. Tite Tienou’s words when we were at Seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. It’s significant to me for two reasons:
First, we want to minister to the whole person. In other words we want a holistic ministry. We want to care about clean water as well as clean hearts; the physical health and the spiritual health and not just one or the other. This doesn’t mean that we give them equal importance because we don’t but it does mean that we recognize that people have a hard time hearing the Gospel message over the grumbling of their stomachs or other glaring problems. Therefore, we must care about the whole person.
Secondly, we have to think about what Jesus said when he was asked to summarize the biblical commandments. What did he say? Remember in Matthew 22:37-40 where we read:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
We have to remember that all of what we do as Christians should flow out of a central, all-consuming love for God and eventually that has to translate into loving our neighbors as we would love our own selves. These points come to mind when I think about starting with everyone being human. Even in different contexts, languages and cultures, there are so many things that make us very much the same.
- The best book capable of speaking to the human condition is the Bible.
No matter where people are physically or spiritually, the Bible has something to say to them. When we go somewhere new or different, we have the opportunity to prayerfully and carefully ask questions and learn about the people and minister to them through God’s Word. This is often a need that people don’t know they have while they are more than aware of the physical needs. We have to walk through a careful process of “assessing and addressing” and it takes time and trust. Through conversation and question asking, listening and learning we find out more about where both believers and non-believers are and we know that the Word of God has something for each of them. If we can work with Pastors we can accomplish things a lot faster. That’s what makes our friendship with Valerio so critical.
At the end of the day, we want to see the church here in Panama (meaning all those who, know, follow and confess Jesus as their personal Savior and Lord) strengthened and fortified. We want to encourage individuals and communities to move forward in their spiritual growth and obey the Great Commission here and abroad.
In the case of the Indian Village that we went to, these were the 2 lenses that we had on while we were there. Valerio is actively caring for the people but we could see that there are many challenges. For Valerio specifically, one challenge is his training. He doesn’t feel adequately prepared to lead his people spiritually. This comes into play in the day-to-day preaching and counseling but also because they often have different religious groups that try to come and spread their messages as well and he doesn’t always know how to refute them or help his people refute them from scripture though he can see many errors in their thinking. I also personally think that Valerio also has not realized his tremendous potential to reach other Embera Indians yet. He is still thinking about his local context but I believe he is uniquely gifted to have a regional impact if he catches the vision.
As for his people, the 115 Embera Indians in his village, it is also complicated. In Panama, there is a clear pecking order. It may be subtle but it’s in the fabric if you look for it and the Indigenous are usually on the bottom of the bottom. From what I gather, the people in his village moved to their location years ago (1960’s/70’s) and it was after that time when the government told them their land was going to be dedicated as national park and the land outside was now considered private property. This meant they were stuck and that in order for his people to continue living in their homes they would need to agree to be a tourist attraction or leave.
So now they always have to be ready to “put on a show” of their culture so outsiders can see their old customs and ways. They are not permitted to chop down trees, hunt or plant gardens because it’s a national forest. They are permitted to fish and get jobs in the city if they want but if they want to stay in their village and earn an income from there, tourism is their only option. Though it is possible it is difficult to make a living this way. There are times when it gets really hard between May and December (8 months out of the year) because it is rainy season and most tourists don’t prefer to go far into the jungle during rainy season, which means that Valerio’s village doesn’t get much traffic and therefore not much income. At times during the year, they have next to nothing to live on. It’s very hard for them to buy food and medicine and that is a different level of learning to trust in God.
This is the kind of situation that we’re trying to learn how to help in. We are asking how can we, as Christians come into a circumstance like this and offer help and hope? …And care for the whole person both physically and spiritually? It takes time to find these answers but I want to remind you all that this would be impossible for us to truly help them unless we were here in person. For those of you that are supporting us in your prayers and sacrifices – Thank you for being part of this ministry. It is making a difference in the lives or more and more people all the time. Please pray for the Indigenous in Panama and Valerio and his family. Pray for our team to know how to help them best and be an encouragement spiritually and physically. Pray for the spread of the Gospel and a strategy for discipleship among these people. As always, if you choose to support us financially on-going or want to make a one-time donation just click this link and make it happen. Thanks for your love, prayers and involvement!
In Christ – The Fowlers In Panama
By the way, Here are a few more of our favourite pictures just for fun…