Spreading God’s love in Panama
A group of 39 young people from the Duluth, Minn., area spent part of their summer presenting the Gospel to the people of Panama.
Panamanian children enjoy food and fun while the Living Fellowship Ministries youth group was in Panama this past summer.
A group of 39 young people from Living Faith Ministries in Duluth, Minn., spent 10 days in Panama this past summer spreading the Gospel through Vacation Bible School and other children ministries, skits and door-to-door witnessing.
Tears ran down the face of one unfortunate girl. She accidentally left a backpack in the customs area. The cost of going back to get it was a full-body pat down and a complete sift of her backpack’s contents. She and my wife, Katie, burst onto the plane with a sign of relief.
Everyone made it to the plane bound for Chicago. We settled our disheveled belongings and prepared for the flight ahead. As I clicked my seatbelt and sat back, I could see the faces of those we ministered to on the trip floating in my mind. Hundreds of lives were affected in Panama. The trip was worth every bit of effort.
Panama. It was a place of stark contrasts. Panama City was a metropolis, full of the same virtues and vices that grace and plague every major city. The rural areas displayed a picture of rough and simple living. The people worked hard to raise crops, animals and their children. Panamanians were not only hugely varied in their economic situations, but they also were often divided along ethnic lines.
How were we to minister in such an economically, culturally and spiritually diverse place? Pastor Cerbin Vargas was our answer. More than a local pastor, Pastor Vargas worked as a missionary to Panama. He originally came from Guatemala. Pastor Vargas pastored a church and regularly traveled to many other churches, preaching, encouraging the pastors and running a Bible school program. He loved to see the Holy Spirit in action. People dancing, people getting healed, people crying at the altar and people rejoicing were normal sights at his services.
Pastor Vargas knew how to use a team, too. We went to numerous city churches, did door-to-door ministry, visited orphans, prayed for the sick, performed skits, gave testimonies, preached and traveled to the jungle to minister to those who are rarely ministered to. He especially loved to minister to the native groups that lived in remote areas. He was passionate. He was relentless.
Pastor Vargas was so passionate, in fact, that the leader from our group, Stacy Bonet of Radcliff, Ky., gently put the brakes on one of his agenda items. He was prepared to load us into canoes and row to a set of secluded islands to minister to a group that lives there and supports itself by selling the coconuts that grow on the islands. Stacy learned, however, that the men and women of the tribe only wear scant loincloths. The thought of clicking camera phones, sent pictures, texts and Facebook uploads prompted her to seek a change of plans, which our guide agreed to with a big smile and a chuckle.
However, this did not stop Pastor Vargas from getting us way past our normal ministry boundaries. He brought us to a part of the country that was full of very high and rolling hills. Each hill, according to Pastor Vargas, had a name and a community living on it. He visited them as much as he could; it was three or four hours away from his home. He took us to one such hill, and there some of the most memorable events of our trip unfolded.
Our bus leaned and swayed as it cruised around the bends on the narrow dirt road. An incredible panorama of jungle landscape filled every window of our swaying transport. We arrived and the heat rushed on us the moment we stepped into the sun. Three buildings met us as we lugged our baggage up the driveway to what would be our home for the next two days -- the local pastor’s shabby wooden house, a church made of six support posts and a tin roof, and an outhouse made of tin and rust.
Our students were elated with their new surroundings, despite a few foul looks at the outhouse. Mangos, bananas, papayas and other tropical fruit grew on trees right in the local pastor’s yard, and we were perched at the top of the hill with incredible scenery all around us. Here we planned to do a Vacation Bible School for the children and an evangelistic service geared for the adults. It was a power-packed set of days.
Luckily for us, the pastor of the church there has a feeding program for the poor families. His small church feeds between 30-50 children four days a week. Word about our group was already circulating before we arrived. We helped feed the children the day we arrived, and by afternoon the place was crawling with little Panamanian kids ready to hear about Jesus Christ. Seeing those children and their appreciation for everything -- even their naiveté about many things, such as how to open and eat a sucker -- really made a deep impression on our students. They ministered the Gospel while being ministered to by the Holy Spirit at the same time.
Despite some rain, the parents also came in droves to our evening service. Many received Christ for the first time and many came forward for prayer for various things. They were touched by our team’s skits, dramas, testimonies and preaching.
We slept in tents that night. Well, we know that one of the boys slept for sure because the rest of us lay awake while he snored away! It was like a trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, except I didn’t recognize any of the bugs and knew that some of them were quite large.
The next day was full of ministry, and in the end our jungle visit was spiritually fruitful. The children raised hand after hand in response to our final Gospel presentation, the climax of our VBS. It was a beautiful sight.
Our trip to Panama lasted about 10 days, and there are too many stories to record in this short article. Between the church services, door-to-door witnessing and the children’s ministry, we counted 250 people who had made a commitment to follow Jesus. The local pastors were very encouraged. Many of our sermons in churches were teaching the people to honor and support their pastors, and the people who received Jesus always knew which local ministry we were working with.
I was so blessed to be a part of the summer mission trip to Panama. The money sacrificed to go, physical inconveniences we endured and the hassle we received at the airport were nothing compared to the eternal value of each soul that received eternal life through faith in Christ Jesus. To Him belongs the Glory! Amen.
Matthew Seipel-Anderson is youth director for Living Faith Ministries in Duluth, Minn.