In February, River Road Church, Baptist continued our mission to Panama to serve with the Fundacion Christiana Medico Social (Medical Social Christian Foundation) to provide medical and dental clinics to the Embera Indians and others in need along the Panama Canal region in Gamboa and Chepo. This year we also started a construction mission. The project was working with a Kuna indigenous congregation that has a feeding program for local kids, serving lunch to around 90 kids from the community on Sundays. The program operates on the back side of the church, under a partial roof, with no walls. We helped expand the area where the kids are fed.
The team is partnered with three other churches and 19 people led by co-team leaders Judy Collins, Joe Teefey, and Sue Smith. Other team members from RRCB included: Libby Grammer, Norma Hays, John Heisler, Bonnie Livick, Emily Sumner, Bill Rusher, Anne Rusher, and Geoff Sundberg.
As (North) Americans, doing mission cross-culturally is often a challenge. We like planning, and structure, and organization; we’re goal- and task-oriented. On a mission site, we arrive ready to hit the ground running.
But if we truly believe in a theology of mission that involves coming alongside our mission partners and following their lead, the actual mission experience often looks much different than what we had planned.
This is especially true for construction projects. “We don’t do it that way” is often heard on the job site — from both sides! In Akwayala, as we worked without the benefit of backhoes or trucks to pour concrete, we were reminded of the hard physical work it takes to build a building from the foundation up, on a hard, rocky hill. We were reminded of the importance of being good stewards of financial resources, which includes recycling or reusing materials and buying only what was necessary for the short term.
And we were reminded that this building wasn’t all about us. We relied on local expertise to prepare the first steps of the project; we worked with (and under the direction of) local volunteers; we knew that others would follow us to continue this project once we were gone. We played a part in the building up of the Kingdom of God in this small community, in empowering this church to engage in holistic ministry and serve as a strategic training center.
I agree with Sue’s assessment that our own understanding of how things ought to be done can certainly be an impediment to doing mission well in a foreign environment, and like Sue, I think there are exciting new ways we learn to do faith on the ground with our mission partners if we embrace these new ways of doing Kingdom work. There are at least a couple of steps to adjusting to mission-style medical/dental care:
First, we realize that our work here is to assist the Panamanian doctors and medical/dental students in their work with their own people. We are not there to “run the show,” but to give of what we know to help make a medical/dental clinic successful. For some of us, that was taking blood pressures, height, and weight so the doctor had some basic information before meeting with the patient. For others, we translated for those who didn’t know Spanish. For others, it was providing dental care and assistance. For yet others, we learned new skills and assisted in providing medications to the patients through the pharmacy. Whatever we did, though, it was to ensure the work done among the people of Panama was supported – not “run” by us (which sometimes meant starting a little later, or moving to a different site, or finding a myriad of other ways in which to be flexible!). As our leader and veteran trip member Judy Collins often reminds us on this trip: “Blessed are the flexible, for they will not be bent out of shape!”
Second, we realize that the work of evangelism, or sharing the Gospel and providing spiritual care, is something we are primarily doing with our hands and feet. We have gone, and we are providing care and healing. This is our primary work for patients. We may never see them again, but for that moment, in the name of Christ, they were given care. We also realize that the ongoing work of evangelism is the responsibility of our Panamanian partners at the Medical-Social Christian Foundation. They will follow up with local church leaders; they will provide ongoing spiritual support. We are there to help them start those relationships through the medical/dental clinics. Our primary relationship is with the Panamanian Christians, partnering with them in their good work. It requires a great deal of humility and a willingness to “play second fiddle” – even when things are done a little differently than we might do them here at home.
I am hopeful as more and more U.S. mission teams hand off the reins in mission work, providing support – and not control, to the local Christians in their ministries. Our mission is to build relationships, sustain them where we can, and share our gifts with others doing Kingdom work. We don’t create God’s work in a place – we join in with what God’s already doing there!
Written by: Libby Grammer and Sue Smith, CBF Field Personnel with Latino Immigrants, Fredericksburg, Virginia