All posts by J Dot

Some final thoughts on Panama

I know, I know. You’ve been wondering all this time, “What about the canal, J Dot?” Well, yes, indeed there is a canal in Panama. It’s been there for some time, and the canal is a pretty inescapable fact of life in the isthmus. For one thing, it divides the country more or less in half. The vast majority of stuff — the cities, the roads, the industry — are on the eastern side.1 For years and years, this created a problem, especially for the folks on the western side. That’s being addressed slowly and by no means least of all because they’ve built several bridges across the canal. But you can easily imagine what sort of hassle it would be to deal with a huge canal right in the middle of your country.

On the other hand, imagine all of the fun you could have dealing with a canal right in the middle of your country. Everyone would want to go through it, right? Right! You’d be very popular, if not always for the right reasons.2 But let’s stick with the right reasons, shall we? Like, you are very helpful to people who want to get from China to New York without going around Argentina. Not that Argentina is a bad place, but you just don’t want to have to go there. For the last 100 years, you haven’t been forced to. Thanks Panama!

Here’s the thing about Panamanians and the canal. They run it, and they are good at it. Judging by the efficiency, profitability, and condition of the canal, the Panamanians have done a better job operating it over the last 16 years than the U.S. did in the period immediately prior to that. In addition, the U.S. talked for a long time about expanding the canal locks so that bigger ships could go through. The Panamanians actually got it done. We were in the country on the day that the first ship went through the new locks. It was a big deal, and you could sense that the whole country was proud of their accomplishment.

And rightfully so. They did a big job well. They do a big job every day, and while this work and the presence of the canal are an inescapable fact, somehow it does not seem to define who Panamanians are. Their history as a crossroads of the Americas and a focal point for interaction with Europe and Asia has significantly shaped the people of Panama, yet they are a distinct nation rather than an assortment of co-habitating clans. Being welcoming has not served to dilute their identity, but rather to become a central feature of it.

Reflecting on my time in Panama, there are plenty of things I take away. What we do can help us discover who we are, but that doesn’t mean our work is our identity.  Extending hospitality is a risk worth taking, and being able to rely on the kindness of strangers is blessing. In worship, remember the Duke Ellington rule, “If it sounds good, it is good.”  A sense of history is important, but not at the expense of an openness to the future. Above all else, be flexible.  These might seem like too simple aphorisms, but understanding them in a theoretical sense is perhaps much easier than their practical application.

1. Ok, time out for a geography lesson. You’d think, given that Panama connects North and South America, that it runs, um, north to south. Ah ha! Fooled you! It is kind of an S shape, if the S is lying on it’s side — what Texans would call a “Lazy S.” Anyway, That means the Caribbean coast is to the north and the Pacific coast is to the south. It also means that, in certain parts of the country, you can watch the sun come up over the Pacific. Whoa!

2. Reference “The Panama Papers” for less-than-stellar-reasons to be popular.

Tell me what the Kingdom looks like …

This is what the Kingdom looks like!

I haven’t been much for marching in the past, but if I take it up in the future, that might be my call and response. It’s not that we shouldn’t call on our governments to uphold justice and bring about peace, but I think we expect too much when we think governments will lead the transformation of our societies or be the sole agents of change. In fact, I think there are examples of communities that have started the process and perhaps led the government to make changes. Colon on the Atlantic coast of Panama is one of those places.

Christ Church in Colon has been around for a century and a half. That kind of time doesn’t come without some baggage, but it also creates some opportunity for action. In a city hard hit by unemployment and decades of governmental neglect, the church has not only endured, it has taken responsibility for helping to feed the community. That’s not a terribly novel action for a church, but the same folks who are putting together food supplies are visiting elderly friends and neighbors who can’t get out. They are involved in the lives of the children of Christ Episcopal School. In other words, they are vital parts of the civic life around them.

And in some ways, they are life. Their connections to each other and to their neighbors forms a network of giving and receiving in which people can take care of one another. Take, for instance, Connie, the woman who hosted us in her home for a week. Her apartment was much like one you might find in New York City: tiny kitchen, modest bedrooms, and space in which to eat and talk. Through those rooms moved people who might help Connie cook, clean, or run errands. In those rooms she hired people for small jobs, engaged children with simple games, and fed everyone constantly. (Seriously, go to Connie’s hungry.)

This sharing of gifts, whether they were skills, strengths, or resources, formed a little galaxy mutual support which, from where I observed it, had Connie at the center but which moved according to its own logic. It was not controlled by anyone. I felt like I was maybe seeing only one arm of this galaxy — maybe even only one solar system in one arm. This galaxy stretches out into Colon, across Panama, and further. You just, I think, have to know where to look.

You can see it in what we would call a formal system, like a school. Everybody knows that some schools are dead as a post while others are living, vibrant organizations. What’s the difference? I think part of it is folks in the system acknowledging and operating by the logic of this galaxy of mutuality instead of trying to drive it forward by their own power. You can see that happening, or trying to happen, at Christ Episcopal School in Colon. But it’s hard to let go of trying to operate things under our own power.

Yet when we do let go and get with a higher logic, people tend to notice. The streets in Colon are all torn up. All of them are torn up. The government is replacing the sewers, the water, the electrical service, everything. After decades and decades of neglect, the people have not done abandoned the city. They have knit themselves together and are now being supported by the government. Or at least the support seems to be starting. In any event, the future they hope for is being made real in the ways they have come to see how they depend on one another. The Kingdom made real, right before our eyes!

Look out across the myriad harbor

Now, lest you for a minute think that Panama is either Anglican or Anglophone, let’s be real clear about the history and dominant culture of this country. The first Europeans to arrive here were Spanish, and as we Europeans tend to do, they moved in and took over. Panama was strategic because it’s narrow breadth allowed relatively easy passage for treasures from places like Peru to come across to the Atlantic and thence to Spain. In fact, Panama was the first Spanish holding in the Americas to be organized into an administrative district. The idea of Panama has been around for a long time.

And the church has been in Panama for quite some time as well. (By “church” we’re talking the Roman Catholic church primarily, of course.) The Roman church was not only the established church of the empire, it is the official religion of the country to this day. Yet it has not simply imported a set of European values and cultural markers and impressed them on Panama. The people of Panama have shaped the practice of Christianity in the area as well.

The most obvious manifestation of this give and take is the special place that Jesus Nazareno, the Black Christ, occupies in the lives of the people. This depiction of Jesus is especially powerful because he is shown in the moment of his greatest suffering, as he is proceeding toward Calvary and carrying his cross. For people who have endured many hardships, this image reminds them of Christ’s solidarity in their suffering. Likewise, a dark skinned Jesus looks more like the people who are being asked to believe that he suffered with them. Given that many depictions of Christ coming out of Europe show his skin to be quite pale, this image stands out as a reminder that black people matter to God.

And it might have been easy for these folks to feel as if they had been forgotten much of the time. Ships would show up for a few weeks once or twice each year. The streets would be jammed with traders, sailors, and people looking to take advantage of both. It would seem like this is the time when Portobelo would come alive, but what about the rest of the year? In some ways the long months in between the arrival of ships would seem like the time when this beautiful port would really live, forgotten as they may have been by everyone except Christo Negro.

The Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Panama

So here’s the thing with the Episcopal Church in Panama: it’s not one thing. That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with any other part of the Anglican Communion, but I often have to be reminded to not try fitting complex things into tidy packages. I guess the tidy package I had in mind for Panama was the “Hispanic Worship” box. That box might be defined by worship in Spanish with enthusiastic singing and a particular emphasis on the saints. And all of this can be found in the church in Panama, but these elements by no means define Episcopalians on the isthmus.

And it is fair to use the term Episcopalians, if for no other reason than that’s what Panamanians call themselves: The Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Panama. “Diocese of WHAT?” you ask? Good question. A diocese of the Iglesia Anglicana de la Region Central de America. It’s a province of the Anglican Communion thats been autonomous since 1997 and prior to various parts belonged to The Episcopal Church (from the U.S.) and the Church of England. Panama, in fact, still uses the Book of Common Prayer adopted by The Episcopal Church in 1979 (in both English and Spanish versions.) Prior to that, they used the 1928 prayer book.

But 80 year-old Connie, with whom I spent a week (more on that later,) remembered another prayer book. Turns out, the church that she grew up in inherited the Church of England prayer book from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel missionaries who made it their business to establish churches and schools in the Americas. The tradition they espoused was more “high church” emphasizing the authority of priests and bishops, which may account for the fact that lay leadership has only recently been strongly supported in the diocese.

This history may also account for the fact that there is plenty of high church “smells and bells” in the course of worship in Panama. There are also lots of vibrant songs. Whether it is due to a Latino, Evangelical, or Low Church influence (from the southerners who brought their Episcopal Church experience from the United States,)  worship in Panama also includes vibrant singing and energetic preaching. It’s not unusual to have drums, incense, a thirty minute sermon, and a sung Eucharistic prayer all in the same service.

For those reading along who are not regulars in an Episcopal Church in the U.S., this is like putting the peanut butter in with the chocolate. Or the chocolate in with the peanut butter, for that matter. Either way, it works just fine in part, I think, because Panamanians don’t seem to get hung up on the historically arbitrary theological associations of particular ways of worshiping God. If it is edifying of the Gospel, they seem willing to at least give it a shot.

Which is also true of the way they welcomed us visitors. The fact that we Panama Project participants were often the only white people in the room was obvious but not an obstacle. There is a history of racial segregation and discrimination in Panama, much of it perpetrated by white Americans, but for a variety of reasons this history has not created a persistent level of suspicion between people of different skin colors.

To be honest, I don’t know how boldly the lines are drawn between the Afropanamanian and Latino communities. I also don’t want to discount the very legitimate reasons African Americans have for being suspicious of white folks. (Or deny that white folks often approach African Americans with suspicious that are often less than justified.) What I did experience in gathering after gathering was a genuine hospitality that helped me imagine what it could be like for us to be together, enjoying each others’ differences and similarities in a relaxed and natural sort of way.

At one gathering, the entertainment included a fantastic pop and jazz singer. As much as I love jazz in general, the Bosa Nova tune “Mas que Nada” is one of my favorites. I did not think the performer would notice my little seated dance, but apparently she did. Beyond my wildest expectations, she got me up to dance a bit of salsa with her while she sang. In the States, I might have been mortified and would definitely have suspected that I was being made to act like a dork. In this context, I felt supported, that my being willing to have a good time, to dance, was a way of enjoying this event with everyone there. There is, in fact, video of this activity, but you will have to ask me to see it in person. That mess is definitely not going on the internet!

Here’s Sergio Mendes: