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.
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!
WARNING: This version of this song contains salty lyrics!
Of course I bought a lottery ticket. Despite what the New York Times might tell you, your chances of winning are better if you buy a ticket than if you don’t buy a ticket. I only bought one ticket, and I did not buy the power play (whatever that is.) I don’t really expect to win the lottery, but someone, somewhere will win. What if it was me?
That’s really the value of the ticket, if you ask me. Thinking about what I’d do if I won. I’d move, immediately, to a house with more than one bathroom. I would not want to move out of the neighborhood or to a different city right this minute. I’d just want a second bathroom. If that bathroom were en suite with the master bedroom and had two sinks, so much the better. We have a teenager in the house. We need greater bandwidth when it comes to privies.
I have not asked my sweet lady if she would quit her job. Tallulah would have to stay in school, of course, because I don’t want to go to jail. I would definitely stay in school too because:
I’m not in seminary simply for a job. I would have gone to business school at Western Carolina University if that were the motivation.
I want to be a priest in the Episcopal Church.
That was a little bit, but I hope not too much, surprising to my sweet lady. I think she has seen me struggle against my extroverted nature to sit in a room, by myself, and read books. A lot of books. Also, deadlines make me anxious, and school is nothing but deadlines. So why would I keep doing that if I had a billion dollars?
Because this is the dream, this going to seminary and becoming a priest thing. It’s kind of a weird dream, but it’s mine. What might change is what type of priest I would become. I’ve seen people in positions responsible for building, or raising funds for, a community who did not really need the job for income. They were independently wealthy or whatever and seemed to have a different perspective on the outcome of their work. They did not have the same amount of skin in the game as the folks who really needed to be successful in order to pay the bills.
So, I would want to be careful about getting into a position of leadership where I did not care about the success or failure of the venture. The again, I might find a whole other reason for caring, some other skin to put into the game. I’d want to give some money away, and I would want to give it to people who are already doing good work instead of founding some new initiative or organization. (I might start a foundation for tax purposes, but I’d hope to keep it simple.) Food banks and mentoring programs could use all the money we have to give them.
The answer to the “what if” question for me is, essentially, “nothing much different.” I’m grateful for that and grateful to the people who have made sacrifices so that I can do this. Three or four years ago, my answer probably would have been quite different. Back then we lived in a house with two bathrooms.