I’ve decided that it is time to go to work. For the last couple of years, I’ve been able to pull off wearing cargo shorts and flip-flops most of the time. I know it makes me look like a youth minister from 1998, but I feel comfortable. In some ways, too comfortable. When I am that comfortable in how I dress, I can get comfortable in how I think. One might even say complacent or lazy (not that seminary leaves much room for laziness.)
Today, I’m intensely aware that we have work to do. We have work of discernment. What is the truth when it comes to disaffected communities, people under threat, and the relationship of our past to our future? As we come to see the truth, we must tell the truth. We must talk about who we have ignored and about who we have been blind to. Maybe we can work on reconciliation, but we must first be honest about the degree of our separation. We have lots of work to do.
Now is not the time for me to be lazy. Now is the time for me to show up for work, wearing the proper clothes. That includes appropriate footwear. Closed-toed shoes. I put on my old Clark’s chukka boots this morning. They were old when I started seminary two years ago. They are really old now. And kind of frumpy. But then again, I’m planning on wearing a lot of black in the near future. Is this a time for buying new brown shoes?
As I sat in Noonday Prayer and pondered such things in my heart, I realized two ideas at the exact same time. First, I’m thinking about shoes and shoe shopping. Yes, our world still needs healing and no, buying stuff is not the way to heal it, but the sun did rise in the east this morning. Tonight it will set in the west. While we are working on some big challenges, the little joys of life persist. (I’m open to considering that formulation in reverse, but the challenges don’t seem little in this moment.) Second, I’m ready to get to work. I’m excited. Not so much because I think we can get it all done (or at least not easily and quickly) but because I get to do it with you.
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!
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!
Almost a month ago, I packed up the largest suitcase my family owns, kissed my wife and daughter goodbye, and took off to the Republic of Panama for three weeks. I had no idea what I was doing or why I was doing it. Mostly, to channel Cool Hand Luke, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Somewhere in the Miami airport, as I changed planes amidst roving packs of adolescent missionaries in matching t-shirts, I realized I was about to spend the better part of the month with people I had met once, by Skype, in a place where I did not know the language and which was separated from my home by at least four countries, one of which is Mexico. And I’ve been warned against driving through Mexico for the time being.
So, I guess it was going to be Panama for three weeks. In preparation, I had read David McCullough’s book about the canal, in which you will learn a lot about the history of France and the United States around the turn of the 20th century. You’ll learn much less about the history of Columbia, and very little about Panama itself (except that it is the worst place in Central America to build a canal with the exception of all the other places.) So, it was exciting to look out my airplane window and see ships lined up to enter the canal.
Also, from the air and from the ground, Panama City looks pretty impressive. In a country of 4 million people, about 2 million live in Panama (as residents of the Republic of Panama refer to Panama City. Or just “the City,” in a manner similar to residents of the greater New York City area in reference to that city.) It does not take long, however, to discern that there is the City and there is the Canal but they are not all that makes up Panama. The next three weeks would reveal much more to me about the fascinating mix of people and cultures that sometime blend and sometimes clash to produce a distinct Panamanian identity.
Which gets to the point that Panama is not just a thing Teddy Roosevelt made up in 1903. The country has a history which stretches back past the arrival of Christopher Columbus on its shores in 1502, and Panamanians are proud of where they have come from and who they are. International trade has shaped Panama since the Spanish Colonial period, but even as the United States exercised authority over the canal, students in Panama asserted the sovereignty of their nation. There is a sense in which Panama continues to be denied the respect it deserves on the world stage.
Yet Panamanians do not seem to carry a tremendously large chip on their shoulder. Our group was made to feel very welcome every place we went, and folks in Panama clearly know how to have a good time. While we have given up so many social activities in favor of the sanctuary of our living rooms, Panamanians are often gathered outside, visiting with one another or perhaps rehearsing the band in preparation for the parades that happen in November. The sacred and the secular get mixed in city blocks and on countryside buses. Over the course of several posts, I hope to be able to share at least a little bit of what I found there.