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!
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.
Oh my Lord, that’s a good song. All of Hamilton is good, of course, but this song in particular is on my mind today, July 4. The day of our declaration that the American colonies would be independent of the British Empire. This song, sung from the perspective of King George III, could just as easily reflect the sentiments of the Emperor Nero in the age of Jesus. That’s right, I’m comparing the revolutionary movement of Jesus to the colonial uprising in these United States. (And I think you could easily add to this comparison the revolution led by Mohammed against the oligarchy in Mecca as well as the revolution Moses led against the imperial forces of Ramses the Great. Probably the Buddha’s revolution against the caste system too.)
The idea that the dignity of each person’s life demands that they have the freedom to exercise their own agency is not an idea unique to Christianity, but I think it is undeniable that the culture in which the founders of this country were steeped was thoroughly infused with the Christian tradition. The early Christian movement not only sought to oppose the injustice of the Roman Empire, but also to break the strangle-hold that complicit Temple authorities held over Jewish religious life. (Which, by the way, I think the Pharisees may have also been trying to break, but by a more traditionally Jewish route.) The revolutionaries of this country were by no small measure inspired by and acting in accord with the Christian movement of the first century.
Until, of course, they stopped. Many of the revolutionaries never even contemplated things like the abolition of slavery or the equal status of women under the law. Inclusion of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations would have blown their minds. When the common folk got restless and rose up against the American aristocracy, we got a new Constitution specifically designed to slow the revolution to a snail’s pace. But not to stop it.
So we find ourselves in a time when we can consider so many of the things that would not have been fathomable 240 years ago, much less 1986 (give or take a few years.) How far are we willing to allow the revolution to go in our generation? Who does our faith challenge us to include, whether we belong to the Jesus movement, the Mohammed movement, the Maccabean movement, or any other theistic or atheistic movement? Today while we give thanks for all that has brought us to this place and time, we might also ask what comes next.