Thursday, January 21, 2016

More pictures from La Escuela Biblica Vacacional (Vacation Bible School).

“Marcharemos en la Luz de Dios”

Last week La Transfiguración hosted a Vacation Bible School. Around 20 kids from the community came to participate. The children ranged in age from 8-15. The overall theme of the week was “Encontrando a Dios en nuestro alrededor,” or, “Finding God in the world around us.” Each day had its own theme that related to our overall theme. Using Bible verses we used discussions and activities to attempt to understand our overall theme.

Monday – Humildad y Fe: Amar a Dios y ser respetuoso (Humility and Faith: Loving God and being respectful)

Monday started of slowly. The program began at 9 in the morning and only one student showed up on time. Christopher, in fact, showed up early. He was the only student to show up on time the entire week. I had opened up the church with Eunice Vassell, the senior warden at La Transfiguración, around 8:45 and was very excited to begin the week. As I sat there sipping my coffee the students slowly started coming in. The first day we had only 5 students. I had worked with Blacxenia Ashley to develop the lessons for the week. Blacxenia is a teacher in David, a city around five hours away. She is in Changuinola visiting her mother while the schools are on vacation. She agreed to help teach with me and develop the lessons for each day. The first day was a simple discussion with the children. We introduced ourselves and explained why we were there. The discussion turned toward how loving God and being respectful can be a means of finding God in the world around us. How can we love God? How can we be respectful? What does it mean to be humble? What is faith? While these questions are difficult for anyone to really talk about I was impressed with the older students who fearlessly attempted to answer these questions and discuss how they perceive God working in their lives. We ended the day singing several different songs.

Tuesday – Evangelización y Proclamación: Compartiendo a Dios y ayudando a los demás (Evangelization and Proclamation: Sharing God and helping others)

On Tuesday more students showed up. This time around 12-15 students came. We began the day with a discussion. The discussion was about how we share God. Is it easy to talk with others about God? If so how do we do so? When sharing with others how do we do it? When can we share, when is it appropriate?  So it was important for us to define where we share God and who we share God with. After the discussion we divided the children into two groups. The younger children made drawings about places where we share God and the people who we share God with. The older kids paired off and they analyzed various Bible verses and answered questions about how the verses related to the theme of the day. After both groups were done we all came back together. The younger children presented their drawings and the older children presented their verse and the answers to their questions. The day ended with singing.  Blacxenia led the whole group in singing “Marcharemos en la luz de Dios,” (We are Marching in the Light of God).

Wednesday – Ecumenismo: Amistad con Dios y con otros (Ecumenism: Friendship with God and with others)

On Wednesday around 15-20 children showed up. Before we began the day’s discussion we had a brief review of the previous lessons, to remind the children why we were there and what we had been learning about. The daily discussion was about what it means for people to work together, and how it is important that even though we share God (Evangelization) it is just as important that we respect other people’s views and work together in friendship. They answered questions about why it was important for people of different faiths to work together and how they could do that. The older children then created collages based on the Bible verse that they were assigned, as well as what came up in the discussion. The younger children worked on a drawing based on friendship. We ended the day singing “Marcharemos.”

Thursday – Perdón y Empoderamiento: Haber sido perdonado por Dios, perdonar a otros y cambiar lo que necesitamos cambiar (Forgiveness and Empowerment: Being forgiven by God, forgiving others, and changing what we need to change)

On Thursday around 15 kids showed up. This day began a little differently. Instead of ending with singing we started the day with it. We sang several different songs. Specifically “Marcharemos,” because we were planning on having them sing that song on Sunday during the service. After singing, we started the daily discussion about Forgiveness and Empowerment. It was a brief discussion because the majority of the children were younger and we decided to shift the focus to an art project. We had them identify several key factors of Forgiveness and Empowerment, write them down on a piece of paper, and then decorate the paper.

Friday – Review and Preparation for Sunday

On Friday we had around 15-20 children come to finish out the week. We began by reviewing the week, and discussing all that we had learned. After the review we finished up any art projects that the children wanted to finish to show their parents on Sunday. After that we prepared for them to sing “Marcharemos.,” to the congregation. We also worked on a short skit for them to perform on Sunday.

Sunday – Service

Sunday service began at 10. Since we did not have a priest we began with a morning prayer and the readings. After that Eunice Vassell and I introduced the children and explained to the congregation what we had been doing all week. The children were sitting in front of the congregation. Family members and the normal congregation were in attendance. After our brief introduction we had students stand up and talk about the week. They explained what our overall theme was, and what our daily themes were. They then explained what they learned and what kinds of things they did during the week. After they all presented a day, we had them stand up and sing. Blacxenia Ashley led the children in singing “Marcharemos, both in Spanish and English. Unfortunately I only have pictures of the performance, but I was able to record one of the practices. I will post it. After the service the congregation was invited to have lunch with the children. I hung the artwork of the children on the walls so that their parents and the congregation could see what they had created during the week. During lunch the children performed their skit for everyone. It was a great ending to a wonderful week.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Mother’s Day

On Tuesday December 8th Panama celebrated Mother’s Day. Panamanians take this day so seriously that it is a national holiday, and offices are closed. Many people take this day off of work to spend time with their mothers and families. On Friday December 11th, the HIV/AIDS clinic I volunteer at decided to celebrate the mothers that come to the clinic. A volunteer from the Peace Corps brought in gifts for them. She gave them things like soap, wallets, and cleaning supplies – all gifts that these women can use in their daily life. All of these women are indigenous women. To celebrate these mothers Dr. Anne Okwuka, the doctor who runs the clinic, organized a lunch at the clinic where these mothers could enjoy a free meal and share their stories. Dr. Okwuka began by reminding all of those who were there that being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence. As long as people take care of themselves by regularly taking their medicine and maintaining healthy diets, they can live long lives. Surviving with HIV/AIDS is one thing, but living and coming to grips with it is another. Some of these women have been recently diagnosed and some of them have been living with HIV/AIDS for over ten years. Everyone stood up and shared their experience with the group. I will share some of their experiences here so you can understand how this disease spreads, how it is viewed culturally, and why it is such a big problem here.

The first woman who spoke had one of her daughters with her. She began by saying that she has two daughters, ages 10 and 15. Both of her daughters are HIV positive. They were not born infected. In the indigenous community there is a hidden culture of family members sexually abusing children. In this case an uncle, who was infected, sexually abused the children. No one talks about this abuse, but everyone knows about it. This woman did not volunteer the information on how her daughters became infected. She had to be pushed to say what had actually happened. Even as she told her story it was said in a quiet, hurried voice. As soon as she was finished she sat down quickly. I know she felt shame and guilt for what had happened even though it was not her fault.  

The second woman who stood up to talk had been recently diagnosed. As she stood up she began to cry. Dr. Okwuka stood to comfort her, and gently urged her to speak. It soon became clear why this woman was crying – her entire family had abandoned her. Her parents kicked her out of the house. Her brothers no longer financially supported her. She had no job, and no chance at getting one. The rest of her extended family kept their distance. Why? Because HIV/AIDS is not very well understood or accepted by the community. All most people in the community believe is that it is easy to get and if you get it you will die. This is true if you ignore your symptoms, don’t take your medicine, and fail to take care of yourself. A lack of education and knowledge leads to fear. Because this woman’s family did not have a clear understanding of what was happening, they acted based on pre-conceived notions and popular opinion. They shunned her. Unfortunately this is not an isolated incident. Stories like hers spread fast within the community. No one wants to be shunned by their family.  Many people decide to ignore their symptoms when they first notice them. If they do decide to go see a doctor, and even if their tests comes back positive, many people will decide to do nothing rather than be cast out by their family.

A third woman stood up to share her story. She began by sharing how she had been diagnosed. She was married and faithful to her husband. She had been living in David (in the north of the country) and needed to travel to Colón (several hours to the south) to visit her mother and to look for work. She returned to David several months later. Two years later she went to the doctor and discovered that she was HIV positive. She had been infected by her husband. There needs to be some clarification about sex and sexual relations in the indigenous community. While marriage and monogamy are present, a culture of open sexual relationships is common. During parties it is common for people to have multiple partners in one night. While there is nothing wrong with this, when this is coupled with a culture of ignoring or being unaware of sexually transmitted diseases, then they can spread rapidly. So even if people have one sexual partner, much like this third woman, it is still entirely possible for them to become infected. A lack of comprehensive sex education and safe sex practices also allows for the spread to continue.

These three stories are only a few of the thousands that are out there. Dr. Okwuka and the clinic she runs works within this community to help the people. She finds ways to bring people together, like this Mother’s Day celebration, to show the community that there is life after being diagnosed and that there is support for them. But Dr. Okwuka knows that more needs to be done. A culture of hiding and maintaining is not a solution. She envisions a culture of openness and prevention. Once the taboo is conquered and people begin to talk about and attain more knowledge, then we can move forward and work towards eliminating HIV/AIDS for good. It starts by celebrating what we can. So even if it’s not Mother’s Day where you live, I would like to wish you a happy Mother’s Day. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Changuinola – A New Home

It has been quite some time since I last blogged. I had planned on updating this blog weekly, but that has not happened. I do apologize for the late update. A lot has happened since I last blogged. In order to avoid one long drawn out blog post I plan on blogging bit by bit more regularly until I am caught up. So, to begin, this post will describe my new home, Changuinola.

Changuinola is located in the northern part of Panama, close to Costa Rica. It is in a province known as Bocas del Toro. People are more likely to recognize the name of the province because it is also home to a very popular tourist destination. However, when people visit this popular tourist destination they are not visiting Changuinola, rather they are visiting Bocas Town on Colón Island, or as the locals in Changuinola refer to it: Bocas Isla (or Bocas Island). It is around an hour and a half to two hours away by bus and then water taxi (or much more quickly by air if you prefer). I was fortunate enough to visit Bocas last month to celebrate Panamanian independence, but I will talk about that in a later post.

Changuinola is divided into Fincas. They are small neighborhoods that are based on the banana plantations that surround the center of town. These Fincas are connected to each other by one main road, called 17 de Abril Avenue (or Main Street), which runs north to south. The center of town is where all the main shopping is done. It is also where the majority of local businesses are. Since Changuinola is spread out, it is necessary to take taxis from one location to another. All travel within Changuinola costs 70 cents, it is more if you want to travel further out of town. There are many taxis as well as local busses, so finding transportation around town is easy. I live five minutes away from the center of town by taxi.

There is a mixture of ethnic groups in town. The majority of the people in Changuinola are those of Afro-Caribbean descent, and those descended from the indigenous population (from the Ngobe-Bugle tribe). There are also a large number of Latinos as well as some Chinsese immigrants. While the main language is Spanish you may also hear English, Chinese, Wari Wari (English/Spanish mix brought by the Jamaicans), and native dialects.

The main source of employment is the Bocas Fruit Company, or the “Company.” It was known as the Chiriqui Land Company and United Fruit Company, but last year the United Fruit Company sold the company to a Brazilian company and it became the Bocas Fruit Company. The Company took care of everything in Bocas. They controlled the water, the power, and even took care of the social and cultural aspects of the area for over one hundred years. The company was truly the caretaker of the people. Beyond just providing jobs the company also helped to take care of the community. For example the Transfiguration in Changuinola, the Episcopal Church, had a parishioner that was a manager with the Company. He would make sure that the company would mend the fence, keep the grass cut and ensure that the building was painted regularly. The Transfiguration was not the only church in the area to be supported.

Around thirty years ago the Company decided that it was much more cost efficient to slowly sell the company to the workers. It was more cost effective to work with new private entities and use contracts to grow and process bananas, rather than manage the process completely. The globalization of the banana market meant that the price of bananas had dropped significantly, forcing the Company to find new ways to save money in order to survive. The Company knew that many of the buildings and machinery were very old and the cost of updating and upgrading would be more than the Company could realistically spend. The solution was the privatization of the various aspects of banana growing, helping the Company to become more financially stable in the Bocas region. While this helped the Company, it also meant that many jobs were lost. More than that, with the slow draw down in the region the Company began to turn over control of things like water and electricity to the government. A community that had been taken care of by the Company for over one hundred years was then forced to depend on a government that would not be as efficient as the Company. Because the people were completely dependent on the Company, this new direction meant devastation for the economy and the people of Bocas del Toro. To this day the old men will still recall the good old days and fondly tell stories of when they worked for the Company.

This is only a brief introduction to my new home. I have based this post on my own observations and conversations that I have had with people around town, in church and at rugby practice. While this is far from a complete picture of Changuinola, my hope is that you will keep this post in your mind as you read about my work here. This post will help you understand the cultural and social experiences of my time in Panama. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

From Panama City to Changuinola

Panama City

Street Art in Panama City
Map of El Parque Metropolitanio
When I arrived in Panama City on September 14th I was driven to San Lucas Episcopal Cathedral. While at San Lucas I was able to reunited with Elly Withers. Elly is the other YASCer stationed in Panama. She is stationed in Panama City and her mission trip is focused on Promesa, a sustainable agriculture program that works with the indigenous people of Panama. Elly arrived in Panama a week before I did, and she was able to show me around. We hiked trails at El Parque Metropolitanio, ran up Gorgas Road to the huge Panamanian flag waving on top of the mountain overlooking Panama City, attended a Central American Independence Day party put on by the ambassadors of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and attended mass at San Lucas Cathedral. While I was in the city I was able to sample foods from all over Central America. The real purpose of my week in Panama City was to familiarize myself with my new country, meet people, and learn some of the history of Panama and the Episcopal Church in Panama. Two leaders in the church were responsible for our orientation. Walter and Eric spent a couple of days showing us around the city and with the help of historical documentaries they were able to teach and discuss with us the history of Panama.


On September 22nd I traveled to Changuinola. Changunola is in the northern part of Panama in a region known as Bocas del Toro. It has the feel of a small town, spread out over a large area. I am living in the rectory of La Transifguración. La Transifguración (The Transfiguration) is one of two churches that I will work with to help build youth programs. The other church is San Miguel Arcangel (Saint Michael the Archangel) in Guabito. Guabito is on the northern border of Panama next to Costa Rica. In the Bocas region there are four churches, and while none of the churches has a priest, they all have very dedicated parishioners. The lack of a priest has meant that all four congregations have created a culture of working together as a region to support each other. When one church needs to raise money, plan a party, or spread news, representatives from all four churches meet and discuss the business at hand. Along with La Transifguración and San Miguel Arcangel there is also San Jorje (Saint George) in Almirante, and Santa Maria (Saint Mary) in Bocas Island.
Rectory at La Transfiguracion

After my arrival in Changuinola I went right to work. I immediately met the senior warden of La Transifguración, Eunice Vassle. She took me to a meeting where the HIV/AIDS group that I will work with began planning a raffle to raise money for the organization. Eunice also took me to Nutre Hogar, the malnourished children’s center in Changuinola. There are around 15 children ranging from newborn babies to 7 years old. The malnourished children are dropped off at Nutre Hogar and nursed back to health. There is a small, dedicated staff of volunteers that works at Nutre Hogar. This past Saturday I went with some of these volunteers and walked the streets of Changuinola asking for donations for Nutre Hogar. Since Nutre Hogar has been in existence since 1988 many of the people in the local community know and respect the work that Nutre Hogar does and were eager to give what they could.
Street Performance in Changuinola

One thing I noticed while working with two churches and two different non-profit organizations is that there is a serious need for volunteers. Any programs I design or participate in will need to have volunteers in order to be sustainable after my year in Panama is over. The best volunteers are young adults who are in either high school or university. They are best because they have more free time and energy to help. In order to meet more young adults who can potentially help with some of these programs I joined the local rugby team. Over the next two months I plan on meeting as many people as I can. I will form as many relationships as I can in order to form my own network here. As I continue to meet people my Spanish will also improve. I can understand when people speak to me in Spanish, but speaking the language is still a bit of a challenge. While I am working on building my network, I will slowly start to meet the children of the community. La Transifguración has a field where many children come to play after school. I plan on beginning to form a youth group by meeting these children and offering them water while they play soccer. I will use that opportunity to begin conversations with them. From those conversations I will eventually learn what programs are needed or would be of interest to the children.

There is much work to be done and I will try to keep this blog updated weekly.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Aloha Everyone,

I will be leaving for Panama this evening. This blog will show you what I will be doing there over the next year. I am very excited to be going on this mission trip. As soon as I arrive in Panama City tomorrow I will be spending a week going through orientation. After that I will be heading north to my final destination. I would like to thank everyone who has made it possible for me to go on this mission trip. To the many people who donated, to the churches that invited me to speak, and to the Episcopal Diocese of Hawaii as a whole – thank you. I am writing this blog as a way to show everyone who helped me the programs they are supporting, and the people with whom I am serving.