My Panama Experience!

(Elena Collado, CFC SFL Washington)

If there is one word to describe my mission experience in Panama, it would be AMAZING.  It was a very powerful, eye-opening and life-changing experience.  I was taken so out of my comfort zone and was given an opportunity to serve in a capacity that I never knew existed within me!  I was able to have a little glimpse of what the life of a missionary was like, and it left me thirsting for more!

It was when I first arrived at the airport that I realized the challenges of this trip.  It was then when I came face-to-face with the language barrier.  It was also when the solitude of the trip began to kick in.  I was greeted at the airport by Tio Vidal Lopez.  Luckily he was able to recognize my face and pull me out of the crowd.  He couldn’t speak/understand English, and I spoke/understood a very minimum amount of espanol.  In the car ride, we attempted to have a conversation but eventually gave up.  I knew I was in trouble when I heard his sigh “Dios mio…”  We ended up listening to and singing to worship music in espanol for the rest of the car ride.

One of the greatest challenges I faced on this mission (and in my service) was language barrier.  The ability to communicate effectively has always been one of my strongest traits, especially in my service, but when I landed in Panama it was as if God completely stripped me of that strength.  It was so difficult for me to comprehend what the people were saying, and even more difficult for me to express what I felt/thought; it was very frustrating!  There were many times when I felt incompetent, and really questioned what business I had being here.  I was afraid that I was wasting everybody’s time and would be more of a burden than a help to the people in Panama!

But, God always has His way of addressing our anxieties and answering our prayers.  It was by no coincidence that when I attended daily mass on my first day in Panama, the first reading contained the verse in which our national conference used for this year’s theme: “… my God is now my strength! (Is 49:5)”.  When I heard that passage, I KNEW that I was exactly where God wanted me to be.  I realized that God took away MY strength –He took away everything that I considered to be mine, in order to be FULLY at work through me.  This was my chance to serve and for everybody to see the power of God within me.  This was my chance to speak the language of God, the universal language, which was love.

Luckily in the Lopez house I had Sara (Tio Vidal’s daughter), who is pretty fluent in English.  She acted as my translator for the most part, and had lots of patience.  I owe her so much.  She had to reassure me on so many occasions that I would be okay, and would do her part to ease my worries.

My first weekend in Panama is described in full detail in a blog that I typed out, which can be found here:

http://elenacollado.tumblr.com/post/6966391395/panama-days-2-and-3

If you follow the link above, it describes in full detail everything that I experienced and felt, and all the messages I had received in that weekend alone.

My first full week in Panama, I stayed at the Lopez house in Bethania.  Like I said, I had Sara to be my buddy and interpreter.  But, when the second week rolled around, I was informed that I would be staying in a neighborhood called Las Colinas, where a large portion of the ministry member resided.  I would stay with Tia Maria and her husband, neither of whom spoke any English.  I was VERY nervous when I discovered this.  But, as Tio Vidal pointed out, I needed to be where the ministry resided in order to serve them, so I went.

My second week in Panama (Las Colinas) was literally spent in prayer.  There was no internet, and I had no phone card so… I had nothing else to do but to pray.  There was very minimal talking, not only because of the language barrier but also because Tia Maria is a very quiet woman to begin with.  It was in the second week that I felt God really speaking to me.  I received numerous affirmations through scripture that I was meant to be serving in Panama.  I also began reading a book about Saint Paul, and started to feel like he was there with me on this trip.  And, it was no coincidence that I was also able to celebrate his feast day in Panama!

Luckily there were two brothers (Alexi and Jerry) in Las Colinas who spoke a little English, and who also happened to be the youth leaders of Las Colinas.  I was able to have a little check-in/household with the two leaders; we discussed their faith life, where they stood and how they felt as leaders, what they wanted for their area, and we prayed together.  They were both very happy and content with their faith, but also shared some of their challenges in being leaders.  One thing they both desired for the ministry within their area was a deeper involvement from the youth members, and an expansion in their number of members.  I reminded them about the importance of praying, not only for themselves but also for their members.  Intercessory prayer is a powerful tool in service.  And also, we discussed the importance of accountability for their members, and how as leaders we accept the task of being shepherds to the flock.

One thing I discovered in talking with the youth and observing their households and discussions is that they have practically the same issues and problems within their ministry there as we do here [in Seattle]. I could also go as far as saying that Panama is the Seattle of Latin America.  When I was talking to one of the leaders, they explained that when they attend national conferences, they feel small and “not as alive” compared to the other areas/countries.  It was like all the issues I had been working on and praying for at home had followed me to Panama!  It really opened my eyes and forced me to examine the roots of these issues.  I realized the importance of prayers for humility, intercessory prayers, constant group prayer & fasting, and just the importance of PRAYER in general!  All the works and fruits of God begin in prayer!

My third week in Panama, I was moved to Gonzalillo, which is the neighborhood where the core of the JPC reside.  It is in Gonzalillo where they hold their JPC households.  I stayed in the house of one of the sisters (Meyri).  Her family was very nice welcoming (–everybody in Panama was very nice and welcoming)!  There, she even taught me how to cook Panamanian food.

I ended up making most of my progress in learning espanol in my last week in Panama.  In the house I stayed at, no one spoke English, but they enjoyed conversing so we were able to teach each other!  It was like playing charades every time we tried to have a conversation.  I was able to build up my Spanish while they got to practice speaking English’ so everybody won!

My stay in Panama was too short.  By the time I was finally beginning to make real progress in my relationship with the people, and in my espanol it was time to go!  My suggested time of stay for a mission volunteer would be about 3 months.  That should be enough time to get to know the area and people, and to plan & execute events.

Although I may no longer physically be in Panama, my service to them will never stop.  I will never stop praying for them.  I continually check up on the jovenes members, and just found out that they are attempting to follow a more structured format for their households, praise God!  It was an issue that Tio Vidal had addressed with me while I was there, and now the prayers are finally being answered!  The youth are moving from just bible studies, to actual teachings!  I forwarded Sara the household guide and they plan on using it for their future meetings!

If it’s God’s will, I would love to return to Panama.  I really feel like my work there has just begun.  I have been inspired.  Since coming back from Panama, my thirst to serve has been so strong.  I ask for your prayers, because I am now discerning holding off from getting a nursing job in order to serve as a full-time missionary.  God has been tugging at my heart, and I realize that there’s no better time to serve in this capacity.  In whatever case, I feel so honored and beyond blessed to be able to have this experience, to have my life so completely changed.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who helped make this happen.  Ate Jaline played a huge role in presenting this opportunity, and getting the ball rolling, and even being a support during my time there.  I would also like to thank my sponsors who helped pay for this trip.  I know that this trip wasn’t cheap.  And as much as money could have been an issue that would have prevented it from happening, God made it happen.  I am SO grateful, and I promise for those who helped me financially, you didn’t spend your money in vain.  The rewards will continue to be reaped, so many seeds have been planted.

And the greatest thanks goes to our Most Divine, Loving Father.  Dios proveera.  God never fails.  And may God continue to be praised, may we never cease to be witnesses.  To Him be the glory.