German visitors learn to know indigenous MB church leaders
Assembly Scattered is the second component of Mennonite World Conference assemblies. Assembly Scattered gives visiting Christians the opportunity to meet Christians living in the region that is hosting the global Assembly Gathered. The follow two stories on Assembly 15 Scattered come from the perspective of Christine Fehrle and Wilhelm and Liesa Unger of Karlsruhe and Regensburg Mennonite churches in Germany, the guests who visited Mennonite Brethren in Panama, and the church leaders who hosted them.
Bigger and more beautiful in Panama
In Panama City a welcome team greeted us and took us to the harbor town of Chepo. Among our hosts was Lochi, our captain for the next few days (who is pictured right). We learned that Indigenous people, either Wounaan or Emberá, make up all 13 Mennonite Brethren churches in Panama. Most churches are located in the jungle area of Darién.
Next morning we set out by boat to visit Pacific coast villages in the jungle, which are easier to access than the churches in the Darién jungle. We went along a river for an hour, another hour along the coast and 30 minutes along another river to the village of Platanares, our first stop in the jungle.
Church members and children welcomed us and led us to a stilt house with a palm thatch roof. It was the home of Hermes Barrigón, MB conference chair, and Lochi. Our host family invited us to relax, eat fish, rice, plantains and mangoes, get to know people in the community, play with children, swim in the river and learn about life in a Wounaan village. At an evening worship service at the local MB church, we shared our experiences at Assembly Gathered, shared Assembly and German songs and brought greetings from our German churches. We also learned worship songs that our Wounaan brothers and sisters love. The service ended with prayer for each other.
Next morning we got to know a church elder who, until recently, was the town’s mayor. His wife is one of the best hunters in town and she has a passion for weaving chunga baskets. We learned how the community deals with conflict and about the role of elders as judges and mediators. Wounaan communities manage life without prisons or capital punishment.
In the afternoon, we set out for the next village, Rio Hondo. Again we shared our lives and experiences with the community. Many church members from Platanares came with us to Rio Hondo where we all sang together.
Early the next morning we traveled back to Chepo and Panama City. On our way we stopped to watch ocean birds, visited an island and enjoyed the landscape. Back in Chepo, we relaxed with our host family and listened in on a Wounaan Council meeting at our host’s house. Leonides Quiróz, our host and the first Wounaan lawyer, explained his work on Wounaan territorial rights.
The church we visited in the evening belongs to a community of Wounaan artists who create and sell their art in the city. We got to know the Wounaan MB Hymnal with most songs in Woun Meu, the common spoken language, and some in Spanish, which most people there read and write. Singing was important in the worship service and again listeners were eager to hear about Assembly 15 and the worldwide community of faith. After the service we got acquainted over coffee and snacks.
On Sunday morning we worshipped with a church in Panama City. This place was started many years ago as a place for students to live while attending school. Many students and professionals attend. We enjoyed the community, the sharing, the singing, the worship band and the lunch of traditional food after church.
In the afternoon we visited Bible translators Chindío Peña Ismare and Ron Binder. Ismare, a native speaker of Woun Meu, and Binder, a Wycliffe missionary, have worked together since the early 1970s on Woun Meu literacy programs and in translating the Bible into Woun Meu. Ismare, counselled by Binder, worked at translating the New Testament into his language for almost 20 years. The Woun Meu New Testament was published in 1988. Today both language scientists put time and effort into literacy programs. Several books published in Woun Meu are used to teach children and adults how to read and write their language.
On our last day in Panama, with our hosts Alina Itucama and Obdulio Isaramá, we visited city sites and the Panama Canal. Alina, a well-known artist and church leader, and Obdulio, a business man, sell Wounaan and Emberá art. Obdulio teaches the artists how to promote and sell their products. As a church leader Alina is also engaged with Latin American Women Theologians. Both Alina and Hermes Barrigón had stayed on in Paraguay to go to the meeting with Indigenous Mennonites in the Chaco.
Our days in Panama were filled with many great encounters. The chunga basket we received as a farewell gift for our church reminds us to pray for and continue friendships with our brothers and sisters in Panama.
And yes, the famous German children’s book is right. Everything is much bigger and more beautiful in Panama. – Liesa Unger
Hosting was a blessing
When the Mennonite World Conference office contacted us about our churches hosting Mennonite visitors, we had no idea what it was all about. We knew for sure only that people from Germany would come to visit us and our churches in the jungle and we felt happy.
Having a brother and sisters from far away come to visit our little churches in Panama was very interesting. It helped us to understand how big a family we are in Jesus Christ.
Many of our church members could not be at the MWC assembly in Paraguay, but the opportunity of having the Mennonites from Germany share with us all the good experiences from the assembly was a blessing.
We have a better understanding now of how important it is for our churches to commit to pray for all our faith family around the world in Jesus’ name. As family, we have different needs, blessings, difficult times and happenings. It is good to know each other and talk to our eternal Father about the situations in different countries and churches.
Thanks to the brother and sisters from Germany for sharing their time and experiences with us. It was a blessed time. Even though we have different languages and cultures we were happy to have them with us. Thanks be to God!
– Alina Itucama and Obdulio Isaramá, MB National Conference leaders pictured at right with their son and Liesa and Wilhelm Unger at the Panama Canal