Cindy Ceballos, shown here with patients at a volunteer medical clinic in Guabal, Veraguas, works with the Panamanian Ministry of health and volunteer medical teams.
A New Methodist Community Grows in Santiago
by David Ceballos
Bridging the Global Body of Christ” has become the motto for Methodism in Panama. Much as the Panama Canal bridges the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, connecting east and west as a bridge for the world of commerce, the Iglesia Evangelica Metodista de Panama (IEMPA for short) has connected the country’s northern and southern Methodists, and it has created a bridge between US Methodists and Panamanians.
In the early years of Panama’s formation, Methodist districts were located on Panama’s northern border with Costa Rica and its southern border with Colombia. Up until recently, there was no Methodist presence in the interior, because there were just fewer people living there. Today, however, the demographics have shifted, and IEMPA is currently engaged in the creation of a new Methodist community in Santiago. Located in the geographic center of the country, the city is growing.
To keep up with this growth, IEMPA is establishing a new central district that will connect the two existing districts in the north and south. These districts include a total of 15 churches. As United Methodist missionaries—my wife, Cynthia Ceballos, a health-care worker and nurse and I, a missionary pastor—are collaborating in this effort to plant a new church and create a community-based health-care program in the region of Veraguas, the state in which the city of Santiago is located.
A Missionary Strategy
As missionaries working with IEMPA, we have forged a strategy for this endeavor with the Panamanian church. As Cynthia puts it: “The acronym PRAY is serving as our guide. We want to use the model that Jesus used, which proved to be very successful. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23 NRSV) Our efforts here are holistic, engaging both the physical and spiritual aspects of humanity. When we can meet the needs of the communities we serve, the gospel gains credibility and the words we share with worshipers are not empty.” Our target group lives primarily in an area called Punta Delgadita, a suburb of Santiago that has a population of approximately 80,000. Punta Delgadita is comprised mostly of indigenous peoples (Ngnöbe-Buglé tribes) and others who are economically marginalized.
The acronym PRAY serves three purposes for this stage of church development: it sets our values, guides our priorities, and determines our strategy. “P” stands for establishing a presence where there has not been a Methodist presence before. We are engaged in incarnational ministry. And the Word became flesh and lived among us. (John 1:14 NRSV) “R” represents relationship. We have a vocation of building relationships both with God and with our neighbors. That is what the greatest commandment and the second, which is like it, are all about. “A” stands for adaptability. The context in which we work determines the strategy and ministries we need. We have to remain adaptable to our circumstances rather than relying on preconceived programming. Finally, “Y” represents Yes. “Yes Lord, here am I, use me if you can.” We are guests on planet Earth and God has asked us to participate in telling the redemption story. So, we pray with humility and respond with “Yes.” Nothing in the acronym PRAY says anything about building something, doing something, or organizing something. Those things are secondary at this stage of development.
Volunteer and Health Ministries
Who can better help us establish a presence with a large footprint and with relationship-building than Volunteer-In-Mission medical teams? “We work very closely with the Panamanian Ministry of Health (MOH),” Cynthia explains. “It is our partner in what we do. We coordinate volunteer medical teams of all sorts—general medicine, dental care, physical therapy, vision care, pharmaceuticals. VIM medical teams create a Methodist presence far stronger than the two of us alone can achieve. We also invite environmentalists to help the Ministry of Health reach its health goals. We travel to rural areas and remote places that the Health Ministry cannot reach because of its limited resources. In return, the MOH gives our ministry 100 percent support. We have formed a very successful collaborative relationship with them and are engaged in building strategic relationships throughout the Veragus region.
Local Panamanians are fully engaged in these efforts as well. They love to take part in every aspect of what is being done here. After all, the church is their church and this is their work, as well as ours. Part of our strategy of growing the church in central Panama is having Panamanians involved alongside the US VIM teams.
Establishing a ministry presence throughout the region of Veraguas encourages Panamanian members to do ministry in their villages. We plan to keep the relational bridge we are building in place so that they can continue this dynamic on their own for further growth.
Following Jesus’ Example
“Recently,” Cynthia said, “we had an exciting experience that validated our ministry here in this region. While working with a medical team to serve a community on the fringes of the jungle near the Comarca—the indigenous reservation—we treated members of the Casika family, not knowing that they were family members of the tribal chief. Thanks to their enthusiasm about the way in which they were treated, we later received a delegation from the chief with an open letter of invitation. He asked us to come into his territory and work with the people there. He gave us permission to enter their homes, conduct worship services, provide medical care, and establish a presence.” This is exactly the model Jesus followed. It worked for Him and now it’s working for us.
Under the Mango Tree
Cristina Chavez stood at a distance as she watched us conduct services under the mango tree near the construction site where a multipurpose building is going up. She sang quietly and listened intently to my sermon. After the service she slowly approached me and introduced herself. As we talked, I told her who we were, what we were all about, and our vision for the work in Punta Delgadita. After a few weeks of continued visits, her husband, Victor, became involved in the work. Since then, he has become my right-hand man and Cristina has become Cynthia’s cultural broker and right-hand woman. When VIM teams arrive, both are ready to jump in and work alongside the visitors.
Bridging the global body of Christ is really more than just a slogan. It’s a reality that happens here in Panama all the time. “We are so blessed to be a part of what God is doing here in Panama” Cynthia says, “to be able to use our gifts and graces to bring both physical and spiritual healing to the indigenous people and marginalized populations of Panama. It’s even better knowing that we have great ministry partners—IEMPA and Panama’s Ministry of Health—working with us.”
The Rev. Dr. David Ceballos (Advance # 14287Z) and his wife Cynthia Ceballos (Advance # 14288Z) have been missionaries serving in the Punta Delgadita area of Panama (Advance Project #3021573) since 2012. They have also served in previous placements as missionaries in Honduras and Barcelona, Spain. David Ceballos is a member of the Northwest Texas Annual Conference. This article was first published in the May-June 2015 issue of New World Outlook magazine. Used by permission.
The Rev. David Ceballos, missionary to Panama, celebrates communion in Punta Delgadita
In Guabal, a Panamanian church member plays a handcrafted guitar and a harmonica at a worship service.
The Rev. David Ceballos preaches at an outdoor worship service at the construction site, in Punta Delgadita, Panama.
A US United Methodist Volunteer-in-Mission team helps with the construction of the multipurpose church building in Punta Delgadita, Panama.
All Photos: Courtesy the Ceballos Family
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