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Letter from Panama

November 2003

Dear Friends,

If I ever get around to writing my memoirs one day, the chapter describing the period from August 2002 to July 2003 will bear the title "The Year I Wasn't Bishop". In August 2002, after 32 rounds of voting in which to our great frustration our General Assembly (Annual Conference) failed to muster the favorable votes of 75% of the delegates to elect a new bishop, we unanimously approved a compromise measure in which we entrusted the leadership of our Church corporately to our National Board for a one year transition period during which we would have no bishop. As the Vice President of the Board, in the absence of the former bishop, I became the acting President. The prospect was quite uncomfortable for me because in spite of the fact that I have dedicated the last 18 years to the service of the Panamanian Methodist Church, I am not Panamanian and furthermore I am a missionary. And the Panamanian Methodist Church has been autonomous for 30 years. but I accepted the challenge in the hopes of serving as an instrument of healing in a bitterly divided church.

I won't go into detail about our Board's work over the past year, but our priority was to lead the Church in a healing process to overcome the divisions that had resulted from the institutional crisis we had experienced for the last several years. One of the highlights in that process was the "Open Dialogue" which brought together many of the leaders who had been in conflict to share their feelings and thoughts about the process of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. An even more important event was a national leadership workshop entitles "An Adventure in Healing and Wholeness: The Church's Ministry of Healing." At these events and in innumerable personal encounters of healing and reconciliation, the Spirit of the Lord began weaving together the torn fabric of our beloved Church.

It gives me great joy to share the news that on August 1, 2003 in the second round of voting our General Assembly elected the Reverend Pablo Morales as Bishop of the Evangelical Methodist Church of Panama be a margin well exceeding the necessary 75% of the delegates. Son of a humble campesino family from the small rural church of Bongo, Pablo entered seminary shortly after I arrived in Panama 18 years ago and began serving as the pastor of that little church. A serious and dedicated servant of God, Bishop Pablo is already showing himself to be a leader who is strong, loving and wise.

As our Church moves forward into a new moment, we are beginning to make progress in a number of mission endeavors, particularly in our ministry to the Ngobe Indians. Looking for ways to reorganize and revitalize our work among this group of beautiful but impoverished people, the poorest of the poor in Panama, our ministry team began to examine the Comprehensive Community-Based Health Care Program of UMCOR and the Latin American Council of Methodist Churches. We decided that that program provides the model we were searching for.

Over thirty years ago, Doctors Raj and Mabelle Arole returned to their native India after finishing degrees in public health at Johns Hopkins University. Turning down offers for more lucrative positions in the United States, they sought out the rural community of Jamkhed, India to begin their medical careers. Inspired by their Christian faith, but with few monetary resources, they offered themselves in service simply stating that they had come "with knowledge in their heads, love in their hearts and ability in their hands."

Guided by the principles of equity, integration and empowerment, they established a sustainable comprehensive community-based primary health care system that has become a model for poor communities worldwide, producing dramatic reductions in infant mortality rates, eradicating numerous diseases and improving the overall quality of life for millions of people. In September, we held our first workshop with key community leaders. Inspired by Biblical passages such as Isaiah's vision of a new heaven and a new earth and Jesus' sermon at Nazareth, participants shared their own hopes and dreams for their communities. They learned the basic principles of primary health care and became convinced that they and their communities could improve their quality of life, in spite of their abject poverty.

One key aspect to our work with the Ngobe has been our support for literacy programs. In the name of our Methodist Church, Bishop Pablo recently signed an agreement with ALFALIT of Panama that provides a framework for mutual cooperation to promote literacy. It has been encouraging to see the multiplying effects of this effort, such as the case of Joaquin Moreno, who after a year studying with teacher Paula Rodriguez, has formed his own group of Ngobe students in another more distant community within the Ngobe Reservation.

Back in Panama City, our Child Development Center at La Resurreccion Church is celebrating its tenth anniversary year with a record enrollment of over a hundred children. Earlier this year we received a visit from the youth group of Trinity UMC of Homewood, Alabama (including my niece Meredith Wolfe). They did a great job painting murals, making repairs and working with the children in spite of the language barriers. We continue to seek ways to improve the quality of the education being offered and at the same time keep the program accessible to the working poor. Thanks to the donations of a number of churches in the North Alabama Conference, we have been able to do so thus far.

On a final note, the Republic of Panama is celebrating its Centennial this year. In addition to all the festivities, the anniversary has provided us with the opportunity to reflect upon Panama as it is and Panama as we hope it could become. As our church continues its ministry to the last and the least, we do so with faith that God's vision for our world will one day become a reality.

"No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime....They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit; they shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord--and their descendants as well." Isaiah 65: 20 - 23

Peace,
Rhett

(Posted November 20, 2003)