We have returned! Due to a schedule conflict on the part of the Kuna tribe we were serving, our trip back from the beautiful San Blas islands began Wednesday afternoon instead of Thursday morning. But we decided the real reason God brought us back early was that we completed the work He had for us there. God packed a lot of ministry into our two days-plus, and we know we will never be the same.
As leaders, we are so proud of this team! They have coalesced amazingly well and bonded as brothers and sisters in Christ in a relatively short amount of time. Even in the primitive island conditions, the students all accepted discomfort and were eager to perform any task we asked of them. When they return home, feel free to remind them of the ways they stepped as emerging adults during this trip, and continue to ask them to do significant tasks (those which give them value in the eyes of the people who matter to them).
Here, these students have had the supremely significant task of sharing the gospel with the lost, but they have also had many others, including learning to tie hammocks securely (for the past two nights, we all slept in hammocks tied to the beams of our huts); carrying jugs of water, our med kit, prop box, or food bag; and (for our MOMs and POPs) helping disciple the younger students.
Monday brought an early start for our team, who had packed for the islands the night before. We rose at 4:30 a.m. to make final preparations for the trip, including making our beds, cleaning our rooms, and piling all our hiking backpacks onto one bed frame in one bedroom. We ate a breakfast for the road consisting of a large muffin, apple, and juice and then loaded all our backpacks, food, supplies, life jackets, and hammocks onto six large SUVs, our transportation for the first part of our trip. Ask your students about the winding, up-and-downhill road we traversed for approximately three hours before reaching the port. As we waited for our boats, we gazed upon the miracles of God’s creation in the beautiful multi-hued blues of the Atlantic Ocean, tiny islands dotting the horizon on one side and the green, misty mountains of Panama in the background on the other.
After a brief wait, we boarded two boats (plus another that held our supplies) captained by Kunas and enjoyed a beautiful, windy ride out to the San Blas, a small chain of islands off the northeastern coast of Panama. There is a “tourist side” to these islands and a more indigenous side; our new home would be on the more indigenous side. Each island we visited, including the one where we stayed, consists of one Kuna village. The people live in huts generally made with bamboo walls, dirt floors, and roofs woven with palm leaves, although some have concrete or tile floors, and some have boarded walls. The Kuna use larger huts for communal buildings or (in some villages) churches. Several families gave up their huts for groups of us to use as our temporary homes, and the team spent the rest of the morning tying up all the hammocks and changing back into drama clothes.
Next, we met in the community building near our huts, where we heard from the pastor working with us for this segment of our trip. He later told us he travels to several islands and knows this one is open to the gospel. There is no church there yet, but it is a place where he plans to concentrate attention in view of starting one. He depends on donations for the gas to go from place to place and is usually able to visit this island only once every two weeks or longer. The pastor, who speaks Spanish and Kuna, introduced the village chief, who thanked us for bringing the gospel to his village. We were excited to work in a place where the leadership received us so warmly. After this introductory meeting, we enjoyed an island PB&J lunch.
After lunch, we boarded our two boats again for a trip to another island, where we performed for the village school. We danced with the students to engage them and then performed the drama, going out afterwards to share in our ministry teams. Few of the students spoke Spanish, but one of the teachers translated the gospel into Kuna so more could understand. We know seeds were planted and the Lord will use others to water and harvest.
We got back into our boats to travel to yet another island. The Kuna village here had a few block-style buildings in addition to the traditional huts. We set up to perform in the village square, engaging with the many children who gathered through dances and games, including “Duck, Duck, Goose” (Pato, Pato, Ganso), which they seemed to love. We presented extra testimonies and had a longer time of engaging here because we experienced sudden technical difficulties when our MP3 player (through which we play the drama track) would not work. We tried several times to make it work and ended up demonstrating Awe Star’s principle of fluidity: we are fluid so we can move with the flow of the Holy Spirit. We performed an abbreviated version of the drama as our CC Mike shared the story and translators took it into Spanish and then Kuna.
Afterwards, the ministry teams went out to share. One man told us he had been a Christian for a few years but had not been active in his faith. Our presentation seemed to reenergize him spiritually, and as we left for another island, we saw him sharing the gospel with a whole group of men. Another man, who did receive Christ, was encouraging the children around him to make the same decision, and many received tracts from us as we left for our “home” island.
Our first dinner in our island home consisted of chicken and rice with pork and beans. Our travels had made us hungry, and everything tasted delicious. Afterward, we assembled outside for worship and a teaching on engaging in prayer just as we engage culturally. A whole group of Kuna children gathered around us during this time while our leadership again met with the Kuna leaders.
The tribe wanted to perform a dance for us, so we watched in an open area as they performed a traditional song, accompanied with pipes played by a small group of men and dancing by a small group of women, all done in a circle with weaving in and out at various times. By this time, it was dark, but we were grateful to have the privilege of yet another incredible cultural experience. Afterwards, in celebration of one of our students’ birthdays, we roasted marshmallows over a fire in one of the huts and made S’mores using Hershey’s spread and Panamanian cookies. The Kuna who joined us really seemed to enjoy this treat, even when the marshmallows carried a large dose of charcoal with them. We all went to bed in our gently swinging hammocks, exhausted but excited for what the next day would bring.
Tuesday morning, we awoke to the sounds of tropical birds and the scent of wood smoke, realizing again that our travels had brought us to a unique place. After our morning quiet times, we enjoyed a delicious breakfast (thanks to our amazing cook, Mirna, who traveled with us from Panama City) of pancakes and fresh pineapple. We also took time to record the drama onto phones so we could use those recordings in case the MP3 player, which was working by this time, gave out again. We spent the day traveling, again by boat, to four more of the beautiful San Blas islands, performing our drama once in each place. On the first island, a group of men told one ministry team leader that they hadn’t known the message of Jesus until this drama but wanted to accept Him now. The team began to pray with these neb, and after only two sentences, more Kuna people came over who also wanted to accept Christ. After two more sentences, more Kunas came over, again wanting to accept Christ. By the time the group had finished, eleven people in all had received Him.
The day continued with presentations at more island villages, including performances at two schools. On one of the islands, it rained through part of the drama, and the village pastor opened his church so we could prepare our PB&Js and eat lunch under cover. On these islands, we often gave a group “net” (gospel presentation) since so many of the people did not understand the Spanish our translators spoke. On these islands, our testimonies and net were always translated from English to Spanish to Kuna, and we performed the drama primarily to a Kuna track, except at some of the schools, where the teachers wanted us to use Spanish since the students study that language in school. After hearing the drama so often in Spanish, the choppier, more guttural language of Kuna sounded unusual, but the students did well at keeping in time with the music and performing with excellence.
We saw some people receive Christ at these sites and many more seeds planted for the gospel. We returned to our island home for a time of rest and refreshment in our hammocks, preparing our hearts and minds for the evening of ministry ahead. The whole team remained in prayer, knowing we would have the opportunity to share the drama with our island hosts after dinner.
Mirna prepared another delicious meal of Spam with macaroni and cheese and corn (ask your students about our new Kuna friend, Leo), and we then moved to an open area in the village where the villagers had performed their dance the night before. It seemed every child in the village was there, along with many of the adults. We engaged through dancing and playing with the children as we prepared to present the drama.
Dark had fallen by this time, and the students began sharing their testimonies before the drama. As the music for the drama began, more and more villagers arrived to see the presentation. Some of our leaders, who have been on several Awe Star trips to Panama, said they had never seen such engagement on the part of Kuna villagers. They were watching intently and responding with appropriate screams, gasps, and laughter at the various parts.
As the drama finished, our CC Mike and the missionary pastor extended the net. By this time, it seemed that many of the children were distracted and ready to play. But a small group came forward when the pastor called for them to receive Christ and prayed a prayer along with him. As the children waited, an entire group of Kuna women came behind them, waiting to speak with the pastor. One by one, they shared their requests, many asking for prayer for healing and other family problems, but all wanting to receive Christ.
Our leadership prayed over them, first for salvation (a prayer which they repeated) and then for the healing we know Christ can bring. Afterward, one of the women began crying and sharing about her sister, who had been ill for several days and had remained back in the family hut. While the students continued to engage with the children and other Kunas who remained, some of our leadership walked to the hut. We laid hands on and prayed for the woman who was ill, asking God to bring her salvation (the woman told us she was “thinking about” whether to receive Christ) as well as physical healing. Please pray with us that the Lord will heal her as a means of demonstrating His very real power so she will make that decision for salvation soon.
At one point during this amazing evening, one of our men spoke with a Kuna man named Felix. Felix had come to know Christ in 2006 when, he said, three men from Oklahoma came and explained the gospel to him. As a part of this process, he fell to his knees and wept as the Holy Spirit moved in his life. Ever since, he has faithfully read the Bible daily and prayed. He meets with a small group of his own and three other families to study the Scriptures and told our student that there are many on this island who don’t know Christ, and he is praying that will change. He also said that even here, the biggest problem among the young people is drugs, and he knows that more of them knowing Jesus would change that.
Once again, we all but fell into our hammocks, rejoicing in what was surely one of the (if not the) most amazing days of our lives. We saw God’s power at work, and we rejoice in the power we know He has to continue to change lives on this island. We will keep praying for the missionary pastor to be able to return often and to eventually plant a church here, perhaps growing from the Bible study in Felix’s home. Please join us in this prayer for these people we have already come to love.
Wednesday morning was dawned gray, misty, and early. The students got up, had their quiet times, and quickly took down all their hammocks and ropes, then cleaned the hut and packed for our final boat ride. We enjoyed our island breakfast of scrambled eggs, spam, and corn cakes, followed by a teaching by Mike on relationships and learning our men’s “grunt languages” and identifying women’s Proverbs 31 characteristics. That time was followed by ministry at the local school, which we learned has only been in existence for 17 years. That means many of the parents of the students have not attended school. This local school only covers kindergarten through sixth grade. Students travel to another island for grades seven through nine and must live away from home for three years if they wish to complete high school, which a teacher told us few do.
We divided the students and translators into five groups to minister in the five classes at the school. The various groups all taught the students 1 John 3:16a, “This is how we know what love is: that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” Some of the younger classes learned a simplified version. The children and their new “teachers” enjoyed sharing songs, prayers, and games during this time of spiritual and cultural exchange.
After the lessons concluded, our team presented the drama to a Spanish track in the school courtyard. Many of the children had probably seen the drama the night before, but they still watched with great enthusiasm, as did the teachers, who seemed grateful for the time we had spent there. Although all were Kuna, none of the teachers is from the island, and most serve here for only two years at a time. They come in and out by boat, occasionally spending the night if the weather is bad.
After a final island PB&J lunch shared with our Kuna kitchen helpers, the pastor, and a few others, we again loaded a boat with supplies and loaded ourselves into the other two boats for the short trip back to the port. We then did a reversal of our trek the other day in the six SUVs through the winding roads and back to our hostel in the heart of Panama City. The students seemed overjoyed to wash the sand off their bodies and experience air conditioning and cold drinks once again.
After a USA-style dinner of hot dogs and potato chips or Cheetos, we enjoyed a time of worship and teaching by one of our POPs on the Orphan Heart. We have material about this in our manual, and it is explained further in Walker Moore’s book Escape the Lie. Many of our students, like many adults, struggle with identity issues. Understanding the deep-seated lie that our heavenly Father does not love us and believing the truth (that each of us is His favorite child) can help us move into the identity and purpose He has for our lives.
We went to sleep—in beds, not hammocks—grateful for the great things God has done in and through us and anticipating more ministry on Thursday. Thank you for all the prayers during our time away, and please continue praying that we will finish well in our final days of ministry as we prepare to leave Panama early Saturday morning.
Your servant leaders,
Mike and Sarah
Isaac and Mya
(Thank you Marti Pieper for your gift of writing and sharing these updates!)