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SDOP learning engagement in Panama provides ministry of presence and opportunities to listen

Self-Development of People and REWIM delve into ‘dynamics of colonialism, oppression and identity of Afro-Panamanians’

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

SDOP national committee members and SDOP staff gather with members of Gonzalillo Community Organization during a learning engagement in Panama. (Photo courtesy of SDOP)

LOUISVILLE — As a longtime Presbyterian with a heart for justice, the Rev. Janice Kamikawa has been on many mission trips over the years. But a recent visit to Panama with the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP) stands out for her and others who participated.

Kamikawa, a minister of Word and Sacrament in the North Central California Presbytery, was among more than a dozen members of the SDOP National Committee and staff who participated in a learning engagement in Panama that provided insight into some of the socioeconomic factors that hinder marginalized people’s ability to thrive.

“Teresa Bidart, Rev. Mark Davis and the SDOP International Task Force planned, organized and led a mission trip that built community with one another on the SDOP National Committee, but more importantly, expressed and demonstrated a partnership and solidarity with the people of Panama and their projects,” said Kamikawa, a member of SDOP’s West Task Force. “We, as a committee, listened to the stories shared, the pain they held within them and their struggles, the work and goals of their projects, and their future hopes.”

The Rev. Janice Kamikawa

The learning engagement was the culmination of a multi-year focus on Panama by SDOP, which has provided grants and other support to organizations there that help people to overcome hurdles, such as poverty, racism and heteropatriarchy.

SDOP’s work in Panama has placed special emphasis on Afro-Panamanians, who grapple with discrimination. Some Afro-Panamanians are descendants of African slaves brought to the area while others have ancestors from the West Indies who helped construct the Panama Canal.

One of the reasons that SDOP has come alongside them is because the government doesn’t tend to have programs to benefit Afro-Panamanians, said Bidart, an SDOP Mission Specialist. She described them as “excluded from society.”

The SDOP team visited areas such as Panama City, Colon, San Miguelito, and El Espino in the Anton Valley while split up into two vans. As they traveled, the beauty of areas where the wealthy live and gather stood in stark contrast to poorer areas, the team said.

SDOP Coordinator the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson receives a painting gifted to SDOP by Colonense International Performing Arts Foundation during the visit to Panama. (Photo courtesy of SDOP)

The team from SDOP was accompanied by representatives from Ministry Engagement and Support, which handles Special Offerings for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries.

Samantha Davis, a REWIM associate, took part in the engagement to help the team “talk about salient issues regarding race, class and gender and how each play into the experiences of poor and oppressed communities,” said the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, SDOP’s coordinator. “We used the Panama Canal and its socio-political history to talk more in depth about the dynamics of colonialism, oppression and identity of Afro-Panamanians.”

Another important part of the trip was being able to recognize partners and collaborators for their good work, have conversations with them, observe their environments, and provide the ministry of presence. The idea was to show them “we’re here because we care,” said Davis, chair of SDOP’s International Task Force. “We’ve come to learn from you. We’ve come to hear you. We’ve come to be changed by you.”

Self-Development of People is one of three Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries that receive funding from One Great Hour of Sharing, a Special Offering that churches generally collect during the season of Lent to share God’s love and help neighbors in need. It assists partners domestically as well as on the international level.

Some of the projects visited during the recent learning engagement were the Panamanian Women Center; Chilibre Women’s Training Centers, Gonzalillo Community Organization, and Women’s Meeting Space; El Espino Agro Entrepreneurs; Colonense International Performing Arts Foundation; Panama Women’s Committee; and the Women’s Group of Boca La Caja.

Those organizations provide various services, from planting gardens to grow food for families to helping women and children to thrive under difficult circumstances.

“I believe this mission trip to Panama was [an] invaluable gift for committee members to have the opportunity to listen, to communicate — sometimes beyond a common language — and to encourage, support and to be in solidarity with the people of Panama through our presence,” Kamikawa said.

Sy Hughes, Mission Engagement Advisor for MES, recalled meeting women who’ve been able to start small businesses thanks to funding from SDOP to the Panamanian Women Center. Their ventures vary from catering to fashion design.

The center “has become very well-known as a place that helps and supports women,” Hughes said. “The women it helps are from all over Panama City, from lots of different communities. It is a challenge to get them all together. We were incredibly grateful that a few of them were able to visit with us.”                                                    Davis recalled traveling about two and a half hours from Panama City to meet up with El Espino members. The people, who do communal farming, indicated, “We can’t believe you came this far to see us,” he said. “Nobody comes to see us.”

Members of the El Espino cooperative are pictured with agricultural equipment acquired with the help of an SDOP grant. (Photo courtesy of SDOP)

Some of the farmers also had come from afar to meet up with the SDOP team. “It was really powerful to be among them and to listen to the way that they were supporting each other, and the work that they were doing,” which includes planting food staples and sugar cane, Johnson said.

A part of the trip that made a big impression on Kamikawa was a trek to Women’s Meeting Space in Panama City. Through education and awareness-raising, the group strives to prevent and eradicate violence against women, girls and adolescents who sometimes go missing in their society.

During the visit, a woman was consoled by a member of SDOP’s team after sharing that she was grieving the loss of a relative and a good friend. “What was powerful to witness was depth of communication and God’s love that was shared — not with a common language of Spanish or English but a communication shared through the eyes, tone of words and warmth between a caring person and a woman in grief and mourning,” Kamikawa said.

During an excursion to the Panama Canal, the SDOP team watched a film about the building of the canal, which previously was under U.S. control but is now in Panama’s possession. Thousands of workers died while building the canal, where grueling conditions resulted in injuries and dismemberment as well as deadly diseases, such as yellow fever, as various countries undertook the construction over the years.

Profits from the canal do not seem to benefit some nearby residents, said Bidart, who noted that there are communities that still lack running water. Nevertheless, there are people working hard to overcome their circumstances and feed their families, she said.

SDOP’s work is made possible through your generous gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

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