Bridging Gaps in Panama
“PANAMA, bridge of the world.” Half a century ago, this motto was mentioned in a popular radio program in that Central American country. Today, it has come to express the feelings many have about that country.
Panama serves as a type of bridge between North and South America. Moreover, the actual Bridge of the Americas straddles the famous Panama Canal. A remarkable feat of engineering, the canal extends across the country, uniting the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. This allows seagoing vessels from around the world to cross in a matter of hours what would otherwise require a journey by sea of some days or weeks. Yes, Panama does serve as an important bridge to much of the world.
A Bridge and a Melting Pot
Panama has also become a melting pot of people from various national and ethnic backgrounds. These people, together with the many indigenous groups, have produced a diverse population that is scattered throughout this beautiful land. However, is it possible to bridge the resulting social, cultural, religious, and linguistic differences and produce unity of thought and purpose based on the priceless truths found in God’s Word?
Yes, it is. The apostle Paul’s words recorded at Ephesians 2:17, 18 indicate that first-century Christians—Jew and Gentile alike—did accomplish just that on the basis of the unifying effect of Christ’s sacrifice. Paul wrote: “He [Jesus] came and declared the good news of peace to you, the ones far off, and peace to those near, because through him we, both peoples, have the approach to the Father by one spirit.”
In like manner today, Jehovah’s Witnesses are declaring “the good news of peace” in Panama to individuals and groups who have come from far off, both spiritually and, at times, literally. There develops blessed unity among those who “approach” Jehovah. As a result, congregations have been formed in Panama in six different languages—Spanish, Cantonese, Panamanian Sign Language, English, and two of the indigenous languages, namely Kuna and Ngobere (Guaymí). It is encouraging to learn how members of these language groups have become united in their worship of Jehovah.
Crossing Bridges in the Comarca
The Ngobe group is the largest of the eight indigenous peoples of Panama. Some 170,000 make up this group, the majority of whom live in an extensive area that was recently designated a comarca, or reservation. A large part of this area consists of rugged jungle mountains accessible mainly on foot, as well as beautiful coastal regions accessible by sea. Communities are often established near rivers, which serve as convenient arteries of transportation, as well as along the coast. Many of the residents of the comarca make a meager living on coffee plantations in the mountains, by fishing, or by working the land. Many are members of churches of Christendom. However, there are adherents of a local religion known as Mama Tata. Others turn to local sukias (shamans) for healing when they are sick or feel that they are being harassed by wicked spirits. Though many speak Spanish, the language best understood is Ngobere.
Rowing to Reach Hearts
Jehovah’s Witnesses realize that it is important to help people to learn the truth in a way that reaches not only their mind but also their heart. This can provide the needed motivation to make the necessary changes in their lives in order to conform to Bible principles. Therefore, the special pioneer ministers assigned to eight different sectors of the reservation have studied the Ngobere language with the help of qualified local Witnesses.
The 14 congregations that have developed in the area show remarkable potential for growth. For instance, a few years ago, Dimas and Gisela, a special pioneer couple, were assigned to a small congregation of about 40 in the coastal area of Tobobe. It was not easy for them to get used to the frequent trips in a canoe in order to preach to the humble people along the Atlantic Coast. Dimas and Gisela discovered that calm ocean waters can quickly become deadly waves. Their arms and backs often ached after rowing from one village to another. Learning the local language was another challenge. However, their sacrifices and persistence were rewarded in 2001 when some 552 people attended the Memorial of Christ’s death.
Across the bay from Tobobe is the village of Punta Escondida. For some time, a small group of publishers regularly rowed across the bay—weather permitting—to attend meetings in Tobobe, and reports indicated that there were good possibilities for forming a new congregation in this area. With that in mind, Dimas and Gisela were asked to relocate to Punta Escondida. In less than two years, the group in Punta Escondida became a congregation of 28, with an average meeting attendance of 114 at the weekly public talk. In 2004 the new congregation was delighted when a total of 458 attended the Memorial of Christ’s death.
Spanning the Gap of Illiteracy
For many honesthearted ones, overcoming illiteracy has helped them to develop a close relationship with Jehovah. Such was the case of Fermina, a young woman from the mountainous region of the comarca. Witness missionaries working in the isolated area where she lived found her to be very attentive to the Kingdom message. When offered a Bible study, she replied that she would like to learn more. There was a problem, though. She spoke both Spanish and Ngobere, but she could not read or write either language. One of the missionaries offered to teach her, using the brochure Apply Yourself to Reading and Writing. *
Fermina was an excellent student, eagerly preparing her lessons, doing all her homework, and practicing her spelling diligently. Within a year, she had progressed enough to study the brochure You Can Be God’s Friend! * When meetings were arranged, Fermina began to attend. Because of the family’s poverty, however, it was very difficult for her to pay the fare to get to the meetings with her children. One of the pioneers, aware of Fermina’s circumstances, suggested that she consider making and selling traditional Ngobe women’s dresses. Fermina did so and, despite other material needs, made sure to use the money thus obtained only to attend Christian meetings. She and her family have now moved to another area, and she continues to progress spiritually. They are pleased not only to have overcome illiteracy but, more important, to have come to know Jehovah.
Overcoming the Barrier of Deafness
In Panama, many families with hearing-impaired members tend to feel ashamed. At times, such ones have been deprived of any type of education. Many deaf ones feel isolated and excluded, while communication with them is very difficult.
It became evident, therefore, that something had to be done to reach the hearing-impaired with the good news. With the encouragement of a traveling overseer, a group of eager pioneers and others set about learning Panamanian Sign Language. Their resourcefulness was rewarded.
By the latter part of 2001, a sign-language group had been established in Panama City. The meeting attendance was about 20. As the brothers and sisters became more proficient in the language, they were able to reach out to many who for the first time “heard” Bible truth in their language. Many Witnesses with hearing-impaired children also began attending the meetings and discovered that their children more readily understood Bible teachings and became more enthusiastic about the truth. Often, parents learned to sign and could thus communicate better with their children. The parents could help their children spiritually and found that the family was strengthened. The experience of Elsa and her daughter, Iraida, well illustrates this.
A Witness working with the sign-language group learned about Iraida, visited her, and placed the brochure Enjoy Life on Earth Forever! * Iraida greatly appreciated what she was able to learn from the pictures about the new world. A Bible study was started in the brochure. Upon concluding the study of that publication, they used the brochure What Does God Require of Us? * At that point, Iraida started to ask her mother to help her to prepare and to explain the information to her.
Elsa had two problems: Not being a Witness, she did not know Bible truth, and she did not understand sign language. She had been told that she should not sign to her daughter but that her daughter had to learn to speak. Consequently, communication between mother and daughter was limited. Moved by Iraida’s request for help, Elsa asked that a Witness in the congregation study with her. She said: “I made the request for my daughter’s sake, since I have never seen Iraida so excited about anything.” Elsa joined her daughter in her study and learned sign language. As Elsa dedicated more time to her daughter, communication at home improved. Iraida began to be more selective about the friends she made, and she associated with the congregation. Now both mother and daughter attend Christian meetings regularly. Elsa was recently baptized, and Iraida is progressing toward that goal. Elsa relates that for the first time, she is getting to know her daughter and that they can now talk about many important things that are dear to both of them.
The sign-language group, which became a congregation in April 2003, has now grown to some 50 Kingdom publishers, with more than that attending meetings. Over one third are deaf. Other sign-language groups are being formed in three cities outside of the metropolitan area of Panama City. Though there is still much to do in this field, there is no doubt that a major step has been taken to bridge the gap of “silence” between honesthearted deaf people and their loving Creator, Jehovah God.
Such results are typical of what is happening throughout Panama. Though they come from different cultures, languages, and backgrounds, many have become united in the worship of the only true God. The truth of Jehovah’s Word has successfully bridged communication gaps in this country, which many consider to be the “bridge of the world.”—Ephesians 4:4.
^ par. 15 Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
^ par. 16 Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
^ par. 21 Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
^ par. 21 Published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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Kuna women holding tapestries
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A missionary preaching to a Ngobe woman
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Witnesses from Ngobe boarding a canoe to attend a special assembly day program
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Bible truth bridges culture and language differences in Panama
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“Watchtower” Study in sign language
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Elsa and her daughter, Iraida, enjoy meaningful communication
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Ship and Kuna women: © William Floyd Holdman/Index Stock Imagery; village: © Timothy O’Keefe/Index Stock Imagery