LA CHORRERA, Panama — When church leaders plan a meeting, there are always some “clowns” who show up. Usually leaders just hope they don’t all show up at once and dominate the meeting. But that’s exactly what Panamanian Baptists are hoping for in 2012: To hold an event that will attract as many clowns as possible.
In 2012, Panamanian Baptists will celebrate 30 years of creative ministries in local churches. Teams from the United States, including several groups from Virginia, began offering training workshops in Panama in 1982, and the ministry quickly caught on. Volunteers taught in the areas of puppet ministry, clowning, mime and drama. Today, these ministries are thriving in many Panamanian Baptist churches, and Panamanian groups are involved in missions outreach in many communities across the country.
Alma de Ureña is one of the pioneers and leaders in the area of creative ministries. As a young adult, she participated in one of the first workshops. Alma (or “Mamita” as she is now known throughout the Panamanian Baptist Convention) and her ministry partner, a puppet called Juanita, are well known in churches throughout the country. They travel frequently, participating in Vacation Bible School, entertaining children at medical or dental clinics, and helping in a variety of ministries through local churches and missions.
Juanita is special, but Alma’s first puppet partner was a green frog (rana in Spanish) named Rannie, who was a favorite with children, especially in rural parts of the country. Once the pair traveled to Darien Province, a large, heavily-forested and sparsely-populated section of Panama that borders Colombia. Most of the inhabitants of this area are from indigenous tribes that live in villages high in the mountains. Their culture and way of life date back thousands of years.
“The children who live in the remote areas, they are so innocent,” Alma says, remembering a trip early in her ministry to the Darien. Mamita and Rannie were helping with a mission Vacation Bible School for indigenous children in a jungle village. Mamita and Rannie always told the Bible story, but they also liked to engage in dialog with the children. “That day, the children wanted to know what Rannie liked to eat,” she said. Rannie enthusiastically described her favorite snack: bugs — any kind and all kinds! The next day, the children brought every type of bug that they could find in the tropical forest as gifts for Rannie. “I tried to convince them that Rannie wasn’t real, that it was really me who was doing the talking. But they insisted, ‘No, Mamita, Rannie is real!’ I couldn’t convince them otherwise.”
After that experience, Mamita made sure to explain that Rannie’s favorite snacks were things like bananas and other fruits. “No more bugs,” laughs Alma, “even if Rannie is a frog! That’s really important when you’re talking with children who live in a rainforest!”
To recognize the contributions made by ministry teams such as Mamita and Rannie, Alma and other Panamanian leaders are planning to celebrate their 30th anniversary. They hope to bring together creative ministries groups from across Panama for one major event in early 2012.
And here’s where the clowns come in. Their goal is to have at least 40 clowns present. “But not just clowns,” says Alma. “We want all types of creative ministries teams to come together to celebrate and share their stories of ministry though the years. This has grown into a wonderful ministry that has reached many people throughout the country.”
Sue Smith is a Latino consultant for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.