“Phill, I’ll meet you down here in an hour.”
I couldn’t wait to hear those words on Saturday when we arrived. The first time out of the country can be overwhelming, especially when there is a language barrier to overcome. A language barrier that I wasn’t quite prepared for when I stepped off the plane. While I knew that Panama was a Spanish-speaking country, the reality hit me when I saw exactly what that meant. The airport signs, the road signs, the ingredient list on the shampoo bottle, everything was now in a language I could not understand. And while I had mentally prepared myself to go into a country with a primary language different than what I spoke, I was not prepared for what that meant. I was ignorant.
Stepping off the plane, I was homesick. My wife and daughter were 2,000 miles away. The first night, I couldn’t wait to get home.
“Carlos has been saved for 15 years. He says that he is here every day.”
Sophia was my translator as we did street evangelism outside Santo Thomas Hospital in Panama City. A young college student from Columbia, she worked alongside the IMB missionary in Panama to help translate for us Gringos as we went into the community. And as I listened to her translate the conversation with Carlos, I realized just how long I had been going through the motions in my own walk.
Carlos, a man who has been saved for 15 years, faithfully shared the Gospel Day in and day out outside of Santo Thomas hospital because he saw how the Lord had saved him. He longed to see others experience that too. The man had a heart for the lost, the likes of which I have never seen before. I thought I had a steady walk, but listening to the heartful joy and sorrow that Carlos was speaking, I realized just how apathetic I had become. I was ignorant.
“Only five days left.”
My medicine became a daily countdown. Each morning I would take my medication, and another day would be down. One step closer to boarding the plane to go home. One step closer to holding my wife and another to tucking my daughter in for bed. But as I rose on Tuesday, something happened. There was a change. And it was one that I don’t think I was prepared for. Every morning, I was excited to be here, even on the days when I longed to be home. But Tuesday was different. I was not only excited about the day, but my heart began to ache for the lost in a way that I had never thought possible.
Tuesday was the day I realized how beautiful the Church is. Tuesday was the day that I realized that our vacuum of American evangelicalism is just one small part of the global body of Christ. A body that transcends language, time, culture, and our own selves. In realizing how big the body of Christ is and how small I am, my heart began to embrace the beauty of just how important the universal Church is. I thought I knew how vital the Church was, but Tuesday was the day God showed me how big He is. I thought I knew. But I was ignorant.
“When you hear your guide tell you to look away. You look away. When you hear your guide tell you to move. You move. If you feel the Holy Spirit ‘Leading you to wander off, that is not the Holy Spirit. We are here every week; this is our ministry, and we know these streets. You don’t. Listen, and you will be fine.”
Ellis was a no-nonsense woman working with the homeless and the prostitutes in the red zone of Panama City for the last five years. Her presence has become a comfort to the women on the streets. And a source of light in the darkness that holds the lives of the homeless. Tia Ellis has become a beacon of hope to these people. And as we walked alongside her, we could see the Scripture come to life. I had spent all week excited about the possibility of working in this ministry. This has always been where I was the most comfortable.
Still, as I stood next to Miguel, speaking to a homeless man who refused to give us his name, I saw how much the darkness had taken hold of those around us. But even amid this darkness, there was a light cracking through. The night on the streets, coming face to face with such extreme poverty, made me see how powerful the Gospel was. Amid the darkness, Christ’s light shone through in a way that I had never seen before. We know the power of the Gospel but seeing it in such a way only made it more magnificent. I thought I knew. But I was ignorant.
“Our debrief just ended, and the mission trip is officially over. All that’s left is flying home. My heart is breaking. I don’t want to leave. But I want to come home to y’all. I wish home was here.”
A week is all it took for this city to grab ahold of my heart. And now, as I sit in front of my hotel window, staring out over the city, with Ancon Hill towering in the background, I can’t help but weep. Saturday, I wanted to go home. And today, I don’t want to leave. This trip has been the most challenging thing I have ever done.
But I am so thankful for this opportunity. With 14 minutes to check out and 44 minutes, until our bus arrives to take us to the airport, the thought of leaving behind this city is too much to bear. The lives that have impacted me have forever changed me. As I stepped off the plane on Saturday, I knew what the Gospel meant and why missions were so important. But after this week, I realized just how little I knew then, and even more so how little I know now.
The Church is more than just a corporate gathering on Sunday morning. It is more than just a Sunday school class or a business meeting. It is more than petty in-fighting and bickering over methods and non-essential theological issues. The Church is the body of Christ. The Bride that Jesus Christ laid down His life for. We are united under the beautiful truth of the Gospel, and while I may never meet Carlos, Jose, Victor, Miguel, Ellis, or Sophia again. One day, we will stand before the throne of God, praising Him in all His glory. I knew that was the case on Saturday, but today, as I look out over this beautiful city, I realize just how ignorant I was.