While most college students were relaxing or vacationing during Spring Break 2018, Bluefield College students were working and serving others. As evidence of the school’s vision to teach service above self and to develop transformational servant leaders, BC students used this year’s traditional spring retreat from classes and studying to serve on mission, March 3-10, among the Kuna indigenous people in Panama.
With a total population of just more than 50,000, the Kuna are the largest indigenous group in Panama. And from this population, a mere four percent profess to be Christians. Answering a call from Kuna Baptist churches in Panama City for short-term missionaries to help grow that number, 13 Bluefield College students spent the week sharing their testimonies of the life-changing power of Jesus Christ.
“The traditional religion of the Kuna is similar to Voodoo, and even among fledgling churches there are many Biblical beliefs mixed with folk-religious elements,” said BC campus pastor Dr. Henry Clary, who joined students on the mission to Panama. “Thus, there is a great need for mature and growing Christians to interact with these young believers in Panama to help disciple them and invite others into a faith relationship with Christ.”
With Dr. Clary on mission in Panama were BC students Evan Abbey of Bluefield, West Virginia; Nicole Benedito of Sao Paulo, Brazil; Gavin Bauer of Bluefield, West Virginia; Emily Carlisle of North Tazewell, Virginia; Allyson Carter of Cool Ridge, West Virginia; Christalyn Doig of Lexington Park, Maryland; Cameron Gasperson of Bluefield, Virginia; Ellen Johnson of Little River, South Carolina; Carlee King of Riner, Virginia; Noel Saunders of Athens, West Virginia; Harleigh Stillwell of Cedar Bluff, Virginia; Sarah Westfall of Exchange, West Virginia; and Addison Wood of Tazewell, Virginia.
Together, they spent their time working alongside the members of the Kuna Baptist churches, helping facilitate worship services, sharing their testimonies, participating in door-to-door ministry, hosting Vacation Bible Schools, and spending time in public schools teaching English.
“This trip was an eye-opener for me, and I loved it,” said Stillwell. “I have never felt so much love in my whole entire life. This trip showed me the face of God in every smiling face I encountered. I learned that we are, in fact, the ones who are poor because they are far more rich.”
Stillwell noted that during two separate times of street ministry she witnessed a man and a woman get saved. She also said that most of the people on the island spoke only Kuna and no English, so they relied on translators to help them communicate.
“There may have been a language barrier, but in reality, there wasn’t one at all,” said Stillwell. “With love and smiles and the ability to move, we communicated just fine with the kids. We, of course, had translators when spreading the gospel. However, there wasn’t a need for a translator when it came to love.”
The team stayed in Panama City for the majority of the time and worked with members of several churches, primarily First Kuna Baptist Church of Panama, where they made door-to-door visits and completed activities with the local children. They took part in similar ministry activities on the San Blas Islands of Panama.
“I’ve heard that God is the God of the universe time and time again, and it was something that I’ve always understood, but never realized,” said Carlisle. “Seeing God’s love in action and demonstrated by nearly every person we met was convicting, because it made me question whether others can see that in me.”
Dr. Clary said two of the BC students preached sermons, presenting the gospel to more than a hundred people. The group also shared the gospel with 60 children through a variety of youth events, and through in-home visits they witnessed three people accept Christ as their as savior.
“I could see how the Lord was challenging and growing each and every member of the team spiritually,” said Dr. Clary, “and they could see how God is alive and active in the hearts of folks from a completely different background from those here in the United States.”
Benedito and others spoke about the valuable experience of staying two days and one night in the homes of Kuna people, living with them and learning more about their daily lives. Benedito also shared the joy of seeing the fruit of their ministry efforts.
“God really used me, and I felt His presence fully,” said Benedito. “One of my favorite parts was at the island when I had an opportunity to talk about Jesus with a lady that wasn’t ready yet to accept Him as her savior, but after God used us to spread His word, she accepted Jesus.”
Dr. Clary added that the students worked well together in their missions and evangelism and that within the group rose natural leaders, but that all were able to learn how to work together for the good of The Great Commission. In the end, the students were in awe of the work of First Kuna Baptist Church and grateful to have been a part of its ministry and hospitality.
“First Kuna Baptist Church of Panama City is the best embodiment I have seen of the Biblical description of how the church should act,” said Johnson. “They are the most welcoming and generous people I have ever seen, and their hospitality is incomparable. They go out of their way to make room for more people and put others before themselves in whatever they do. Beyond that, they do not expect the missionaries they accompany to do all of the ministry work, but are quick to reach out to others and help out in any way necessary. Both years (Spring Break ’17 and Spring Break ’18), our mission team has set out for Panama to share the gospel and encourage the church members working there, but we have left with feeling that they have — as Dr. Clary would say — ‘blessed our socks off.’”