A year ago today we arrived with our five children, seven large suitcases, and seven carry-ons to the nation of Panama.
I will never forget that day.
After spending 16 hours of my 37th birthday packing and re-packing, panicking that I was forgetting something THAT MUST NOT BE FORGOTTEN and then traveling for 30 hours, we finally arrived at our house that was to be “home.”
In my rush to pack and have everything ready for our new life in Panama, I had brushed aside a brief comment in an email from the YWAM base. They had written, telling me, “We have rented a local Panamanian home for your family. But, it is VERY simple.” Being an “experienced missionary,” I allowed myself to feel no concern. I have lived in simple housing before, and it’s no big deal. “As long as there is a place for us to sleep, and an indoor toilet with running water, I can do anything,” I assured myself as I mentally dismissed the kind letter from Panama. I’ve spent weeks sleeping on an air mattress on the floor, and taking bucket baths. This ain’t no hill to climb.
All my bravado dissipated as I stood, sleep-deprived and overwhelmed, at the entrance to our new “home.” My children and husband were likewise subdued to silence. I felt defeated. I don’t give up easily, and so it surprised me when the thought came to my mind, “I don’t think I can do this.”
This was a defining moment for me. I had been told I would go through a “fantasy period” in missions, akin to the honeymoon for newlyweds. This fantasy period lasted a brief 4 seconds. It melted into thin air as I gazed at the place we would be living. Looking back now, it seems so dramatic. The house really wasn’t that bad. It certainly wasn’t a grass hut with mud floors.
I don’t know what made that moment so hard for us, other than it was just completely foreign to us, and stark, and lonely.
An ache rose in my chest as I realized that I had packed up my small children and brought them to this. No friends, no grandparents, and a house that seemed to reject us from the moment we arrived.
A brief tour revealed a simple block-structured house, with a concrete floor and a tin roof; a white drop-down ceiling had just been installed before we arrived. The walls appeared dirty, and when I tried to rub them clean, I realized they were discolored from the people who had lived here prior to us. Up until this point, whenever we had moved into a house, I had always had a slight consciousness that people had lived there before us. But, this house felt like SOMEONE ELSE’S house that we had invaded. Dirty walls and all.
The house measures 550 square feet. and divides into 6 rooms: 3 small bedrooms, a room that holds the 8-foot table and chairs, the kitchen, and a bathroom. Each room had a single, lonely lightbulb bravely trying to dispel the feeling of gloom and neglect. The boys’ room was the starkest. The prior family had apparently run out of paint, and so left half the room unfinished. Part of the room was white-washed and the other half of the room was unfriendly concrete block walls. Paired with metal bunkbeds, it strongly resembled a prison cell.
The other challenge was that Panamanians don’t worry much about storage. So, this house literally had NO shelves, closets, or anywhere to put things. It also didn’t have any mirrrors, towel hooks, toilet paper holders, etc. My “so what” attitude before coming slammed me in the face as I realized I had been completely unprepared for this.
I went into my 12-year-old son’s room and found him silently crying. “I really miss Joplin, mom,” was all I could get him to tell me. As much as we didn’t want to be there, we had to be there.
So, I began to throw a little Pollyanna at the thing. We began to count our blessings.
We had received a nice welcome basket from the YWAM base, with cookies and candies and drinks. It was later, as I went to pick up a bag of chips that I discovered the 5 cockroaches milling about in the basket that the held the goodies. I felt I handled it pretty well until a cockroach ran up my arm and tried to enter my shirt. I decided to scream then. But, that’s a story for another blog.
Back to the “glad game:” I rejoiced that we had our own refrigerator! This was a precious item, because we hadn’t had one at the other YWAM base in Mexico. I made a mental note to buy ice trays. We would have ICE to cool our drinks!
We also had been given a two-burner gas stove top and a tank of gas. We didn’t know how to assemble it, but figured, “How hard could it be???” After ten more cockroaches (lurking in the box that held the gas burner stovetop), holding our tongues just right, and a lot of trial and error, we assembled our very own gas stovetop! I didn’t have any food to cook on it, but was determined to remedy that quickly.
We sent our somber boys to the neighborhood “tienda,” (little shop that carries snack foods and some basic grocery items) and they came back with glass bottles of pop and big smiles. They’d had their first adventure in Panama, and that was a happy beginning for them.
We didn’t have a vehicle, and a missionary named “Ezra” offered to take us shopping in David (a city) the next day. What Ezra and his wife did for us that day will never be forgotten. They had us over for lunch, and while she watched 8 children, he took us shopping. That meant he literally spent the next 4 hours standing in stores, waiting, while I scoured aisle after aisle, trying to learn what items can be bought in David, Panama.
This is a learning curve that missionaries don’t tell you about when they are sharing their stories of adventure and incredible testimonies.
For about 2 months, they are new-born babies in an strange, new world.
They are surrounded by people who don’t know them, don’t understand their culture, and don’t really care if they “make it” in this new country. These missionaries don’t know where to buy dental floss, a bottle of Tylenol, or yogurt. They don’t know where to find the hardware store, the post office, or the supermarket. They don’t know the best place to buy vegetables or meat. They don’t know if they can even find all the necessary ingredients to make their favorite recipes. All of the convenience of knowing where to go that we take for granted as adults is stripped away when you move to a new country. As a result, shopping trips tend to last for hours, especially in the first couple of months in a new location.
Every time I apologized to Ezra for shopping too long, he said, “It’s o.k., we had to do the same thing when we got here. Take all the time you need.” So, though we were in a strange country with no family or close friends, we found ourselves belonging to a brotherhood of others who understood what it meant to be displaced.
The shopping trip that day was epic. I bought enough plastic storage tubs to fill the back of the fifteen-passenger van we were driving. I bought storage hooks, wood planks to make shelving, mirrors, trashcans, COCKROACH-proof containers for storing food, and PAINT.
We spent the next two weekends painting, installing shelves, borrowing tools, asking questions, asking questions, and asking questions. We learned that in order to hang a curtain rod, you needed a hammer drill that would pre-drill four holes, then you had to sink a wall anchor in the holes, and then you had to drill screws into the bracket to hold the curtain rods. Nothing in Panama can be done quickly.
As we painted, built shelves and assembled RTA furniture, a grace that had always been there for us began to permeate our daily lives. We filled the concrete walls with laughter. We grew closer as a family. We became thankful for the small things:
After a week of cold showers, a missionary friend explained how our shower water heater worked, and we began taking warm showers! We also began to meet our neighbors. They learned to stop by when we were cooking meals, and enjoyed sampling our strange, “gringo” food. Our trees in the yard yielded fresh bananas, guava fruit, and oranges. We didn’t have a car of our own, so as we walked several miles a day to/from the base, we would tell stories and jokes and talk about the Lord.
And I made a beautiful discovery: I found that His Word is always true. “I can do ALL THINGS through Christ who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13) “My grace is sufficient for you; for MY STRENGTH is made perfect in weakness…” (2 Cor. 12:9) I learned to take my weakness, my disappointment, and my impossible situation and surrender it into His capable hands.
He, in turn, gave my entire family a supernatural grace to not only live here, but to THRIVE here.
Fast-forward to a year later. We returned to Panama on February 18, 2017, after a visit to Missouri. As we unlocked the rough-hewn wooden front door to our little house, we gazed at the concrete floors, and the dimly-lit rooms. And in that quiet moment, my son said, “Mom and dad, it’s so great to be home.”