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Missionaries focus on 20 towns carved from Canal Zone jungle

PANAMA CITY, Panama (BP)–No electricity, no running water — definitely a homeowner’s nightmare, but that hasn’t stopped many Panamanians from relocating their families to the Panama Canal Zone from Panama City, carving a clearing out of the jungle and hoping for the chance to improve their lives and own a home.

Small communities known as “barriadas,” or suburbs, began developing in the Canal Zone five years after the United States and Panama signed the Torrijos-Carter treaties in 1977. Under the agreements, the United States promised to withdraw its troops and hand over control of the strategic waterway by Dec. 31, 1999.

While the final transition of the canal to Panamanian sovereignty this month is a simple formality between two governments, the treaty created whole new towns in the reverted area. The 10-mile-wide swath of land on either side of the Panama Canal is home to some of the fastest-developing communities in the country. More than 20 villages, housing a total of 100,000 people, have popped up around Panama City.

International Mission Board missionary Mark Fuller related that the Panama Canal Zone at one time was protected from would-be homesteaders, but in 1982 people started moving on the land and developing the small communities. Two years ago, the Panama government began selling plots of land in the Canal Zone.

Previously, much of the Baptist work in the area was done by Americans working at the canal. As the barriadas began to develop and the Americans began to leave, missionaries had to make their own preparations for the changeover.

“Some of these changes include going from large churches to small cell groups,” Fuller said. “We want to make all of our outreach and church-planting efforts totally reproducible by the people living in the barriadas — and not something the missionaries are doing.”

Special teams have been assigned to target the different nationalities living within the barriadas. The teams include IMB missionaries Mark and Mary Fuller and Greg and Cathy Muse. The Muses will target Chinese communities.

Panama strategy leader Wirt Davis anticipates a smooth transition for IMB missionaries working in Panama.

“We don’t expect many changes overall, but we are focusing a team on the barriadas,” Davis said. “These people are first-time homeowners, and they are going through a lot of changes in their lives and might be receptive to the gospel.”

Currently, Baptist work is being started in three locations. Fuller said the Canal Zone is a tough place to minister. “There is so much spiritual apathy present,” he said. “As far as we can tell, there are no other churches in these areas. The people are just not interested.”

Despite the disinterest, Fuller is excited about the possibilities. Once interest is sparked, commitment runs deep and a genuine hunger to learn more about Christ surfaces, he said.

As the ministry in the barriadas begins, Davis and Fuller ask fellow Christians to pray:

— For people to understand their lostness and need for Christ.

— For training of Panamanians to reach their countrymen.

— For the needs of Panamanians who have lost their jobs due to the U.S. military pullout.

Key dates in Panama — and Baptist work there — include:

1866 — The Jamaican Baptist Missionary Society begins work in Panama.

1904 — Preliminary work on the Panama Canal begins.

1908 — Southern Baptists working with canal employees from the United States become responsible for Baptist mission work there.

1914 — Panama Canal, 51.2 miles long, opens.

1959 — The Baptist Convention of Panama organizes.

1978 — The United States and Panama sign new canal treaties.

1979 — The Canal Zone is abolished and Panama reasserts sovereignty there; a joint United States-Panama agency operates the canal.

Dec. 31, 1999 — Transfer of full control to Panama to be completed.