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And to the Ends of the Earth

By Andrew Shaughnessy, May 26, 2020

Deep in Panama’s Darién Jungle, through forests dense with towering ceiba and mahogany trees, lies the tiny village of La Reserva, a remote community of the indigenous Emberà tribe. There’s no road to La Reserva, no bus route or train connecting to the outside world. Instead, aspiring visitors face a long, harrowing journey.

It all begins with a two-hour drive from Panama City to a little border town on the edge of the jungle’s frontier. From there, they take an hour ride in the back of a pickup truck taxi known as a chiva to a trailhead, where they must hike a mile through the jungle—steep trails, up and down in the sweltering sun and overwhelming humidity, all while carrying a 50-pound pack of water, food, a hammock, and everything else they will need to survive. Finally, just before reaching La Reserva, they must cross a muddy river—either fording the jungle waters on foot or taking a canoe.

La-Reserva

MTW missionary Tony Elswick heard about La Reserva soon after he arrived in Panama with his wife, Amber, and their kids. An old friend of theirs named John Gordon was serving in Panama as a missionary with Sport X Change, a ministry that uses sports to connect to remote communities and open doors for the gospel. For six years, John had been building relationships with the people of La Reserva and had been praying for ministry partners, specifically an ordained pastor to lead worship services and train local believers to plant their own church.

That was music to Tony’s ears.

“Tony’s deep heart is for the people that nobody else cares about, … who don’t have resources, … the ones that nobody else is dreaming about,” said Amber. “Tony dreams about those people.”

There was just one problem: Tony wasn’t fit enough to safely make the journey.

“Look, I’d love to have you come and work with me,” John told Tony, “But I can’t take you in the physical shape you’re in right now.”

Before he became a missionary, Tony was an accountant, crunching numbers in an air-conditioned office. He loved planning, theology, and watching Doctor Who. Fitness and outdoor adventure weren’t in his vocabulary. He just wasn’t prepared for the jungle’s challenges.

And yet, the people of La Reserva needed him. They needed good biblical training, men and women equipped to disciple and lead, and a church of their own.

Determined to reach La Reserva, Tony began to train.

Revolutions and Providence

The Elswicks got their start in missions in 2013 serving with MTW in Nicaragua. There Tony trained rural pastors, Christian leaders, and church planters using Thirdmill theological education materials. While Tony discipled and trained the pastors, Amber would minister to their wives, building relationships and doing theological training with them as well. It was tough place to live and serve, but the soil was ripe and they were making enormous progress. Pastoral trainings were going well, with several cohorts of church planters and leaders graduating from two-year training programs led by Tony, and they were moving toward forming a Presbyterian denomination for Nicaragua.

In 2018, civil unrest and violence erupted across the country. Tony and Amber were in the U.S. on Home Ministry Assignment at the time. The reports they heard back from friends on the ground horrified them: barricades and battles in the streets, people tortured or killed by the police. Every one of their friends in Nicaragua, it seemed, knew someone who had died. In the end, both MTW and the Elswicks determined that the country was simply too dangerous and unstable for them to return—particularly with their four daughters in tow.

After a long purgatory of uncertainty, the Elswicks moved to Panama. A new field. A new start. It was enormously frustrating, but God had something bigger in mind for them. Nicaragua had been the perfect training ground for Tony to learn Spanish, get ministry experience, and hone his skills as a theology teacher. When the opportunity to reach La Reserva presented itself, his mind and heart were ready. There was just the matter of preparing his body.

Tony’s Rocky Montage

First things first: to make it in the jungle, Tony had to lose weight. He started dieting, counting calories. He cut down on his habit of nightly Oreos and milk. Before long, Tony had lost 20 pounds.

Next: fitness.

“I don’t like running,” Tony said. “I didn’t even bring tennis shoes when we moved here because I knew that my buddy John—the sports guy—would try to get me to come jogging, and I didn’t want to do that.”

He wasn’t wrong. Their first Sunday in Panama, John asked Tony to join his running club.

“We do a little Bible study at the end,” John said. “Come out and run with us!”

“Nope!” Tony laughed. “The Lord’s not calling me to do that. I told him: ‘I don’t do any kind of sports activity in front of men I want to respect me.’”

Of course, that was all before his call to La Reserva. As a pastor, Tony had plenty of books. To build stamina, he began loading up 20 pounds of books into his backpack and walking around his neighborhood for a few miles. Next, knowing that the jungle trail was very hilly, he started carrying his weighted pack up and down the stairs in their apartment building—all 30 stories.

But it wasn’t all just physical training. For hours every day, Tony practiced Spanish—diving deep into the difficult vocabulary he needed to master to teach theology well. He began spending extended times in focused prayer, crying out to God to send His Holy Spirit before him.

Soon, Tony was ready.

Into the Jungle

In his backpack, Tony carried food, water, clothing, a hammock, and six Spanish Bibles—50 pounds, all told. He had survived the trip thus far: the drive from Panama City, the bumpy ride in the back of a chiva, even the harrowing hike through the jungle. The last thing he had to do was cross the river.

“Fording a river? That was 10-year-old Tony’s dream!” he said. “That’s Indiana Jones stuff.”

Though the Emberá were sending a canoe to ferry them across, Tony was just too excited, and he began wading across the river. Just as he was about to reach the far bank, he stepped in the mud, and sank up to his knees. The mud held him fast with a suction grip—quicksand. Eventually, one of the local men came by in a canoe and helped work him free.

“I think they still joke about it,” said Tony.

Though Tony’s dramatic entrance helped break the ice, that first visit was still tough for him. The jungle was so hot and uncomfortable that he had trouble thinking straight, let alone preaching and teaching. And yet, the relationships being built were invaluable.

Tony spent some time with a man named Swardi, one of the most mature Christians in the community. Swardi told Tony the history of La Reserva—that it had started more than 50 years ago when aviation missionaries built a landing strip and a community formed around it. That the missionary pilot trained a local man as a pastor; that the missionary and then pastor would fly around to surrounding communities to preach and teach and train. That Swardi himself, just a boy at the time, grew up in the church led by the local pastor and came to know Jesus. Then he told Tony about the day in the mid ‘70s when the pilot, flying back to La Reserva with their beloved pastor, crashed the plane—killing them both.

“Swardi was just 15 years old,” said Tony. “His kids have grown up without church, and now his grandkids are growing up without church or any gospel witness. It was breaking his heart to see that.”

The next day, as Tony walked out of the sweltering jungle, he was struggling physically. His limbs ached, and sweat dripped down his face.

“I don’t know Lord,” he prayed. “I don’t know if I’m really cut out for this. It’s so hard for me.”

But then, he thought about Swardi’s story. He thought about the reality that the people of La Reserva had been waiting for someone to bring them a gospel witness for 50 years.

“If it’s not me, it’s not like there’s another guy to do this,” Tony said. “Particularly not another ordained pastor. … I realized—somebody has to come out and do this. … And it might as well be me because I’m the one here, right?”

When he returned to Panama City, Tony started exercising even more. He bought himself a pair of tennis shoes and joined a gym. As a result, the trips have become much easier for him.

The Power of the Word

In La Reserva, God is clearly on the move. After spending some time building relationships and earning trust, Tony began to lead Bible studies as well as more focused theological training for those with potential to lead a future local church. Every trip, he brings a few more Bibles to distribute to the community, and the number of people learning about Jesus continues to grow. There are practical mercy ministry components too—Christmas gifts for the kids, a clean water project. Neighboring communities are beginning to hear about the changes afoot and ask questions: “Who are these gringos? Why are they helping you?”

Preaching

In August 2019, Tony led their first church service in La Reserva. Several young Christians have already asked to be baptized.

“I think of a lot of it is just the power of the Word,” said Tony. “We just go in, and we’re giving them the skills to understand their Bibles and allowing the Holy Spirit to work. That’s the most fundamental thing which helps engage their hearts.”

“Thirdmill’s motto is: ‘Every Christian deserves a well-trained pastor,’” he added. “That’s what we feel like. Up the river they might have just 50 people in their community, but they deserve to have a well-trained pastor who can preach and teach to them about the Bible in their local language. We don’t want poverty to be a barrier to their theological education."

Tony and Amber’s dream is that the Christian leaders of La Reserva will become self-sufficient—able to lead church, disciple men and women in the faith, and share the hope of the gospel themselves. As for the Elswicks, 10 years from now you’ll find them at the next La Reserva, somewhere even deeper in the jungle, ministering in yet another community that still needs to hear the good news of the gospel, that still needs a church.

Editor's note: Tony has not been able to visit the jungle since lockdowns related to COVID-19 began. However, he is encouraged that this allows the Emberà the opportunity to grow independently and be less missionary-dependent. Tony is at work now on discipleship materials that he can give to them when the opportunity to revisit the tribe arises. 

Andrew Shaughnessy

Andrew Shaughnessy is a long-time word slinger who spent nearly six years as MTW’s staff writer, gathering and telling impact stories from missionaries across the globe. These days, he’s off working as an analyst and editor in the publishing industry, writing fiction, and mountaineering. He holds a B.A. in history and English literature from Covenant College, and an M.S. in political science from Portland State University.

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