Panama Embraces Their Venezuelan Refugee Neighbors

By Andrew Shaughnessy, May 23, 2017

“God has used a dictator to send people to our church,” said MTW Panama team leader Marc Summers. 

In 2014 Marc, along with his wife, Sam, and teammates Michael and Tricia Lee, moved to Panama City, Panama, to plant a multicultural church in the diverse “El Cangrejo” area of the city­. But when they started Iglesia Comunidad de Cristo (Christ Community Church) and began to reach out into the community, they found, to their surprise, that many of their new neighbors were Venezuelan refugees. 

“There are over 40,000 Venezuelans here in Panama,” Michael explained. “Many of them would have preferred to stay in Venezuela, but the economic situation there has become so volatile that the country really is falling apart.” 

Venezuelan Exodus
Over the past few years, the Venezuelan government’s “21st-century socialist experiment” has wreaked havoc on the country’s once booming economy. Inflation has soared, the economy has plummeted, and price hikes, shortages of goods, and violence are all on the rise. “You can’t find basic commodities like Tylenol, baby diapers, or toilet paper,” Michael said. 

So hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries in search of better opportunities and food on the shelves. 

“We came with a desire to build a self-supporting, international church,” said Marc. God answered—in spades. The church is made up of Colombians, Panamanians, Americans, Mexicans, and about 85 percent Venezuelan refugees. 

“We weren’t targeting Venezuelans,” Michael added. “We were just targeting the people in the community—who turned out to be mostly Venezuelans.” 

Opening their Homes to Refugees
Many are highly educated and were middle-class professionals back in Venezuela. Now most are forced to take low-paying jobs well below their qualifications. People who not long ago owned cars and houses now struggle to make rent and pay for their children’s school fees. Though it’s against the law, most families rent a single room or even just a bed in an apartment shared by multiple families. 

So the Lees and the Summers do what they can. 

A young woman named Piella and her 11-year-old daughter stayed first with the Lees, and are now with the Summers. Piella has a master’s degree in marine biology, but she can’t get a job in that field in Panama, so she works as a receptionist. But it doesn’t even pay enough to cover typical rents, let alone groceries or school for her daughter. So now they are staying with the Summers until she can save money and find a better job. Marc and Sam Summers also housed another Venezuelan couple, Juan and Diana, a lawyer and journalist respectively, for the same reasons. Juan and Diana have since moved to their own apartment.

Mirrors of Christ in the Midst of Scarcity
Even though the majority of the 50-some adults that make up Iglesia Comunidad de Cristo have their own financial struggles, the little church plant still manages to use tithes to pay its rent and help out members who are in the most desperate straits. They also collect a weekly food offering and distribute it to the most needy in the community.

These basic acts of mercy are not external ministries, tacked on in addition to or instead of the church’s mission of discipleship and evangelism. They’re an example of the Church doing exactly what the Church is supposed to do—care for its members, care for the community, and care for the vulnerable, as emissaries and mirrors of Christ.

“We want to be a local church that reaches out and shows mercy,” said Marc. “We have been shown mercy by God, and so we want to show mercy also to the refugees.” 

“We’re here to do church planting,” said Michael. “It just so happens to be in the middle of a Venezuelan refugee community… and I think that we have a gospel obligation to help out in every way that we can. Can we help everybody? No, we can’t. There is a limit to the resources that are available. But the question is, How can the church do everything that it can to ensure that these people survive? Because anything less is not the gospel. 

“Whether in Panama or elsewhere, we need to be communities that get together and say, ‘How can the church meet the needs of this community?’” Michael added. “Whether they’re Christians or not is not the drawing line. They’re humans made in the image of God, and God says, ‘You, Church, go and be a witness of my mercy and grace by reaching out to everybody, not just the people that you like.’”  

Since its start, God has grown the church plant in El Cangrejo both in number and in the depth of its members’ faith in Christ. In a context rife with poverty and destructive prosperity gospel teachings, the Lees and the Summers are sharing the true gospel of grace in word and deed, and the people are loving it. 

“There are a number of refugees who have come to know Christ for the first time,” said Michael. “Many have needs that only God can meet, but it is exciting to see the local church reach out in seeking to be part of the answer.” 

Explore opportunities to serve in Panama at 

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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