Students Experience Grassroots Ministry, Legacies of Colonialism in Panama

Summer Panama Project now in its 28th year

Each summer since 1986, the Episcopal Diocese of Panama has welcomed up to four students at Episcopal seminaries, including CDSP, for three weeks.

During their stay in Panama, students undertake a week of intensive orientation and two-week field assignments in congregations, diocesan schools or Episcopal Church-sponsored social programs. “One outstanding feature of this program is its introduction to the social, economic and political dimensions of life in Panama, including the country’s complex relationship with the United States and the dynamics of colonialism and imperialism,” said the Rev. L. Ann Hallisey, dean of students. “The program has proven invaluable to students interested in Hispanic ministries.”

The project, was developed by the Rev. Dr. John Kater, professor emeritus, and the Rev. Dr. Walter E. Smith, who was then education and vocational development officer in the Diocese of Panama.  Smith received an honorary degree from CDSP in 2012 for his leadership of the project.

In 2013, participants included Linda-Suzanne C. Borgen of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, now a second-year student; Julia McKeon of the Diocese of California, now a continuing student, extended plan;Nancy Ross of the Diocese of California, now a graduating student and one student from the Diocese of California School for Deacons, Mara Fagin. Hallisey accompanied the group.

During their stay in Panama, the women learned about both the church’s central place in the lives of its congregants and the immense challenges they face in sustaining their faith communities.

The families who welcomed the students made it possible for them to experience Panama as more than tourists. “We travelled across the country to Colon where we stayed with families who were members of Episcopal parishes,” Ross said. “They took us in and treated us as family. With them, we learned what life is like in this rapidly changing and multicultural society, and how integral the church is to their lives, and the problems their parishes face. There are not enough priests, the congregations are dwindling and aging, the resources are tight. Yet the generosity is visible and palpable.”

For McKeon, the history of Panama is integral to understanding the church’s identity. “The constant interweaving of language and culture from English, Caribbean, African, and Spanish speaking nations told the history of immigration, struggle and survival that shapes church life in Panama,” said McKeon. “During our stays with families in Colon and attending services, we observed the centrality of the church in the lives of the older generation and the tenacity with which they hold onto Anglican tradition. Traveling outside the cities in a little ‘busito,’ we encountered the efforts of individual families to transplant the church to small jungle villages.”

The Panama Canal, which the United States began building in 1904 and controlled from 1914 until 1999, shaped the history of Panama and the development of the Episcopal Church. Borgen was struck by the ways in which the racism of the colonial era continues to shape the church today.

“There are members of the church old enough to recall a time when they would only be allowed to enter the cathedral, still referred to as the White church in their stories, in order to present their UTO mite box at the altar rail,” Borgen said. “They were only allowed in the church long enough to present their offering before the White congregation. They then made their way several blocks to attend the service at their own church, called the Black Episcopal church by some.

“One can still hear in the voices and see on the faces of these dedicated, often lifelong members of the Episcopal Church, the emotion associated with this experience. These experiences still linger strongly enough to keep many of the congregants of the “Black” Episcopal church from traversing these same sidewalks in order to attend services at the “White” cathedral now.”

The Panama Project is “steeped in the international and multi-cultural perspectives of the Graduate Theological Union community,” Hallisey said, but it goes deeper. “This experience provides students with both hands-on experience in grassroots ministry and new ways to understand the dynamics of colonialism and imperialism. Whether we acknowledge it or not, these forces shape our church communities, and these students come home more able to serve with pastoral sensitivity and cultural competence in these congregations.”

This summer’s Panama Project will take place from June 28 – July 19 and participants will be announced by the beginning of March. There are still two spots open, and applications from students at other Episcopal seminaries are welcome. For more information or an application, please talk with Hallisey at 510-204-0716 or via email at

© 2012 Church Divinity School of the Pacific