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The Panama experience: Bishops get glimpses of Central American culture Robin Russell, Nov 22, 2010
UMR PHOTOS BY ART RUSSELL
A member of a musical troupe from the Panamerican School in Panama City performs a traditional “Devil and Mirrors” dance during a cultural night presentation for United Methodist bishops.
By Robin Russell Managing Editor
PANAMA CITY, Panama—More than 87 United Methodist bishops gathered for their fall meetings in Panama this year, in order to also participate in a consultation with bishops from Latin America and the Caribbean.
The United Methodist Council of Bishops is made up of 50 active bishops in the United States, 19 bishops in Europe, Asia and Africa, and 88 retired bishops worldwide, and provides leadership to the 11.5 million-member church.
After their own council meeting Nov. 2-6, United Methodist bishops met with the Conference of Methodist Bishops and Presidents on Nov. 7-9 and CIEMAL on Nov. 10, sharing plenary sessions, small group discussions, worship and meals. The consultation’s theme was “One Body, Many Gifts, One Mission,” and it gave bishops the opportunity to study the recommendations of joint relationships and common work, as approved by the 2008 General Conference.
The Conference of Methodist Bishops and Presidents includes United Methodist bishops plus bishops from affiliated, affiliated autonomous Methodist or affiliated united churches. The Council of Evangelical Methodist Churches of Latin America and the Caribbean, CIEMAL, binds together Methodist churches of 19 nations of Latin America and the Caribbean (with two united churches) in mutual support, mission and service.
While in Panama, United Methodist bishops, spouses and guests also had glimpses of Central American culture through day trips, tours of the Panama Canal and visits from local indigenous groups.
Panama City, according to the locals, is really three cities in one. Visitors can still see ruins of “Old Panama,” the first city on the Central American Isthmus founded in 1519 by the Spanish. The city’s “Casco Antiguo,” or “old quarters,” was eventually plundered in 1671 by the pirate Henry Morgan, but was rebuilt in 1673. The architecture of this “second city” reflects Italian, French and Spanish styles of that period.
Today, indigenous people sell handmade jewelry, hats and textiles called molas. The old quarters houses some hotels, shops, cafes, a cathedral and a museum.
The “third city” began during the 1920s and 30s with the construction of high-rise hotels, restaurants, stores and casinos. Today, about half of the country’s 3.5 million people live in Panama City. The modern part of the city includes Independence Plaza, the Presidential Palace, Plaza Bolivar, the Grand National Theater, the Church of San José, the Cathedral and the French Plaza’s Walkway.
Of course, the country is perhaps best known for the Panama Canal, a major waterway that connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
Bishops experienced an 8-mile section of the canal during an evening cruise from Gamboa to the Pacific Bay, where they observed firsthand how ships maneuver through the locks. The four-hour trip gave bishops a glimpse into the area’s ecological richness along the Chagres River as they heard how the canal was constructed.
The French began constructing the canal in 1880, but abandoned it after losing some 27,000 workers, largely due to yellow fever and malaria. When the French canal work collapsed in 1902, the U.S. purchased it for $40 million and completed the task from 1904-1914—one of the most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken.
The canal has had an enormous impact on shipping between the two oceans. It takes ships just 24 hours to pass through the canal, compared to 15 to 21 days to go around the Cape Horn of South America.
The U.S. controlled the canal and the Canal Zone surrounding it until President Jimmy Carter signed a treaty in 1977 that provided for the transition of control to Panama. From 1979 to 1999 the canal was under joint U.S.-Panamanian administration; on Dec. 31, 1999, the U.S. turned over command of the waterway to the Panama Canal Authority.
Today, the canal earns $3 million to $5 million a day; half goes back to the city for maintenance costs of the Canal. About 13,000 vessels pass through the canal each year.
Some bishops and spouses participated in day tours that included the Metropolitan National Park, a tropical forest that is part of the Interoceanic Biological Corridor extending from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Others viewed documents, instruments and photos related to the construction and operation of the Panama Canal at the Museum of the Interoceanic Canal and the visitor’s center at the Miraflores Locks.
Several of the spouses also visited the historical site Portobelo, one of the most well-protected entrances along the Caribbean coast of Panama that became a safe haven for the Conquistadors and a target for pirates. Once enough goods were accumulated at Portobelo, caravans of ships began their return journey to Spain, accompanied by escort ships that protected them from most, but not all pirate attacks. It was perhaps the most heavily fortified Spanish control point along the coasts of the Americas.
A highlight was a cultural night presented by the Panamerican School for the bishops at the Sheraton Panama Hotel & Convention Center, where members of a musical troupe performed traditional Panamanian dances. Costumes included the “Pollera,” a hand-embroidered dress with a variety laces, and headpieces called “Tembleques,” made of fish scales and pearls that move rhythmically during the dance.