Jesus, Panama, children, religious community, abortion, gay marriage, family values, Utopia, churches, healing, communities, love Thy neighbour, love thy neighbor, organised religion, Catholicism, politics, political parties, followers, evangelists, televangelists

Panama – Utopia – a religious community where Jesus might actually be welcome

“What if Panama had 0% corruption, no inflated government contracts and politicians were actually elected for their capacity and ability to get the job done? What if public sector officials actually did their work with heart and soul? What if private citizens and companies practiced social responsibility? What if neighbours worked together to build better neighbourhoods and participated actively in local government?

What if churches fed the poor and provided social and emotional healing to their communities?”

Panama doesn’t have Jesse Duplantis, wanting his $54M jet, but it has its fair share of “rockstar” evangelists.   Like the one that rides in a helicopter over Panama City to “bless it”.  His critics suggest that Jesus would have walked around the city to impart his blessing on everyone, not flown over in a helicopter.

These same evangelists would create a new political party, calling on all of their members to only vote for those who are sanctioned by the church.  They call on their members to protest “for family values” against gay marriage.  And then, they are strangely silent on issues like rape of minors and the 9,000+ adolescent pregnancies from last year. They are vociferous in their rejection of sex ed in schools, because it would compromise a family’s right to teach this in the home, but are silent with respect to real social solutions.

They are likewise nonvocal on corruption, the investigation of Obredecht bribes, and the slow justice system in Panama which never seems actually convict anyone other than the poor.  They say that with a new political party they want to drive change, but there are some things that they just don’t seem to want to change! If they can amass 10,000+ for a family values march, why not bring all of those members to a march against corruption?

While claiming to draw the community closer together and working together  to protest against same-sex marriage, they are separatist on so many other matters.  In 2019 Panama will be host to World Youth Day, a week long convention of youth in Panama organised by the Catholic Church.  It is expected that the Pope will attend. This event is thought to cost some $50M to organise here, and while the Baha’i, Methodist, Anglican & even Muslim communities have expressed their support, including housing the youth in their places of worship or homes, support from the evangelical community has once again been soundless, other than Salvation Army and other groups that are very youth-focused.

Would these be religious communities where Jesus might actually feel welcome?

Am I being tongue in cheek? Hell, yes!

I am so sick of watching churches say that they support “family values” and yet do nothing when there is a case of a minor having been abused for 8 years by a family member.  There were no protests when he received a sentence of community service, which isn’t allowed under the criminal code.  “That’s a problem for the justice system”. It obviously has nothing to do with “family values”.

There are likewise no “family value” issues in teen pregnancies, and God forbid that we have sex ed in schools.  Abstinence, taught in homes, is certainly the only way to stave off the rising cases of HIV, STDs and unwanted pregnancies.  What about all those youth whose families are not teaching anything at home?  Should they simply receive whatever education their families see fit?

Adolescent mothers, most of a certain social strata, aren’t provided with a staunch support network to help them through their pregnancies, stay in school, and other basic skills to help them break the poverty cycle.  Now, there are fabulous programs like “Las Claras”, run by the women’s group “Voces Vitales”.  But this is run by a group of professional women concerned to improve the opportunities for young women as single mothers.  This is not something that churches in Panama have seen as an “outreach program” or a social need to address.

There are also programs, like Asociación Luz y Vida, which runs a home for the elderly in Paraíso (and another in Metetí, Darien), most of whom were homeless.  This was started by Monseñor Rómulo Emiliani and then set up as a Nonprofit, with a group of donors.  Even so, it only has space for 50 elderly patrons.

Another program was established by the Catholic church in cooperation with the City Council: “Centro de Orientación y Atención Integral San Juan Pablo II“, in which the Catholic church undertakes to take on at least 30 people a month referred to it by the City Council social workers.  This is an attempt to work together at solving a problem of homelessness and drug addiction, but requires that the participants want to be rehabilitated.  The City Council, will, however, subsidize the program with $36,000 a year towards expenses ($3,000/month).

There is also a program under way in San Miguelito (probably the most dangerous part of Panama City, that is actually outside of the city limits), which addresses the gang wars.  In this program, some 200 evangelical groups and 60 Catholic churches joined task forces to reach 1,500 youth in a program aimed at getting them out of gangs and into “the Life University”, in which they would be taught life skills, sports & hand-crafts of various types.

But, with the exception of Las Claras (not associated with any church) and Asociación Luz y Vida (a nonprofit that I know was originally the brainchild of Monseñor Emiliani), which I already knew about, I had to search long and hard to discover the social programs that the churches in Panama were participating in! For example, when I looked up Hosanna Social Programs, the results that I got from the search engines were all about their television programs and shows!  They do, however, have a prison outreach program.

What happened to Jesus’ call to love your neighbour as yourself:

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ (Matthew 25)

This makes me truly wonder if Jesus would feel at home with the churches in Panama today?

Or would he be walking through their houses of worship, overturning tables and throwing out the money changers and all of those seeking to make a business of the church?

It’s not that I don’t want to see churches in Panama, but in a Utopia, churches would be so much more than inward looking social clubs only concerned about their ratings and attendance numbers!

 

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Education in Panama – hopes and dreams

Last week was the first week of school for public schools in Panama.  Universities typically finished their “summer holidays” at the end of January, but primary and secondary schools still have a three month summer vacation.

And after seeing headlines in Panama in late February, I’ve been asking myself: What has happened during these three months of school holidays? What efforts are made to ensure that when students return in the new year, the teachers will be better equipped as well as the schools in a better state?  And what can we do differently?

Panamá Bilingüe:

I was stunned by the news a few weeks ago that of 5,200 teachers sent abroad to study, only 1.5% (70) teachers were “certified”. Of course, it turns out that headlines sell newspapers, but don’t tell you the whole story!

During these summer months, about 1,000 Panamanian teachers and 500 students traveled from Panama to the US, England, Canada and Barbados for full immersion English classes through the program “Panamá Bilingüe”.  The Panamá Bilingüe program has a budget of over 100 million dollars for the five year period it is intended to run, and costs about $8,000 – $12,000 per teacher for training, airfares and accommodation costs.

When this program started in 2015, it was slated to be the beginning of a new era of education in Panama.  Unfortunately, if you look at the quality of the translation on the President’s website, you may be forgiven for thinking there’s not much hope for the future if this is the best that can be done for the President!

During the 5 year program (2015 to 2020), some 10,000 teachers are slated to receive instruction both in English and educational classes to improve the quality of the education received in Panama in public schools and at public universities.  A further 20,000 high school students and 30,000 primary school students are expected to also benefit from this program.

Teacher Training:

  1. national – before they are given any opportunity to study abroad, all expenses paid, the selected teachers are given training in Panama, in order to reach a certain level in English (Private & Public).  They are then given an exam (such as TOEFL or Cambridge) to see the level of their English before they go.
  2. international – 10,000 are being sent overseas. They will not only study English, some will also be studying in science and Education. Of these 10,000 teachers that are slated to go overseas before 2020, 5,200 have already completed the training internationally.  When they are sent overseas, they are expected to work (side-by-side) with teachers internationally (some 25-35 hours per week), as well as study at their designated University.

Unfortunately, the initial (and badly explained) results that came in February 2018 were not very promising. Of the 5,200 teachers who have traveled internationally so far in this program, only 70 (1.5%) have  obtained the Cambridge certification in English. However, what was important to note is that the certification in question was a certification to become examiners in Panama of students in English (i.e. it was not whether they had attained or not a proficiency in English, but whether they had a proficiency and the additional certification to be an examiner in Panama).  Five hundred teachers volunteered to participate in the courses for certification, of these 389 have a level of proficiency that are certified, and 70 have actually received the Cambridge certification as examiners.  So, while it sounds terrible that only 70 of 5,200 got certified, I had to read more to understand what they were getting certified in. Not half as bad as the headlines sounded!

In the explanations given by the Ministry of Education, they indicate that in terms of the English levels of the 5,000 teachers sent overseas to study, only 5% have completely failed to reach the levels of proficiency required (according to where they are at the time they start the course), and in these cases the teachers involved will be required to pay back the cost of the studies from their salaries.

What does concern me, however, is that the minimum level required is High Intermediate English. This means that the English teachers in our primary and secondary schools is possibly only Intermediate English.  These are not teachers who are speaking fluent English. So, if they are at intermediate level, how will our high school students reach anything higher than just intermediate?

Kids program:

In addition to the training for teachers, Panamá Bilingüe also offers classes for kids.  And this is for kids all around the country, not just in Panama City. Some of the kids will be from different regions, such as the Guna in San Blas, the Ngobe in the Ngöbe comarca between Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro. Of the 13,000 that started in the program, some 8000 children that have been participating in Panamá Bilingüe for the first three years were tested and 82% have reached Intermediate Level (as gauged by the TOEFL exams).

School buildings: Gazebo schools

Of the 1,080 gazebo schools (escuelas ranchos) found to exist in July 2014, the Ministry of Education has only been able to replace 504 so far with school buildings (some still under construction).  As expected, this project is taking longer and costing more than the current administration anticipated: they are half way there with only little more than a year left before elections (5 year term).

Although the numbers mention 1,080 “schools”, this really means buildings or class rooms, rather than the entire school.  So, for example, in 2018 they are undertaking 16 projects for 69 properties, which will eliminate 209 gazebo schools.  The new school properties will include dormitories for the teachers (as some are in remote areas), as well as play courts (with roofs) which can be used for assemblies as well as for exercise and gym class.

One of the biggest difficulties being faced is the remoteness and access of the regions where these gazebo schools exist.  Many contractors are not interested in bidding for the projects in these areas, because of the transportation issues (materials as well as workers).  So, the Ministry of Education puts out the details of the public bid, and no one responds.  And the Panamanian Ministry of Education does not seem to have its own maintenance and building division for these particular cases.

In these regions, the debate continues to be over school buildings, with no debate being entered into regarding the quality of the education that these children are receiving.

How do we combat poverty in these regions without any infrastructure to speak of?

Public Schools not ready

In addition to the issue of Gazebo schools, which is gradually being addressed and faced, every start of the school year, we hear of schools that simply are not opening for the first day of school because basic maintenance work has not been done.  So, for example, on March 5th we read that some 20 public schools were not ready and a further 32 schools were opening, but with either infrastructure issues or not having enough teachers.

Of these 20 schools, 10 are simply not opening and ready, and a further 10 are using alternative properties for the school year while their schools are being maintained. Once again, we’re talking about whether there WILL be any education, not what the quality of that education will be!

What makes for a first world education system?

When we look at the question of education, obviously these are very basic issues that Panama is facing.  Quite unlike the kinds of issues that you would face in say New Zealand or the Netherlands. Panama says that it aspires to be like Singapore, and yet Singapore often comes out as the best education worldwide!   If we look at the World Education Rankings, Panama doesn’t even make it onto the graph! Even the articles that criticize the US education system, providing graphs that include our neighbors Costa Rica and Colombia, completely ignore the existence of Panama.

How did (or does) Singapore make it to the top? For starters, education spending makes up about 20% of the annual national budget! Yes, you read that right: TWENTY percent.  Panama spends only 3.5% of its budget on education!  We get what we pay for!

English is the first language in the education system (since the 1960s), meaning that all children are fully bilingual, usually reaching fluency in primary school.  Admittedly, during the 1950s and 1960s, Singapore adapted their “survival driven” system into one which could provide a skilled workforce for their industrialization. They have also adopted the requirement that throughout primary and secondary school, all children must participate in one after school program (performing arts, clubs, sports, etc.).  Maybe these children aren’t perfectly well-rounded, but they are at least socialised and with some leadership skills.

Upon completion of secondary school, Singapore offers vocational education (since 1992), Polytechnics and Arts Institutions, Junior Colleges (2 years, pre-University), and Universities.  It also offers other alternatives, and encourages students to pursue further studies even after completing their Polytechnics or vocational training.

This strong focus on education in Singapore should be a shining example to Panama, as like Singapore, we lack natural resources (other than the Canal) and we need to develop our human resources and manpower to build a knowledge-based economy.  Obviously, there’s a lot more we could look at in Singapore’s system: meritocracy, investment and the priority that it has been given.