Gambling Recovery

gambling cycle 1

In order to help our Panamanian Chinese friends, we looked into how someone becomes a compulsive gambler and the recovery process. The offending cycle starts with occasional gambling and the person experiencing a winning stage, which tempts him to gamble more frequently for the excitement, and stimulates his greed to increase his bets. This is typical of other forms of addiction, in which the victim gets hooked in more and more because the “poison” is sugar-coated, and is standard in the schemes of the devil (Eph 6:11).

Next comes a losing stage in which the gambler is preoccupied with gambling, affecting his work, ignoring his family, chasing losses in the hope of regaining his money, but sinking more and more into debt and lying to cover it up. Then comes a desperation stage in which the person tries to borrow from family and friends, destroying his reputation and alienating himself from them. He resorts to illegal means to obtain money to service his debts and continue gambling, and sinks into a state of hopelessness.

This is a crucial phase, in which the gambler either wallows in despair and may have suicidal tendencies, or receives help, wakes up from his nightmare, and enters a critical stage towards recovery. With counseling he could start climbing out of the abyss he fell in, return to work and take responsibility for his problems.

A rebuild stage follows, in which the reforming gambler develops goals and restitution plans, improves relationship with his spouse, family and friends, and regains self-respect. Over time this evolves into a growth stage, whereby he gains an understanding of himself and others, turns from caring only for himself to caring for others, and enters a new way of life.

Helping a gambler recover is a long, arduous process requiring a lot of patience and perseverance. He will stumble many times and needs a supportive family, friends and a church that understands the struggles he and his family are facing. We pray your church can be one that helps a prodigal to return.

gambling recovery 1

Advertisements

Kidnapped!

kidnap 8

When you are a missionary, you deal with a whole new set of challenges that the average pastor in N. American would never have to contend with. Sure there is the usual preaching, teaching, reaching, counseling and leading, that’s just part of the job description of a pastor anywhere in the world. But if you are serving in a foreign field, then you encounter issues, e.g. exorcism or persecution, which you would rarely face in Canada.

kidnap hotspots 3

In the Middle East or Central & South America, one particular problem is kidnapping. According to SCR Ltd., a company which specializes in dealing with kidnap and extortion, Panama is not listed among the top kidnap and ransom (K&R) countries in the world generally. But to the local Chinese, K&R is a very real issue because they are often the target. Partly this is attributed to the perception that the Chinese are rich, as they are hard-working and many own their own store. As well, few of them would testify against their abductors for fear of retaliation, making them easy prey.

We visited one lady whose husband was kidnapped, apparently by local gangs. A Spanish-speaking man called and asked for a large sum of money. She wanted assurance that her husband was still alive and well, so they passed the phone to him and allowed him to speak to her in Chinese. He told her to give them the money right away, and that they would release him after they receive the ransom. She raised the money and dropped it off the next day, and waited. But weeks passed without any sign of him, nor further communication from the abductors.

She was superstitious and started consulting idol-worshiping mediums to appease the spirits to find her husband, but to no avail. It was then that we were introduced to her, nearly two months after the kidnap. What can a short-term mission team do under the circumstances?

The Bible has only four verses on kidnaps:
• Joseph was kidnapped from the land of the Hebrews (Gen 40:15);
• Kidnappers shall be put to death (Ex 21:16; Deut 24:7); and
• The Law is made for those who are lawless, including kidnappers (1 Tim 1:10).
The law will punish kidnappers if they are captured, but that is no comfort to her who is waiting anxiously with their three small children, running their store by herself and worrying about his safety.

We decided the best we could do in this situation is to lead her to Christ, so that she could lean on Him. One team member shared the gospel with her while the others prayed. Previously she would have rejected, as she had forbidden church members from taking her kids to Sunday school. But calamity could break down a person’s objections in a way no other means can, and she prayed quietly to receive Jesus as her Lord and Savior, entrusting everything, including her husband’s safety, into His hands. Since we will leave Panama in a few days, we asked her relative to follow her up.

Usually we would rather share more with her over a longer period of time, but these are not normal times. We just do what we can with the appointments the Lord gives us, and leave the results in God’s hands. Success in witnessing is sharing Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to the Father. All He asked of us is obedience. Nothing more, nothing less. Hope you will do the same.

Challenges facing Panama’s Chinese Churches

challenge 11

Every church has her challenges, some more than others. For the Chinese churches in Panama, their ministerial fellowship have identified the top 3 as follows:

1. Getting Believers to Worship. Unlike most Chinese in N. America who work in white or blue-collar jobs and get their weekends off, most Chinese in Central & S. America work in small businesses which are open 7 days a week. This creates a problem for C&SA churches in that while it is not difficult to share the gospel and get a confession of faith, it is very hard for the new convert to go to church to be discipled. This challenge is unique to that culture, and N. American programs based on inviting people to come to church to participate do not work.

What’s more, without disciples, there could be no leaders. Which leader would entrust the work of the ministry to immature believers who have not learned the basics of worship, instruction, fellowship and evangelism? So the missionary or pastor end up doing most of the work himself, perpetually feeding spiritual infants with milk. What’s the solution?

At the core, this is a problem of priorities and values. New converts steeped in materialism simply do not see the value of setting aside time to worship God, for to them time is money. To rectify this, the value system needs to be restructured from the physical to spiritual. Now the word can help the spiritual babies grow:
1 Pet 2:2 like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation,

But how do you feed them if they don’t come? There are two alternatives. The first is to find another time for gathering together for worship and training other than Sunday morning. This is the method adopted by restaurant workers fellowship in N. America. Since Sunday is the busiest day for those in food services, they meet on Monday nights instead. Services start at midnight after the restaurants have closed, and run till 2 or 3 am including Sunday school. This is a group method and more efficient.

The other option is to go to the convert’s business to disciple him/her. Most have a slow period during the day with few customers. Instead of the convert watching TV programs streamed from China, the missionary can do bible study with them, slowly shaping their values via God’s word. This is an individual method and takes more time, but probably more effective as the mentor shapes the mentee’s life by example.

2. Reaching the Second Generation. As in N. America, the first generation consists of immigrants, legal or illegal, from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong or elsewhere. They speak Chinese, whether Putonghua (Mandarin), Cantonese or other dialects. Some subsequently obtain permanent resident status. The second generation consists of their children, born locally, and speak English in N. America, or Spanish in C&SA. Generally they are better educated than their parents, but unlike them integrate into mainstream society. If the church does not reach them, she loses her future and dies after the first generation. What do you do to reach the second generation?

God had been gracious to our host Panama Chinese Baptist Church (PCBC). Three years ago, before our friends’ arrival, the second generation was still young, being teens bored with church. Some spoke Chinese at home, but not well enough to understand the biblical vocabulary. The adults’ command of Spanish is sufficient for day-to-day transactions, but not enough to read the Spanish Bible. What to do? Just as N. American Chinese churches develop English ministry for their teenagers, C&SA Chinese churches develop Spanish ministry. The hard way is to develop such capabilities internally. The easier way is to enlist external help.

PCBC solicited the aid of a nearby Spanish Baptist church. They sent four youth workers weekly, and two children’s worker biweekly. With their assistance the Spanish-speaking congregation was built up from scratch to 25-30 youth, many of whom are beyond the children of the first generation, but their friends and classmates. It appears that this approach – working in partnership with Spanish churches – can be gainfully employed by other Chinese churches.

3. Sufficient Offering to Support Pastor. Generally churches worldwide do not pay their pastors enough, compared to jobs requiring equivalent education, experience, and working hours. But this is particularly a challenge for Panama Chinese churches. I don’t know the current salary scale, but a couple of years ago it was US$600 a month. Panama has minimum wage scales for different occupations. For example, for a construction worker working 48 hours/week, the minimum salary is:
$2.72/hour X 48 hours/week X 4.33 weeks/month = US$565.32/month

You can see that the pastor’s salary is barely above minimum wage. No wonder some locally trained pastors quit after a few years, because they can’t earn enough to support their family. A couple running a small convenience store can earn about US$2,000 a month, after costs of goods sold and rent. That’s 3.5 times that of a pastor! The pastor’s salary may have risen by now, and there might be certain expense subsidies such as gas, cell phone etc. But that hardly close the gap. Church members respect their pastors, but somehow this is not reflected in the remuneration. The offering is not sufficient to pay the pastor a decent salary, after rents and utility bills are taken care of.

I believe this is again related to the members’ value system:
1 Tim 5:18 For the Scripture says, “YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.”
Once the members’ values are aligned with biblical norms, they will learn not to rob God in tithes and offerings (Mal 3:8). So the solution is in discipling the new believers right from conversion, and over time this problem should resolve itself.

I do not have C&SA pastoral experience, so I may not understand the culture enough to propose solutions. But for now that’s how I see things. Hopefully I’m not too far off the mark.

Is Panama Safe?

armed robbery 1

Sometimes people ask if it’s safe to go to Panama for mission trips. They’ve heard stories of high crime rates and gun violence, and worry about their security. It’s a legitimate concern. Yes there are anecdotal incidents. We even heard some on this trip.

One involved the Y-junction near the church. During the day it is extremely busy with traffic jams, but at night the intersection is quiet with little traffic. Recently a car was waiting at the lights when another car bumped into it. The driver got out to assess the damage, but two people came out of the other car, pointed a gun at him, took his wallet, and drove off with his car.

A second incident happened in the hair salon on the ground floor of our apartment building. Usually there is a watchman on duty, but one night near closing time while the guard was briefly away a robber came in, grabbed the money, and also took the keys to the building. That’s getting close to home.

A third concerned a Chinese man running a convenience store behind a steel cage, handing out merchandize and receiving payment through a small window like old style banks. He kept late hours hoping to do more business, despite the fact that the later it gets, the more dangerous it becomes. One night a man came up asking for a can of pop but had no money to pay. The store owner refused, so the man pulled out a gun and shot him dead.

The last serious case involved a lady we visited in old Chinatown. She and her husband ran a convenience store. One night she received a phone call from Spanish-speaking thugs who claimed that they had kidnapped her husband. She demanded proof that he was safe, and her husband was allowed to speak to her in Chinese. He told her to give them the money so they would release him. She complied, but two months after she paid the ransom there was still no sign of him.

All the Chinese merchants we knew had been robbed at some point. It is not a matter of if they had been robbed, but how many times. It is true that parts of Panama City (e.g. Chorrillo) and Colon has a high crime rate. But if you look up the statistics there are far more violent cities in Latin America, such as Caracas (Venezuela), Rio (Brazil), Acapulco (Mexico) and Guatemala City.

So is it safe? I believe for a Christian, his safety is in God’s hands. He could be safe in dangerous Honduras, or in danger in “safe” Toronto. Nothing will happen to him without the Lord’s permission. I am not saying that God will always protect and preserve His workers, as there are plenty of missionary stories to show that God does allow bad things to happen to His servants. But what I am saying is that for a Christian worker on kingdom mission, God will keep him safe until he has accomplished His purpose. That could be a short or long time, but in the final analysis, that’s the only thing that matters, not our comfort or happiness. I hope we can all learn to trust in the Lord for everything, including our safety and security. That’s basic discipleship.

The Chinese in Panama

Obelisk commemorating 150th anniversary of Chinese in Panama

Obelisk commemorating 150th anniversary of Chinese in Panama

Panama is a small country, with a population of 3.91 million as of 2015, less than that of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The Chinese arrived there over 150 years ago, even before the construction of the Panama Canal (France 1881-1894; US 1904-1914). The Chinese population has been estimated at 200-250,000, 5.1-6.4% of the total. The high end of the range includes illegal aliens who smuggled into the country and do not form part of the official statistics. About 95% are Cantonese-Hakka speaking from Huadu (花都).

Ads of Chinese churches in Panama

Ads of Chinese churches in Panama

There are 15 Chinese churches scattered in 8 cities across Panama:
1 Panama City 8, including a house church which did not advertise
2 Colon 1
3 Arajian 1
4 Chorrera 1
5 Penonome 1
6 Chitre 1 + 2 mission stations
7 David 1
8 Changuinola 1
Of these, 5 are Alliance, 8 independent, 1 Evangelical Free, and 1 Baptist.

The number of Chinese Christians was estimated to be only 900 a few years ago, but probably a little more now with many short-term missions in recent years. Still, the average worship attendance for all churches is only 40-50 on any given Sunday (range 20-200), as some believers give priority to their business rather than worship. Discipleship and leadership remain the number 1 challenge among Chinese churches, followed by reaching the second generation, and raising sufficient offering to support their own pastor. With Christians at less than 0.4% of the population, the Chinese remain an unreached people group. Pray that the Lord of the harvest will send out workers to His harvest (Mt 9:38, Lk 10:2).

Altogether 14 ads of Panama Chinese churches

Altogether 14 ads of Panama Chinese churches

Panama STM Vignettes

Our missionary friend helping us to purchase sim card and data plan. He claims he has no language gift, but before he left for the field he enrolled in Spanish classes in four different schools to acquire survival language skills. He continued after arrival and forced himself to communicate with the local people. Now he has a working knowledge of Spanish for daily living. Our hats off to his persistence.

Temperatures are high in Panama throughout the year, ranging from a low of mid 20s Celsius in early morning to low 30s in the afternoon. Humidity is high between 80-90%. There are only two seasons, dry and rainy (Apr to Dec), and when it rains, it pours. Streets are flooded within minutes but the water also subsides fast due to extra-large drains.

One of the challenges for Chinese churches here is to get Christians to attend worship. The culture is such that people value earning money above worshipping God. It’s not hard to invite people to receive Jesus as Savior, but following them up to become disciples present major difficulties. Here the STM team is teaching the local Christians a new song in their weekly fellowship.

Why You Should be a Missionary

missionary 1

Our missionary friend in Taiwan shared J. Trotters’ “Ten Reasons You Should be a Missionary” on her Facebook. We came back from several mission trips this year and found his points spot on, so I’m commenting on a couple of items from our recent experience.

Take number 8 for instance. Unlike traffic in Canada where cars are supposed to pass and merge in from the driver’s side, cars in Panama cut in from both the left and the right. And they usually cut it real close. It’s like playing “bluff” to see who “chickens out” and brake first to yield to the other driver to avoid a fender bender. In Taiwan, the challenge is scooters. They are as numerous as locusts, and weave in and out of tight spaces between cars. If a car driver is not alert, he could send a scooter flying into the air! Even some experienced drivers from N. America are scared of driving in developing countries. If you are accident-free in the third world, you can drive anywhere in the world.

Or take number 6. Police in Russia often do random checks on Asian pedestrians and ask for identification. Aliens who do not have proper IDs are fined or even detained. Even if your documents are in order, they usually manage to find problems where none actually exists. In exchange for not getting a ticket, you can pay a fee directly to the officer. One time our missionary friend in Panama made a left turn where he was not supposed to, despite the fact that there are no road signs telling him this was not allowed. He was stopped by a traffic cop who asked what’s his “offer”. Since he does not pay bribes as a matter of principle, an interesting negotiation followed. This would be especially interesting when neither side know the other’s mother tongue.

But at the top of the list every missionary can identify with is of course number one. Leading someone to Christ in your own language, culture and vicinity is exhilarating enough; doing so when you have to cross barriers in some or all of the above is pure joy that is often indescribable, not to mention the fact that God had seen fit to use you to serve Him. I hope you will take at least one mission trip as part of your bucket list. It will do wonders to widen your heart and mind to fulfill the Great Commission. Some have even changed careers as a result.