‘Hope and Perseverance’ in Panama

Redeemer Lutheran Church in Balboa, Panama, which was once devastated by a series of catastrophic events, recently welcomed worshipers back to its beautifully restored sanctuary.

Redeemer Lutheran Church in Balboa (Panama City), Panama, is located along one of the busiest trade routes in the world. It’s just a short drive to the Panama Canal, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Unfortunately, a series of catastrophic events nearly caused the congregation to close. But by God’s grace, a group of supporters from The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) and beyond came together to help the struggling congregation. On Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, nearly 200 people from all walks of life — including Panamanians, indigenous Kuna people, expats, LCMS missionaries and partner church leaders — celebrated the dedication of Redeemer’s newly renovated sanctuary.

Members greet one another before the dedication service at Redeemer Lutheran Church, Balboa, Panama, in February. Bottom: Members receive the Sacrament.

A Tumultuous History

Redeemer was started in 1948 by a United States military chaplain who was serving personnel stationed in the area. In 1999, when the U.S. turned control of the Panama Canal over to the Panamanian government, the church building was also turned over by the LCMS to the newly formed national church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Panama.

But the country’s climate is hard on buildings, and the church body did not always have the resources necessary to maintain the church. Over the years, the building took a pounding from hurricanes, floods, termites and the tropical environment. Workers were in the process of putting a new roof on its parochial hall in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the government told them all to go home, leaving the hall exposed during the rainy season.

“There was no roof,” recalled the Rev. Dr. Arthur Rickman, an LCMS missionary to Panama and area facilitator for Colombia, Cuba, Mexico and Panama. “We get up to 90 inches of rain every year. There was flooding. Then a tree fell on the sanctuary and caused a gaping hole. … The damage was so severe.”

Partnership in Action

The LCMS Latin America and the Caribbean region uses the FORO model (foro means “forum” in Spanish) in 13 countries — including Panama — to bring together congregations, districts and other groups that are interested in a specific mission field. The FORO partners in Panama were instrumental in sending volunteer teams and helping to restore Redeemer’s sanctuary and parochial hall.

The Rev. Dr. Arthur Rickman (center), an LCMS missionary to Panama and area facilitator for Colombia, Cuba, Mexico and Panama, talks at the recent FORO.

“It’s a place where people with particular interests can come together around the table,” Rickman said. “Everybody comes together with the same purpose of supporting and helping a ministry move forward.”

The Panama FORO includes regular representation by three LCMS congregations in the United States, as well as a number of other groups that participate as they are able.

The most recent FORO meeting took place on Feb. 3. That morning, the Rev. Ted Krey, regional director for Latin America, reminded those gathered that their mission “is to support in this place the preaching of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins” and to guide every decision by asking, “Does this support that mission?”

Among those who first stepped up when LCMS missionaries began gathering partners to help save Redeemer was LCMS Disaster Response. The ministry gave a sizable grant to halt further damage and to help the congregation start to rebuild.

“Thanks to generous donations from individuals across the LCMS, we were able to provide approximately $250,000 in funding to the national church in Panama,” said LCMS Disaster Response Director Rev. Dr. Ross Johnson. “This financial support enabled the comprehensive rebuilding of Redeemer Lutheran Church, ensuring that it could continue to serve as a Lutheran worshiping presence in Panama City.”

LCMS Disaster Response Director Rev. Dr. Ross Johnson preaches during the service.

In the last two years, several short-term teams also have traveled to Panama through the LCMS Office of International Mission. These volunteers have helped in various ways, based on the expertise of the team members. Teams have assisted with repairs to the parochial hall and parsonage, torn out damaged building materials, sanded and repainted walls, and installed new cabinetry.

“In between the painting and sanding and restoration of the parochial hall, one team found time to restore the front door of the sanctuary,” Rickman said. “It’s been a true blessing.”

Worship and Fellowship

Although much work still remains to be done, the building has undergone an amazing transformation. The sanctuary’s roof and underlayment were replaced, the walls were treated for mold and given a fresh coat of paint, the windows were replaced, and the original pasta tile floor was restored to its former beauty. In addition, the whole second floor of the parochial hall has been outfitted with new plumbing and electrical systems.

Photos of the sanctuary (above) and walkway (below) before the renovation. (Photos by Johanna Heidorn)

On Christmas Eve, two dozen worshipers attended the service — the first time they had been able to worship in their sanctuary in four years.

Now Rickman is busy gathering people into the congregation once again. He has reached out to people who used to attend, and he and his family have canvassed the neighborhood. “I have seven children, and it’s humorous to see us walking along, passing out the flyers. [The residents] see the little ones and are much more open,” he said.

Rickman serves as sole pastor of Redeemer. His wife, Deaconess Eva Rickman, assists with deaconess formation, among other things. They hope to expand the ministry team at Redeemer, and a request has been submitted for an LCMS alliance missionary pastor from Brazil to join them.

Rickman calls Redeemer “a symbol of hope and perseverance” for the entire church in Panama. This was certainly reflected in the Feb. 4 dedication, which was a crowded, joyous event filled with worship and warm fellowship.

“I want to express gratitude for the partnership of the LCMS and of Disaster Response. We know there were a lot of people who gave sacrificially [to support this project],” Rickman said. “This is not only the preservation of a historic building. The church is more than just the building; it is the people. With the restoration work completed, we have the opportunity to revitalize the congregation, renew our presence in the Balboa area and serve as an example of God’s faithfulness to all our congregations in Panama.”

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Pray with Us

Father, You chasten through trial and suffering, and You heal through the proclamation of the Gospel. Grant, we pray, courage to the people of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Panama, that they might continue to be an example of hope and perseverance, ever remaining focused on Your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Megan K. Mertz

Managing editor of Lutherans Engage the World and chief copy editor for LCMS Communications.

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