Iglesia Evangélica Unida Hermanos Menonitas de Panamá
The indigenous people known as the Choco Indians live along the rivers of the dense tropical rain forest on both sides of the border between Colombia and Panama. They are composed of two distinct language groups, the majority being Embera and the minority, Wounaan. The Wounaan were first contacted by Mennonite Brethren missionaries in the Colombian Choco in the late 1940s. Then in 1956, anthropologist Jacob Loewen began work among the Embera-speaking group in Panama. Literacy work was the principal approach in those early years, and soon many Wounaan, recently arrived from Colombia, were included in the work as well.
These first Christians gathered into villages, and congregations with indigenous leadership were formed. Some of the adults completed their primary education and became literacy promoters as well as church leaders. This led to a request for schools for their children, and these were provided in time by the government of Panama in most villages. In 1971, the first five congregations were officially organized into the Iglesia Evangélica Unida Hermanos Menonitas de Panamá (United Evangelical Church: Mennonite Brethren). In 1985, the church board requested official recognition as a Mennonite Brethren conference.
Since 1971, with assistance from Mennonite Brethren Board of Missions and Services, the work has spread to some 25 of the 60 Embera and Wounaan villages in the eastern jungles of Panama. More than 1,000 have been baptized over the years but, being a highly mobile people, only some 600 Choco people are active members today in 15 congregations. Ambitious outreach plans by indigenous evangelists, agriculturalists, and health workers call for reaching all 60 villages through United Campaigns by 1990.
With its beginnings in a literacy program, the United Evangelical Church has always had a concern for an integral presentation of the gospel. Since 1978, Mennonite Brethren Board of Missions and Services has assisted the national church with a comprehensive development project. This included the construction of two cultural centers for students, one in the capital, Panama City, and the other in the jungle town of Yaviza. These centers, combined with scholarship assistance, allowed many young Embera and Wounaan people to complete secondary school. More than 130 had also completed teacher training by 1987 and some were enrolled in university studies. A program of agricultural demonstration farms and village public health promotion has also been part of the project.
Church leadership has always been in the hands of the Indians themselves, while Mennonite Brethren missionaries have served as advisors and resource persons. By 1987 five men had graduated from the Baptist seminary in Panama City. But with the church growing, many more village congregational leaders were needed. Two village Bible schools, one for each language group, were begun in the village of Canaan and Caleta in 1985. These should provide the needed church leaders for the future.
In 2009 the Iglesia Evangélica Unida Hermanos Menonitas de Panamá had 537 members in 13 congregations, a decrease from 750 members reported in 2003.
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Mennonite World Conference. "MWC - 2003 Caribbean, Central & South America Mennonite & Brethren in Christ Churches." Accessed 21 February 2006. <http://www.mwc-cmm.org/Directory/carcsam.html>.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 417-418. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Ens, Harold. "Iglesia Evangélica Unida Hermanos Menonitas de Panamá." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. November 2010. Web. 18 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/I4429.html.
APA style: Ens, Harold. (November 2010). Iglesia Evangélica Unida Hermanos Menonitas de Panamá. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/I4429.html.