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April-May 2016


Without Borders


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By Steve and Judy Lytle

One year. Three hundred sixty-five days. Twelve months. It can seem like an eternity when enduring a major illness, treading the deep waters of grief, or struggling with separation from those you love. Or, it can seem to fly by quickly if you are busy, or enjoying what you do, or getting older.

It was just over a year ago, January 11, 2015, when Free Will Baptist International Missions took an historic, incredible step—turning over the work in Panama to the national church after 53 years of missionary involvement and presence. “Passing the baton” it was called. How has it gone?

The president of the Panamanian Association of Free Will Baptist Churches, Carlos Denis, stated, “In general, the work has remained steady, and in some cases is growing.”



First FWB Church in Panama City had been without a pastor since June 2014, when Rolando and Keila Delgado and their children immigrated to the United States. But this past fall, the church called 2013 Chame seminary graduate Edwin Escudero as their pastor. Edwin and his wife Jenifer now lead the oldest Free Will Baptist church in the country.

The Las Tablas and Parita congregations are in the section of Panama most resistant to the gospel. Las Tablas called Efrain Gonzalez as pastor. Efrain graduated from the Bible institute in 2013, and the church is experiencing growth, conversions, and baptisms. Cirilo Mendoza, pastor of the Good News Church in Chitré, has been helping at Parita to provide some stability. While it has added
significantly to his responsibilities, he does it gladly to help this struggling congregation.


Other churches and missions continually reach out to their communities in many different ways. Some teach a Bible class in a neighborhood public school. Others hold regular services in nursing homes. Summer months are filled with vacation Bible schools and camps. God is proclaimed throughout the year through special services, mission conferences, musical events, and many other things.

The Chame seminary (Bible institute) had ten students in 2015. Two graduated in November. One is due to graduate in 2016, and seven will graduate in 2017. Six new students have enrolled for 2016, yielding a student body of 14—the largest class ever!



The Bible institute continues to train pastors, missionaries, and Christian workers. The first year under Panamanian leadership has gone well, though not without challenges. The school has a strong enrollment, and a group of students, faculty, and staff committed to the task. Academic dean and acting president Myrna Ortiz, retired from the Panama Department of Education after more than 30 years’ experience. She recently sent a list of more than 16 projects the school is hoping to tackle during the next few years. She also shared these thoughts:

“Several years ago, the idea of having our own seminary to train, develop, and prepare Christian leaders seemed to be distant and impossible to accomplish.

Nevertheless, God made it possible and in 2008, after many struggles and difficulties, the school opened with three students. Today, after seven years of operation, a total of 33 students from around the country have enrolled in the school. To that, we may add the extension courses that meet in three separate locations: Chitré, Bethania, and Chame. May the Lord add to that number those who will prepare to serve Him!

In the formation and growth process, God has used brothers of different nationalities (North Americans, Cubans), which has allowed the transition of the seminary to Panamanian hands. Today, the running of the school remains a challenge that goes far beyond just taking care of business and keeping it operational. If 2015 was a time of learning, of trials, of crying out to God for wisdom and guidance, it has served to enable us to visualize the seminary as a cross-cultural training center for Christian workers, so that the redemptive work of our Lord Jesus Christ might be preached in Panama and the rest of the world. To achieve this, we hope to open a webpage to present the activities of the seminary (conferences, reflections, study of specific topics, videos, etc.), and to organize and carry out workshops, evangelistic outreaches, social work, among other objectives.”

Those of us who have been associated with the work in Panama for many years feel confident about the future. Why is this so? First, we have a shared history—in some cases almost 40 years—and have “fought the battle” together. We have real confidence in our brothers and sisters.

The Church in Panama is outwardly focused. It is in their DNA to plant new churches. Reaching adjacent neighborhoods, nearby towns, and even distant provinces remains their passion. Carlos Urbina, recently retired from a long career with the Smithsonian Institute in Panama, became a new church planter about four years ago. Every week he drives six hours to Tolé to preach and help start a church. “Our seminary students have been involved in some of the mission works, such as Parita, Tolé, and Penonomé,” according to Carlos Denis.

An internal legacy is at work. They, too, are “passing the baton,” from older to younger leadership. This year, Gabriel Pérez retired. He is the oldest pastor in Panama and approaching age 70. But God is raising up younger men.

Is it all perfect? Of course not! When God is at work, Satan does his best to destroy by creating church conflicts, mistrust, sin in the lives of believers, and other problems. But through difficulties, the Panamanian Church has remained sound and faithful. A test of maturity is how one handles problems and conflicts. In 2015, the Panamanian Association of Free Will Baptists passed the test.

We here in the U.S. will continue to partner with the Panamanian Church. International Missions established the “Panama Ministry Fund” to enable financial partnership with Panama. The seminary and church planters benefit from this fund. Each year, an E-TEAM travels to Panama to serve. Pastors and church groups take trips to preach, build, paint, repair, and teach. A number of us are on call to teach modular courses at the Bible institute once or twice a year.

The work is in their hands—good hands. Above all, it’s in God’s hand.


About the Writer: Judy Lytle and her husband Steve served as missionaries to Panama from 1977-2015. Learn more about ministry in Panama at



©2016 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists