When asked why I chose to serve in the Republic of Panama as a missionary pastor, I often reply, “I didn’t choose Panama. Panama chose me!” My Christian formation in the Canterbury United Methodist Church UMYF under the guidance of Youth Minister Leon Precise in the early and mid 1970’s instilled in me a desire to serve “the least of these.” With the idea of becoming a medical missionary, I began premed studies at Davidson College in the Fall of 1977, but my experiences there led me in another direction. My exposure to Religion professors Dr. Max Polly and Dr. David Kaylor made it clear to me that a Religion major was the only choice for me. My participation in the Davidson Christian Fellowship and my volunteer work with the youth of the Davidson United Methodist Church helped to clarify my vocational direction. I would be a pastor, not a doctor. After graduating from Davidson in May of 1981, I headed for the Candler School of Theology of Emory University. But during the summer between college and seminary, I began work as the Youth Minister of the Bright Star United Methodist Church of Douglasville, Georgia where I would serve throughout my years in Seminary.
During the summers after my first and second years at Candler, I participated in two UMVIM (United Methodist Volunteers in Mission) trips to Mexico with a team from the Douglasville First United Methodist Church. The experiences on those trips confirmed my sense of calling to a cross-cultural mission. The fact that years before, when I was in sixth grade, I had chosen to study Spanish is one of many small details in which in hindsight I have seen the hand of God. Although my Spanish was both rusty and rudimentary, I was thrilled to be able to overcome the language barrier and communicate with the brothers and sisters I met there in Mexico. At the beginning of my last year of seminary, I applied to the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM), expressing my willingness to serve as a missionary pastor. My first choice was El Salvador or Nicaragua followed by any other location in Central America, South America or even a Portuguese speaking country like Brazil.
Much to my disappointment, by the end of the school year I had heard nothing definite from the GBGM, but still convinced of my calling, I requested that the Bishop of my Annual Conference (North Alabama) appoint me not to a church back in Alabama but instead to the Latin American Biblical Seminary in San Jose, Costa Rica. There I could further explore the idea of service in Latin America, improve my Spanish and knowledge of the culture and keep my options open if something came up at GBGM. The five months I spent in San Jose provided me with a wealth of experiences and contacts that have served me to this day. During that time, my mother, Jackie Thompson, came for a visit and arranged for a five day tour of Panama as a part of that trip. That was my first experience of Panama. I distinctly remember that wall of humid tropical heat that hit me when we came out of the doors of the Tocumen International Airport. Of course I had no way of knowing that I would soon be back…and for quite a long stay.
Early in 1985 I was called to GBGM headquarters in New York City for an interview with Nora Boots. When she asked me what I thought about Panama, I promptly replied, “It’s hot.” Would I be willing to serve there for a three year term as a missionary pastor? No doubt about it! Back in Birmingham, one day as I was making preparations to leave, I looked up at one of my bedroom walls and was struck by what I saw. A small cloth map of the Republic of Panama hung there as it has all my life, a gift from my Godparents Peggy and Bobby K. Smith who went to Panama with the U. S. Army shortly after I was born. I was less than a year old when I received that gift. The map was such a part of the decor of the room that it just kind of blended in. But suddenly it stood out with unmistakable clarity. I had not chosen Panama. Panama chose me!
Rhett Thompson is a missionary in Panama.
His website is: www.funk4.com/rhett