If you missed last week’s column, then you’ll need to know that I’m deployed in Meteti (pronounced Met-et-tee), Panama.
I’m here with almost 200 service members as a part of a military humanitarian exercise called New Horizons. During our 90 days here, we’ll work 12-hour shifts six days a week to build improvements for four schools and two clinics.
We started the project work on June 21, but our military has been here a few months setting up the base camp inside a compound for the Panamanian frontier police. In some ways, we’re like the kids who’ve set up a tent in the backyard of a friend. Only we aren’t exactly in backyard tents. We are in two acres of tents, which house our dining facility, our headquarters, our supplies, and yes, even our showers.
The tents are fabricated by a company called Alaska Shelters and are aptly named, because we shiver under the air conditioning powered by our buzzing generators. The steady stream of air keeps the noise in the tent sounding much like the inside of a passenger plane at altitude.
Our chapel tent is about the size and shape of an old military Quonset hut. On our wooden floor, we’ve set up a pulpit and folding chairs for Sunday chapel services. Behind the pulpit, a blue tarp cordons off the sleeping area I share with my chaplain assistant, 30-year-old Staff Sgt. Christopher Fetters.
Bags are stuffed under cots, shower towels hang from a makeshift clothesline and malaria pills sit on the adjacent desk ready for a nightly dose.
Outside the tents, daily rain keeps the camp looking like a construction site flooded by a gully washer. Ruts are left where vehicles trudged through the two feet of mud. The thunder from some of the passing storms can sound like a hundred jets breaking the sound barrier.
Finding some quiet among this buzzing tent city is difficult, yet finding cool outside the tents is nearly impossible. Still, I manage to find some quiet in an overgrown area south of the camp where I look for birds, and I’m reminded of the 23rd Psalm that he leads me into green pastures.
Luckily, in the midst of all of this, hot food comes twice a day, “whether you’re hungry or not” cracks a balding master sergeant. At the construction sites, under the oppressively hot sun, we eat Meals, Ready-to-Eat, washed down with lukewarm Gatorade.
Gratefully, nightfall comes mercifully quick to the equator and brings a respite. Airmen, dirty from their day’s work, file into our chow tent and then off to the showers. Stomachs full and bodies bathed, 10 people file into our chapel tent, exhausted from their work, but hungry for a word of faith in a place so far from home.
I find myself feeling a bit intimidated by the fact that they’re sacrificing their only free time with the expectation that I will provide something encouraging. There’s no pushing a tired old sermon on this group, and they’ll not tolerate regurgitated platitudes.
Wisely, my assistant suggests that we allow the men to take turns bringing the study each night. There is no preaching; thoughts are shared and ideas exchanged.
We conclude by inviting each man to share the thing he is currently praying for. Most prayers are for their families left behind during this voluntary deployment. After prayers are done, they leave the tent with a few quiet handshakes and go back to their cot for the night.
And tomorrow, we’ll do it all over again.