METETI, Panama — It’s not the bat hanging at our construction site or the squawking flock of parrots overhead or the howling monkeys nearby. It’s not even the discovery of the deadly baby Fer-de-lance viper killed in our camp the previous week that told me we weren’t home.
It was the fact that this was Sunday, and I’m not in my home church.
Instead, I am in my chapel tent (a hybrid of building and tent with canvas stretched over an aluminum frame atop a wooden floor), waiting for chapel to begin.
As congregants enter through the aluminum tent door, religious music provides ambience. Briefly, they stop in our vestibule, which is really a 2×4 plywood boot box where folks remove their muddy boots before stepping into our sanctuary.
They put their boots in the boot rack and, in stocking feet, they step onto the tarp floor my chaplain assistant swept clean three times yesterday. Some stop at the literature table to pick up a Bible or pour themselves a cup of coffee, but most quickly find a chair.
Our service begins at 10 a.m. with a young airman reading a Psalm and voicing a prayer: “God, thank you for letting us assemble here so far from home. Bless this service and teach us what you’d have us learn today. Amen.”
In the transitioning silences, I can tell the rigors of jungle living takes a toll on the congregation. One slaps at a mosquito, another scratches her chigger bites and one more nurses a peeling sunburn.
Our singing is led by our camp lawyer, a young Air Force Academy graduate, who teams with a guitar-playing airman. After a long week battling heat and rain, we sound fragile, but it’s still a soothing sound.
After three short songs, communion comes prepackaged with a wafer affixed to a cup of juice. I read the account of Jesus’ last supper, and we re-enact the supper by consuming the wafer and juice. One person coughs as the sour juice goes down the wrong way.
By prearrangement, a sergeant delivers the gospel reading before my sermon. As I stand behind the rickety table I use for a pulpit, I see nine service members waiting for me to give them something relevant. My sermon is short today, and we finish the service in about 35 minutes.
Here in the unfamiliar land of Southern Panama, I’m reminded of how I’d sometimes challenge my congregations to imagine what it might be like if they were suddenly transported to another time and space. “Do you think you’d live out your faith with the same fervency as you do now?” I’d ask.
“In other words, is your faith portable?”
With the service members meeting in our chapel tent that day, it seemed that, indeed, their faith was portable. From all across the United States, they brought their faith traditions to assemble in our chapel tent.
True, apart from those who know them, they could easily be using this deployment to impersonate a person of faith and morph into someone they can’t be at home. But since we have no litmus test for faith here, we just accept each person at their word that they’ve brought their faith with them.
Because at the end of the day, no matter how far we find ourselves from home, if we’ve brought our faith with us, it won’t matter how many strange sights we encounter. Even if those sights are bats, monkeys or snakes, we’ll still be home.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, speaker and author of “No Small Miracles.” He also serves as an Air National Guard chaplain and is certified in the Association of Professional Chaplains. You can call him at 321-549-2500;
e-mail him at [email protected]; visit his website at thechaplain.net; or write him at P.O. Box 19522, Sacramento, CA 95819.