Mission to Santiago

Rock Hill UMVIM team returns for annual trip to help Ceballos' ministry

By Richard Greene

Walking briskly on a dusty dirt path through knee-high brush, David Ceballos calls out, “Watch your step.” Two members of the Rock Hill District United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team stop just in time to avoid stepping into a six-inch trough carrying sewage away from the area.

As they approach a community of mostly squatters living in corrugated tin shanties, Ceballos pauses. Stretching out his arms, he says, “This is our congregation.” He’s referring to the people God has called him and his wife, Cindy, to minister to in the name of Jesus Christ.

“I thank and praise the Lord for all He is doing in their lives,” he adds. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

The trio’s journey ends at one small hut, where Augustina is sitting outside in a plastic chair, with her chubby son Oscar plopped on her lap. Several other siblings and friends quickly gather around. After pleasantries, Ceballos introduces the two UMVIM volunteers, who present Augustina and her family an Operation Christmas Children giftbox. They rip it open and squeal with delight as they start playing with the toys. Then the group huddles for prayer.

Augustina holds a special place in David and Cindy Ceballos’ heart. When they first met, she wouldn’t look up, or if she did, she’d stare blankly.

That demeanor changed after Oscar was born. The baby couldn’t nurse and was losing weight. Fears arose that he might die.

A licensed nurse, Cindy diagnosed that Augustina had become sick with an infection caused by excessive milk buildup. Cindy taught Augustina how to help Oscar nurse and treated the mother’s symptoms with hot compresses and antibiotics. This proved effective, and Oscar quickly gained weight.

Then this past February, Augustina came to a dental clinic that Cindy set up and had four infected teeth extracted. After Cindy drove her home, Augustina’s husband, who works at a local grocery, expressed his thanks. Then the woman kissed Cindy’s cheek and said “Thank you, sister.”

Augustina and her family are now among the some 40 local residents who regularly attend the church’s Sunday service.

The Ceballos’ ministry in Central Panama has been life-saving and life-giving, and the veteran United Methodist missionaries are grateful for the contributions made by the Rock Hill UMVIM team.

“We could not do what we do without the teams from the Rock Hill District,” David Ceballos explains. “Knowing these churches are invested in this ministry gives me comfort because I can count on their prayers and support to help us accomplish what we’re doing.”

Cindy Ceballos adds: “I’m always being asked by the Panamanians, ‘Why do they come and do what they do?’ My answer is simply, ‘Because the love of Christ compels them to do so.’”

For the past three springs, a dozen or so volunteers have joyously lugged suitcases filled with tools down to Panama and thrown them into the back of a bus, destined for Santiago, four hours away. There they’ve partnered with David and Cindy Ceballos to help them construct a new church building and minister to their growing congregation.

Next March 21-29, the group will again make that familiar trip from Charlotte to Panama. This year, though, will be extra special. Lord willing, after their weeklong mission, they will leave behind a fully functional facility—where church members can meet to worship and from which the Ceballos can spearhead a ministry of evangelism, discipleship and community health to a needy rural community.

The Rock Hill UMVIM team has reached out locally and regionally for years and tries to make one international trip a year. But they’ve never returned to the same site the following year, let alone for four consecutive years.

But the group has especially bonded with David and Cindy Ceballos, who previously served in Spain and Honduras. The United Methodist Church has had a longstanding presence in Panama City to the East and among the Nobe Indians in the West near Costa Rica, but not in the country’s Central Region. Three years ago, the Ceballos were asked to pioneer a new church in the area of Punta Delgadita, near Santiago.

The first year, UMVIM volunteers laid footings and the foundation. The next year walls went up. This past February, the group consisted of Ken Hudson, Jake Clark, Harold McDonald, Joe Sutton, Larry Beamguard, Allyson Reid, Elizabeth Smith, Richard Greene, Gregg Morris, Paul and Lisa McDaniel, and Larry and Lydia Williams. They poured concrete floors in the kitchen and storage room; stuccoed two interior walls; formed and poured several interior structural beams; placed and welded 20 steel roof beams; added three security panels in the existing property fence; and built a table and two cabinets to store supplies for future medical teams.

Reflecting on the Santiago mission, UMVIM leader Ken Hudson quotes Romans 12:2 that says: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.”

“We have seen the transformation of a vacant lot into a multi-purpose building,” he explains. “The lives impacted in this facility are also being transformed. This area holds so much potential for God’s love and grace to be shared.”

Several team members have made all three trips. Harold McDonald, active at Belair United Methodist Church in Lancaster, is one of them. “I really enjoyed starting this project and seeing the progress through the years,” McDonald says. “I think the people have seen the love of Christ in us.”

This ministry has also made a difference in those churches sending missioners. Randy Madsen, pastor of Grace Community Church in Fort Mill, notes that when participating members came back from the first trip, not only did they want to return, they took more members with them. “After David and Cindy came for our inaugural missions conference in 2013, things changed at Grace Community,” Madsen says. “Missions is not what you look like, it’s what you live like.”

Though she had served on a few UMVIM missions before, Allyson Reid, a member at Bethel United Methodist Church in Rock Hill, remembers how she felt traveling for the first time outside the U.S. “I was scared out of my mind,” she says. “But it was so incredible to even be a small part of helping the Santiago church. I’m so excited to go back and continue God’s work there.”

New volunteers are welcome for the 2015 trip. For more information, contact Ken Hudson by emailing [email protected].

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