When most of us think of Panama, we think of the Canal. Built 100 years ago at an enormous financial cost and with many lives lost, it remains one of the amazing wonders of Central America. The canal saves each ship that uses it almost 8,000 miles of sailing around the tip of South America. ‘Widening’ of the canal is underway to accommodate post-Panamax ships that are more and more dominating the shipping industry. These ships are of such enormous size and capacity that the existing canal and locks cannot accommodate them.
While most of us don’t think about the minority people groups in Panama, they exist. The Kuna are one of those people groups. The Kuna people number around 165,000 and their homeland is the San Blas Islands — coral atolls that hug the eastern section of Panama’s Caribbean Coast. In addition, there are several Kuna villages in the jungle areas of Panama’s interior. In recent years many Kuna have moved to Panama City to take advantage of work and educational opportunities.
The translation of the Kuna Scriptures began almost 40 years ago. A Kuna pastor, Lino Smith, asked for help to provide a New Testament for his people. Working alongside Pastor Lino, Keith and Wilma Forster began work amongst the Kuna. After the publication of the New Testament in 1995, the spiritual walk of believers significantly deepened. But the Kuna church wanted more! They wanted the whole Bible! So work on the Old Testament began.
The Kuna Bible — the 531st complete Bible (Old and New Testament) in the entire world — was dedicated in late September of 2014 in three locations. My wife, Dallas, and I attended the largest celebration held at Comunidad Apostólica Hosanna Church in Panama City. Celebrating with us were SIL Executive Director Freddy Boswell and his wife, Bekah, as well as several colleagues from Wycliffe USA.
It was an awe-inspiring moment when the Bible was brought into the auditorium. The ceremony, designed by Kuna Old Testament translators, reflected the way God’s people brought him offerings in the Old Testament. First came a man wearing a Jewish rabbi’s scarf and blowing on a shofar (a Jewish ram’s horn trumpet). Then came fourteenage boys carrying an elaborate box supported by poles balanced on their shoulders. In the box was the new Bible, which the Kuna were offering to God as a gift, asking him to use it for his glory. The pastor leading the event proclaimed, “The Word of the Lord has arrived in Kuna!” With thunderous applause, the audience of 3,200 welcomed the Bible!
At a dinner following the celebration, Keith, Wilma and Bob Gunn (Wycliffe USA member and pastor) gave glory to God for the completion of the Scriptures and reminded those in attendance that they were ALL Bible translators! All contributed to the Kuna Bible and this celebration! The Scriptures would not have been completed without the prayer, financial and administrative support from the whole team.
The following morning, Sunday, we attended a much smaller worship event held at Crossroads Bible Church, where Bob is associate pastor and his son Steve is pastor. Bob led the morning service honoring Keith and Wilma and four Kuna translators who did the heavy lifting on the translation of the Old Testament. Crossroads is proud, yet humble, to have had the privilege of supporting the Kuna translation project for 40 years. Outlining the history of the translation program, Bob mentioned that Keith and Wilma – as well as some in the congregation – were tempted on occasion to quit…but they didn’t. They persevered, and the Bible was completed.
Over the years, Crossroads has invested heavily in Bible translation for a number of people groups. As a reminder to the congregation, the church keeps copies of all the Scriptures they’ve helped produce in a glass-covered wooden cabinet. At the conclusion of the Sunday service, in unison, the four Kuna translators got up from their seats on the front row, went to the stand at the front of the church where the Kuna Bible rested, picked it up, carried it over to the cabinet, opened the glass cover, took out the Kuna New Testament that had lain there for 18 years, and replaced it with the just-completed whole Bible.
Many of us were in tears by this point. We recognized that we were witnessing something that had never existed before — the Word of God, the full counsel of God, available to the Kuna church. The work of translation is done; it is now in the hands of the Kuna church and the Holy Spirit of God…a good place to be.
Today there are about 30 Kuna churches on the San Blas Islands, 18 churches in and around Panama City, and several more churches scattered throughout Panama’s jungle mainland. God will be faithful to his Word — He always is. It is now firmly planted in the Kuna community and will accomplish all He wants it to accomplish.
You, too, are a vital part of the Bible translation ministry — a part of the greatest acceleration of the pace of Bible translation starts ever witnessed. Thank you for your efforts! Your persistent investments are building God’s kingdom here on earth.