Experience a profound kind of Panama Culture at this Panama City attraction
If you want to experience Panama culture firsthand, put this Panama City attraction on your list of places to visit, unusual it might be. Something profound takes place here three times a week, and a mere visitor probably never will know what it is. This Panama City attraction is not on any normal tourist itinerary, yet it may well provide one of the most thought-provoking Panama culture experiences of a visit to the Republic of Panama’s capital city.
Invited by a friend to attend his church one Sunday shortly after arriving here, I expected hymns, sermon from the pulpit, formality, a building architecture strongly colonial-Spanish. What I got was the opposite, a relaxed atmosphere where children were free to roam, yet did so quietly without obvious parental control; an atmosphere in which people could come or go without creating the slightest curiosity from others; a place with a cafeteria especially for the 1,000 children who eat there without charge every day; a place where genuine friendliness is palpable, even toward strangers.
The Panama City attraction to which I refer, the Tabernáculo de la Fe, is an architectural horror, resembling a large warehouse rather than a church. The unadorned inside of its roof towers some 60 or 70 feet above the congregation. It holds upwards of 5,000 people at Easter and Christmas, but almost any regular Sunday, Wednesday or Friday sees more than 2,000 in attendance.
The service has been running for an hour and I am uneasy that we are only just arriving. I need not have been; some 100 men, women and children mill around the entrance and lobby, coming, going or just talking.
Before even entering the building, ears are assaulted by sound louder than any I have ever heard other than a jet engine at close quarters. This sound bounces off ceramic-tiled floor and walls, propelled by more than a dozen industrial-strength loudspeakers. Wear earplugs if you decide to sample this piece of Panama culture.
The building, powered by the amplified voices of what I think of as leaders of the congregation, singer-dancers whose purpose seems at first to be to work the crowd into frenzy, is alive.
This Panama City attraction is also where total faith meets a journalist’s skepticism.
About half of the congregation is swaying, clapping, dancing in the aisles, in the large open space before the stage (there is no pulpit), standing at their seats, and in every available nook. The rhythm of the band, mostly percussion, is primeval, insistent, reminiscent of the foot-stomping ceremonies of tribal Africa.
Bodies litter the floor among the milling feet. People in the swirling mass surrounding them writhe, faces contorted in what appears to be agony. Tears stream down some of the faces. Some appear to be doing the chicken dance, others contort their bodies into what look to be impossible positions. Most of these people, probably around half of the congregation, ultimately fall down in what appears much like an epileptic seizure, eased to the floor by people who act as spotters and protectors.
There are certain telltale signs of impending loss of consciousness – though I am told later (and eventually discover for myself) that the individuals are quite conscious and have merely lost the ability to control the movement of their bodies.
Initially, what these skeptical eyes see at this Panama culture attraction is some form of exhibitionism. I look for signs of attention-seeking, of play-acting, of ‘performance’, but after three hours of careful scrutiny see none. Something I do not understand is definitely happening at this unique Panama culture hot spot.
Hypnotism, mass hypnotism, is an obvious conclusion, and perhaps that is close to the truth in some form. The foundation is powerful religious belief. Beyond that is the insistent rhythm, repeated at times in the sermon’s delivery. It defies the feet to remain still. If you like to dance, this is one Panama culture spot you don't want to miss. The rhythm insinuates the body and the mind. But why does it exist? Is it simply part of an elaborate scheme to capture the minds and the hearts of the people?
And even if that’s all it is, is that so wrong if the result is positive?
Reverend Manuel Ruiz, the charismatic leader, is an economist and was for many years Panama’s ambassador to Guatemala. He is a powerful speaker, in both volume and message, and holds the congregation’s rapt and enthusiastic attention.
"He tells us what we already know, about the shortcomings we have. He scolds us and we know he is right, so we applaud him for reminding us," explained one leader of the church, a young mother of three who frequently leads the congregation in song and dance for 40 minutes without stopping.
What goes on behind the massive walls of this unusual Panama City attraction? After several visits, I still don’t know. And if I did, I’m not sure that I would be able to explain it. But there is something, and it is real.
I could not allow this story to become personal until I had completed my initial observations. But once that was done, I knew that finding answers would mean becoming involved, although I knew not at what level or the extent of that involvement.
The investigation continues, though I doubt I am much closer to an understanding. As members would say, I have "been visited by the Spirit."
Something profound takes place here, and as far as I can determine it is real.
On the night I completed the first phase of my investigation, the pastor touched me gently on the head and I experienced what others were experiencing when, for want of a better phrase, they collapsed. I felt total relaxation, but did not lose consciousness. I knew at all times what was happening, but could not control my body.
I was fully aware of the broad smile on my face; I now had a measure of proof that what I had been seeing in this Panama City attraction was not a sham, and I welcomed that knowledge. I wanted to know; I wanted to believe, and this desire made me susceptible. I understood that too.
Though I cannot explain the mechanics, I know I was not hypnotized at that time. I had trouble for the remainder of the evening understanding exactly what had happened, but somehow I felt special, awed. I felt as though I had been admitted as a member to a special family. Eventually I decided it did not matter how it had happened or why. Too much analysis can destroy religious belief; that’s why they call it faith. All that mattered was that it had happened, and I knew that there was far more to come. Somehow I knew what I had experienced was merely the tip of the iceberg, and for me this was true Panama culture.
But I also understand that the 'collapsing', the dancing that is above and beyond mere energetic toe-tapping, is beyond personal control yet is possibly a manifestation of self-hypnosis. But I am not even sure of that. Members of the church say that the Spirit enters their bodies.
On another night, I wanted to be – for want of a better expression – 'possessed by God'. As the rhythm of the drums and the singing got to me, I started to dance in up-tight British-reared fashion, conservatively yet with more energy than when I had first visited the church.
I closed my eyes and prayed for some kind of sign that would show me conclusively that what I was experiencing was not some level of mass hysteria. The singing, the band, the volume of delivery became one loud noise that blotted everything else out and left only the desire. I was aware that my entire body was dancing with increasing abandon. I was aware completely of what my body was doing, but I could not control it…and nor did I care.
At one stage, I was aware that my hands, down by my sides this time, were rotating very rapidly, and that I had not yet seen this type of movement in anyone else. I also came to realize when I was about to collapse: my dancing motions changed to become a back and forth motion powered by my knees (my feet stayed on the floor at all times) so that any greater movement and I would have been jackknifing. Soon after, I fell to the floor, still fully conscious, even on one occasion able to roll over, but powerless to get up, conscious yet unconscious.
This was something my analytical brain (at least, I think that’s what it was) wanted. I wanted to know what others were experiencing spontaneously. I wanted to believe that what I had seen going on around me was absolutely real.
Another thing happened that night: The pastor asked for all those in pain to come forward. Aware of my multiple back surgeries, a man who I had befriended asked if I was in pain. I had been standing for a long time, so I had some discomfort in the one of the back muscles that had been cut so often. I admitted as much, but assured him it was nothing. He almost dragged me forward to join a small group of people. I was embarrassed; my trouble was so minor I felt fraudulent for even being there.
A prayer was said for the group, and without Spanish I knew only the intent. When it ended, the pain was ended and did not return. The pain that had been with me since the last surgery 15 months previously is still absent more than a year after it disappeared that night.
I believe I understand more of the mechanics of this Panama culture attraction now, and I believe that my desire was necessary for what became a form of self-hypnosis. But none of that matters. What I truly wanted in my life was a much deeper relationship with God. And I want to be a better person because of that. I think the journey has just begun.
And if that isn’t a glimpse into Panama culture, I don’t know what is!
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