- Around 30 Seventh-day Adventists, which included 17 preteens and teens, had been stuck at an oceanside compound in Las Lajas, Panama.
- Thousands of people in protest have been protesting high fuel prices, marching in the capital and blocking the Pan-American Highway.
- A Chesapeake Conference statement stressed that “all participants are safe and away from active protest sites.”
18 July 2022 | An Adventist youth mission group from the United States that had traveled to Panama is safe and making arrangements to travel home after political unrest in the Central American country left them stranded for more than a week, reported several news outlets.
Around 30 Seventh-day Adventists, which included 17 preteens and teens, had been stuck at an oceanside compound in Las Lajas, on the southwest coast near the Costa Rican border, since July 7, 2022. The volunteers had traveled to Panama to build a school in the mountains nearby, according to the Washington Post and the Washington Times.
The group came from four congregations in Maryland, U.S.: New Hope Church in Fulton; the Atholton Seventh-day Adventist Church in Columbia; Spencerville Church in Silver Spring, and the Frederick Adventist Church.
The group was unable to travel to the school site because protests in Panama had paralyzed ground transportation. Conference and trip leaders had concluded that “it was unwise to travel to the construction site to complete the project given the uncertain situation,” read a statement from the Chesapeake Conference.
“We’re perfect targets. It’s not safe. We have all these kids,” chaperone Lisa Shepard, who works for a children’s hospital, reportedly said. Her 17-year-old daughter was with her, according to the London Daily Post.
The Washington Post reported that when the mission group first arrived, they hit roadblocks that delayed them for a few hours. Shepard said in a text to a friend that “at the time we were unaware of the gravity of the situation.”
For the past week, thousands of Panamanians have been marching in the capital and in cities across the country to express their anger over skyrocketing fuel prices, the Associated Press (AP) reported. Members of Indigenous groups from the area where the church group is stuck are among the country’s most impoverished people, and they joined protesting teachers and workers from Panama’s powerful construction industry as the unrest grew, the Washington Post reported.
Protesters blocked the Pan-American Highway, and some buses that tried to cross roadblocks were damaged by protesters, the AP said. Shepard said the driver who was supposed to take the youth to and from volunteering each day had been stuck on the roadside by the blockade for a week, reported the Washington Post.
At the compound, the power went off for a while on July 15, 2022, Shepard said, but the compound’s owners were “using their underground network” to secure food for the youth group. She said chaperones have tried to keep the teens’ spirits up and not worry them.
The Chesapeake Conference statement stressed that “all participants are safe and away from active protest sites.”
The conference also said that the mission group was able to make it through the protest blockade during a brief window during the early morning of July 16, 2022, and were now safe at a secure location where they were making flight arrangements to travel home.
The group was scheduled to return on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, and “they could still make it home” by then, although “it could take a little bit of time” for travel arrangements to be made, said Evan Knott, director of communications for the Chesapeake Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, to the Washington Times.
Photo: The Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church Panama Mission Trip Team 2022 is seen in this Facebook video screenshot. The team was part of a mission group that was stranded in Panama due to protests that paralyzed ground transportation in the Central American country. However, the participants are safe and making arrangements to come home, according to a church statement. Photo via Frederick church Facebook page.)