Finding God in Panama: The life of Efrain Alphonse
In Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture, Yale scholar Lamin Sanneh tells a fascinating story about a missionary who brought the Gospel to Indians called the Valiente ("brave") in Panama:
"For the Valiente Indians of Panama the name for God is a great mystery. When the missionary Efrain Alphonse tried to discover the name, he was taken to see an old medicine woman in the tropical forest of Bocas del Toro. The woman then engaged in a seance, and, in a trancelike state, she pronounced the sacred name of God. 'These men," she declared, 'are talking about Ngobo, the God of heaven and earth. Listen to them!' . . . Ngobo, falling from the lips of the old diviner, became equally the hallowed name for the God of the Scriptures of the Christians." (Translating the Message, 196)
Sanneh recognized that by recovering the secret indigenous name for God, Alophonse was bringing the tribe's own most sacred but hidden truth to the people at large:
"When the missionary Efrain Alphonse plunged into the Panamanian forest to discover at the secret shrine of an old diviner the true name for God, he was at the same time lifting God to the level of everyday usage. He had consummated a genuine religious development. At the time of his arrival, the shrine cult had moved out of daily life to the margins of settled living. The number of people competent to speak authoritatively about it had dwindled, leaving only a frail diviner to guard its fragile memory in a shadowy grove. The missionary entered the scene to rescue a suppressed religion, not, of course, in its entirety but in its positive tendencies. It is as if he had picked up the dying torch in a relay race and ignited it with common applause."
The missionary who accomplished this remarkable revival was himself a remarkable man. An African American, his father had worked on the Panama Canal. Showing a Methodist missionary around as a boy, he was asked to come teach Indians who spoke no Spanish. He ultimately supervised several schools and started churches. He developed a written language for the Valientes, learned both their language and Greek, and translated the New Testament.
What I've learned so far about this early 19th Century missionary is tantalizing, though I haven't been able to track down much more of the story so far.
Sometimes even cultures where the idea of God seems absent at first glance, hold, as it were, memories of Him in the most sacred places in their tradition.