Friday, August 24, 2007

Pura Vida: "Pure Life" in Costa Rica

Part 3

(Scroll down to read parts 1 & 2)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

There's this dog that lives next door to the mission that looks like the Budweiser dog. Brown and white with that flat face and pointy ears. He has his own dog house in the back corner of the yard and barks and wags his tail (mixed signals) when someone comes by.

Costa Rica is beautiful and tropical and lovely. The children are wide-eyed and eager to play, learn, and love. Our youth shared last night during debriefing how much the children have touched their hearts. The work is hard but fun and the mission of God and of God's church is so clearly happening here. I praise God that God is showing these youth what it means to be a Christian in mission in this world.

The other side of that for me (and for some of the youth and other adults who are alert) is the negative experience we have had with the staff. For me, a lot of it comes down to mission theology. Mission theology and Christian education are at the core of my personal identity, and this week I have felt trampled upon. There is a caution of care that seems to be lacking here. Why are these people really here? Some of our youth and adult leaders have said they think it could be for selfish reasons. Plus the fact that this is an American-run mission and that the Costa Ricans working here are the ones doing the grunt-work ("hired hands," almost) turns me off. The motivation and the model that I see being presented is very "us/them." An "Oh, let's pity these poor Costa Ricans" kind of mentality.

I am afraid of what this way of doing things is showing our youth. I hope they know better, or will at least process this week and eventually come to know better. I know that I and our other trip leaders have tried to be intentional in letting them know that there is another way to do mission--a way that is non-threatening, love-filled, and good. I really pray that God works in their lives to show them the true meaning of Christian living, service, and mission. I really pray that this week will positively affect their outlook and beliefs. I know some of them are struggling with some of these things already. I know that God is with all of them, and I pray that God works on their hearts for good.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Last night I stood in the rain at a public telephone outside a house store up the street and called my husband. I have been trying to reach him all week! It was good to hear his voice, but we didn't have much time to talk. It wasn't the place for serious conversation. It was mostly formalities, but it was still good to talk to him.

Today is the last day at the mission. At noon we will get on the bus and drive three hours to the Pacific Ocean. I am thankful to be able to leave this place and spend a few days relaxing and unwinding. It will be nice to sleep in a hotel, have nicer facilities, relax on the beach, go shopping, etc. We are also going on a canopy tour in the morning, which I am a little freaked out about but I hope will be really cool.

Yesterday I felt like the staff finally got us. This has been a rough week with them, but yesterday things finally seemed OK. Maybe they are as excited as we are to be coming to the end of their journey. We are their last group, and most of them will be returning to the U.S. this weekend.

I think last night was really hard for the youth. There was a lot of sharing and crying. It will be hard, and yet good, to go home. A lot of these young people are really struggling with a lot of things--not just about this experience, but about life. I hope they can leave this place with a different, helpful perspective.

Early Evening
Saturday, August 11, 2007

We travelled four hours by bus yesterday across Costa Rica to Manuel Antonio, a small beach resort town on the Pacific Ocean. It was interesting watching the countryside change from densely-populated Costa Rican mountain towns to miles of land filled with cows and grass where few people seemed to live, to mountainous coastal villages filled with resorts, condominiums, and Americans. In some ways, we could almost be in America in Manuel Antonio. Costa Ricans here are more like the hired help than the native population. In this part of Costa Rica, the U.S. Dollar and the white man rule.

It is still tropical and beautiful here. There is a sign on the bathroom wall warning us of a water shortage and reminding us that Costa Rica, in all its beauty, is still a Third World country. Is it? Things here are a lot better in a lot of ways than in Africa. I have been impressed by the many conveniences here--I have yet to have to pee in a hole in the ground! When I look around, I don't see Third World. I see people with many of the modern conveniences we have in America--cars, running water, electricity, good infrastructure. Costa Rica is somewhere between Africa and the U.S. in that regard. Maybe Second World?

Tourism is the biggest industry in Costa Rica, and in this part of the country it is definitely obvious. It is a shame that tourists (mostly Americans, I gather) are creating a new kind of "tourist colonialism" here. The dollar and American wants and needs seem to be taking over. At what cost? At whose expense? What is being lost? Is it really worth it? Does anybody other than me ever think about these things? What makes me the saddest is that most of the Americans (and other tourists) that come here don't seem to think about these things. They just want to spend their money and enjoy themselves, and they want the Costa Ricans to help them do it.

On the other hand, I am sure that it is tourist dollars that are making Costa Rica the well-developed nation that it is becoming. Is the loss worth the gain? Is that a fair trade-off?

Today we went on a canopy tour, which was really stressful for me! We basically "swung through the air with the greatest of ease" on zip-lines suspended between the trees high up in the canopy. Not exactly my cup of tea!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pura Vida: "Pure Life" in Costa Rica

Part 2

(Scroll down to read Part 1)

I should probably be working on this weekend's sermon instead of writing a blog (Yes, I am preaching this weekend. Those of you in the Lansdale area who are interested should join me at church this weekend. Click here for our worship times). But, here I am, thinking again about Costa Rica and what I can possibly say to make this experience as real for you as it was for me.

Before you continue reading, I think this blog may need a DISCLAIMER: I really struggled with whether or not I should publish some of the doubts and frustrations I had during my time in Costa Rica. I was torn between trying to be positive for the sake of the youth and my other travelling companions, and being honest about my experience. Let me be clear: my experience with the people of Costa Rica was outstanding. I am so glad that I got to be a part of their lives--they have touched mine forever. My experience with the staff of Pura Vida Missions upset me greatly, however. I struggle with trying to adequately explain those frustrations and disappointments without upsetting anyone who might have had a different experience. Some of my journal entries have been edited in an attempt to be honest without being offensive.

I figure this is my blog, and I want people to know that I am real. I am real Christian person with hopes and dreams and frustrations and challenges just like everybody else.

Here are some excerpts from my journal:

Sunday, August 5, 2007

It was interesting driving through the Costa Rican countryside and watching the reactions of our youth and young adults. Many of them have never been outside the U.S., or if they have, it was to Canada or Europe or some other place more... what? Modern? Easy? Comfortable? I looked over the shoulder of one of our girls as she was writing in her journal... "This place is so beautiful...."

Some things about Costa Rica seem so familiar to me, even though I've never been here before. Banana trees. Afternoon rainy-season thunderstorms. Cold showers.

I also recognize a few big differences. I never wanted to come here. I mean, I wanted to come here--it's not like they duct-taped me to my airplane seat and made me come. But even as I travelled to Africa for the first time, I knew somehow that it was where I belonged. I was waiting to be proven wrong. I wondered as we rode the bus to the Dulles Airport to fly to Amsterdam and then to Tanzania how I could possibly know. But, I did. And, I was right. I was never proven wrong.

Yesterday evening, however, as we drove to New York City and JFK Airport, I was waiting for something else. That feeling--that mysterious, magical sure-ness was missing. Instead, I was waiting to be shown that this place could be loved, too.

Now that I am here, I am sure that it can be loved. But it will never have the hold on me that Africa does. Costa Rica is the closest I have come to an environment and a culture anywhere similar to Africa's in four LONG years, and I know already this experience will not be the same. Africa has this enchanted hold on me like nothing else, nowhere else, ever can.

It is starting to rain. I am looking forward to meeting the children tomorrow.

Monday, August 6, 2007

It's a beautiful tropical morning. I had fresh local pineapple and bananas for breakfast. The sun is starting to peek through the remnants of last night's rain storms.

I had an interesting conversation with ____ last night about our hopes and fears for the youth on this trip. My personal beliefs about the mission of the church and what it means to be a "missionary" have already been challenged in the 24 hours we have been here. I think the staff at Pura Vida expects us to live out a different mission theology than the one I believe to be right and good. What I can say is that I am not here to "save the souls" of the children we will meet. God will take care of that. I am here to show the love of Christ to them through service to and relationship with them. We are not here to proselytise. We are not here to give "testimonies." We are here to serve, and through our service show the love of Christ to these children.

Pressure has also already been put on our youth to have some sort of "salvific" experience while they are here--that God will "transform their lives." That may happen for many of them. But, it also may not. Even those with the most open hearts may not feel God move or hear God speak or even witness God working. Sometimes our ways are not God's ways. We can't force a transformation in the children we are here to serve, and we can't force it on ourselves. We can't assume we know when or where it will happen.

My earnest prayer for all of us this week--the children we are serving, and our own youth, young adults, and adults--is that God does what God needs and wants to do in each of our lives, whatever that may be. God is here--for some reason I always see that more clearly when I am somewhere else. God will work. In God's way, in God's time.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

It is a beautiful Costa Rican morning. The sky is brilliantly blue, the sun is shining, and there are a few white, puffy, cottony clouds drifting by.

Yesterday after our service to the children we went into San Ramon to do some shopping, etc. I am surprised at the size of the town, the number of cars on the roads, the quality of the roads, and other things. There are public trash cans and people work hard to keep their town clean. There are functioning public telephones. There is electricity and clean water. There is free public education. This seems, in many ways, to be a nice place to live and to be from.

The children we are working with are awesome. They are eager to play and to love you and to be loved. They show God's love and light to us--even though that's what we are here to show them! They are full of joy and love and light. I know that these children are going to have a lasting effect on our youth.

The staff at Pura Vida has talked a lot since our arrival about "personal testimonies." This speaks again to the difficulties I am having in dealing with the mission theology of Pura Vida Missions. I want our youth to understand that the love and service that they are showing these Costa Rican children witnesses to the love of Christ for them more than any "personal testimony" ever could. Their service is a testimony.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Pura Vida: "Pure Life" in Costa Rica

Part 1

I just spent 8 wonderful days in Costa Rica learning what it means to live "Pura Vida:" pure life. Costa Ricans basically live by this saying, and as you travel the countryside in Costa Rica you see the slogan everywhere.

I was in Costa Rica with 27 youth, young adults, and adults from the Southeastern Pennsylvania (SEPA) Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). We travelled to Costa Rica to serve in Christ's name and to be witnesses to others about the great love that Jesus has for people all over the world. In the process, we learned a lot about each other, the people of Costa Rica, and the amazing ways that God works in our lives. While we were in Costa Rica we served with an organization called Pura Vida Missions. We taught Vacation Bible School to children through games, drama, crafts, and Bible stories.

You should understand that the 27 people from SEPA Synod who travelled together to Costa Rica last week didn't really know each other that well prior to getting on that plane at JFK. We had done some group-building and prep work prior to the trip, but as a synod-wide group, we represented 16 different Lutheran congregations from the Philadelphia area. So, while some people had friends on the trip, others didn't know anybody. This experience was not just a chance to teach Vacation Bible School to Costa Rican children, it was also a chance for an unlikely group of 27 Americans to be thrown together to work, live, and serve others. Kind of sounds like an MTV reality show, doesn't it?

As I am writing this blog, I am trying to figure out exactly what I can say to summarize the experiences we all shared in Costa Rica. A lot of the young people that I travelled with had never been outside of the U.S. before, or if they had, it had been to somewhere where the standard of living is similar to that of the U.S. I think the things that surprised the youth most were things such as cold showers (!), or lack of water, or children coming to VBS in bare feet. It was interesting and inspiring to see these young people grapple with the challenges of understanding life in a different part of the world. I am sure that now, a week after our return, they are still struggling with the ways in which this trip has changed the way they look at the world.

I remember the first time I went to Africa. I spent two weeks in Tanzania with a group from College Lutheran Church in Salem, Virginia. I came home and my whole vision of life and love and what it means to be human had changed... and it was as though I was the only one on the planet who knew it or who even cared. I would see people walk up the sidewalk in my college town talking on their cell phones, or watch people drive by in their cars, radios blaring, and all of a sudden it all seemed so inconsequential. It is pretty hard to explain to others unless they have experienced it, too. It is a hard lesson to learn when you begin to understand from experience that most people in the world do not have the luxuries that you do. That was both one of the hardest and most freeing summers of my entire life.

Now, I know from experience that Costa Rica is NO Tanzania--but I have a point of reference other than the U.S. from which to draw comparisons. For the youth and young adults (and even some of the adults, I gather) on my trip to Costa Rica, the hardships that life there presented seemed surprising and difficult to cope with. What I kept thinking was how fortunate the people in Costa Rica are to have running water, indoor plumbing, electricity (most of the time), and paved roads. Many people there drive cars. Costa Rica is a success story in many ways--the government, from what I understand, has worked hard to make sure that the people reap the financial benefits from its booming tourism industry. However, the standard of living is still lower than in the U.S., and our youth recognized that. I think they were really changed and challenged by that realization.

I am still processing this experience. As I try to do every time I travel, I kept a travel journal while I was in Costa Rica. I will share some of my thoughts from my journal in my next post.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Costa Rica or Bust

Costa Rica, here I come!

Tonight I am on my way to Costa Rica with twenty-seven youth, young adults, and adults from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Lutheran Church (ELCA). We are going to teach at Campamento de Ninos with an organization called Pura Vida Missions. Pura Vida Missions is a Christian, non-denominational servant organization that seeks "to transform lives by providing Christ-centered, life-changing mission adventures." Campamento de Ninos is Pura Vida's version of what we Americans would call Vacation Bible School.

When we are done with our week of service, we will be headed to the Pacific Ocean for a few days of sight-seeing, relaxing, and "beaching." I probably won't have access to a computer until I return, but I promise to keep my journal and post a blog or two (and maybe some pictures!) when I get back.