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.