Facing construction projects that turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated, there were times when we wondered if we would complete them. This thought was unsettling to all of us, especially since we know that there are no more teams coming to Pura Vida this year. Not to be discouraged, the men continued digging through mud so thick that it dried like cement on the bottom of their boots. The other team, having left the house on the first day with one side totally exposed and looking like a child’s doll house, worked feverishly to ensure that the only thing undone at week’s end was the installation of windows. Not only was the work at both homes completed, but additional indoor painting was done at one and a last minute plumbing issue was resolved at the other. As the team of the smaller house departed on the last day, Jennifer said farewell through tears telling them that this had just been a dream come true. For us, it was an answer to prayer.
On our final day, we saw the kids of Volio in the field and were delighted that the small group of challenging boys returned for our Bible study. As a matter of fact, they were among the first to arrive. Did they get rambunctious at times? Yes. Did we have to speak to them a bit more perhaps than some other kids? Maybe. But as two of the boys did their coloring while quite literally laying in Vicki’s lap, it was so clear that they just wanted to be loved. And isn’t that what we are here for?
So our week of work has come to an end. We came with all kinds of emotions — anxious, unsettled, excited, anticipating — yet also grieving and hurting for our friends at El Ayudante. We saw from the beginning that things here would be different from what we were used to, and it was a challenge for us to break the mold that we had so comfortably settled into. For me, I thought back to the moment when the decision was made that we would definitely not be returning to Nicaragua this year. Perhaps there were some who decided not to come with us for just that reason — because the destination had changed. My reaction at the time was that if I only wanted to serve at the destination of my choosing, then perhaps I should reexamine what my motives were for going on a mission trip. Was I just going because I wanted to go? Or was I going because God had called me? Clearly, I had to remind myself of that this week.
Sometimes it’s easy to let our own thoughts crowd our mind making it too noisy for us to hear what God is saying. He speaks in the silences — if we are never silent, how can we hear Him? So after a rocky beginning, I made a conscious effort to stop and ask God to show me what he wanted me to see this week. God has already drawn the outline, I just needed to listen to him and follow His direction to fill in the picture.
What we found was that this was not a destination but a journey, one we took together as a team. And that what made it work was not the place you served, but the team with whom you served. And the first thing we had to learn was to “Latin up!” Having learned this expression, meaning to just go with the flow, we used it many times this week as, time and again, we had to adjust, be flexible and accept the differences.
Working as a team didn’t just happen on the job sites. We were always there to help one another. We were assigned to groups to wash dishes after each meal, but if someone was unable to help their team, someone else stepped in. Preparing for VBS each day took time, but it took a team to do so — each of us ensuring that we all had whatever was needed for that day. The mountainous topography here made for some steep walks, but there was always someone by your side to lend a hand. And although we might sneak off somewhere for some solitary time, we were never alone.
We can see God all around us, from the majesty of the pounding waterfall, to the beauty of the lush mountainsides. As we depart the mission house on roads that could rival any first-rate roller coaster with their twists and turns, we end our journey in a hotel on the side of a volcano. The landscaping that God has carved all around us is breathtakingly beautiful. As you walk the grounds, you can see for many miles. Facing toward the north we can see a ridge of mountains, on the other side of which is Nicaragua. We will continue to pray for our friends there and the country that so many of us love. But we now also know the beauty on this side of that string of mountains, and whether we return there or here is not up to us. Where He calls, we will follow.
More Than Just Food
All of our time here is not spent in work. We spend a lot of time talking, laughing and getting to know each other and the many talents that we each possess. While playing games, we have discovered who among us can give the most creative clues and I’m sure none of us will ever think of the Grand Tetons the same way again. A trip to town for some of us meant ice cream and strolling through souvenir shops, while one of us found his way to a store — well, actually, four stores — to buy supplies to share his talents at making fruit cobblers with us. At the end of many long days, some of us were treated to a yoga class while on others nights there was a dance lesson. All of this helped to bond us together as a team, one made of 15 missionaries who love and care for each other — as Jesus required.
The value of fixing a home so that the mold is gone or the water doesn’t enter has a long-lasting value that you can see. And in teaching young children, even if they only internalize a small portion of our lesson, we know we are planting seeds of faith in them that, through their family, the local church, and other mission groups, will continue to grow. But there was one more piece to our work this week — distributing food bags to local families. These bags consisted of such basics as flour, sugar, eggs and milk — things we all take for granted in our homes. On mission trips in the past, we have done this as well, but I often wonder if it’s enough — are we really making a difference? A bag of food is good for today — but what about tomorrow and the next day? This question was answered last night.
Pura Vida does so much more than just repair homes — it repairs lives. Food bags are just one small part of this mission. Their sponsorship program gives children, and by extension, their families, a chance to succeed in life. Through this program, children receive all the supplies they need in order to remain in school past the sixth grade. The families are provided with financial guidance and are also expected to participate in a bi-weekly discipleship program. The families whose homes we worked on this week are part of this discipleship program as are the families with whom we shared food.
The original plan had us going out to the homes to distribute these bags of food, but for a variety of reasons this plan became untenable. To ensure that this much-needed food got to the families that needed it, it was decided that the families would come to us last evening after dinner. Getting to us was not easy, but this was important to them. They didn’t live right in this neighborhood, so most of them came by bus — some needed to take more than one — with their children in tow. We each had a short time to speak with one of the families while presenting them this gift of food, after which we joined hands surrounding them in a circle of Christ’s love. We prayed for them and lifted them up into God’s care, promising to keep them in our prayers even when we leave here.
We shared a worship service and, afterwards, heard from them as they shared their gratitude for our presence, and the support that we give through Pura Vida to enhance their lives. They thanked us for putting our personal priorities aside, making whatever sacrifice it took for us to be here. One woman, moved to tears, told us how people like us and the support we give has changed her family’s life and given them a real chance at success. She also shared afterwards with some of us the plans her children have for the future, a future they would not have had without Pura Vida. It wasn’t the food in the bag so much as the food for the soul that we are sharing — the carrying on of Christ’s work in the world — that makes the difference. The food will eventually be gone, but they will know that they have sisters and brothers in Christ who will carry them in our hearts. That has to make a difference.
There was a moment today when God really made his presence known. The Bible study team was already into our lesson when a group of boys arrived on their bicycles. Older than most of the other kids, they swaggered in with a bit of an attitude wanting to join us. There was some rumbling that these kids were the “bad kids” and perhaps too old for our lesson. But it didn’t feel right to exclude them. So we welcomed them in, prepared to ask them to leave if they became disruptive.
When they arrived we were in the middle of making a piece of the Armour of God, the shield. This elementary craft included simply coloring the shield and cutting it out, and they sat right down and joined in. Once they had shields in hand, they jumped back on their bikes and departed, but a short while later they were back — fully engaged — with the oldest among them setting the example for how to behave, and leading the others. One of the boys was less than polite when trying to get my attention at one point, so I gently rebuked him, showed him my name-tag, and told him he could call me by name next time. During the last few minutes with this group he again needed assistance, came up to me and called me by name — and remembered with no prompting to thank me when we were done. Without a doubt, he was right where God wanted him to be.
The Armor of God
As has always been our custom on our adult mission trips, we come with a well-prepared week of Bible lessons for children. We are given guidelines regarding the facility in which we might be working, the number of children who will probably attend, and the approximate timeframe in which we will be working. We knew before we came that we would be doing lessons in two very different locations. In the mornings we would be doing our lesson on a soccer field while in the afternoon we would be inside the church we attended on Sunday. The pivotal point here is that we came with the knowledge that one of our lessons each day would be outside — subject to whatever the day’s weather would be (and, of course, like good travelers, we had checked the weather forecast prior to leaving home and knew rain was predicted every day we would be here). This caused us much consternation prior to arriving, however when we voiced these concerns to the staff here, we were told, “Don’t worry! You will be at the field in the morning, and it never rains in the morning!”
We were also told that, despite the fact that they had given us numbers to work with, a small fly in the ointment had developed. The teachers here have gone out on strike, leaving the potential of many more kids than anticipated. Not feeling as certain of our abilities to multiply our supplies as Jesus had been with the loaves and fishes, we added this to our list of items of concern. Nevertheless, we set out each day determined that one way or another, things would go just fine. Having armed ourselves with our own concerns, our first visit to both locations presented the same problem — one that had never entered our discussions — we did not have a key to access either location. Rest assured, we were able to do both of our lessons, but not necessarily because keys were found.
At the first location, the church, the possessor of the keys was located — we just had to wait for them to arrive. In typical “go with the flow” style, we improvised games outside until said key arrived. This was made easy by prior planning — balls for the older boys and a parachute for the smaller kids. By the time the key arrived, the kids had spent a bit of their energy making them just a bit more willing to sit and listen. There was one little boy who perhaps expended himself to capacity, as shortly after we got inside, he curled up on Janny’s lap and slept the entire time. Fortunately, he lived right next door to the church, so as we left for the day Janny simply delivered him, still sleeping, home to his mother.
At our second location, the soccer field, the possessor of the keys was also located. Unfortunately, his “location” was his work, quite a distance away. Now we had a challenge — we have prepared missionaries, a lesson plan, and children, but no place to teach. A suggestion was made that there was a nearby field — just an open field — to which we could relocate for the day. Ready to do whatever was necessary, we headed in that direction. Unfortunately, reaching the field required an uphill climb on a narrow path that didn’t look inviting to any of us. There was, however, a flat, dirt area that appeared much more easily accessible. What we hadn’t considered was that, although it was not raining (it was morning, after all), it HAD rained the night before. Unswayed by the fact that all of us were slipping and sliding on muddy ground to get there, we headed in that direction, hoping that the dirt area was a just that — dirt! It took only one wrong step to find yourself on the ground, which is just what happened to Chib. We were committed, and willing to give it a go anyway, when our interpreter informed us that one of the women in the neighborhood had seen our plight and kindly offered to open her garage for us to use. Again, knowing that we would have somehow made it work, God put a solution right in our hands, so off to the garage we went.
With the exception of the fact that we have yet to have a lesson where there is not also at least one dog in the midst of things, our lessons were just as one would expect at home. These children are just like our kids — eager to learn, silly, noisy, and needing to be reined in every once in a while. But they participated with eagerness and really seemed to enjoy both the games and the crafts that we provided to share with them the importance of relying on God to keep yourself safe from the temptations of evil. We are sharing love and forming bonds with the kids and it is easy to see that saying goodbye at the end of the week will be hard. On our drive back to the mission house this evening, we saw a number of them walking home, proudly wearing their helmets and shields, made of nothing more than paper. We hope that means that we are having a positive impact on them. And so far it has not rained in the morning, and we have had more than enough supplies for all the kids who showed up.
Drying Up Houses
Day 3: Nov. 5, 2018
Our construction volunteers have been working on two projects this week, and on both of them their guidance and suggestions have led to an effective solution to the problems at hand. The first home was a 20’ by 30’ structure occupied by a young couple and their two small boys. The home with such limited square footage was divided into two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. The kitchen contained a table large enough for the family to gather around, making it a tight squeeze. As is typical here, there is a front porch with a few rocking chairs, enclosed with iron bars which the homeowner securely locked just as soon as our workers were inside to guard what little they possessed. What is sorely lacking in this home, besides adequate living space was any place for storage, a role filled by one side of this porch. It was this lack of storage space that explains why their Christmas tree remained up all year long. Squeezed in the corner, it proudly stands between a piece of furniture and the wall, complete with a creche made of sand, shells and garland. If they were to take it down, they would have no place to store it, so it stays there all year. Seeing this beauty prompted Larry to observe just how wonderful it is to have nothing and yet to have something wonderful.
The job that had been planned for our volunteers was to replace the roof. One of the small boys who lives here has serious trouble with allergies and it was thought that replacing the roof might cut down on the dust, thus giving him some relief. The men were a bit perplexed as to how replacing a metal roof would minimize the dust, but began the work of moving furniture aside to begin. It was then discovered that the bottom three feet of the wall behind the couch was covered in mold. The houses here are very close together and their neighbor is in the habit of tossing his dirty water out on their side of his house. With no seal on the outside wall of the house, the dampness increased and mold thrived. Determining that the mold was most likely the allergen creating the young boy’s problem, they had just identified what really needed to be done.
Identifying the problem did not mean that the solution was going to be an easy task. What would be required was to dig a three-foot trench between the houses, scrape the mold off the outer wall, bleach it and then seal it with a waterproof paint. The real challenge was not the labor required, but the lack of permission to do so from their neighbor which he had refused to provide for more than a year. This week that all changed when our mission team leader, Glenn, posed the question. Prepared for perhaps at least a mild debate, Glenn was pleasantly surprised when the neighbor agreed. We speculated that perhaps he did so this time because Glenn is 6’6”, or more likely, because God had his hand firmly in this situation allowing us to provide the needed remedy for this family.
Our second construction team was tasked with taking down a wall. Upon arriving at the site, they asked why the wall had to come down. The problem was similar to the other home in that it involved water intrusion — only at this house the issue was not mold but flooding. The house was built on steeply sloped land and the run-off of rainwater next to the house had carved a trench in the dirt. This trench overflowed in the heavy rains and the water then seeped right into the house. After surveying the situation, our team quickly realized that tearing down the existing wall, which was placed directly on the footers, would not alleviate the problem. What was needed were concrete blocks at the base of the wall. Consideration was given to building a new wall outside the existing one, but this would require new footers — which could not be accomplished in the time allotted here. The decision was made to remove the existing wall (all 30’ of it), build the concrete base on the existing footers, and then replace the wall, hopefully reusing the existing material. This created a small problem for this house. While only four people actually live in the house, it is a daily beehive of activity as just one of three neighboring houses connecting one large extended family. When it was decided that this was the proper solution, nobody made any move to halt the demolition — so down the wall came. Now the music favored by the teenage girls in the house could be heard more clearly outside — day and night — as the entire inside of their home is left exposed until the project is finished. This became another example of finding a solution once we knew all of the circumstances causing the problem.
The day ended with a visit to the center of the town where we are staying, San Ramon, a city much like Leon in Nicaragua. We enjoyed ice cream, some sweets and coffee, and a visit to their beautiful church. Our group did not arrive together, having come from our respective work sites, and there was a discrepancy about what time we would return to the mission house. The Bible study group had asked if we could leave 30 minutes prior to the planned time, feeling like that was more than enough time to see and do all that we wanted. The bus driver was more than happy to accommodate the change. Unfortunately, we hadn’t taken into account that the construction crews were still planning to leave at the originally scheduled time, a fact that was not relayed to the bus driver. So he arrived early to pick us up only to be informed of our situation, all of us agreeing that we had to wait until the later pick-up time. This turned out to be very fortuitous. When we arrived back at the bus with the remainder of the group,our bus driver was busy helping a young lady who was having car trouble. When asked if we would mind waiting ten more minutes so he could finish, we readily agreed. Clearly, the original time allotted was more than WE needed, but EXACTLY how much God intended.
Praise, Worship and Rain
Day 2: Nov. 4, 2018
As we awakened to our first day here at Pura Vida, God was just finishing lifting the blanket of fog outside. The quiet neighborhood was just beginning to stir under a cloud-dotted sky to what appears to be a day promising sunshine.
The tradition here is to circle up after breakfast for a few moments of prayer and scripture, after which we have “TAG” (Time Alone with God) Time. In the silence of the mission house, we each sat with our Bibles, our journals, and the guide provided by Pura Vida, and had our own personal dialogue with God. Afterward, we headed to worship in the community of Linda Vista, where we will also be working with the children this week.
The humble church building had no markings on the outside identifying it as a house of worship, but from the first moment we stepped inside, it was clear that God was present and worshiped here. We were welcomed with smiles, hugs, and blessings by the pastor and his wife as we entered into their sanctuary — one room with a few dozen simple pews, a beautiful, wooden lectern in front and a small table on which sat the sound system. There were no hymnals in the pews — and none were needed by the congregation — and the only Bibles present were those well-worn ones that had been carried in by the parishioners. This simple setting came to life with music, praise, dancing and joy as the service began. Listening to the music was inspiring and uplifting, but I also was moved by the mumbled prayers of the worshipers that filled in the short silences between the songs. The energy and enthusiasm for praising God was infectious and we swayed and clapped and responded with “Hallelujah ” and “Amen” when appropriate.
Prior to Pastor Carlos’ message, the children were taken to a neighboring room for their lesson. Since the walls between the rooms did not reach the ceiling, the chatter of children was heard while he spoke, but he needed no amplification to be heard. After a while, the children’s chatter ceased to be a distraction as we listened to his passion for the Lord, which came across loud and clear. Reminding us of the presence of Satan among us and the need to stay vigilant, you would have thought he knew our lesson plan for the week — “The Armor of God.” He spoke from his heart, referred to the Bible as a “menu for life” and challenged us to consider just how we are preparing for Christ’s return. As he said, “When your eyes are on heaven, they cannot be on the world.” I would hope that our week here will be, for all of us, a part of our personal preparation.
As we headed back to the mission house for lunch, the bus pulled over at one point to let one of the young staff volunteers step off. We were puzzled at first as the bus slowly inched forward with this young man observing from alongside. Then we looked overhead. You see, when this community was built it was not wired with electricity. Rather than do without, the residents have tapped into the nearby electric sources, stringing wires like a crazy grid between houses and across streets. The reason for our slow-down today was that the bus driver was concerned that the bus would not clear under the wires overhanging the street. (Yes, we made it!)
And while the day did start with sunshine, it didn’t last for the entire day. Around lunchtime, we could tell that rain was definitely on its way — but we had all come prepared. As we packed our supplies to return to the same church for our Bible class with the children, we made sure to throw in our rain gear and ponchos. This turned out to be a very good decision. We were fortunate that the real rain did not start until we were back inside the church, and it pounded on the tin roof while we played with the children and began our instruction on “The Armor of God.” As our lessons came to an end and we prepared to leave, our supplies, made of poster board and cardboard and packed into fabric bags, would have suffered greatly without the protection of these ponchos as we made our way across the yard to our bus. The bus filled quickly with dripping missionaries, some of the children who we would drop off on our way out, and all of our supplies — safe and dry.
Costa Rica – We Have Arrived
Day 1: Nov. 3, 2018
The day started early for 15 missioners as we gathered before sunrise at the airport in Tampa to begin our journey to Pura Vida Missions in Ramon, Costa Rica. While our flights were on time, our passage through immigration at our destination, rather than being the anticipated 15 minutes, took almost two hours. Our hosts for the week were, however, patiently waiting when we finally departed the airport. Between the luggage and the people, the van was full to capacity for the 45-minute drive to the mission house. We were captivated by the beauty of the lush countryside as mountainous terrain made uphill climbs a challenge for our vehicle.
Arriving at Pura Vida hours behind schedule, we sat down to lunch at 2:30 p.m., knowing that it would be just a few short hours later that we would be back at the table for dinner. It was an attempt to get us back on schedule and to end an already long day on time. In between our meals, we were given an overview of this mission house and the plan for our week ahead. We’ve had rain today and expect some rain every day — which will be a challenge as some of our plans have us interacting with the children on a soccer field. But we have all worn our flexibility caps and will roll with the punches and deal with each new challenge as it develops.
Tomorrow afternoon we will begin our work, both construction and Bible study. And as we anticipate our work ahead, we can’t help thinking, as we settle into our home for the next week, that our original plans would have had us elsewhere — at El Ayudante in Nicaragua. Many of our group have been there in years past, and it is hard not to make comparisons. The place is different, the food is different, the routine is different. But we also are aware of the first line of our mission statement — It’s not about me. And what hasn’t changed is that we are blessed to be called by God to serve. And we will do so this week — making God’s love real here in Costa Rica.