During Lent in the U.S. there is often a practice of giving up something. With my small, poor congregation, we decided instead to do something positive. For 40 days we made a practice of caring for Creation. The church grounds have a lot of vegetation, flowers, banana trees, and this summer the members will plant cacao trees so they can sell the pods to the local chocolate producers! We weeded, trimmed, and cleaned garbage from the ditch along the dirt road. We recovered a few balls and frisbees, which the young children haven’t mastered. We still have four or five of them up on the roof. Maybe the heavy rains will wash them down soon.
I continued to read Bible stories to the children every Saturday, sometimes asking them to draw what they had heard. Then I would tape their artwork on the walls. There were usually 11 Moses in the basket and two dinosaurs, 11 jars of water turned into wine and two dinosaurs, 11 empty tombs and two dinosaurs! There is definitely an affinity for dinosaurs in my class.
Because we spent so much time talking about and actually caring for nature, I decided we would not get out the machete and whack off palm leaves for Palm Sunday. Instead I bought sheets of green poster board, traced giant leaves, and the children cut out and colored them. They waved them in the air that Sunday when we also had five baptisms.
Three were well-prepared, the parents and godparents having come for a preparation class with me. I had brought a dozen of Luther’s Small Catechism, bilingual version. That Sunday, after the three were baptized, a young boy of 7 and his 8 year-old sister asked to be baptized. It was a moment like Phillip and the Ethiopian. As I prepared to baptize them, the young mother of a baby I had baptized offered to teach instruct the children and she held up her copy of the Luther’s book. Then I invited all to come forward for a blessing to remember their baptism. It was a very special day in La Esperanza for their families and the community children with their handmade palm leaves.
On Holy Thursday we had a community Last Supper and a washing and blessing of hands for service. Usually I go through the community and invite everyone I meet, but I knew there would not be enough room or food, plus there are no lights outside the church, nor enough benches. Instead, I just told the community children and they told their families and friends. We all just fit and we had enough food for about 30 people. After dinner everyone came forward, beginning with the children to have their hands washed, dried, and then I made a cross with oil. The children were amazed and quiet, and the adults approached with a little apprehension, but then when I held their hands they smiled. It was a powerful evening.
On Saturday evening we made a fogata, a wood fire to mark the Easter vigil. Our difficulty was finding enough dry firewood. What we take for granted in the U.S. took a great effort to find because any pieces of good, dry wood were already used or to be used by families for cooking. The rainforest does not have a lot of hardwood for burning. It was another lesson in humility. In the U.S. we can even find firewood in a supermarket. Not here, plus no one has money to purchase something to simply burn it up.
Easter Sunday was very low key. Worship was very simple. People with little money do not have huge, celebratory meals. No Easter egg hunts or baskets, no chocolate bunnies, no Grandma’s good china, no altar filled with lilies that were forced to bloom in a greenhouse. In poor people’s lives, they use what is easily available or free. Our flowers come from the church yard, when they are in bloom.
In April two of my adult English students and their families invited me on day trips to regions I hadn’t yet visited. The first was a trip to Rio Cuatro de los Angeles where I saw lapas–macaws—up close. These magnificent birds look like huge parrots with brilliant colors and a distinctive cry. I see them where I live, but they are always too far up in the sky to get photos. Here they are, and if you look at my facebook page I will post short videos of them.
Next we drove up to the foot of a volcano in the mountains. There are streams of cold clean water running down, full of trout. We walked around the lagoons and grounds of a restaurant where you can fish your own trout and the staff will clean and cook it (We opted not to fish ourselves). I had the freshest trout I have ever eaten, surrounded by beautiful flowers, ponds, and the mountains.
That evening we visited a woman who showed me a different way to prepare plantains. I usually eat the ripe ones, lightly sautéed for breakfast, or slices of green plantains that have been fried for a minute, then smashed until flat, then fried again. This woman fried them for minute, then put each slice in a citrus fruit press, and then continued to fry them until done. They had a basket-like shape, which she then filled with tuna salad. And I didn’t think we could improve on two favorite foods!
The following week another student, her husband, and their son who had just spent six months in Wyoming took me to see las Cataratas de la Paz, the Peace waterfalls. We drove to the top of a mountain, visited several sanctuaries for local animals, and then we hiked down a million stairs, seeing the series of 3 tall waterfalls so close we could feel the spray.
I was so happy to see the animals up close because they are wild, and not easily seen in their natural habitats. They were brought to the sanctuaries after being abandoned by people who had found and kept them as pets until they were no longer able to feed or house them, or injured animals who could not be released back into nature. I will also post some videos from this visit as I can only post photos here.
Although I love animals, I was not too fond of the three-foot long iguana who made its way into my bedroom one afternoon. I found it clinging to my curtains, then it climbed up on the table where I keep my toiletries. It stayed for almost two hours before ambling out of my room, through the house, and out the back door. I have more videos than photos. Find them on my facebook page.
My last week in Costa Rica my colleague Jonathan and Antonia the housekeeper of la Casa Pastoral where I lived and who has become a dear friend, took me to a lake at the foot of another volcano, where we had chicken and fish on the grill, some good beer, and beautiful scenery.
The last Sunday of April we were going to have a joint worship service with our bishop, several clergy members, and some lay folks, all driving through the mountains from San José. They were going to bring lunch and we’d all have a great worship, then a good-bye party. Then we got calls from the three drivers who had to pass through a long tunnel before continuing through the mountains to my town, about a two hour drive. Unfortunately, there was an accident with a fatality in the middle of the tunnel so it was blocked off and cars were being turned around and sent back to the capital. An alternative route would have gotten them to the church several hours too late. While I missed seeing them, we still had a great service with a crowd (some of whom came for lunch!) and Pastor Jonathan, my colleague from the rainforest region helped lead.
The next few days I was torn apart, wanting to go home and see family and friends, yet not ready to leave behind my colleagues, new friends, and my beloved faith community. I said goodbye to my congregation, my neighbors around the church and around my home. It was hard to say goodbye to my students. We had spent hours together and I am very pleased with their progress. Jonathan and Antonia drove me to San José where we spent the night and I left early to catch my flight home.
I am now staying with a dear friend in San Antonio until I receive another call.
For several days after I returned I was in culture shock. After a year of sweating all day and half the night, I have to admit it has been comfortable to live in air conditioning, wearing clothes that stay dry all day. No bugs or iguanas in my Texas bedroom. What I do miss is, because of the hot, humid weather in Puerto Viejo, where it is hotter inside, I spent hours outside the house, walking, so I met my neighbors, greeted my students and their parents, and was very aware of what was happening in my community. In Costa Rica I lived in a walkable community where a car was not a necessity.
Now back in the U.S., living in a vast residential area, far from stores, banks, church, and staying indoors to avoid the heat, I do not have the same sense of community. Children ride school buses rather than their parents walking them to and from school. Food stores are too far away to go to by foot, and then have to walk home with perishables in the heat. My bank is miles away. Friends live far away and far apart from each other. This city is designed for people with cars. I realize how having a car or access to good transportation defines my world. It shapes my relationship with the community. A friend has lent me a car until I receive a call. I quickly re-found my independence, driving to shop, visit, and lead worship as a supply pastor a few miles away. As I went walking the dog around my temporary neighborhood, I realized how difficult it is to meet people when they are locked in their air-conditioned houses, car parked in the drive, so that they are rarely outside their home. Where I lived in Costa Rica, most people did not even have fans, so they spent a lot of time outdoors. Without cars people tend to shop daily or every two days in order to be able to carry their groceries home. We could not help but encounter one another often. I listened to people’s stories and they listened to mine. Here, this takes more effort because our society focuses less on community and more on the individual.
This is where the Church becomes an important place where individuals come together in community, sharing beliefs, vision, and a sense of mission. This is where I find hope for the future of our communities and the world. This is where I find the personal connections I had come to treasure during my year of accompaniment in Costa Rica.
I miss 3 p.m. coffee and trying to listen to Antonia’s stories as fast as she tells them in her island accent. I miss the horse in the field next to the house. I miss the church bells down the street. I miss the man pushing his cart down the street calling ‘pipa fría’—cold coconut water, the top removed from the coconut by machete. I miss the intense emerald green foliage, trees loaded with tropical fruits, and the fields of pineapples. I miss the sweet little faces of the children of La Esperanza. I miss the brightly colored houses. I miss seeing mountains every day. I miss my congregation, the lessons they taught me in humility and patience. I miss being able to walk to every store or office in town. I miss speaking Spanish daily.
I give endless thanks to the synods of SW Texas and North Carolina, Global Mission of the ELCA, and of course la Iglesia luterana costarricense for a year rich in cultural exchanges with colleagues, in new friendships, and in incredible experiences. I thank you, family, church colleagues, friends, and those who followed my posts. I pray that you gained some insight into the people, the culture, the natural beauty of Costa Rica, and the important work of the Lutheran Church. I will always carry their smiles and their stories in my heart.
This is my last post. Thank you for following! If you have a chance to visit Costa Rica, I hope you find it as enchanting, welcoming, and astoundingly beautiful! ‘Pura vida!’