As I sip delicious Costa Rican coffee and occasionally reach down to pet the dog who has not willingly left my side since I came home early Sunday morning (I think MJ is afraid I’ll disappear again and she wants to keep me tethered here), I’m attempting to reflect on my mission trip to Costa Rica. I know people will be asking, and many have already mentioned wanting to hear all about it in response to my posts and pics up on Facebook. That means I have to be able to organize my thoughts and feelings out of this jumbled mess of emotion, which somehow reminds me of the confusion of the tunnel scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (minus the scary insects- that part of the movie always freaked me out when I was a kid). I’m an introvert who just spent a week constantly in the presence of others, so I’m in overload now.
Also, as in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I really wish I had the Oompa Loompas to sing a song about the lesson I should have learned from my trip. I’ve heard people come back from mission trips claiming to have experienced that one absolute God moment of clarity when they just knew what He wanted them to get from the trip. I’m not sure I had one; there were many moments where I felt His love and even got goosebumps or teary-eyed, but not a single moment of clarity as to the purpose of my specifically being on that trip. I feel like I got so much out of it that I just cannot figure out my next move or what I am to do with what I have gained… except to LOVE. To love like I’ve never loved before. To love unconditionally. To love with the love Jesus loved with (as if it is possible for any other mere human to do that), because that is the only way we can really impact the world and change lives.
For the first few days of my trip, I felt guilty. Mission trips are supposed to be rugged and tribal, right? I was in a setting surrounded by the most green I’ve ever seen, stunning mountain views, and vegetation like I’ve never seen before in my life. Gorgeous is not a word that even comes close to describing Costa Rica (and that was while we were still in San Jose- the rainforest and beaches we saw in the middle of the trip were even more amazing). We toured the city. We haggled in the market. We ate food so delicious that one of my team members took a picture of every meal he ate on the trip. We even attended and sort of helped at a church service not so different from ours, except it was in Spanish. We weren’t really out of our comfort zones; we were just sort of experiencing a new place like tourists.
Then on Monday, we went to one of the centers of the Roblealto Child Care Association and learned about what they do, which is amazing. There are three childcare centers that provide a safe, loving, God centered place for parents (usually single mothers) to bring their children while they go to work. Many of them would otherwise have to leave their children home alone in dangerous neighborhoods. The centers are for families living in extreme poverty.
We were also told about their Strachan School and Bible Home (where we were able to visit on Thursday), a beautiful plot of land up a mountain where there is a school and eight incredible foster homes for children from extreme cases who cannot live with their own families for whatever reason. The school is for these kids and a number of children from the surrounding community, also in extreme poverty, to attend. Roblealto makes an attempt to place each of these kids back with their families, once certain requirements are met, after a minimum of two years, with a 95% success rate. However, a small number of these kids can age out of the program, and a new home for adolescent boys who would have been left with no place to go was recently opened, starting with eight boys, just as the original home began with eight children eighty years ago.
Then we were told of the Los Guidos community, the poorest area of San Jose, where Roblealto has land, but needs to earn money to meet a minimum in funding for the first phase of construction before the government will pitch in to help after that. Los Guidos means the abandoned or forgotten. This is an area of government land where squatters piece together scrap metal to build shelters. Electricity was run out there a while back, but they must “get it” for themselves and it is dangerous there because of gangs, drugs, and possibly forced prostitution. We were taken on a bus tour through the Los Guidos community and it was the most heartbreaking place I’ve ever seen. Children, who we were told should have been in school, were roaming around alone (some were as young as about three). Once that center opens it will bring hope and light to that community, but right now they seem to have none. We were told many of these children have already given up their wills to live, and a young girl of only nine, a victim of sexual assault, who was left alone during the day so her mother could try to earn money for them had even tried more than once to take her own life.
After we toured that area on Monday, we were taken to one of the centers in the city, ate a delicious lunch (the kids eat well while they are at the center, probably to offset the meager portions they likely receive at home), were welcomed by songs from the children, and were divided up to go to rooms to play with the kids. They were so sweet.
On Tuesday we went back to the same center. Some of us worked on a painting project, while others played with the kids, and still others did a healthy foods presentation with another group of children. After lunch, we all shifted around, but most of us ended up helping in a friendship bracelet making session, where they learned that God is always their friend. The language barrier many of us had made this difficult, but most of the kids were determined and diligent in their work, eagerly showing us their progress ( a few days later one of the girls who had missed that workshop because she was in a dance practice brought in some beautiful friendship bracelets, and I was one of the lucky recipients- she had learned at a camp previous to this). Some of the boys were especially excited about the bracelets because they wanted to give them to family members. When we ran out of time, I even promised one of the boys that I would finish his bracelet and give it to him on Viernes (Friday). He did not forget and was one of the first kids to greet me that day, very happy to get his bracelet. He hugged me and said “Thank you” in his best English.
Wednesday was a work free day for us with the idea that we might need a break to process some of what we had been doing and had seen. I felt a bit guilty for this too as we went zip-lining over the rainforest canopy and then to a beach on the Pacific. Of course, I was able to see more of the beautiful country, which I was much appreciative of.
Then on Thursday we went back to San Jose, had the most authentic of foods on our trip for lunch, and then went to tour the school and a few of the foster homes on the Bible Home property. We were impressed with the way everything there is ran and with the love and hope that exists there.
Friday was our last day and we went back to the center where we had spent our time at on Monday and Tuesday, again broken up into different areas of the center, doing different activities. One of the last things we did was a lesson on how God created every person to be special and unique, with a follow up of creating tie-dyed shirts to serve as a reminder of this. The teacher of this age group was happy they would have these shirts because he had wanted to have something uniform for them but they did not have the money for it. We did not get to see the finished products then, but we have been promised a picture of the kids wearing their shirts soon. At the end of the day we gathered together with all the kids and teachers and did some activities, which were physically difficult for me with a little girl wrapped around my waist (she just didn’t want to let go- what a cutie). Then we were pulled to the middle, the kids sang us a song, and one of the older girls said a prayer for us. Each of the classrooms had made a number of thank you cards for us and they were handed out. Then the kids were told they could come tell us goodbye. This is where I nearly lost it. These kids, with their difficult backgrounds and lives of poverty, never acted as if they were “owed” anything. There was no bitterness in any of them, though I certainly would not have begrudged them that if they were. Instead, they cherished every bit of love and attention they were given, and though all we did was go there and play with them, spend time with them, and help the teachers in their routines with these kids, they LOVED us for loving them. They came at us from all directions, hugging and kissing us. I found myself with up to five children at a time attached to me. And they weren’t little hugs. They threw their bodies into it, clinging with all their might. I know why Jesus said we should come to him like little children.
If I could pinpoint any single moment of clarity, that might have been it. LOVE. That is all, and yet it is so much.
After getting off the plane and settling into the back of the van for the drive home from Miami, I had my first “alone time” and popped in my earbuds. The following song played and really spoke to me, so I’m including a video with the lyrics. I wish the images were from my trip, but they are not (they’re still good though). Please enjoy:
Incidentally, if you have ever considered sponsoring a child through any organization but were suspicious of where all the funds go, Roblealto gives 100% of the sponsor money towards the child you sponsor. Also, having seen them in action last week, I assure you it is an organization worth the donations. If you are interested in learning more about Roblealto or in sponsoring a child, please follow this link for Roblealto. If you cannot support them, please pray for them, and for those beautiful children who deserve a chance at life.