Frequent first-time visitors to La Carpio see rusting shacks crowned with satellite dishes, and they say, “Aha! They’re poor because they make bad decisions!” A comment such as this was made recently during a six-week course on poverty alleviation that we taught at our church here in San Jose, Costa Rica.
A young man said that there isn’t really systemic poverty in Costa Rica. The poor are in Honduras, or Nicaragua or Haiti, he said, but the people in La Carpio really aren’t that poor. If they lack resources, it’s because they lack discipline or work ethic, he suggested, not opportunity.
The Poverty Cure video series we used as a teaching tool for this course suggests that the best way forward is through pursuing entrepreneurial solutions to poverty rooted in the creative capacity of the human person made in the image of God. The makers of the series challenge us to see marginalized communities not as filthy holes, or wastelands, but rather as regions teeming with untapped creative potential. It teaches that people are the solutions, not the problems.
Class 5 of the series is titled, “The Power of the Gospel” and it focuses on the necessity of not only helping people flourish economically, but also spiritually. If we help people attain wealth, but don’t address their character and identity, we’re not doing justice to them, their families, or their communities.
One of the discussion questions we pose during class is, “How can charitable work promote spiritual transformation without falling into the false and destructive idea that the poor are necessarily to blame for their poverty?” The first and more vociferous responses are usually, “But … they ARE to blame! They DO make bad decisions!”
Psychologists refer to this knee-jerk reaction as the “fundamental attribution error.” This is a concept that suggests we have a natural tendency to see the behavior of others as being determined by their character, while we excuse our own behavior according to our circumstances. I find myself in a tough financial situation because of a bad break, but others get into difficult situations because of their own fault. We always tend to give ourselves more grace than others. The concept is termed an error, implying that our judgment might just be incorrect.
The truth is, poor people do make poor decisions—at least at the same rate as those who are wealthy. However, the wealthy person has the financial resources, and sufficient relational connections, to recover more rapidly from poor decision-making.
But beyond that, poor decisions are not necessarily what made those people poor to begin with. Poor decisions might be an unhelpful response to their poverty, or an escape, but the reality is that there is multi-generational, systemic poverty. And that means that some people are poor NOT because of their own decisions, but what they were born into and the perpetuating nature of that system, which keeps them from opportunities to improve their situation.
One of the poverty alleviation experts interviewed in the series uses a great analogy to describe people raised in poverty. He says they are bonsai people. He says bonsai people don’t fully develop or grow because they aren’t planted in sufficient soil to contribute to their growth and development.
This is a useful metaphor because it encourages us to consider the circumstances of those living in poverty and what might limit their ability to overcome poverty. It’s here that we begin to discuss what poverty really is—a lack of life-giving relationships. There are many faces of poverty beyond the physical, including:
We are all born into abject spiritual poverty. It’s only in the light of God’s grace that we are able to see our own wretchedness. And it’s only in the light of God’s grace that we’re able to see our inestimable worth in His eyes.
So, the answer to the question we seek about how, in light of the gospel, we can avoid the trap of blaming the poor for their poverty, is to remind ourselves of our own poverty. We must necessarily show others the same grace we always naturally give ourselves (and more importantly, that we’ve received from Him). And that will result in compassion instead of judgment. Isn’t that a healthier place to start?
“It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian, you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.”
— The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
So after a year of relative convenience and ease in Northwest Arkansas, our first month in Costa Rica has been a challenge, mostly logistically.
We arrived to a broken microwave and missing desk as a result of our renters. No problem, we can get the microwave repaired and ask them to return the desk (still haven’t seen it). The aftermath of renting our home could have been so much worse.
After being in storage in a humid country, all our linens smelled terrible and required washing. Some were just a total loss. No problem, we’ll buy some new linens. We get unpacked and resettled in the house. Feels good to be home!
We get our phones working, start making contact with locals and reconnecting with people. One way we like to do that is having people over for dinner. One week in, our stovetop breaks, too (microwave still not repaired at that point). We get creative with making meals that only require an oven. It’s starting to feel a little like camping out, but hey, all these appliances are a luxury to begin with. Some people still cook over campfires after all. We start to wonder if we might be doing that in our backyard in another week. We are supposed to get the part to fix the stovetop in a week. It’s been three, and we still don’t have a working stove.
While waiting for our kitchen appliances to come back to life, we forge ahead and start car shopping (we sold our minibus when we went on furlough). Many cars don’t have the as-advertised mileage, some aren’t even in working order when we show up to see them (would it have been so hard to tell us before making the trip that it would be impossible to test drive the vehicle because the ignition is broken?), and some have clear problems we don’t want to inherit. Through patience and perseverance, we find the newest, lowest-mileage, and in-best-shape vehicle we can afford, with the help of our former pastor and current friend who is also a mechanic and car enthusiast. Praise God for His generous provision! We got a crazy good deal for what we bought, with older and much more used and abused vehicles asking the same price we paid for something much nicer.
We jump back into ministry, scheduling princess club, a Jobs for Life pilot with a prostitution recovery ministry, mothering/early-childhood-development workshops, a team from Nampa, Idaho the last week of July, and jumping back into tutoring, ESL and Saturday kids bible study. Life is good and we are glad to be back! These are our sweet spots, and we get to be in them with people we missed and love.
As soon as the team is here, Seth pulls his back helping unload suitcases. Then our washing machine breaks. You’ve got to be kidding me. The kids get to learn empathy for many of our Carpio friends who wash and wring by hand. That’s hard work and tough on your hands!
Jude has been struggling with ingrown toenails for some time, so we go to the doctor. We Uber across town, since Seth is with the team with the car. We get his prescription, it looks funny to me, and I ask the pharmacy person, “are you sure this is the concentrated version of this drug that the doctor ordered?” They assure me it is, so we pay and Uber it back home. Jude pulls it out of the bag, and it is vaginal cream. I’m super frustrated that they still gave us the wrong thing even after I asked. I decide to call and find out if they will exchange it before going over there (since traffic is terrible crossing town to go back and the receipt says no returns). While I’m on hold, my phone runs out of minutes and I get disconnected. I huff into Alden’s room and ask to borrow his phone to make the call. And I kid you not, I’m on hold and HIS phone runs out of minutes and I get disconnected again. I just stare at the phone for a little while, thinking “No way can something so simple be this hard.” [Long story shorter: Thankfully, they did make the exchange very graciously, in a country that is sometimes irrational about returns or exchanges. However, the process used up my whole afternoon.]
The team had lots of construction projects, street pedicures, and Mother’s Day pictures to do throughout this past week. On our first pedicure day, there is no water in La Carpio in the morning. Oh, did I mention the team was staying at the ministry center in La Carpio? No going to the bathroom, brushing teeth, or showering. And pretty hard to do pedicures with no water to wash feet. The men go to buy bottled water. Since everyone needs water, there isn’t any left in La Carpio, so they head out of the community to find some. Time to start pedicures comes and goes. Still no water. Bladders are about to explode. Finally, we ladies just circle up and pray. Again, God shows up. Before we were even done praying, we hear water running and starting to fill our holding tank! Personal hygiene is taken care of and pedicures are a hit for the rest of the morning.
On the same day, Seth’s and my phones stop having internet access for some unknown reason, even though we have purchased more minutes and are able to make calls just fine. I’m supposed to send a reminder about the pedicures, and can’t. I’m supposed to send individual messages to about 25 moms with appointments for Mother’s Day pictures with their kids that afternoon, and can’t. Thankfully, we had good pedicure traffic anyway, and later figure out how to use someone else’s phone as a hot spot temporarily and get the reminders out. People did show for their appointments and the pictures turned out so beautiful.
After a visit to the phone company to resolve the issue, our phones are still not behaving right (to this day), making communication between ourselves, with the team, and with ministry participants a challenge. But we learned how to make voice calls again instead of texting, reminding ourselves that we used to do this all the time before we could text. Wow, what a primitive concept.
The team was great, God was at work all week, they learned a ton and blessed many (including us), and they headed out this morning. Thankfully, we were able to go to the Hinton’s to do some laundry today, and Seth went to restock some groceries. Wait, why is our debit card being declined? He comes home to find out why we have no money, and it appears our card number has been hijacked and used over the weekend to buy $1400 worth of items all over the U.S.
An amazing end to an amazing month.
So much of this would not be a big deal if it happened in isolation, but the accumulation of it all in one short month has been a little much. I hope you have seen the opposition and frustration, but also the ways that God was with us along the way.
On the positive side:
Thanks for reading and journeying with us through the ups and downs of re-entry in Costa Rica. While we have had many challenges, we have also had many blessings.
On August 9, Seth and I fly to Houston with Alden, where he will start orientation at Rice University on August 12. On September 5, Annabel travels to Belfast, Ireland for a semester abroad this fall. And Jude and I re-start the homeschool engine with just he and I.
Please pray for us to get some of these silly broken things resolved so that life here can return to “normal crazy” instead of “ridiculous crazy,” and we can focus on ministry, the process for renewing our residency (which is always painful), and all the transitions for our family over the next month.
So how do I start this lol… erm, introducing myself is always difficult. I could say so many things! But let’s start with my names*. My name is Annabel Lee Sears, after the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. My name is missionary kid, third culture kid. My name is crazy cat lady that doesn’t like to wash her bedspread because she likes the way it smells of her cats. My name is wanderer, traveler, leaver, adventurer. My name is adrenaline junkie. My name is ornery troll, lover of laughs, south paw. My name is servant, beloved of God. My name is aspiring polyglot, lover of foreign cultures, homeschooled. My name is pierced, tattooed person. And my name is avid eater of chicken tikka masala with basmati and naan, and casados típicos with platanos and picadillo. My name is girl who needs a good fix of grunge, 60’s rock, and Beastie Boys every week. My name is please don’t talk to me—I love you and you’re fascinating to me but I’m scared of you. My name is anxiety, insecurity. My name is firstborn, big sister, favorite daughter (hehehe the only daughter). My name is reader of books like breather of air. My name is finder of hummingbirds in her backyard. My name is listener, not talker. So, don’t expect me to tell you all this the first time we meet, sweetheart.
And then you’re like oh, cool, nice name. So where are you from? …You’re definitely not making this easy for me! I could tell you I’m from Olathe, Kansas, which is where I have my first memories of sneaking around while my mom was napping. Or I could tell you I’m from Kansas City, Kansas, which is where I spent my childhood, growing up in a Mexican immigrant community. Where my best friends were just down the alley from me, where Guadalupe made us delicious meat from the carnicería on the corner and put hot sauce on everything, where we went to quinceañeras. But I could also tell you I’m from Costa Rica, which is where I spent most of my life that I can remember. Where it rains so much that the bugs come into our house and my little brother goes all karate sensei with the fly-swatter. Where ash from Volcano Turrialba covers everything in our house, where the beach is a couple of hours away. Where I get burnt under the equatorial sun, where I don’t fit in because of my light skin and hair, where I can’t speak my native language. Where the pollution makes my throat sting. Where the mountains surround me in the valley and make me feel safe. Where I love to be… But where I’m leaving. I could tell you I’m from Spring Hill, Kansas, where we stay when back in the states, where we get together with extended family for holidays, where I feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere, where I sleep on the futon in my grandma’s basement. Who knows, maybe in the future I could tell you that I’m from Siloam Springs, Arkansas, where I’ll be attending college, getting my first job, learning new languages. Basically, I like to think I’m from nowhere, because I’m from everywhere.
So yeah, nice to meet you. Or in Hebrew—naim meod. Tell me all about yourself now, I want to learn from you.
*Disclaimer: I was inspired to write this by a Ted talk called “The Muslim on the airplane.” Watch it.
Furlough may seem like a strange thing to many non-missionaries. After all, most other people don't get to just take months "off" from their jobs and still get paid, right?
In truth, in many different ways, it's not really time "off," as we use this time to raise funds, build relationships with donors, and speak at churches so that we can (a) share what God is doing in other contexts and how the Great Commission is being fulfilled, and (b) go back to the field without financial worries about how our ministry programs will be funded, or where our next paycheck will come from and. Although we now have so many ways to communicate from a distance electronically, that's a mixed blessing, because it gets harder and harder to get people's attention in midst of the constant noise. We live in a world with unprecedented distractions at our fingertips. There's just nothing like face-time (not the app, but actually being together in person) for sharing your passion.
In addition to these aspects of furlough, we'll also have a formal staff role at JBU shepherding missionary kids and international students in attendance there, helping them with the myriad transitions that must be made in a move to the U.S. from outside the country. This role is called Missionaries-in-Residence (or MIRs for the hip), and while it doesn't pay a salary, we will be provided with a furnished house to live in and certain tuition benefits for our kids during the year we are there. While an official State-side role is not always an aspect of furlough, finding a way to bless those in the U.S. with all you have learned is generally considered a good way to grow God's kingdom during furlough, and this one really fits.
However, all that said, there IS also an aspect of "rest" to furlough in terms of getting some healthy distance from your sometimes-bizarre "normal." What do we have to rest from?
Undoubtedly, many people work very hard in the U.S. But adding the above stressors to a heavy workload can put missionaries into a tailspin if they don't hit the reset button every now and then. I wish it were different and we could perfectly follow Christ in selflessness, humility, kindness, and patience, without needing these crutches of security, comfort, and receiving from others. Certainly this life teaches us how weak we are, but that's not always a bad thing, since it is when we are weak that God is shown strong.
Headaches and migraines, high-blood pressure, persistent and painful skin conditions, acid reflux and heartburn, and diabetes were common complaints we heard from our neighbors in La Carpio last week as they visited a two-day health clinic we offered with a team from Vox Dei Community Church in Belton, Missouri.
Others came simply because they’d heard we were offering free multivitamins and a course of anti-parasite pills. As I translated for our friends and neighbors while they sought the advice of the medical professionals from Vox, I gained more insight into the burdens they carry every day, one of which is depression.
J. shared how she frequently realizes she’s been crying and has no idea why. M. told us through tears how she struggles with depression she attributes to her chronic health issues and problems at home. As I listened to story after story of depression and the lack of ongoing care, it shook me up.
I was moved by people’s suffering and inspired by how they continue to carry their burdens with strength all while lacking any real hope of future change. I was also stirred personally because I’ve struggled with depression for years.
“Staring into fog” is the phrase that commonly comes to mind when I think about my lowest moments, the times when I’ve been mired in depression—oftentimes without fully being aware of how the clouds have enveloped me. A number of years ago, it wasn’t uncommon that I’d realize I’d been staring into fog for more than 30 or 45 minutes without realizing it.
I hate staring into fog. I hate how it makes my family feel—unwanted, underappreciated and unloved. I hate how staring into fog makes me feel—isolated, numb, confused and alone.
During the last year or two, I’ve become much better at identifying the fog as it begins to pool around my legs, and how to disperse it. I’ve begun to learn what my mind and body need to fight off this persistent foe, including good sleep, regular exercise and other healthy habits.
For me, much of what I needed was education about what was happening to me, and the patient love of my wife and family. I’m by no means fog-free. After having four short-term teams in two months and a lot of construction going on, I feel the fog gather at my ankles. The truth is, I can’t make depression go away by the force of my will. I can’t decide it’s gone or ignore it like the pain in various joints when I jog.
My local therapist told me its quite common for people doing the work we do to experience burnout and the fog of depression. She says that our capacity for stress is reduced from ongoing conflict, relational tension and exposure to trauma and suffering. She also encourages me that its possible to recover and regain stress tolerance and leave depression behind.
I feel hopeful for the future and believe the timing of our furlough and the role as Missionaries in Residence at JBU is a gift from God. Please pray with me for continued healing and discipline in healthy habits that keep me from staring into fog. In addition, please pray with me for our neighbors in La Carpio who experience fog on the margins as a normal part of life. I stand in awe of the burdens they carry.
As we begin 2017, we have some exciting news to share with you! This year marks the 5-year anniversary for giveDIGNITY. That means that it's time for a furlough to get some perspective, spend time with family, and do some more intensive fundraising for the next phase of our ministry.
As many of you know, Annabel is off to college this fall. We're pleased to announce that we have been selected as the John Brown University Missionaries-in-Residence for the 2017-2018 academic year. This means that we will live in Siloam Springs, AR from August 2017 to May 2018. Our job will be to care for and shepherd the missionary kids and international students attending JBU (about 150), and promote missions on campus. The university will provide us with furnished housing on the campus and tuition remission for Annabel's freshman year. We will continue to receive our salary through our ministry-raised support, as is customary for missionaries on furlough.
This time will be an enormous blessing for a number of reasons.
What does this mean for you?
We will need you to continue your financial gifts to our ministry, as we will continue to need a paycheck during our furlough, and we will also continue all current child sponsorships. In addition, we need your prayer to cover all aspects of this transition. And finally, we will have a 5-year anniversary bash in KC this fall, so we hope you'll plan on coming to celebrate with us!
What does this mean for giveDIGNITY?
We are putting a team of volunteers (and hopefully some new staff!) in place that can keep our basic programs going, so that the people of the community will continue to be blessed by the ministry during our absence.
So please join us in praising God for providing for our family in such a beautiful and marvelous way! He is so good and always has a plan that is good for us, even when we don't know what it is and can't see it coming! Stay tuned, and we will keep you up-to-date with more information via our newsletters and our blog at www.give-dignity.org. And please always feel free to contact us with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or 913-933-0044.
Blessings, The Sears Family
I have struggled for years with blog-writing. The fact is that I love to write, but I don't love to write about myself. I have felt a lot of pressure to blog, as there seems to be an expectation for missionaries to do so and EVERYONE is doing it now. But a lot of blogs seem to be "navel-gazing," a constant over-sharing about me, me, me, or ranting about my opinions about something (again, me, me, me). Even many missionary blogs are all about the adventures, spiritual development, and humorous observations of the missionaries, and not about the people they have gone to serve.
But I think I have finally discovered what our blog should be about: those we serve in La Carpio. You guys can "get" me without much effort or instruction: just imagine that you yourselves have gone to live in a world where there is no Target or postal service (or addresses, for that matter). It's a shock. It's tough. Duh. You already get that.
But what is harder for you to know about and understand is the life of those in a marginalized community. You probably have so little personal experience with them that you can't even imagine properly what their lives are really like. And that's not your fault - you're far away from them. I, however, am here doing life with them. I observe the choices, the systems, and the privations that perpetuate the cycle of poverty in their lives. So THEY are what I should be telling you about. THAT I can write about without self-consciousness or guilt that it's all about me. THAT I can write passionately about.
So today, I want you to meet my friend C. A Jobs For Life grad and mother of one of our sponsored students, C has endured abuse from her husband for 11 years and is at a critical crossroads in her life right now.
In this "machismo" culture, a man's absolute reign and power (including physical) is undisputed. No one thinks much of the occasional black eye or bruised arm in the community. Screams from the next shack (that you share a wall with) are discreetly ignored. This results in many situations of battered wives and abused children and zero consequences for the offenders. Costa Rica is trying to come up to speed about the treatment of women, but the absence of battered women's shelters says a lot. There are still woefully inadequate support services for women in C's situation.
Like many abused women all over the world, she has hoped for improvement in her husband's character and peace in their family. They have 5 kids and she has wanted them to have a father present in the home. She loves him. Just when things get so bad she thinks about leaving, they get better for a while and she enjoys the latest honeymoon cycle and decides to stay. She fears retribution if she asks for help or calls the police to report him, inviting only an escalation of violence. Not to mention the economic implications: as a mother of five young kids, how will she work and support them? With her education level, she simply cannot earn enough even to pay for someone to care for the kids, must less for food, rent, transportation, and necessities for the kids. She certainly doesn't have family well off enough to take on the burden of helping her financially or provide her with a safe place to go. She is essentially trapped.
C's story is sad. What's even sadder is that we know there are so many like her who don't tell us what they're going through or ever reach that breaking point where they accept the risks of reaching out for help. And what's saddest is knowing that there are millions of stories just like hers all over the world. Living in a developed country that doesn't systematically tolerate violence against women is one thing. There is help and support. There are laws and resources. Living without a system that gives you justice is quite another.
Sure, the government wants to appear progressive and gives lip service to equality for women, but that's not how things work out in practice. Women are routinely objectified and harassed in this country, at work, on the bus, on the street, while shopping at the store. It's real and it's dehumanizing. And it's okay with the powers that be. So much so that a man who stood up very publicly (on social media) for women's rights last year was killed, stabbed to death on the street by thugs seeking revenge for the perpetrator that he had shamed.
As the abuse has escalated recently, C has come to grips with the fact that such a father is only a harm to her children. Recently, he tried to drown her in a bucket by holding her head under the water. A, our sponsored student, a fifth-grader, has shown psychological maladjustment. He stopped coming to bible study. He decided to stop going to school (probably because he was afraid of what would happen to mom while he was gone). Formerly an excellent student and a cooperative child, he is becoming rebellious and angry.
When we became aware of the situation, we were able to talk to C and to A. He's come back to bible study. He's gone back to classes at school to finish the year. But these improvements are temporary if C doesn't figure out how to make permanent changes in their lives for her own and the children's well-being. She's between a rock and hard place: choosing between her husband and economic survival or her children's and her own psychological health. She knows that by staying she risks losing her children one by one to gangs, teenage pregnancy, and/or drugs as an escape from the intolerable environment at home. But what, really, is her choice?
We've found a place to go for her and the kids if she chooses to leave: a generous Christian family that has the space and can help with food for several months while C looks for work and gets on her feet. But C is also considering going to live in Nicaragua with family. However, she lacks passports for 2 of her children, and the funds to get them. And it's possible she can't take the children out of the country without the permission of her husband anyway.
Meanwhile, her husband called Seth last week and asked for counseling. We rejoiced to hear that perhaps he was ready to confess and get some help. Unfortunately, when they met, he complained the whole time about C and didn't mention his abusiveness or anger control issues. Or take any responsibility for the state of things at all, for that matter. Ugh.
Then a few days later, he called back and asked if we would do couples counseling with them. Before agreeing to do so, we need to be really candid about the fact that we're not interested unless he's planning to be honest and talk about the gigantic pink elephant in the room.
Please pray that the husband will be receptive to this condition, convicted of his sin, honest with himself and others, and seek help for real this time. Please pray for A to have a heart that remains tender and doesn't harden in the face of his challenges at home. Please pray for supernatural physical, emotional, and spiritual protection over all those kids and over C herself. And please pray for C to seek God and his wisdom in making decisions about what to do and whether to accept the assistance being offered to her.
“All true friendliness begins with fire and food and drink and the recognition of rain or frost ... Each human soul has in a sense to enact for itself the gigantic humility of the Incarnation. Every man must descend into the flesh to meet mankind.” ― G.K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World
As we’ve returned to La Carpio in the last few weeks, reconnecting with ministry participants, it has been amusing and a bit disconcerting to hear peoples’ responses to our sabbatical time. A sampling of comments and questions include—“So, you travelled around the world for a year?” “Oh, you’re back … they said you didn’t care about the poor anymore.” “So, how many months were you at the beach?” “So, you’re done wandering around like a lost Gringo?”
Most of the comments were designed to give us a hard time, which when translated means, “I’m glad you’re back. I’ve missed you.” These comments, these welcome backs, reveal a certain type of acceptance, and a form of hospitality—at least on the margins. Welcome, and everything that comes with it, was something we experienced during the past months in an overwhelming, and encouraging manner.
In late May, we flew into Raleigh, NC, and were taken immediately to a pastor’s home whose family welcomed our family with a big meal. That night and the next, we slept in a rental home of one of the church’s deacons. Later, we left Raleigh and drove to Troy, NC, in a loaner vehicle from another pastor on staff at that church.
Our destination in Troy was a lake house that belongs to a missionary family here in Costa Rica that let us live there for a week and unplug—enjoying kayaking, hiking, swimming, reading, playing games and resting. Back in Raleigh-Durham, good friends showed the kids and Andrea and I more hospitality and welcome. A culinary delight there was the “Rise Competition” which consisted in sitting around a table for hours, eating copious amounts of gourmet biscuits and doughnuts and critiquing and ranking them as if we were celebrity chefs.
Later, in Washington, DC we tried to soak up as much history as possible, walking miles in and around the mall with Seth's mom who flew out to meet us. One night, we got to have dinner with my second cousins who live in Alexandria, VA. They’d never met our kids. They spent the entire night drawing our children into discussions to make them feel welcome, listening to who they are and what they’ve experienced. It was a special night, and one of the truest experiences of hospitality I’ve ever had.
Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith
Farther North, outside of NYC, we were welcomed into the home of a young family that were friends of friends, but now are ours, too. We shared two days in their home where they welcomed a pack of five strangers as if we were special people. Besides conversation over great home-cooked meals, we also got some great tips on navigating the city and seeing the sights. We dropped off our rental vehicle in Queens and took the bus to Boston, where we met some more new friends.
Our hosts there picked us up at the bus station and took us to their home and welcomed us as if we’d know each other for years. They even loaned us their vehicle so we could hit the sights in and around Boston before we flew home that weekend. They too are pastors, and are living their faith in such a practical way that reveals their love for the Lord.
“A life of hospitality begins in worship, with a recognition of God's grace and generosity. Hospitality is not first a duty and responsibility; it is first a response of love and gratitude for God's love and welcome to us.” ― Christine Pohl
We feel so blessed to have been able to take a sabbatical and are very grateful to everyone who gave so that we could have rest time here in Costa Rica, and also do some travel on the East coast in June. Being on the receiving end of such welcome and generosity was a strong, concrete example of God’s grace and His love and acceptance of us.
A special thank you to everyone who welcomed us again, or for the first time, in the US in June. We thank you for your love and welcome to us!
Romans 15:5-7 “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
We sometimes don't leave a lot of room for the emotion of lament in Christian circles, what with always wanting to glorify the Lord. It creeps a little too close to despair for our comfort. We know that despair is the antithesis of hope, which we are supposed to have in Christ, so we stay away from anything resembling lament with a ten-foot pole also. We want to present an image of a God who does what we want and brings us happiness so that people will like Him and be drawn to Him.
But that is not the gospel and we are not salespeople promoting a God who always makes us prosperous, healthy, and happy in order to build our own pyramid of converts. We take the power out of the gospel when we refuse to acknowledge suffering and the role it plays in our lives, and what God can do with it. And lament is a part of that first step of acknowledging suffering. Sometimes we need to just say, "This is terrible! Why oh why does it have to be like this?" And non-Christians watching WANT to see our honest pain and questions, and a thorough response to suffering, not just our automatic platitudes.
This summer we have been slapped in the face by injustice and evil crashing into the lives of those that we love and serve. Jasmin is a unique participant in our mother's program. She actually has adolescent/young adult-aged children, but is participating in the young moms group because she is raising her 2 grand-children under age 4 as well. She brings them for early childhood stimulation activities and talks to me frequently about their psychological challenges and progress. Genesis, Jasmin's daughter, was in a mighty struggle with drug addiction and, as a result, was unable to care for her own children.
Last month, Genesis was brutally murdered by her boyfriend. Horrifically mutilated, in fact. As I tried to be a comfort to Jasmin, I was filled with compassion for a mother who first lost her child to drug addiction, then lost her to death, and now loses her again to the hurtful gossip and judgment of others. To make themselves feel protected from such misfortune, they blame Jasmin and/or Genesis for what happened, as if Jasmin could control her daughter's poor choices, or Genesis was asking for such a fate by what she did and who she hung out with.
Listening to her story as we looked through pictures of Genesis as a young girl, read reflections in her journals from time in rehab and notes from her mother encouraging her in her fight to stay clean, I was appalled at how broken the systems that should protect and deliver justice to this community are. I would say that a terrible string of errors made the experience of losing her daughter much worse, but to call them "errors" implies that proper norms exist and exceptions occurred, which is not the case. This is apparently the norm offered to the marginalized people of this community:
First, the man who killed her daughter should have been in jail already for a string of crimes, violent and otherwise, but he was put on house arrest by a justice system too overwhelmed to have space in jail for him, and because of lies and enabling by his mother on his behalf. He also should have been arrested for another crime 5 days before the murder, but when the authorities came for him, he ran away. The authorities left without any attempt to pursue or post a sentry to wait for his return home.
The night that this man murdered Genesis, neighbors said that her screams were heard as far as two blocks away. This is a community of tiny shacks with thin corrugated-tin walls packed full of people right up against one another with no green space between. That means hundreds of people heard the screams. The murderer's family (mother, siblings, cousins, etc.) was even in the house when he killed her. No one called the police until after she was dead. It is a community of people who mind their own business and live in fear of retribution if they condemn the behavior of others. They are right to be afraid, experience has taught them that, but they are wrong to let that fear make them so selfish that they lose the most basic of instincts to help the vulnerable.
When the police came to tell Jasmin that her daughter was dead, they were far more concerned with paperwork and data than bedside manner. The news of her daughter's murder was delivered cruelly and casually. She was taken to the crime scene to identify the body without concern for her emotional welfare. Thank God the police changed their minds and wouldn't let her in after an official left the house so badly shaken and "undone" that he said he had never seen anything like it. However, she COULD see the tremendous pool of blood and the murderer's mother trying to clean it up even before the crime scene was properly analyzed. The police also saw this and did nothing to stop the woman.
She learned later that day that police had taken pictures of Genesis's body and were showing them casually to others in the community, not for any investigative purpose, but to revel in the shocking gore with the gossipers. The next day, these pictures were published in a local newspaper, shocking gore and all (there are no rules about printing that here apparently). Obviously a police officer or family member of the murderer had sold them for personal gain to the newspaper. The horror of Jasmin and her family in seeing those pictures, not to mention knowing that her daughter's eviscerated body was on display for all the world to see, cannot be captured in words.
Another paper published a completely factually incorrect article about Genesis, without having spoken with anyone who knew her, depicting her as a long-gone crazy crackhead, when she was actually a girl who struggled with the ups and downs of addiction. She tried to get clean; she fell back into drugs; she cycled through again and again. She couldn't figure out how to leave this life of darkness she had gotten into. She apologized to her family for all the harm she had done them. She stayed clean during her 2 pregnancies and apologized routinely to her young children for not being the mother they deserved. She was not a villain who deserved what she got, she was a profoundly broken human who for many reasons simply could not figure out how to make good decisions for herself, but still managed to try to protect her children from herself in leaving them with family who could care for them.
The police gave Jasmin no aid or instructions on how to file a complaint against the man who murdered her daughter. (Here the police do not handle the paperwork, another government agency does). She had to navigate the bureaucratic system and figure out for herself where to go and what to do to try to begin the process of appealing for justice for her daughter.
The murderer's mother came to ask Jasmin if she had any of the cell phones her son had stolen, thinking maybe he had given them to Genesis to hide in her mom's house. No apology given, like "sorry my son murdered your daughter" or "sorry I was in the house at the time and did nothing to stop him." Community gossip is that this woman is a witch and probably needed body parts for her spells, making her an accomplice to the murder. Sounds fantastical, right? But no more than the rest of the story, which is all truth, so I guess it wouldn't be so absurd after all.
Insensitive tongues wagged in front of Jasmin about parents who did such a bad job of raising their children that they become drug addicts, despite the fact that Jasmin is a Christian and a good mother from what I have seen, who had a daughter who didn't listen to her and made some really bad choices. As if losing her daughter was not enough, Jasmin has had to endure the judgment and criticism of those who in the name of Christ have proclaimed a false gospel of only prosperity for those who follow God. Or of those whose fear that the same thing could happen to their family drives them to distance themselves from the tragedy, emotionally abandoning and verbally abusing those who need their support and comfort in a time of profound sorrow.
Jasmin had to handle and dress Genesis's post-autopsy body herself for the funeral. The pastor of the largest church in La Carpio, at Genesis's funeral service, chose to heap condemnation on those who live lives of sin and reap the consequence of death, rather than offering comfort to the family for their loss. The list goes on and on of ways that the nightmare for Jasmin has been compounded by broken and indifferent systems and people.
Jasmin knows that Genesis was not a perfect person. I heard frustration with her daughter mixed in with the loss and regret and sorrow and love of this grieving mother. But she was still her daughter. The one she could remember as an innocent 10-year-old before all this craziness began. The daughter that she knew was still in there, even though she knew the person before her wasn't her real daughter as she stole and hurled insults at her mother while under the influence. A person worthy of dignity and love, no matter how many mistakes she had made. A woman who did not deserve the horrible fate that befell her, no matter what her vices were. And her children, precious Darren and Tiago, do not deserve to be orphans with the infamous distinction of being "the boys of that crackhead that got herself killed."
I left asking God many questions:
The world shouldn't be like this, but it is. It sounds trite (maybe even cruel) to remind Jasmin right now that "all things work together for the good of those who love him" and we are to be "joyful in all circumstances" at a time like this. She's not ready to hear that yet - though she knows it is true. It would be like invalidating her sadness; telling her "let's look on the bright side" gives the impression that the sadness and grief are wrong.
Lamentations teaches us that it is okay to grieve and weep and mourn that the world is such a broken and hideous place. What are more appropriate words for Jasmin than, "Your wound is as deep as the sea. Who can heal you?" (Lam. 2:13) What better words to summarize this messy and complex world (and God's role in directing it) than "Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?" (Lam. 3:38) What can Jasmin say but "My soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for HIS compassions never fail." (Lam. 3:20-22)
There is a time and place when we can do nothing but mourn what is. Instead of quickly looking for a way to excuse God for letting this happen, as though He needs us to defend Him, we need to acknowledge that His sovereignty does not preclude horrible misfortunes. Tim Keller explains this well in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, saying that we are asking the wrong question (which already shows our bias) when we ask "How can a loving and sovereign God allow this suffering?" He explains that "the older Christian idea that we exist for God's glory receded and was replaced by the belief that God exists to nurture and sustain us." (page 54) Do you see how we've gotten it backwards if we are even asking this question? Deism infiltrated Christianity and somewhere along the line convinced us that God created the world for our benefit and He exists to make us happy. These are not promises in the Bible.
What IS promised in the Bible is that God will walk with us through our joys AND our miseries, never abandon us, make us more like Jesus (many times through that very suffering), and bring us ultimate victory and redemption in the end. Doubting God's sovereignty or goodness or power because suffering exists shows our own pride and self-centeredness in the assumption that He exists to make life pleasurable for us, and if He's not, then something must be wrong, rendering him not powerful enough or not nice enough to fix it for us.
Shame on prosperity gospel teachers (be good = get blessed; have trouble = must be in sin) who have invented a wishful thinking religion where we always get what we think we deserve. The gospel isn't that simple and formulaic, because the gospel is a PERSON to be known, not a formula for getting what we want. Job's friends are alive and well in those who criticize those who suffer for bringing it on themselves. As Job lay in a pit with boils and extreme physical pain, pondering the emotional loss of the deaths of all of his children and the financial loss of his entire estate, having had literally everything stripped away from him, they arrived to offer him comfort by asking "what did you do to deserve this?" I guess we could call THEM the first prosperity gospel teachers. What I don't understand is why we keep going back to that idea when God clearly condemns it at the end of the book of Job - I guess some people don't read that far.
Once we have taken the time to mourn properly and wail our hard questions to God, later we can look for the good with some perspective. Maybe we can find some good, and maybe we can't. That doesn't mean there isn't any, it just means we can't see it. That's okay, because we're not God and we don't see the whole tapestry that He is weaving in wisdom and power, redeeming the evil that some choose to commit and still bringing his plans to fruition. For now, I lament what happened to this girl and her family, and I cry out to God with my disappointment. He can handle it.
The answers to my earlier questions are simple, I guess, but it doesn't stop me from asking them and sometimes wishing they had different answers more in line with what I think is fair.
I tell this story here to honor Jasmin, who feels unheard and maligned by her community, the police, the press, her pastor, and fellow Christians. I admire her strength and faith tremendously, and I wonder if in her situation I could handle all of this with as little anger and desire for vengeance as she has. Far from needing me to affirm or encourage her to be strong, she encourages me in my faith, because she is tapped into Strength itself and challenges us all to do the same. She knows a suffering God whom she can trust with her daughter's and her own suffering. We mourn with her, celebrate God's sustaining power in her life, and wait for comfort and peace from the only One who can truly give it.
An underdog is universally recognized as a competitor with little or no chance of winning a fight or a contest. At this time of year during March Madness, those of us who follow college basketball inevitably begin rooting for a team or two deemed to be underdogs.
This year, Syracuse has made it to the Final Four as a 10-seed. Granted, Syracuse has a lot of talent, but solely because of their seeding, it would be a big upset were they to beat North Carolina this Saturday. They seem to have little chance of pulling said upset because UNC is playing so well, which confirms the Orangemen status as an underdog. Pursuing this theme, I did a bit of research and came up with the following trivia (for you stat geeks):
To be honest, as a KU fan, I don't feel right rooting for Syracuse. I'm still bitter about losing to Syracuse in the Final in 2003. I don't want to root for them, but something about the underdog draws me in. Pyschological researchers suggest we are drawn to root for underdogs because they arouse our sense of justice and fairness. They also propose that in general, we view underdogs as putting forth more effort to overcome long odds, so we want to see that rewarded. When underdogs succeed, it gives us confidence that effort, hard work and persistence do pay off and convinces us that hope can triumph in the face of long odds and adversity.
This was certainly the strength and beauty of the original Rocky movie. We wanted to see Balboa succeed because of his dedication, effort and determination, not to mention the long odds he was up against. Today, we see this phenomenon in the Bernie Sanders campaign and how relying on mostly small donors, he's going up against the Clinton machine and giving them a heck of a fight that not many people expected. Real or imagined, Bernie Sanders is being viewed as an underdog and that is aiding his cause and a lot of people are enjoying seeing Hillary feel the Bern.
Watching the tournament unfold, and taking so much enjoyment from watching the upsets, we've reflected on how everyone living on the margins is an underdog. We don't all get the same start in life, nor are we on a level playing field. Here are a few examples of the underdogs that we are rooting for, while we are mindful of the words of Father Gregory Boyle who charges us not to judge the poor for how they carry their burdens, but rather to stand in awe of the burdens they do carry:
This is what serving on the margins means: rooting for these individuals and so many others, disadvantaged but beloved of God, to win the upset. The odds are stacked against them in so many overwhelming ways, but with some vision, some social support and encouragement, some practical assistance, and a very big God who can overcome all odds, we know they can do it. Many on the margins don't believe that hard work is rewarded, and hold a fatalistic view that keeps them from trying to be anything different than what the world tells them they are. But we have seen results of hard work, persistence, determination, and faith, and these folks are an encouragement to others in their community to follow in their footsteps. GO UNDERDOGS!
Quote of the month
""At the margins is the only place the Church will have credibility."