Just before the start of our church gathering this past Sunday night, as I stood in the doorway greeting those who braved the rain, a fight nearly broke out in front of me. Three young men, drunk and angry, were pacing around. One bumped into the other and made him drop his beer. The bottle broke, but conveniently the neck of the bottle was still intact and he began to look for someone to hurt with his new weapon.
The entire scene was an austere example of the sermon I would deliver about identity. I spoke about God’s original design for our lives and existence and how our identity reflected His. I suggested that His very identity was reflected in the authority, responsibility, community and intimacy that we were designed to enjoy. I talked about God walking in the garden and about what was soon lost.
I suggested that we gave away our authority for knowledge. We discarded our responsibility for an incessant struggle for importance. We exchanged community for individualism, and intimacy for isolation. I think it was a spurious deal. I think those three young men in the street would agree. I think were they sober, they’d want to know where they belong and if they have any value. I think they wrestle with big questions in small, dangerous ways. I think they long to know what they’ve lost—or maybe never had.
The monastery elder in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, charges the father of the three brothers to stop lying. The elder tells him, “Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love …”
The elder wisely points out that we can blind ourselves with mendacity, becoming so unseeing that we lose ourselves in disrespect, forgetting how to love. Such a state reflects the dark heart of poverty—be it physical, emotional or spiritual—the lack of life-giving relationships. This kind of isolation can be self-inflicted from lying to ourselves and it can be suffered too, from listening to and believing the deceit of those around us.
Paul, in Romans 3, talks about the insidious effects of sin. He quotes various psalms to make his point—Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave. Their tongues are filled with lies. Snake venom drips from their lips.
Sunday, I suggested that Paul’s purpose was to persuade us of the pervasiveness of sin so we’d quit lying to ourselves and quit trying to be good people. I proposed that what gives us dignity and restores our worth, is not striving but rather believing, "We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are." If I ever do one thing efficaciously, I want to convince others of their own dignity and worth in God’s eyes—that they were created in His image and in Him they can experience joy, rather than wandering in the darkness and rain looking for someone to hurt to ease their own pain for a time.
When we founded giveDIGNITY, it was not with the express aim to be a church planting organization. Seth and I are disciplers by nature, but we have always preferred to work in small groups or one-on-one to help new followers of Christ mature. We started giveDIGNITY to provide social aid that would enable us to evangelize participants in our programs and bring them into discipling relationships.
So imagine our surprise when God had other plans. Here’s how God “duped” us into planting a church in a marginalized community in Latin America—without us realizing it. God’s recipe follows:
Disclaimer: this recipe from the Almighty is tongue-in-cheek, and we know this was surely God’s plan and we’re happy, and blessed to be along for the ride. At each of these steps, we felt God’s leading and knew that it was the right thing to do. And honestly, this nascent “church” is one of our favorite times of the week.
We continue to call it a “bible study” instead of a “church,” because sadly the word “church” has very negative connotations in the community. It brings to mind images of judgmental people who keep undesirables out, pastors with questionable motives and character, and a lot of legalistic baggage. We invite the undesirables in, and ask church members not to be pharisaical in their attitudes toward others. We invite people to study the Word and worship. We encourage one another to love, which is the very basics of a church, they just don’t know it!
In the midst of all the emphasis in missions on “local leadership,” we have found that we have a distinct advantage as “gringos” leading the church in La Carpio. In a community where it is widely believed that pastors are only in it for the money (and doing as little work as possible to get it), being perceived as a “rich gringo” in charge disarms that suspicion. They know we don’t need their money and for that reason they can trust us. Possible ulterior motives for preaching what people want to hear to get financial gain are eliminated. They know we are preaching truth, and it interests them a great deal.
However, becoming “pastors” and leading a church has added quite a bit of activity to our already heavy schedule administering education, work, ESL, and violence prevention programs. As it continues to grow, it takes up more and more of our limited time. People who start out to plant a church reserve time for all the activities they know will come with it. We did not. We’re just trying to “squeeze it in” around other ministry activities, housework, home schooling, and the enormous amount of effort that simply living in a foreign country requires. But we don’t want to give it a “let’s squeeze this in” level of effort, we want to give it our best so that God gets maximum glory.
So we worry about both church and programs in terms of sustainability. What happens when we need a break and go on furlough? What if the Lord leads us somewhere else? How can we keep ourselves from burning out completely? How will the wheels keep turning in this constantly growing ministry that the Lord has begun in La Carpio if we aren’t there? When we started giveDIGNITY three years ago (really?!), we hoped we’d have a growing team of full-time missionaries by now, but that hasn’t materialized. So we will continue to trust in His plan and His timeline, and steward what He has given us to the best of our ability. It really all belongs to Him anyway.
Good thing we know that while the Lord uses us, He is not dependent on us to get His work done! We pray that one day, leadership of this church (and the various programs) can be handed over to locals, who will in turn be trusted because of our bestowing of confidence and authority on them. In the meantime, other foreigners are welcome to help us keep things afloat! Please join us in praying that God would be preparing these leaders with integrity, wisdom, and passion, and that He would raise them up in the proper time.
Whoa, this year has FLOWN by and we haven't blogged at all since January! Clearly, we're still getting the hang of this social media thing.
A recent article in La Nación (the main national newspaper here in Costa Rica) recently published an article about some findings about poverty according to a recent "State of the Nation" survey. It is super-encouraging to us that the government is at least recognizing some of the poverty issues in this country, and is also affirming of the directions we have taken with our organization's strategic goals.
First, some facts about the poorest 20% in current state of Costa Rica:
These are the very things we try to help people deal with on a day-to-day basis: work, education, single mother challenges, and prevention of the abuse and violence that comes out of these stressful situations. We see this 20% fighting for their lives and their children's futures, and try to provide them with tools and resources with which to do so.
The article cites some important factors contributing to the cycle of poverty, among them:
This is precisely why we give our lives to serve the poor in continuing their education and keeping their children in school, and training and preparing them to find meaningful work. Certainly personal choices are a factor in terms of motivation to continue in school, or when and how many children to have. But there are also very real systemic issues that perpetuate the cycle of poverty that are beyond the control of the individuals in poverty: the quality of education that they receive in their underfunded school that limits their opportunities to continue, the injustice of a system that doesn't enforce the laws of working hours and minimum wage, and the disinterest of the public and the government to resolve the issues.
We believe that God calls His people to step in and seek justice where earthly authorities and governments will not. By serving the poor in dignity-giving ways that allow them to break the cycle of poverty for themselves, we show God's love and concern for them. This is why we invest in the lives of people like those in the photo above at our recent Jobs for Life graduation. Won't you join the team?
Christmas in Costa Rica is something wholly different from what I experienced growing up, and I love it. There are endless blue skies and the sun feels very warm on your face, but a cool breeze makes the palm trees sway back and forth, kind of like the dancers in the parades around town during the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Andrea and I were really looking forward to celebrating La Navidad here this year, but the Lord had other plans. Due to my father’s health, we flew back to KC unexpectedly in late December just in time for the “Polar Vortex.” We celebrated Christmas in St Louis between the hospital and a hotel, eating Papa John’s pizza instead of the traditional Costa Rican tamales.
Praise God that my Dad responded well to a different heart med and we were able to take him home the day after Christmas. Our time with him and my Mom (and the rest of our families) was invaluable—and so too, was our time visiting a couple of churches in and around KC.
Both churches blessed us in significant ways and demonstrated to us the big “C” church at its finest. Rustin Smith and Jonathan and Joy Klee with Vox Dei Community in Belton, blessed our family with Christmas gifts, gift cards, and gift certificates. People who didn’t even know us, but who knew we were missionaries called unexpectedly back to the US who didn’t have much in the way of gifts State-side, showed kindness to us because they love Jesus. That’s the Church at its finest—loving its own as a testimony to the world of Christ’s love.
Tim Suttle and the body at Redemption Church in Olathe welcomed us to share about our ministry, especially our new child sponsorship program. That day people at Redemption committed to sponsoring 8 kids from La Carpio, ensuring that these children living in poverty have access to another year of schooling and hope for a future. That’s the Church at its finest—loving and having compassion on the vulnerable.
We were so blessed to have the Lord change our plans so that we could experience anew His love for us and witness His love—perfect love—in others. “No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!” I John 4:12 (The Message).
So this is my friend Keyasha in the foreground, who spent a day rockin' the foot scrubbing and massaging with me on the street in La Carpio. The team was to spend the day painting the room that we use for our Jobs for Life classes, but I figured the guys had a handle on that and us girls could bless the women happening by with free spa pedicures. We were also joined by April and Rebecca, not shown in this picture. We slapped a sign on the gate, "Free Spa Pedicures -- Today Only!" and started to get some incredulous looks and "Really?"s before we had our first "customer" within 2 minutes.
I have done many different things to serve in La Carpio to date, but few things I have seen open up the door to women's hearts like washing their feet and leaving them soft(er) and pretty with toenail polish. Why? Jesus was definitely onto something, and I think if his disciples had been women, he would have given them full pedis, too, instead of just washing their feet. I can just hear him now: "What color polish would you like, Mary? Perfect -- Aphrodite's Pink Nightie it is!"
My theory about why a pedi is so meaningful is this: women living in poverty have it ROUGH, and they spend their whole lives caring for OTHERS, frequently with no one who cares for THEM. Their feet are particularly abused... they spend their days in flip flops, towing kids around on their hips, cleaning their house, cleaning others' houses, and walking everywhere they need to get to. Yet, God has placed something in every woman that seeks to be beautiful. Here are some of the stories of the approximately 20 women we served that day:
None of these precious women have time or money to care for themselves, or spoil themselves with a little pampering. I am continually challenged about how easy it is for me to do these things, or think that I "deserve" them after some hardship or difficulty. A pedicure is a rare opportunity to focus attention on a woman and humbly serve her in a practical way. The smallest act of love, sacrificially given, awakens something in her. And the reversal of an erroneous, but assumed, superiority or power position (North American=rich and powerful, her=not), makes her feel valued and esteemed.
It also happens to be great advertising for giveDIGNITY. More than a few times, the women wanted to know what kinds of programs we offered and how to sign up for them. It starts relationships that get folks into our Jobs for Life program, bible studies, our early childhood intervention program (starting this month!), or our future scholarship program. And it's an opportunity to encourage others and share the gospel.
As we talked and joked and shared, a sense of community grew as more and more women gathered 'round to see what was going on. Guys walking by joked about whether they could get a pedicure, too, and the women gleefully shouted back that it was a service only for women. As we scrubbed, massaged, cut, filed and painted, one gal saw her husband walking home from work and said, "Oops! Here comes my husband -- he'll be wanting his dinner and it's not ready because I've been sitting here getting my nails done instead of cooking at home!" Girlish laughter rang out among us as we enjoyed a rare carefree moment of companionship among those who are frequently weary and heavy-laden.
Thank you for this gift of lightening our burdens, Lord.
While Andrea and I were envisioning what types of programs we'd like to start during our first year of giveDIGNITY, we kept talking about scholarships for young people from La Carpio. Kids here drop out for a variety of reasons, but number one on the list is financial. Primary school is mandatory and paid for in Costa Rica, but families must pay for school uniforms, textbooks and school supplies. For some families in poverty with multiple children, they're forced to decide which children go to school.
That's why we've decided to engineer a scholarship program for young people in La Carpio--picking motivated students with at least one parent who's interested in their child's education--to give a scholarship to cover the aforementioned costs. We envision a child-sponsorship program similar to Compassion International or World Vision, where sponsors can connect with a student and make a direct impact in their lives.
In light of these plans, I was especially excited to see this article entitled, "Fostering a future generation of leaders" and read its conclusions that child sponsorship programs are a good investment. The article references a study by Bruce Wydick, professor of economics and international studies at San Francisco University. He concludes that not only does sponsorship work, but it contributes directly to participants developing into leaders.
Here are a few more of the conclusions from the study which you can download here:
This is very encouraging news about ways that we can fight the effects of poverty through education. Check back on our blog or contact us here for more information about the program were developing!
This is "the Grandma of La Carpio." She is 87 years old and supports herself selling vegetables in the street. She came to Costa Rica from Nicaragua 16 years ago, and settled in La Carpio along with many others who started this squatter's community in what was simply a field on the edge of town at the time. She is a picture of dignity. She doesn't have her hand out expecting something for free. She has her hand out to offer something to potential clients.
Thanks to Willy Robles Aguileras for this photo!
In preparation for the launch of our first Jobs for Life class in La Carpio this Saturday, we recently did a search for synonyms of the word "work" on thesaurus.com. Sadly, many of the terms have a negative connotation, such as:
Doesn't make you want to jump out of bed in the morning and get to it, does it?! These terms reflect the predominant attitude towards work in this world. It's a curse, a drag, a burden...something we HAVE to do to pay the bills.
One of the many things we hope to teach during this Jobs for Life class is that work is GOOD. It gives us dignity by enabling us to be productive, showing us what we are good at, and developing those gifts and abilities through practice. It challenges us, takes us to the next level, gives us something to occupy our minds. It enables us to support our families by providing for their physical needs with the money we are paid to do our work.
God gave Adam work to do as soon as He created him: to rule over the creation (Genesis 1:28). This was not a curse initially. It was a fact of life. A blessing really, since lounging in the garden would tend to get old after while, and we all know what kind of trouble we tend to get into when we're bored. Adam needed an occupation, something to keep him busy. Only later after sin comes into play does God call out the toil that Adam will have to go through to get what he needs from the earth.
Some favorite quotes about the value of hard work:
"Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." AND "It seems the harder I work, the more luck I have." Thomas Jefferson
"Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don't turn up at all." Sam Ewing
"If a man is to be called a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven played music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well." Martin Luther King, Jr.
"My grandfather once told me that there were 2 kinds of people: those who do the work and those to take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there is less competition." Indira Gandhi
Thanks for visiting our new blog! We hope to keep it fresh with news and activities from La Carpio, as well as photos and videos that will show you what's going on.
Quote of the month
""At the margins is the only place the Church will have credibility."