Machismo on the margins
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.
Hospitality on the margins
“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.”
Lament on the margins
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.
Underdogs on the margins
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!
Joy on the margins
The new school year just started in Costa Rica, which means our child sponsorship program has dominated our time and energies for the past month. Just yesterday, we handed out the last of 94 backpacks to two children whose mother is partially paralyzed from a stroke she suffered almost three years ago. Due to the stroke, she is mute. Due to her immigration status, she has no access to healthcare.
One of her neighbors let us know of her situation and her need. The same neighbor let us know that the father of the two children left his wife shortly after her stroke and started another family. Apparently, he splits time between the two. Yesterday he was "home" but you could taste the tension in the air from his presence. I felt the pressure of the anger and the resentment as I prayed for the two children and their family. To be honest, I was relieved to walk out into the sun and breathe fresh air.
Within 15 minutes, our little group passed three other children giveDIGNITY sponosored this year. Their mothers were walking them to their first day of school. When they saw us, they stopped and proudly displayed their handsome kids in their crisp new uniforms. The joy on the faces of the young students was evident as they got to show off their new shoes, pants, shirts and backpacks. Those three brief encounters made the weeks of shopping and returns and exchanges all worth it. Those smiles erased the ugliness of those who want to exploit this program and take advantage of free stuff for personal gain, robbing from their neighbors who might have real need.
In his famous sermon "The Weight of Glory" C.S. Lewis wrote, "Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object." I see this truth in my own life, when I long for peace and comfort after experiencing darkness and tension. I've been made to experience peace and joy and comfort in God's presence. I have this longing in me. And all too easily, I confuse my longing for God for longing for what His presence might give me in that undiscovered country.
I see this truth in the lives of others on the margins who've grown up next to a garbage dump. Life and family, and failure and betrayal have convinced many on the margins that they are garbage and don't deserve joy and peace and comfort. And still they have that inherent longing for more. The displaced desire reveals itself in so many negative ways--in pursuit of wealth, or temporal love, or sex or danger or in hatred and becomes a rival to our God-given longing for Him.
So, those moments of joy and smiles and pride are to be shared and celebrated, but not worshipped. In the hopes of restoring dignity, we need to restore joy and hope, but resist the temptation to make that an end, or an idol.
To those who have sponsored a child this year, or in the past, thank you so much for partnering with us in this manner. Pray with us that these children will come to recognize the source of their longing and desire and attach it to the true Object.
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.
The dignity of work
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?
The Church at its finest
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).
Reflections on Washing Feet
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.
Quote of the month
""At the margins is the only place the Church will have credibility."