“How Was Your Trip?”: Back from Costa Rica

It’s a question we’re getting a lot these days, now that we are home again from our family excursion to Costa Rica. The truth is, the effects of this trip will stay with us a long time. The friends we made challenged us, blessed us, and made us look at the world — and ourselves — in new ways.

Dios te salve, Maria, llena eres de gracia; el Senor es contigo…

"Angie" at midwife'sOur experience at the Center was eye-opening. One fifteen-year-old girl, great with child and terrified of the pain of labor and delivery, had a healthy baby girl … and returned just days later with a dehydrated infant whose umbilical cord had become infected. “Angie” did not want to be a mother, she wanted to go back to school. But the hospital sent her back to the Center to learn how to care for her infant, and to care for herself, and to take up the mantle of maternity. Another mother, “Patricia,” seventeen with two children, came alongside Angie and empathized with how hard it was, and how important.

Benedita tu eres entre todas las mujeres, y benedito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesus.

In a few days, Angie’s smile had returned, and her daughter’s cheeks began to plump. I had not touched the baby, except to smile at her in passing — it was critical that the mother bond uninterrupted with her child. But there were others in need of holding, in need of changing, in need of singing. There were older ones, too, who needed to be reminded of how much God loved them, too. We colored and sang and read aloud in my deplorable Spanish. Soon ten-year-old Lola was reading, too.

Labor room - before

Labor room – before


Baby Room Costa Rica 001

New Labor Room

Santa Maria, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores,

When my own family joined me and the Spanish-speaking volunteers who had started the trip with me left, things took a different turn. Susana, the woman in charge of running the Center, a no-nonsense “Tico” (as they call themselves, native Costa Rican – as opposed to the indigenous Cebecar who come from the mountains to have their children) had very different ideas about how much babies should be held. Susana was of the mind that there was too much house-cleaning to be done, that they should be left alone to go to sleep.

At one point just before I left, we were all getting ready for the new bishop to visit the Center, to give his blessing to the women there. Susana had everyone busy scrubbing and tidying the common areas; after doing the breakfast dishes I went out on the porch and tended the children so the others could work undistracted. Around noon lunch was served, and Susana told me to put the baby I was holding in his crib so I could eat my lunch. I had just gotten him to sleep, and the moment his head hit the pillow, he started crying. So I picked him up again … and Susana grabbed him from my arms, took him to the sink, and doused him in cold water. Above his screams, she lectured me in Spanish. Even if I could have understood her, I doubt I would have listened. At that moment, I just wanted to grab the baby and run. Instead I stood there, rooted to the floor, as she wrapped the baby in a towel and handed him off to his mother to nurse. Gradually his sobs relented and he drifted off to sleep.

I realized at that moment it was time for me to go home. A journalist from the diocesan paper came ahead of the bishop, to do a story on the Center. I chatted with her about my visit, about setting up the laboring room and sharing about the Center with people in the United States. At that moment, my daughter came up cradling a kitten, who was rapidly declining from the combined factors of not enough food (his mother had run off, and he had to subsist on whatever the dogs didn’t eat from the mealtime scraps) and too much rough handling from the older children. Animals serve a utilitarian function in Costa Rica, something Sarah had a hard time understanding. “Why don’t you take him to the vet? He’s going to DIE!!!” she sobbed. Seeing the cat’s neck was nearly devoid of fur, I wondered if he had mange. Gently I took the animal from her grasp and set it down so I could give her a hug. “I know. It’s hard. Life here is harder that it is in the States, honey. We can’t really change that. All we can do is love them as long as we are here.”

She looked at me, accusing. “You don’t care about that cat! You’re mean!!!”

Ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.

Her words rattled me a bit. Yes, her teenage outburst wasn’t unprecedented. And I knew it would be impossible to explain to the satisfaction of her tender heart why I was not taking a more active role in saving the kitten. Just as I had not been able to persuade Susana that the babies needed the stimulation I had been giving them, that I was not just spoiling them. When two worlds collide, there is always the risk of misunderstanding. But it is also at this crossroads that transformation can occur.

It had been years since I’d been engaged in any kind of missionary work. Frankly, I should have learned more Spanish before undertaking this trip … though I quickly learned that not all the indigenous women were fluent in the language. I saw these women sit at the back of the church, unable to go forward to receive the sacraments, and wished I had been able to teach them. I saw the mountain of suitcases containing baby clothes from previous volunteers, and realized that they didn’t need more onesies. What they needed was for someone to tell them, in their own language, how much their Father in heaven loved them and their children.

Saida and KennethThese young mothers could not count on the support of husbands, or even the financial security of a job back on the reservation. Based on what I had seen, it was very likely some of them would be back the following year, with another baby. Would someone be ready to teach them then?

During my time in Costa Rica, I was reminded of how short and hard life can be, despite its wild beauty. I saw that love does not always come wrapped in soft flannel and warm water. Sometimes it simply stays, bearing silent and prayerful witness to the longing of the human heart. And sometimes, love cries along.

Why Go? Thoughts on Short-Term Missions

IMG_2105As an Evangelical Protestant (the first 30 years of my life), I went on several short-term mission trips, one for nearly a year (as a teacher’s aide at Dakar Academy in Senegal, West Africa) and others for periods of just a few weeks or months (Poland, Mexico). I will always be grateful for these experiences, which deeply affected my worldview and shaped my values. And this week, my children will get just a taste of these experiences, as we spend time with St. Bryce Missions here in Costa Rica.

To be honest, I’m a bit nervous about how they will do in a world without television, without pizza, without electronics, where they will eat beans and rice several times each day (and be thankful) and have to remember not to flush the toilet paper or walk around without shoes. Where they have to work to make themselves understood. I am hoping that it will give them a taste of how the rest of the world lives, and a desire to share more of themselves with those who have less.

These lessons are not easy ones, of course. It’s been almost thirty years since I was last on a mission trip, and it’s been harder than I thought it would be. My body doesn’t take kindly to such a rustic environment, and I was grateful when my friend Colleen opened her home to me so I could get a real shower and sleep under  a fan for a few nights. We even got to watch an English language movie … I never laughed so hard at Princess Bride. “You keep saying that, but I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

Ironically, the hardest part of the trip also occurred at Colleen’s house, when we came home to find that the dog had torn apart, limb from limb, four of their month-old kittens. “We were not going to be able to keep them, but I didn’t want it to end like this,” Colleen sighed as we cleaned up the mess, unable to salvage her favorite blanket. It was horrible, a stark reminder of how harsh life can be. Back at the Center, another kitten battled for survival — the two dogs cornering her on a semi-regular basis, battling for food. I thought of my two dogs at home. These dogs would have made a snack out of Gretta.

Yesterday at lunch, one of the volunteers — a med student with fluent Spanish skills — admitted she wasn’t sure her summer internship was going to be what she thought it would be. This was her second time in Costa Rica, and she had decided to volunteer this summer to see if she might be interested in becoming a missionary doctor. But she wasn’t sure whether this was going to be a good test, since she felt she hadn’t done very much, apart from cleaning and holding babies.

I assured her that God would use this experience for whatever he had in mind for her. It wasn’t until years after I returned from Africa that I fully appreciated what God was trying to teach me there: Important lessons about detachment, about gratitude, about simplicity, about trust. I had my eyes opened about what life is like for other people, and a chance to take on that experience in solidarity. While I had grand visions of saving souls, the reality was very different: I could not greatly change their circumstances, no matter how many baby blankets and onesies I brought with me. They will still struggle. They will still have enormous needs that are not easily met.

But for just a few weeks, we can love. I hold six-month old Axel, whose mother struggles to care for her child with cerebral palsy and other special needs. Each time he cries, I cuddle him close, grateful that he has not given up hope that someone will comfort him. They say Axel is “slow” because his mother neglected him. But I see a mother doing the best she can, despite impossible odds, to care for her two boys and her sister, whose mother died and who had no one to care for her. I understand the isolation and stress of parenting special-needs children, and I encouraged her as best the language barrier would allow. “You are a good mama. This is difficult,” I tell her. Later that day, I see her playing on the floor with her children, laughing and clapping as Kenneth walks several steps on his own. She catches my eye, and I laugh with her.

Love really is the most powerful force in the universe.