When Bonnie and I first heard that our Young Professionals group at church had selected Costa Rica as the destination for the group’s Mission Trip, we were kind of bummed. Out of pure selfishness, of course.
Being that both of us are world travelers, we were hoping for a more exotic location like Africa or the Middle East. Not that Costa Rica isn’t exotic, but it just so happened that we were actually in Costa Rica at a port of call while on a cruise when received the email with the news. Even so, we decided to keep our selfish desires to ourselves and simply go along with the decision the group had made.
When we first arrived at the airport in San Jose, our group of seventeen had no idea what we were in for. Though some of us had extensive travel experience, many of us had never been out of the country. Even so, though we were unaware of it, our host team from 6:8 Ministries had everything under control. As such, they promptly picked us up in a chartered bus and took us to our team house in the barrio where our adventure began.
Our first activity was a “Prayer Walk”. I had never been on a prayer walk before, so I simply walked at the back of the group and played the role of “security guard”. As we walked through the neighborhood, we began stopping at different houses and visiting with the people. Some of the residents were elderly folks in wheel chairs and others were single mothers who struggled to find steady work. At each stop, the 6:8 team would deliver much needed supplied like groceries, clothes, and toiletries along with little gift for the children. After conversing for a little while, the team would ask if it would be ok for us to pray with them and for them, to which the people always replied ‘yes’.
At first, this seemed so crazy to me! Who does this? I couldn’t imagine simply walking through my neighborhood in Florida, stopping by people’s houses and asking them if I could pray with them and for them. But for some reason, it seemed acceptable to do it here.
When we arrived at the fifth or so house on our walk, it seemed we were getting into the poorest of areas. The houses (or should I say “shacks”) were increasingly tiny and they lined a river that was polluted with every kind of trash imaginable, including raw sewage. It was there that we met two families who were neighbors. One had an elderly man with a badly deformed leg from an accident years ago, and the other had a small boy who had some sort of mental disability. As was routine, the team delivered the regular supplies, including some Advil for the elderly man and a little toy for the young boy.
It was then that the family of the boy began to tell us about the changes they had seen in him (Jose Antonio) over the months that the teams had began visiting their home. At first, Jose Antonio would spend all of his time on a makeshift bed in a dark room groaning as he was not able to speak. But since the teams had been visiting, he had become remarkably more alert. He was awake and energetic, playful and so much more communicative. And his mother attributed his progress to the simple fact that the teams had been coming to pray for him.
I know it sounds far fetched to think that a simple thing like praying for a young boy in the barrio could actually make any type of impact, but I saw the change with my own eyes over the course of several subsequent months. Initially, I thought it to be coincidence or happenstance, but the Bible talks about Jesus healing many people simply because of their faith in Him. Why couldn’t that still happen today?
We spent the next few days simply hanging out in the barrio, handing out empanadas in the park, jump roping with the kids, drawing mural with sidewalk chalk, handing out supplies, and simply loving people. Then it was time for our free day. Though it seemed like we had just gotten there and it didn’t feel like we had really ‘done’ that much work, we were off to the coast for a long day of zip lining, body boarding, and eating. And that’s when it all started to sync in…
We had held garage sales and bake sales and asked family and friends for donations so that we could bring some project money to put toward a community project. In addition to all of the supplies and clothes and shoes that we had brought, we had an additional $1000 for a project. At the time, we were pretty proud of ourselves for having raised that much money. But after our day on the beach, we ran some rough calculations and found that we had collectively spent over $2500 just that day! Though we had a lot of fun, we couldn’t help think about all of the fun we had with the people we had interacted with over the past few days and how much that $2500 would have done for them. Fortunately for us and our guilt, we where heading back into service the next day.
The next morning, we began working on the house of an older man on disability in the neighborhood. He had a very small two-room house but thought that if he could add a small room onto it that he could rent it out and make a little extra money to make ends meet. Our job was to lay the cement foundation for the room to be built on.
Now, when I say ‘foundation’, I’m not talking about the types of foundations that are common in the U.S. What I’m talking about is a simple 6-inch thick, 8’ x 10’ concrete slab. Just enough to support a studio apartment with sheetrock outer walls and a corrugated tin roof in the barrio. Also, notice that I said ‘lay” the foundation and not ‘pour’ the foundation. In the U.S., when it’s time to put down a cement foundation, a giant cement truck backs up and pours the cement right were it needs to go. In the barrios of Costa Rica, the way this is done is that two trucks dump a pile of sand and a pile of gravel about a quarter mile away from the build site (because they could park any closer) and then you haul that the rest of the way by wheel barrow. Once you get the gravel and sand where you want it, you add the bags of cement mix to the piles and mix it all together with hand shovels. Once everything is sufficiently mixed, turn a garden hose on it all and mixed it all some more.
On our walk home that afternoon, I got into a conversation with Spencer who was the director of the ministry. We talked about the past mission work that I had done and how I wasn’t able to become a full time missionary with many of the the larger organizations because I didn’t meet all of the qualifications.
“What qualifications don’t you meet?” he asked.
“Well, while in the mission field you aren’t allowed to date according the IMB (International Mission Board) and if you are married, you have to have been married for more than two years. Since Bonnie and I are engaged and about to get married next month, I’m automatically disqualified. Additionally, you can’t drink beer while in the mission field and that would disqualify me too.”
“That’s stupid.” he responded.
“Oh yeah, what kind of qualifications does 6:8 have?” I inquired. To which Spencer quickly responded “I have to like you.”
It was then that I knew Spencer and I could get along great.
The next morning I got up early and decided to work on the Experiencing God study that our group was currently going through. It just so happened that the lesson of the day was that when God shows you an opportunity to get involved in service, you need to “Respond Immediately”. As soon as I finished my study, I headed downstairs for breakfast where Spencer and Duke (the President of 6:8) quickly pulled me aside.
“We’ve been talking about you and your situation and we think you and Bonnie should consider coming to serve with us here in Costa Rica after you get married” Duke said.
“You can count me in” I responded immediately, “but convincing Bonnie is going to literally take and act of God.”
“That’s ok,” Spencer said. “That’s what God does best.”
Immediately after breakfast, I pulled Bonnie aside and told here about my conversation with Duke and Spencer. She responded with a very clear “no” and “you’re crazy” and attempted to go on her way. But, before she could leave I told her about the “respond immediately” lesson from Experiencing God (which she was also studying) and this time she said “no – you’re crazy”, but only with her eyes.
Over the next few days, Bonnie and I really began to fall in love not just with the people, but with the 6:8 Staff and the overall purpose of the organization. Over those next few days, we saw ourselves change and our teammates change. It was then that we really started to see the bigger picture.
While most international mission organizations focus solely on attempting to help the local communities in poverty stricken third-world environments, 6:8 takes it a step further. Rather than simply focus on the locals, 6:8 also seeks to awaken the bus loads of American “Church-Goers” who embark on these evangelistic trips by providing both opportunities to serve and opportunities to reflect and truly seek the will of God in their own lives. Which explains why Bonnie and I ended up moving to Costa Rica right after we got married, despite her initial reaction.
But, not before we had some serious discussions about our wants and desires…
“What about the little craftsman house we were going to get in our favorite little neighborhood? The one with cool front porch, a clay studio, and the backyard for the dog to play in?” we would pray. To which God would respond: “I never said you couldn’t have that. I also never said when you would have that. The little craftsman house may still be in your future. However, it’s not in your immediate future. For now, I’m calling you to Costa Rica.”
And so we went.
That summer, we hosted approximately ten consecutive week-long team trips in a row. During that time, we learned a lot about ourselves and we got to repeatedly see the the transformation pattern each of the “missionaries” would go through… On Day One, 20 or so “gringos” would arrive at the team house wearing brightly colored shirts and talking pictures of all “the poverty”. They would all have plans about how they would “lead people to Christ” by handing out their bilingual tracks, their prayer beads and talking them through the Romans Road. Often times they came prepared for the Costa Rica rainy season equipped with expensive new hiking shoes, camelbacks, and sunglasses. And they were all excited to go zip-lining through the rainforest on their free day, as this really was a vacation.
Thankfully, that attitude lasted about an afternoon.
After the first walk through the shanti-hut village where every house had a dirt floor, a leaky roof, and no running water, the team usually got quiet as they realized they were in for more than they expected. But as the days wore on, the teams would quickly adjust to the environment and get really engaged with the people. Jumping rope and playing soccer with the kids, serving food at the homeless shelter, praying with any and everybody, building houses, painting walls, teaching english, and singing songs! It was always so cool to see people who were completely outside of their comfort zone adapt. But what was even wilder was to see the look on faces of each team half way through their trip when it was time to go zip-lining and to the beach on their free-day excursion…
After 3 days of surrendering everything to God, being a stranger in a strange land, and selflessly serving people less fortunate than you from morning until night, going back to focusing on themselves just didn’t seem quite as fun. But, they did it anyway.
Upon returning from a day of fun, the emotions were always mixed. Most teams (like Bonnie and I’s team) brought about $1000.00 worth of donations so that they could do service projects during their stay. But when they realize that they collectively spent $2000.00 on their free-day trip, they usually began to question whether it was worth it (especially since it only costs $3500.00 to build someone a new house). And that’s really when you started to see the wheels turn…
“Why am I so financially blessed and these people have so little?”
“How is it that these people praise and thank God for all their blessings and all I ever do is ask for more?”
“I thought I was going to come here and witness to these people, but they already know and love God even more than I do?”
“How can have lived so selfishly for so long?”
“I want to change my ways, but how?”
Over the last couple of days of the week, each member of the team would seem to get more and more engaged with the locals during the day and more and more reflective and introspective during the evenings. And on the last day, when it was time leave, it was usually unanimous that everyone wanted to simply stay. Because for an entire week, they had just done something they had never done – They turned off their cell phones, iPods, and emails. They surrendered their schedules and their agendas. They didn’t put themselves first. They prayed for others rather than for things. The walked in pouring rain, rode the bus with everyone else, and didn’t mind one bit. Last, but definitely not least, they heard God speak. And now it was time to go.
But before each team left, Spencer would explain how the week was really all about opening their eyes to loving their neighbor and serving one another as Jesus called us to do and that they didn’t have to come to Costa Rica to it. Though the temptations and distractions in our American homes are abundant, showing Christ’s love to the world should be an unending activity, no matter where we are. We’re all called to be missionaries, but we don’t have to go to Costa Rica to do it… We can do it in our schools, our offices, our homes, our neighborhoods, everywhere.
Our time with 6:8 Ministries in Costa Rica completely change our lives. We believed in the vision, we believed in the mission, we believed in the people and we loved seeing the transformation that was taking place on a weekly basis. So much so that at the end of the summer, Bonnie and I were ready to move to Costa permanently! So, we made a plan to return to Florida and raise enough financial support to serve with 6:8 Ministries full-time.
But as my Mom always says, “if you want to make God laugh, just make plans.”