“Me llamo (name) para servirle” is a common way to introduce yourself here, translated: “My name is (name), at your service.” People in Costa Rica are very polite. This morning, I thanked the man for delivering our eggs, and he replied “para servirle.” The polite way that Ticans (Costa Ricans) speak is a gift. It brightens my day. They speak always in formal Spanish, not the informal version that you eventually start speaking with friends in other Spanish-speaking countries. Here, it is always formal, extra polite.
There are many gifts that people have given me in missions that are simple and free. Such thoughtfulness enriches my life in missions. Recently, I have noticed how kind and respectful people are in passing. It is unusual to pass someone on the streets without them smiling and saying adios (they say it as a greeting here). When people meet each other here, or greet each other, they give a kiss on the cheek. Even men and women greet this way because the men here are respectful and tend to treat you like a sister. People riding by on their motorcycles and trucks smile and are generally upbeat and make their travels fun by doing things such as riding on top of a load of timber or on top of the bucket of a front loader, not to mention squeezing three for four people on a motorcycle. It is a joy (and comical, sometimes scary) to watch them.
Wherever we go with Felicity, people give her loads of tender attention and love. They say que linda! (how beautiful) and muñeca! (doll). In Guatemala, while I was homeschooling the kids, the housekeeper would take Felicity and carry her on her back in a kind of baby-carrying blanket. Although she had worked her whole life and was tired, Margarita loved Felicity and also wanted to be helpful. One day, we visited some Guatemalan friends. They live on the side of a steep hill. The mother, wanting to help me out, put Felicity in her baby carrier on her back. Without even asking, she just knew that it would be very helpful to me so she took the initiative and did it. One mom to another, offering a gift of help with the baby.
Yesterday, my neighbors brought over a big bag of fresh-grown red beans from their little garden. I’ve never tried fresh red beans. Their garden is not a hobby; it is to feed their family. That bag of beans was a lot of work to grow and shuck, plus I believe they gave out of their need, not from their excess. It was really given with love.
One day, I had an opportunity to give a simple gift. After our trip to the U.S., I came back to Costa Rica with a new pair of flip flops. They were pretty, bright white and pink, although they couldn’t have cost more than $7. A tired, single mother of five children came to humbly ask us for food, as it was rainy season and work was scarce. She saw my flip flops and immediately admired them. Thank goodness, I had enough presence of mind to offer to trade them for hers, which were quite worn. She was so excited. This woman walks miles to get from her home to town or school everyday. Although we cannot imagine walking miles every day in flip flops, they have no choice. When she left, I looked at that old worn pair of flip flops and decided to try them on. Ugh! They were worn as thin as a piece of cardboard. I could actually feel the plastic piece inside that gives it structure. The gift was definitely an exchange; I gave her flip flops, and she gave me a deeper understanding of her suffering . To understand the poor’s suffering is deeply humbling, and I pray it will help me to serve them better.
Simple gifts. Birthdays and Christmas are opportunities for big gifts, but how about giving simple gifts to people around us each day as a way of showing love? It makes life rich. I think it keeps us salty. If salt loses its flavor, what good is it? It might as well be thrown out and trampled. But giving and receiving simple gifts brings a spark of joy, keeping us lively, salty, and loving.
I’ve included some pictures here from the stories I shared, as well as pictures of other simple gifts we’ve received.
We were going slow and steady, meeting people one at a time, accompanying the missionary family already here to remote pueblos for prayer services, and brainstorming what this community could use. Moreover, we were still acclimating to the heat, caring for a newborn, and running the kids to and from school four times daily because they each have different daily schedules. We decided to put a big wood cross up outside our front door to symbolize that we are a household of God, of love.
Soon after that cross went up, we had a crazy 48 hours. It was as if everyone decided to come at once. It started one night at dinnertime when a thirteen-year-old girl knocked on our door and asked for food for her family. Her father was in jail and her mother couldn’t feed them. We gave her a bag of food and said we’d like to visit them the next day.
The next morning, one of the regular vendors came by to sell rice pudding cups, but this time she brought her brother. He was astonishingly thin with a pallor of grave illness. She explained that he’s eighteen-years-old, although he looked twelve, because he has severe asthma. It keeps him from school, and he’s up sick many nights. We also asked if we could visit them and she excitedly said yes.
A lady Magdalena came to the gate next, and we invited her up to the porch. She introduced herself and her granddaughter, whom she is raising now after her daughter took off to Nicaragua and hasn’t been heard from since. She also has two of her own children at home still. Magdalena explained that her husband beats her badly and recently fled when police came. She has terrible stomach, back and leg pain in addition to her evident eye problem, and she discreetly asked for some food; people here have a lot of pride and tend to ask only if they truly need it. We gave her a bag with a week’s supply of food and said we’d like to visit her home.
At the same time, two school girls stopped in–the same girls we’d given food to the night before. They now come daily after school for a snack and glass of cold water before their long, hot walk home. They ask for many things–shoes for school, a calling card for their dad, cooking oil and painkillers for their mom, and yesterday even a Barbie. Most of all, they seem to want a peaceful place to sit and rest in the shade–our porch. The older girl wants to be a doctor and loves school. Instead of giving her a Barbie for her little sister, I encouraged her to do some work to earn money and buy it herself. Drawing from my American upbringing, I let her know that there’s always work to be had if she is motivated and gets creative. I told her that if she brings me some potted flowers (which she can dig up around her house), I’ll pay her for them. I’ve been wanting flowers to decorate our porch. That excited her, so she’s planning to bring them tomorrow. (Now it is tomorrow. She brought the flowers and will bring more soon. She also brought a chicken to sell me, which she says they killed this morning. Honestly, I’m a little scared to serve it, but I’m proud of her for being proactive).
Later that afternoon, did we visit the girls’ home. It’s a tiny wood structure with dirt floors. One room has a sink, shelves with pots, and a little table with a couple of chairs. The other room we didn’t see, but it must be their bedroom, so two rooms total. There were also hammocks hanging in the “kitchen.” Six people live there. Next door is the frame of a house they were starting to build when their father went to jail, but now it’s just sitting there. Their needs are great, and their mom doesn’t work due to back pain and needing to do homemaking chores.
A lady also stopped by to ask if we would give her and her boyfriend rent money for the month. When I hesitated, she asked if we would give them a loan. I told her I needed to talk to Nick about it. When she returned later that day, we said we’d like to meet with both her and her boyfriend. She went and fetched him, and the four of us sat down. For about an hour we talked about Nicaragua, work, passports, and marriage. He’s an energetic and strong 21-year-old but having trouble finding work, he said. We offered to pay him the going rate to move a massive pile of dirt in our backyard until he’d earned the rent money. He eagerly agreed and promised to be there at 8:00 the next morning. He pulled up on his motorcycle at 10:00, worked for ½ hour, and disappeared. Neither of them have been back since. We were glad we didn’t give a hand-out in that instance. That big annoying dirt pile is now a blessing, since we can use it to provide work for people who are willing.
Using our car to help pick bananas in our backyard (part of the huge dirt pile is on the right).
The next morning at 7:00 David, known as the town drunk, showed up at our door. He had been badly beaten the night before in a bar fight. He’s a smart, good-looking, hard-working man with a terrible addiction. In fact, he’s the only person here to speak English to us, and his sister said she has no idea where he learned it. Nick took him across the street to the church with a first aid kit and a bag of food. He mended the man’s face, prayed with him, listened, and gave him food.
In that 48 hours, there were other people as well. A woman who is David’s sister showed up asking if she could be our laundry woman. She also asked us to help with her downstairs ceiling which needs some fixing up. Several other vendors came by, and we always try to buy from them since they are out working to support their families. We can turn around and share what we buy with people who come asking for food.
It was a whirlwind. Our heads were spinning! Part of the reason it was so busy was that Nick and I were both sitting out on the front porch, which makes our house feel approachable. Fortunately, we have a large yard and porch which is perfect for receiving people. When we aren’t out, people don’t tend to come because we have a fence with a closed gate. We felt so blessed that people were coming, but also it was so intense that we understood why it’s important to leave town once a week and recoup. It’s great to receive people at our house because the kids can keep playing and we can keep tabs on them; it also means our house is not our place of retreat.
We are so blessed to be able to perform corporal and spiritual works of mercy on a daily basis here. The kids love to run and grab a cup of cold water for a visitor. Sometimes they will sit and listen or later ask to know a person’s story (although their Spanish will soon surpass ours). Other times they will play in the sandbox or swing on their ropes or draw inside. Little by little, we are learning what it means to be a missionary family.
Palm Sunday procession from the Sisters’ house to the church.
In reflecting on the last year, one experience remains strongly in the forefront of my mind. It’s about meeting people where they are, finding leaders who’ll carry God’s love when we’re gone, and working with what God’s given me to spread the love of Jesus Christ.
While doing mission training last fall, we spent three weeks doing mission work in Mexico. On a cool November night our stereotypical white 15-passenger missionary van drove out to Kilometer 64, or KM64 for short, a community of former prostitutes and their children. KM 64 is about 25 minutes from General Cepeda, Mexico. The caravan of three white vans could’ve been a government convoy or a church group – either way there was a mission ahead. Tonight, it was to learn about God’s love through reading God’s word.
Our family and three other families (at least 12 kids in tow), and a half-dozen single missionaries climbed out of the vans.
We joined the KM64 community to for a Bible study. The women and young children were gathered in the chapel. The teenage boys, whose fathers were absent from the scene and the boys’ lives, were intrigued and interested in playing soccer and maybe even studying the Bible with the men.
The teenage boys’ attention span was short. A Spanish-speaking missionary suggested to the boys that we do a Bible study with them outside, so they could discuss the teachings as it relates to their lives. I thought – “good idea, but knowing the attention spans of many teenage boys, they’ll last about a sentence and be distracted by anything else.” They lasted a couple of sentences and then two 16-year-old boys rolled up on motorcycles. The competition was tough – but what if we can give one person hope in God’s love.
Next minute, in my best broken Spanish I’m asking the owner of a two-week-old shiny red motorcycle if I can take it for a spin. He looked at me with an expression of “old man, you think you can ride a motorcycle.” It’d been years since I last rode. He asked if I knew how. I assured him that I did. He agreed to let me ride it. Humility kicked in immediately – I let the clutch out too quickly and killed it. (See the video) Everyone had a good laugh and I took off. I rode for a bit and picked up some pretty good speed, and more importantly street-cred.
After making a few laps around the chapel, then my Spanish-speaking mission buddy and I were able to talk about God’s love with the motorcycle owner and a few other boys. The owner was clearly a leader among the boys, so if we could connect with him, maybe he’d help others know of God’s love.
We discussed God having a loving plan for each of us. It was clear that neither the boy nor I ever thought that we’d meet, let alone in the middle of a desert, discuss motorcycles and God. A simple proof that only God knew that the boy and I would meet, God has plans for each of us. We discussed the motorcycle’s power. We discussed that if he thought the cycle was powerful, God was even more powerful and could always be relied on! We discussed how God could and does provide for every need that we have.
Psalm 23:1 “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”
Matthew 6:33 “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
We discussed that the greatest richness is knowing God – that the reward of sharing God’s love is greater than all the things that we could buy, including a motorcycle – the boy agreed. The other missionary and I could see that the Holy Spirit was moving the young man’s heart. The boy shared that his father was not there and that he used to go to the chapel with his mom. We explained that no matter where his earthly father was, that his Heavenly Father loves him and has open arms for him, always. When we finished talking, we hoped that we renewed the boy’s relationship with God. We also hoped that he’d renew his journey with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Mark 1:11 “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased.”
The experience made me think of the times when the Heavenly Father could have said the same to me, and those times I could have done better. Both offer God’s love shown in contentment for who we are and hope in who we can become.
To read about how we became missionaries and to journey with us visit our website.
When we first walked into our home in Big Woods, Louisiana where we have been in missionary training for the past three months, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But with a tour which took only about one minute, I quickly learned that Nick and I would now be sharing a full size bed instead of a queen, four kids would all be in the same room in bunk beds, John in a closet, and a person would need to pass through either one of those bedrooms to get to the kitchen and bathroom. Moreover, the dining table is in the front room, so a person would also need to pass through bedrooms to move between the kitchen and table. We had downsized from a 2700 square foot home into 900 square feet.
“Mom, these mattresses are hard!” I heard one of the kids yell from the bedroom. Sure enough, these bunk beds were camp style and the plastic-encased mattresses were a few inches shy of the thick, plush mattresses we were all used to back home. Over the next two months, we would average a cockroach every two weeks (not too bad, but still eventful each one), windows that were not transparent half of the day due to condensation, often a couple people urgently elbowing their way into the bathroom at once, and a love seat and two armchairs which never allow us all to sit on furniture at the same time. The first night, Nick and I couldn’t rest our elbows in our bed without poking each other. The box spring was so rickety that it was preferable to just put the mattress directly on the floor. That, however, puts the bed in the path of the people walking from one side of the house to the other. Boy do the kids love bouncing across the bed, occasionally still wearing their shoes. While our own children have learned to walk around it, their visiting friends continue to carve out the trail across our mattress.
Despite these challenges to a new simpler way of living, there was this great joy and freedom. I realized how much I had worshiped my house in Oregon like an idol! Wanting perfect curtains, spotless carpet, new counter tops, solid furniture with pretty bedding, a more manicured lawn, an oriental rug just for looks, on and on. There was ALWAYS something else I wanted, and I had improvement plans for the next several years already scoped out. For what? Would that REALLY make us a happier family? Was I really putting Christ at the center of our home? Were we really giving as much money to charity as we could have been? Or were we just blissfully living a life of voluntary ignorance where the people who are starving to death on the other side of the world are so far away that how could us getting new hardwood floors possible make any difference? I’m not saying this to guilt or judge anyone other than myself. I don’t even judge myself harshly, because I was just doing the typical American mom things, and our family did pray daily that God would show us a way to help the poor. And boy did He!
Major perspective shift: Mexico, Fall 2018. Our family drives to General Cepeda for more missionary training, this time at a real mission post. We are shown to our family room. Yes, our one family room. Tile floor, one small window, two sets of bunk beds and one full-size bed. It is stiflingly hot and we have only one slow ceiling fan. One week later, it is freezing and literally snows and we have a little space heater but a one-inch crack under the door. Our community bathrooms are across the courtyard, which being pregnant means about three trips each night in the freezing dark using a flashlight to navigate my way. Of course, avoiding all sink water and throwing the toilet paper in the trash can. And yet the kids LOVE it. The whole family in one bedroom! What could be better? Actually, we all grew to love it. It was challenging, but our family was close.
Two weeks later, living conditions actually dropped to a whole new level. We drove to another mission post five hours away in Allende. We were given a house to share with another missionary family. This house is sometimes lived in by a Mexican missionary family who leaves their things in the closets and cupboards. There are seven in our family and eight in the other family. We enter the house walking into the kitchen. From the kitchen, we walked into the next bedroom, which led to the next bedroom, which led to the third bedroom. That was it. No living area, just the kitchen and three bedrooms. There definitely weren’t enough beds for everyone. How would we do this? With some prayer and configuring, we ended up separating the house into two “apartments” with one door staying closed to divide the house. On one side was the kitchen and one bedroom, which also had a bathroom. That became our side. Entering through a door on the other side of the house, the family came into the third bedroom, which had a bathroom, and then could pass to the second bedroom. That was it. There weren’t enough beds so Nick and the other dad ran to the store for a couple of thick mats. There also weren’t any pillows, but someone brought us pillows. The first night was freezing partially because our bedroom window was broken, but the second night a missionary brought us a space heater. The hot water tank was totally turned off. Nick helped attach it to a propane tank and light it, and praise God it worked! We also didn’t have a washer or dryer. The Mexican missionary family arrived with both in the back of their pickup truck, brought over from their house for us to use. Two days later pillow cases arrived. One morning there was no water, but later that day it came back on.
God heard our prayers for no earthquake during our stay. The house had major cracks across the walls, some so thick that the family had stuffed plastic bags in them for insulation. The walls were literally falling apart, crumbling onto the floors. No drawer opened smoothly, no cupboard door clicked back into place. The metal drawers and cupboards of the kitchen were all rusted and peeling. The bathroom shower was full of mold and many tiles were missing. The bathroom in the other “apartment” the second day had its toilet tip over! Once that was replaced the next day, the sink fell off! This house was seriously falling apart, and we were puzzled at which was better–the first house which was at least not falling apart and we all had beds, or the second house where at least we had a kitchen and there was a large enclosed area outside for the kids to play. I was struggling to pick up my spirits when I heard one of the kids yell “Mom, this place is waaay nicer than our last place, isn’t it?!”
Fast forward to the last day of our trip, after visiting truly poor people all week who were happy to have food and a cover over their heads. We heard a talk from the Mexican missionary family in residence the last night that blew me away. They talked about when they were first married and had no money. She was pregnant with their first baby and they spent their last penny traveling to the public hospital for her to give birth. They had no where to stay while waiting for her to go into labor. It was raining and they had nowhere to stay and no money!! They couldn’t buy food for days. She was starving, and they finally got a few pesos, enough to buy some milk and bread, just enough for her. She ravenously ate it all. She went into labor that night, and while she was in the hospital having the baby, her husband had nowhere to stay. Wow, no food, no place to live at all, no transportation, no money, and no job. It reminded me of Mary and Jesus the night that Mary gave birth to Our Lord. Jesus chose to be born into poverty. And here I was experiencing just a little taste of what it’s like to be poor. Just a little taste, and boy did it spoil my week. I was always cold! That makes it hard to pray. It’s hard to pray when you haven’t slept well either. But I wasn’t hungry. What if I’d been hungry? Or didn’t know where I would sleep that night? What if I needed a job but couldn’t get one? Or had nowhere to put my kids even if I got one? My mind would be all muddled. Would I be able to think clearly enough to pray while living in chronic stress? I don’t think I would even have the words. I was living it at the mission post but at a very very small level. Praying would be different, I realized as I sat in the church reflecting. It would be a collapsing into Jesus. Just a laying my whole self down, pouring my whole self out, literally a begging of God, my lifeline, to save me. If I was truly poor, I think that’s more what my prayer life would be like.
So at the end of the week, I was exhausted and excited to get back to Big Woods. That lumpy bed would be far behind me. On the other hand, what a gift I’d received! When we go to Costa Rica, we will actually have an idea of what it’s like to be poor. I know what is helpful–garbage removal, water, hot water, a place to lay your head, food. I have an idea of what I can do to help. But will those actually be their greatest needs? Do they really care about those things the most, like I did? Or will they have even more pressing needs? Such as knowing how to read, or painkillers, or safety? It is very hard to be poor through no choice of your own–not just simplicity either, but true destitution. It is not how God wants his children to live.
So how did it feel when we drove up to our house at Big Woods? Our simple little two-bedroom house felt luxurious! It was so clean and big! So many rooms! And privacy, and water we could drink right out of the tap. We had downsized, then downsized again, and now we had a whole new perspective.
My prayer before we left for Mexico was that I too would be able to say the words of St. Paul in Philippians 4:12-13:
“I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.”
No matter what our housing is in Costa Rica–and I know there will be pros and cons–I pray that nothing gets in the way of Jesus and my relationship. If He wants to give me comforts, so be it, but if He allows me to be uncomfortable, it may be His way of drawing me closer. His will be done; I will try to be resigned to it and “have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.” Praise God!
As we prepare to head out to the foreign missions for 2.5 years with our family, Nick and I scramble to wrap up our life here in Oregon. Nick is working long, hard hours at the office, and I am faced with the overwhelming task of making a decision about everything we own, and I mean every little thing: save it, trash it, take it, donate it, sell it, or give it away?
When we listed our house for sale a few weeks ago, we placed lots of boxes in the attic to stage the house, boxes of toys, extra utensils, and MUCH more. Now our house has sold, and most of the boxed items have not been missed. It’s nice to have a less cluttered, simpler house which has actually made more time to be with the kids or to visit people.
We did end up getting a storage unit so we won’t need to replace everything when we return. With exactly four weeks to go, I pray that the house will be empty by the morning we need to drive away!
And when we do drive away, how freeing that will be! Not bogged down by all the stuff. It is scary–there is security in having stuff. It takes care of me. It makes me comfortable and fulfills my needs and desires. It even makes me happy. It also takes a lot of time, money and energy to care for it all. So there is a trade-off. As we start our life of living Gospel poverty, I am looking forward to understanding what that will look like for our family. It is not destitution or denying ourselves of basic needs, but it’s living a simple life limited to what we need and not much else. The idea is that our time, money and energy will now go first to God and not to stuff. We will rely on God to make us comfortable and fulfill our needs and desires, not things. This will free up time for loving and serving others.
So in four weeks when we drive away only owning what will fit in our car, our small-ish storage unit, and my parents’ attic, we will have a new freedom. The freedom of Gospel poverty. I pray that we will use that freedom for something worthy of God as we begin this missionary life. We are honored by this opportunity and pray that God will use us as His vessels, taking our weakness and giving us His strength. Thank you, Lord!
“I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.” Ph 4:13