Friday, April 3, 2015

Well, how was it??

I've been asked quite a few times how our !mpact trip to Costa Rica went.  I usually come up with some lame dis-jointed comment about how wonderful it was and how much I enjoyed it.  Truthfully, I'd like to say a lot more, but some things are hard to express on the spot so I've written them down and although this is quite lengthy, it really only hits a few of the highlights of the trip.  - Andrea

I never expected to go on a missions trip. Ever. It really isn’t my thing. Physical discomfort, potential danger, and food dissidence doesn’t sound like a good time. No thank you.  Except that’s not how God works.  He doesn’t let you sit and be comfortable. Instead He plants teeny tiny seeds and watches them grow.  He places little reminders and random thoughts over time until you become uncomfortable in the very place that you feel comfortable.  At least that’s how it was for me.  I’ve grown uncomfortable being comfortable.  How long am I going to say no? How long will I insists that it’s someone else’s calling?  How long can I remain blissfully unaware while at the same time being made aware. That’s the road I took to the mission field.  I was kicking and screaming at one point, then listening and considering, and then seeking and running towards.  By the time our church presented the idea of a family !mpact trip to Costa Rica my heart was ready.


In some ways I felt prepared to see the poverty.  As a child in the 70’s I remember the slums and ghettos that weren’t too far from where I lived.  In Costa Rica the slums start out towards the middle of the hill and then deteriorates the further you drive down.  Our team had spent the previous day sightseeing and that morning at an upscale church in another part of town before we took the tour of Pavas.   As our taxi van descended down the hill it felt comfortable to look out the window and take in the surroundings.  I made eye contact with several of the locals as our van passed comfortably by carrying us rich Americans with all our valuables placed nonchalantly in our laps.  I didn’t mind looking at the poverty of their houses. I wasn’t affected by the trash littering nearly every inch of road.  The stray dogs digging through garbage bags didn’t move me.  The toddlers and preschoolers playing in a blow-up swimming pool on the side of the road didn’t make me feel sorry for them.  The three drug dealers on the side of the road didn’t especially scare me. But then it happened.  I looked into the eyes of a woman walking on the side of the road and God got a hold of me. Something in her eyes made me feel shame for who I was sitting in that van touring an area where they call home.  It happened so fast and yet it was so profound. I didn’t feel superior to her, if anything I felt lower than her.  Is that how God see me?  Shielded by my Goodwill clothes that are still designer-labeled, my body cleanly showered and hair pulled back neatly, with my iPhone 6 tucked in my Nike bag and old Croc sandals?  I didn’t feel that I deserved better than this woman yet I’m offered opportunities and options that this woman can’t even dream of. How do you make peace with that?  Why am I in the van and her on the street?  I felt this wave of uneasiness that didn’t let up.  Our van turned the corner and we could see La Carpio in the distance, a place worse than the one we were in. All of a sudden it got very real.  This place was sobering not just because of the way it looked or smelled, it was also the way it felt. I felt something deep in my bones that I still can’t describe.  Even from a distance it was hard to look at and imagine what life is like there.  

La Carpio
The ride back to the hotel was nearly silent.  How do you ever feel comfortable again surrounded by luxury?


I dreaded the first day at the Hope Center. Up until Monday the whole thing felt more like a vacation than a mission trip. Now it was time to work, and I didn’t know if I was up to the task.  I felt like someone holier or more loving should be there in my place.  I was an imposter. I was someone who liked the idea of a mission trip more than the reality of it.

We entered the building and looked around.  Not so bad I thought.  

Inside Hope Center
We found out what needed to be done and we were left to tackle it anyway we saw fit.  I immediately gravitated toward sorting clothes that people had donated.  It was an easy job that allowed my mind to wonder.  Who donated these clothes? Who will end up with them? Is that why it’s hard to tell who the poor kids are? They are dressed in Justice and Tommy Hilfiger clothes?  As I continued to work, I noticed that my kids were working too. James was moving furniture and mopping, the girls were wiping walls and then came and joined me, and Dennis was starting a painting project.  Humph… nobody works that willingly at our house I noted to myself.  

Emily and Kat sorting clothes by size and gender.

Eventually the kids started trickling in and it was time to serve lunch.  Because of the jobs that needed to get done in the morning, no one was helping the women in the kitchen and they had prepared the meal as they have done every day for the past 20 years.  The three of us moms were tasked with placing the food on the plates and the kids were asked to bring the trays out and serve the children.  The Hope Center serves about 200 children a day so as you can imagine it’s no small task.  I stood in front of a large vat of freshly made spaghetti and green bean concoction while my fellow moms served rice, beans, and salad.  

Rice and spaghetti

First one plate was filled, then another, and another… tears welled up in my eyes.  It was unexpected and unexplainable.  Somehow the meaning of this trip flooded through me.  We are here to serve, and I was literally serving one scoop of spaghetti at a time.   How can such a mundane task bring so much joy, so much meaning, and so much pleasure?  Plate after plate, with tired arms and an aching back, the pleasure never stopped.  When lunch was over the clean up commenced immediately.  I was stationed in front of a make-shift sink with a dirty sponge, solid soap container, and cold water.  I washed for an hour.  It was not fun but the appreciation I had for what these women accomplish every day went through the roof.  How can they do it? Why do they do it?  Unanswered questions. 

Around 2:00 pm the children started to come back for our quasi-VBS experience.  It was the first time I got to intermingle with them.  Prior to this I had been in the kitchen.  I was nervous to interact with the kids as I spoke no Spanish, had little heart for entertaining children, and wasn’t sure if I might “catch” some childhood annoyance such as lice or who knows what else.   I hung back as the group started singing.

Singing kid songs in Spanish and English.
I noticed a girl in the back sitting alone. She had the most gorgeous long hair.  She seemed a little older and perhaps more sophisticated.  I went down and sat next to her, saying nothing at first.  A few minutes later I asked her name (the one Spanish sentence I learned).  She said, “Carla”.  I touched her hair and said, “bonita”.  As I sat there stealing glances at her beauty, especially her pristine hair that fell to her lower back, it occurred to me that this was not a good thing.  How long will it be?        I thought.  How many years does she have before her fate will be decided?  Will she have a say in it?  Is she already being groomed?  In plain terms, will this girl become a child prostitute, or is she perhaps already one?”  My heart sank.  I don’t know her story. I may never know her story. But in that moment, what I could do is be someone who wants nothing from her. I could be someone with a warm smile who can sit next to her and keep her company so she doesn’t have to sit alone.  It seemed like such a small task, but I wanted to do it as best as I could.  So I sat with her.

Carla's beautiful long hair.

The next day came and I had more confidence.  I knew where we were going, what it would be like, and why we were there.  I was asked to help in the kitchen which compared to being in the sun painting a wall, it seemed like a dream job.  I entered the kitchen not being able to say a word beyond “hola”.  I was handed a knife, cutting board, and some vegetables.  I watched as they demonstrated what I needed to do.  Please don’t let me cut myself I thought. What a burden I’d be if I had to go for stitches! 

Everything is cooked from scratch with fresh veggies from the market.

I started chopping as I quietly observed the women.  Each time someone new entered the kitchen they were greeted and kissed on the cheek.  No one was overly enthusiastic in a fake American way, yet no one was grumpy or stressed or rushed, or anything else suggesting they’d rather be somewhere else. They all worked together on different tasks consulting each other from time to time and perhaps sharing a detail from the day before.  I had no idea what we were making but everyone else seemed to and the kitchen ran like clock work.  After a few hours of chopping and preparing, it was time to serve.  Again, the three of us moms took our places in front of the vats of food and carefully scooped out the exact amount the ladies had demonstrated for us.  Tray after tray went out and in its place more dirty dishes came back.  

The plates and cups went out full and came back empty.

We worked hard and moved fast, but never in a stressful frenetic way, but rather in an organized purposeful way.  I couldn’t help but think of the kitchen as a perfectly oiled machine, working with many hands and many hearts to accomplish such a task.  At the end of service, we started on the dishes. 

The kids and moms took turns doing dishes.
There were many to wash, many to dry, and many to put away.  The task wasn’t done until the last thing was put in its place.  Again I asked myself, how is it that no one is getting sick? There is no hot water, dirty sponges, and dishes being washed by so many different people with different ideas of what’s clean. 

Sink to wash pots and pans and dishes.
Is it possible that we in America have become so germ-o-phobic that we drive ourselves crazy with ultra cleanliness?  

After clean up the women made us workers a special and different meal.  Each and every day they’d pull out the finer plastic china and utensils and real glasses for us Gringos.  The food was fantastic and never disappointed us.  

Special lunches made fresh for the Gringos.
When the meal was over, we’d sneak back to the kitchen and wash the dishes we had just used.  The cycle never ended but no one complained.  Meanwhile in the next rooms the dental clinic was underway.  This was the first time many of these children (and some of the women in the kitchen) had ever been to a dentist.  The first day was just to check the kids’ teeth and the second was to do the more complicated procedures and the cleanings.

Rooms set up with dentist chairs.
While the kids waited, our team did the best we could to entertain the kids. There was something different about these kids in Pavas. First of all, they were physically tough, meaning that they were able to play hard, get bumped or bruised, but not cry in the corner. They laughed it off and kept playing.  I don’t know if that was a good thing because it suggests that what they experience outside of the Hope Center is much worse than a few bruises from indoor soccer.  Next, they were starved for physical attention and affection. Many of them jumped on our backs and wanted to be carried around. 

Kids always wanting a ride.

They craved anything to be touched lovingly or be paid attention to.  Another observation is that these kids were loving to each other.  It’s not that I didn’t witness some pushing and shoving between kids, but when it came down to it, these kids looked to each other for comfort and protection. They were bonded in ways far beyond what I usually see between siblings and friends.  Finally, these kids wanted to play.  More than anything, they wanted to have fun. 

Kids doing what they loved best: play time!
I can’t imagine the hardships they face outside of the Hope Center, but inside these wall they have permission to be kids.  Speaking of that, it was on Tuesday that I met Lispby (Leslie) and her sister Kimber (Kimberly).  They were as tight as two sisters can be.

Kimberly (left) and Leslie (right)
Kimberly clung to her big sister like she was her only source of comfort.  I’m guessing they are probably half sisters as Lispby has much darker skin than her much lighter sister.  Again, Kimberly is another little girl that is so cute and has such beautiful curly hair that it makes me afraid for her future and she is only 4 or 5 years old.  I befriended the pair by just sitting with them and smiling at them.  It seems to be the universal language for friendship. 

We made necklaces, colored bible story pages, and kicked the ball around.  These girls will be in my heart forever.  As the day closed at the Hope Center, we watched several of the kids walk down the hill further into the slums where I presume their homes are.  It was strange to see them leave.
The view from inside the Hope Center walls looking down the hill.
There is no one around in this picture but the cars, trucks, and motorbikes careen down the hill quite fast. 
They weren’t picked up by their mothers. They weren’t upset or crying as they left. They were just existing as they always have and I suspect will continue to do so.  It was such a strange sight. In America you wouldn’t dream of sending such little kids out to walk dangerous streets alone and here no one is expecting them at home or looking out for their personal safety. They must navigate the busy street alone doing the best they can.  In some ways it made me sad for our country that we have become so driven by fear that we can’t bare to allow our fully capable teens to go anywhere alone yet these little elementary school kids can walk through crime, drug, and gang infested streets and do just fine.  It is in these moments that the slums are teaching me where I have room for improvement.   


By the third day at the Hope Center I felt like I was part of the team.  I greeted the women with a kiss, took a knife from the drawer and began chopping garlic and the largest carrot I've ever seen.

Wow... that's a big carrot!
Shortly after one of the women came in speaking Spanish while pointing at her shirt and giving a disgusted look. It was so funny because her sentiments translated perfectly.  She was unhappy with the color of her shirt and wanted a different one.  A few minutes later she left and came back wearing a pink t-shirt and a big smile.  I guess you can say some things are just understood.  The morning continued on with lots of painting outside and chopping inside. 

Someone had the idea to put handprints on the outside columns of the Hope Center in each color that represented the logo on the sign outside.

This sign is on the outside wall of the Hope Center.
At first the idea was to use a child-sized hand as a model for all the hands, but then someone suggested we ask the women in the kitchen if they would like to add their handprints too.  Turns out they were delighted and each chose their favorite color and placed it lovingly on the walls. 

Vanessa (in a pink shirt instead of yellow) adding her handprint to the wall.
Before long we drew quite a crowd and the children all wanted a turn at placing their mark on the wall.  

This little girl was the daughter of one of the women in the kitchen.
Back home it might have been a non-memorable event, but here in Pavas where most things are dirty and unkempt it was a great display of pride in ownership and genuine effort to make things just a little bit nicer for the kids.

The blue paint is new and the handprints make it colorful.
The lunch service that day was bitter sweet.  There was hardly time to ponder that this would be our last time serving because there was so much dishwashing to do.  That really sums up a lot of experiences at the Hope Center… there is so much to do that processing the meaning behind each task has to wait for another time.  

Another healthy hot lunch.
Around 2:00pm the kids came back to the center for our “esquala” (little school).  A few of our team members sang songs in the front while the rest of us mingled with the kids who were sitting on the sidelines.  

I went and sat next to two girls who were alone. 

I don't know their names but they loved looking at pictures on my iPhone.
I asked their names but they were so soft spoken it was hard to hear.  I was having a hard time connecting so I pulled out my phone and showed them a few random pictures.  When I got to one of a swimming pool at Disney World the girls took a quick breath and exhaled, “booo-nitaaaa!!”  I couldn’t decide in that moment if it was a good thing or bad thing to show them pictures. That’s the kind of thing that comes to mind when working with these kids. My main thought was do no harm, so I put my phone away and I encouraged them to listen to the story.  After craft time the kids wanted to play games in the main room.  Their favorites were freeze-tag, soccer, and anything having to do with being spun around in circles.  A little boy and girl performed a patty-cake type game/song for us.  It reminded me of something I would have done in my childhood.

Then the same little boy grabbed two cups and started to do the cup song.  Emily and Katherine joined in and before you knew it all cultural and language boundaries were down and the only language needed was laughter. I love thinking back on those moments.

The moments that are harder to describe and are more painful to think about are the final ones.  I went into the kitchen to say goodbye and could not contain my tears. They were ones of gratitude for being patient with us Gringos who cut and washed so much slower than they did. It was tears of joy for having had such an amazing experience with them. It was tears of sorrow knowing that I won’t see them again for a long time and perhaps never. It was tears of appreciation knowing that they will continue to feed the children daily doing God’s work with little reward.  These women taught me so much in three short days.  They taught me that working together makes things go faster. That each one has something they could teach to each other. They taught me that working towards a common goal is more meaningful than doing it alone. They taught me that chopping things up really small is a good thing. And they taught me that pail yellow isn’t a good color shirt for women with dark hair and dark skin.  I don’t know these women’s personal stories, but I know they give of themselves selflessly every day and I know these women can cook!  The children of Pavas are blessed to have them.  As the van pulled away for the last time, several of the children came running along side of it.  I don’t think there was a dry-eye in the bunch as we rode back to the hotel in silence. 

It’s been three days since I’ve been back from Costa Rica.  They say jumping back into your old life might be difficult.   I’d say it’s nearly impossible because you don’t come back as the same person. The same challenges might await, the same stressors are burdensome and the daily grind doesn’t let up, but somehow everything is different.  I’d like to say I’m more patient, tender hearted, and connected, but so far I’ve been frustrated, annoyed, and discontent.  I want some things to be like they were in Costa Rica and I wish some things would be like it is in America for the kids in Pavas.  I find myself looking around at things and thinking they aren’t important yet I can’t change the way our culture does things.  I know I want to go back. I know it was the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my life, but I’m not sure yet how to incorporate what I learned into daily life here. 

I think about the kids in Pavas all the time. I think about the women in the kitchen and wonder what they are serving for lunch. I look at my fast paced hectic luxurious life and I search for the meaning beyond the obvious things.  I wonder if that’s what happens when you take a trip like this… your heart ends up in two different worlds.  Maybe that’s what God wants for us. To place our heart in as many world’s as possible. Can you imagine God knowing the details of the lives of every person on every inch of this planet?  I have lots of things to contemplate and I wish I could say this will end in a neat and tidy way with a scripture verse and some profound truth.  It won’t.  The bottom line is that I’m still trying to figure it out, but I know I’m thankful that God got a hold of my heart. I’m glad that the seed of being uncomfortable in a comfortable world was planted and watered. And I’m glad I got to became ‘that person’ who goes on a mission trip.