Life in the Barrio

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Tucked away along a dirt road in the San Sebastián district of Costa Rica’s capital San José, this small barrio was my home for most of January (all except the week I spent in Nicaragua). The green door to the left is the church, Iglesia Luterana Sola Fe and behind the view to the camera to the left is the house where I lived.  These interconnected shelters constructed of scrap metal were the homes to the Nicaraguan immigrants who extended their welcome to me, sharing their lives and their faith.

What shall I say? In the short time I have been back in the United States, I have been searching for the right words to describe this place (the people, sights, sounds, and smells), a daily reality so far from the hurried and independent culture of my own country.  Life in the barrio is beautiful and difficult, simple and complex.  I was in Costa Rica for only a month, nevertheless I gained so much from that short duration.  Often embarrassed at my lack of spanish language skills, I was limited in effective communication.  However, I managed to share life, laugh, play, and gain community among the people who live there.

Every morning I ate gallo pinto (rice and beans fried together), fresh tortillas, cheese, fried plantains, bread, sometimes meat and/or eggs, and always coffee.  Costa Rican coffee is strong and earthy yet not bitter like some of the roasts I taste here in the States.  I cannot recall a day I did not have rice, beans and coffee at least once a day (sometimes rice and beans for all three meals) throughout the whole month.  These are staple foods in Central America, and it is a filling and inexpensive meal.

The door at my host family’s home was open throughout the day as friends, family, and neighborhood children were welcome to drop in. Children, out of school for the summer, ran up and down the alley.  Together we kicked a soccer ball, batted around a balloon, and chased each other to pass the time.

The roosters started cock-a-doodle-doo-ing before 5:00am, and the sun consistently rose at 6:00am.  Welcome to life near the euqator—near consistent sunrise and sunset times throughout the year.  The perpetual sunshine of January is the highlight of the dry season, and the summer break for schools. Popular North American Christian spirituality of seasonal change is ineffective in this land of wet and dry seasons.

Since a sheet of metal separated one neighbor from another, noise was all around.  It was an adjustment for this introverted gringa used to an abundance of private space.  I heard the neighbors playing their stereo early in the morning, and I heard the soft patter of the hands of my host mother making fresh tortillas downstairs.  At night I heard barking dogs, cats mating, and the distant hum of traffic  through the open air on the other side of the bookshelves that separated my bed from the rest of the room.

This is but a slice of my life in Costa Rica. I will continue to write in small chunks as I continue to process my memories and what they might mean for my life now.  There are so many little details in addition to reflections—so much can happen in 34 days.  Stay tuned.

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A Story from Nicaragua

I want to share a story with you from my time here.  When the earthquake struck Haiti, I was in a remote part of Nicaragua, on the island of Ometepe accompanying a group of college students from Pennsylvania.  Ometepe is an island in the middle of lake Nicaragua (a lake probably the size of Lake Michigan in North America).  The students were staying at an orphanage.  I helped them work on a new building for the orphanage and at a medical clinic on the island.  At the medical clinics, even distribution of vitamins is needed among the people.  Below is a photo from Ometepe with one of the two volcanos on the island in the background, called Conception.

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This experience is from Sunday, January 10, 2010.

Instead of attending church with the rest of the students, I went with Heidi and Hannia (Heidi is a sister deaconess and Hannia a Costa Rican who was helping us) to a community in the other side of the island called El Corrozal.  I sat in on a meeting with a few of the community members.

Since I understand a little spanish and speak even less, I wasn’t able to participate much, except to listen as much as I could.  We were consulting with the community about potential projects for other students groups.  In other words, asking the community what they most need.  The drive to El Corrozal took over an hour, not because it was far away, but because the roads were so bad.  There is one main road around the island and other dirt roads that lead to small communities.

45% of Nicaraguans live on less than $1 a day.  It is a land where some only recently have electricity, horses are common for transport, food is cooked on wood stoves, machetes are used to cut grass, and the water gives people parasites and fungal infections.

This particular community received electricity from the government only a short while ago.  The meeting took place in a school, that is vacant for summer vacation (dry season = summer here).  Among the Nicaraguans present was a deacon at the local evangelical church and a man who grows coffee and exports it through an organization on Bainbridge Island, WA (near my home in Seattle!).

After the meeting we were invited to a home for lunch.  It was an experience of God’s grace for me, because this family served us out of what they had, which isn’t much at all.  The small house had dirt floor and fire for cooking outside.  We ate rice, beans, eggs and plantains—a staple meal in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

Even though I did not speak the language, I was welcomed and fed.  It is a day I will not soon forget…I re-enforced my belief that relationships are vitally important to helping others and that hospitality is a blessed gift.  I know people in North America are prone to become excited with foreign mission to help some poor people, but please take note that going over the border to Tiajuana isn’t necessarily going to help people.  There should be a mutuality of sharing and learning, and through that bond Christ is present.  This experience calls me to compassion, prayer, and action.  I ask myself and others:  How can I know my neighbor and how can we grow together?

When to Run Away

How does one discern the genuine character of love in its various forms (for here, I am not merely speaking of sexual attraction nor the state of being in love) manifest?  When someone says, “I love you” what does that mean?  How do we give and receive love?  These aren’t meant to be answered, but arise from an encounter I once had.  Here is a story of a stranger telling me that he loved me…(the majority of this description, by the way, is directly transcribed from an e-mail I wrote following the incident)

On this day  seven years ago (28 October 2001), on a beautifully still autumn morning in Tuebingen, Germany I quietly strolled along the path next to Neckar River.  I let my mind go and centered myself as I walked, breathing in “Jesus” and out “mercy”. I found the bench I often sit at that faces the water along a secluded path and sat down alone. I had my journal with me so I began to write, then put it away, just wanting to sit and pray.

I was startled by the appearance of a man, who called out to me.  “Wie bitte?” I said, which in English means, “Pardon?” He replied in English, “Can we talk?”. I agreed. His name was Gilbert, a 30 year old African from Cameroon, seeking political asylum in Germany.

Then, he startled me again.  He looked me in the eye and said, “Megan, I love you”. He repeated it numerous times. I didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know how to respond. I was not afraid, but perplexed and shocked. He said something from the inside told him to talk to me.  He asked when we could meet again. I did not want to make any definite plans nor did I want to give him my phone number or where I live.

There was something inside me that wanted to hold back; as deeply as I believed in God’s mysterious love, even from a stranger, I was shaken.  I doubted his sincerity.  I have had encounters with strangers that have been moving—such as the man at the Columbia River whom I had met three months prior.  He did not say he loved me, but the conversation so moving I had felt in the presence of the risen Christ.  This time, however, I was not moved.

The next day I saw Gilbert again, though not intentionally.  He repeated to say, “I love you.”  This isn’t right, I thought to myself.  I told him that I did not love him. But then he said that when he said he loved me, and if I said it in return, we would be like brother and sister. He said we would talk and meet with each other. He said there were different loves. This love he was saying to me in his words was “Agape” (or see C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves)…But this love is like when I talk about [my friends from home], I say they I love them. This is what he said he saw in me. This was difficult for me, because I do not open up my heart to many people…there are few real close friends that I can say that I love. And here, was a man of 30 telling me he loved me and wanting to know if I loved him.  Agape…in the back of my mind I wondered if this was his real intention, I had doubts.

Friendship-love, Agape-love (or Caritas)—those I understood and had experienced, and still do.  But this man communicated neither.  Simply put, there are strangers out there who are not to be trusted. Common sense and intuition told me to ditch the guy, but being the contemplative person I am, I carefully avoided him, yet continued to reflect on the love of God.

Seven years later, I haven’t stopped…

A Story of Thirst

The story below is a portion of a paper I wrote a few years ago for my Christian Scriptures course at the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. The paper was an exegetical exploration of the Gospel text from John 4:1-42 (Jesus and the woman of Samaria). I won’t reproduce my theologizing, rather here is a creative piece that tells a story of a homeless woman–a real woman I met while working at a shelter in Delaware. I’ve shortened the original text to a more manageable blog size.  Infused with elements of stories from others, her voice speaks for many who have no voice in this society…

The scene: a Woman sits, with her head bowed, tears running down her cheeks

I love my children very much; they mean the world to me. It was because of them that I left him. Some have asked why I didn’t stay, why I didn’t just “work things out.” They say I should have stuck with it. Well, he is an alcoholic and an abuser, you see. There was a point that I just couldn’t take it anymore—the yelling, the drinking and the constant fighting. One day, I thought he was at work, but when he came home sick, I found out he had spent the whole day getting drunk at a bar. He pretended to go to work and had the nerve to come home “sick”!

He hit me, and I tried to take it; I had to be strong for my three children. There were some good times, too. Maybe that’s why I stayed so long. I thought if I could only make things right, keep everything together, he’d change. But like I said, there was a point when I just couldn’t take it anymore and pretend everything was fine. It was like waking up from a nightmare, but the nightmare was reality. That was when I said enough, and I walked out the door—out of my life, away from my job, away from my friends, and all things comforting. I walked out and I stepped into a hostile world, drowning in an angry sea of pain and confusion. Continue reading “A Story of Thirst”