MY GRACE-FILLED TIME VISITING IGLESIA LUTERANA COSTARRICENSE
For 25 days, I had the great privilege of visiting the Lutheran Church in Costa Rica (ILCO). I stayed at the hostel apartment above the main offices in San Jose, mostly, and also a few nights in the house for pastors in Sarapiqui in the north, and congregation members’ homes in two communities. I visited eleven congregations (Communities of Faith) and communities (Points of Mission) (list below), and also attended devotionals on Tuesdays with the ILCO staff when I was there- so in the 25 days I was able to worship 13 times!
I came with the intention of seeing how the Lutheran Church in Costa Rica worshiped outdoors, incorporated nature and environmentalism in their work, accompanied indigenous communities, and included children. I observed all of this and more and learned from the churches in this part of Central America. I also came with the intention of renewing my ministry at the outdoor church of New Life Lutheran in Dripping Springs, Texas, by taking some time away and a change of place and a cultural immersion. We called it a “mini-sabbatical,” and lay leaders handled ministry while I was away. The Southwestern Texas Synod supported me in this renewal with funding and preaching and presiding at New Life in my absence.
I first visited a community about an hour bus ride from San Jose, and a short, steep hike up a mountain, which is an indigenous Huetar community. I had a lesson on the culture and the situation in that community from a teacher of Huetar culture in the local school. I participated in the summer round up activities for the children (Circulo de Verano), with games, activities, music, worship and lunch, all in the yard of one home.
In San Jose, I visited the organic farmer’s market that is on Saturdays next-door to ILCO, and has a booth where indigenous Heutar women sell the herbal remedies and also soaps and shampoos they make from natural ingredients. Pastor Nehemías Rivera showed me the gardens at ILCO. He talked with me about worship outdoors and organic farming —and many other things— in our drive to Cabagra in the South, near Panama, and while visiting the Bri Bri people there. We worshiped around a campfire in the backyard of one of the families, and were graced to have representatives of all three local clans in attendance. We spent time with the communities at the rivers, swimming and sharing food, and talked about the river as a gathering place and a place of spiritual significance. These first two visits expanded my vision of outdoor ministry and accompaniment of indigenous people, including working to help establish schools and legal advocacy for land rights. Guatuso, the last community I was able to visit, is a Maleku indigenous community. I did not make it to the Bri Bri community in Talamanca, in the Atlantic coastal region.
At Casa Abierta in La Carpio, a community near the outskirts of San Jose, I saw faith in action in serving low-income families, mostly single moms and immigrants, with quality, safe childcare. One thing that struck me in all of my visits is the way that leaders are raised up in the Lutheran church of Costa Rica. Several youth and young adult leaders were children in the casas abiertas - the childcare centers. Pastors invited youth leaders on trips to other ministry sites to lead activities with children and youth. I observed and participated in workshops on making natural shampoos and soaps (Quitirrisi) and making beaded jewelry (Grecia, Guatuso). In these workshops, teachers encouraged those who were interested to take the lead to continue the efforts, including sales, in their communities. I met several people and pastors who started in other roles in the church. This impressed me a lot, and gave me a new perspective on youth ministry and encouraging leadership at all levels.
The communities in la Carpio, Quitirrisi, and Alajuelita were examples of work with immigrant populations, often unpopular in Costa Rica, that are enduring - more than 20 years of accompaniment. This was also the case with the indigenous communities, which have long relationships with ILCO. I also worshiped in the Misa Inclusiva, a 14-year old welcoming worshiping community. ILCO is a leader in the world church in the work of inclusivity. This church works intentionally with marginalized populations, and stays the course.
The established Sunday morning congregation at the ILCO headquarters is San Pedro y San Pablo, an urban middle class worshiping community. I was able to participate in leading worship the two Sundays I worshiped with them, which was a gift. The way children walked around and stood with and were held by leaders during worship reminded me of New Life.
Another community in Grecia is a new mission start congregation, and the pastor and leaders there and I had much to discuss about being a new church community, the process of moving from mission to congregation, the gift of offering Lutheran theology and practice in communities that have had fewer options, and new models of church in this age, in both of our countries and around the world.
I was included in bi-weekly pastoral meetings and weekly staff worship and coffee times. As a conference dean in our synod, I was aware of their models for mutual pastoral care and worship together, and will take that with me as well. I was also interested in their evolving theological education model for new pastoral leadership, and had some good discussions about that. Every pastor and staff member welcomed me and cared for me, and took time to talk with me and share ideas and experiences. The apartment in which I stayed (with two volunteers) is an income-generating initiative of ILCO as well, and an interesting model as well.
I have tried to share my experiences with pastors and lay leaders in Costa Rica as appropriate, and everyone has been very interested in our outdoor ministry, and many love the idea of this sharing between their church, whose slogan is “a church without walls,” and New Life, which is a literal version of that slogan. I’ve approached this time as one of mutual sharing, and of learning from this church in another culture and part of the world. I think the sharing of ideas and methods has great potential and is vital for me in maintaining energy and creativity in my own ministry. I have made plans to be in touch with leaders here and continue sharing and conversation.
The time away from my ministry was a much-appreciated break and seeing the beauty of this country (albeit not in regular tourist destinations), was refreshing in every way. I went to see a demonstration of cacao production near Chilamate with Pastora Rosemarie. I had a few free days exploring the city of San Jose as well, and attended a couple of yoga classes and a concert at the Teatro Nacional. I have been grateful for the opportunity to practice my Spanish every day.
I am beyond grateful for this opportunity, to God; my family; the New Life leadership team and its chair, Julie Heth; worship and music leaders, and the whole New Life community; the Southwestern Texas Synod, especially Pastors Judith Spindt and Eric Miletti and Bishop Sue Briner; and the generous hospitality of the pastors, community members, and staff of the Lutheran Church of Costa Rica.
Thank you to Pastors Teresa, Joaquin, Nehemías, Julio, Rosemarie, Jonathan, Abel, Jeff and Gilberto for welcoming me into these ILCO communities (and often transporting me to them):
Comunidad Indigena Quitirrisí - Guaco
Comunidad Indigena Cabagra (visited 3 clans)
Casa Abierta (childcare center) - La Carpio
Jardin - Sarapiqui
San Julian - Sarapiqui
Chilamate - Sarapiqui
Comunidad Paz Inclusivo - Paso Ancho (San Jose)
San Pedro y San Pablo - Paso Ancho (San Jose)
Hermanos de Jesus - Alajuelita
Sola Gratia - Grecia
Palenque el Sol (Comunidad Indigena) - Guatuso
And to Pastors Alexa, Pablo, Enrique for allowing me to join in the pastoral group, and Martin and Esteban for their insights and conversation.
Thank you to all of the ILCO staff, especially Rodolfo Mena, who coordinated my stay, itinerary and logistics, and Edwin, Oscar, Shirley, Elmer, Luis, Antonia (Sarapiqui) and others who cared for and helped me. And to Norberto and Sinia for sharing about their work with me. And to the community leaders who taught and housed and fed me, including Pamela, Marta (Alajuelita), Mariana, Nayaris (Quitirrisi), Ana, Alex, Alexis (Carpio), Wendy, Marta and Marta, and Jon (Grecia), and many others.