*or "My experience in a Nicaraguan (in Costa Rica) Refugee Camp*
When I did my "quick recap" post about Costa Rica I mentioned that our team went to a refugee camp and that it was my favorite part of the trip. I said I wanted to do a post elaborating on that experience. This is that post.
Monday morning, the twelfth of July, our team of 17 people got into our bus and took off headed for what we were informed would be quite the morning. We were going to spend the morning in a village of refugees from Nicaragua, that was in a valley between a quarry and a garbage dump. We are driving along through a Costa Rican city and suddenly Olman, our faithful bus driver, takes a sharp left turn down a steep and very narrow, mud road. We continue going downhill, taking lefts and rights. The sites out our window keep getting more and more...desperate...looking. The houses are tiny shacks made of tin or aluminum. Wide eyes peer out of windows with no glass. People selling fruit, that is well past ripe, on the side of the road look up as we pass. The smell of the garbage dump is strong in the air. We see a soda delivery truck with a gaurd standing outside of it. He is wearing a bullet proof vest and holding a loaded shot gun, acting like the beverage truck was an armored vehicle containing something of great value. We keep turning. The narrow roads are getting more and more narrow.
In the bus, our Pastor is trying to prep us for what we are about to do. "Leave your backpacks with Olman." "Be mindful. If I can't see you, don't go there." "Don't step in the water running down the side of the road; it isn't water." "Be careful about holding kids. Lice." ...etc, etc...
"...But don't let them see pity in your eyes. Let them see compassion."
I'm not even a germ freak, far from it, and I have seen some pretty rough scenes and desperate situations around the world, but I was a little apprehensive to get out of the bus.
We finally pull up in front of a teeny tiny church (the inside is literally about the same size as my bedroom). Hanging outside the door is a little painted sign saying, in Spanish, that visitors were coming to do a children service at 10:00. That was us.
The bus parks. It is time to get out. Everyone is a little tense. The experience was just a bit outside what we thought was our comfort zone.
But the moment I stepped out of the bus into the muddy street, EVERYTHING CHANGED.
Children flooded out of the church and took each of us by the hand. A little girl (who I came to know as Michele. She was six.) took my hand in hers and guided me over a puddle. She smiled at me.
Pity was gone. Apprehension melted. I was totally overwhelmed with love and compassion. The love God has for her and all the other little kids in a seemingly hopeless situation hit me strong. In that moment, I had a revelation: Jesus didn't die for me any more than He did for them, just because I'm American. God doesn't love me any more than He does them, just because I live in a house with central air conditioning, have a flushing toilet, or because I am better off financially than them. I know, it sounds silly. And obviously I didn't think that God only loved me or Americans. I knew God loved everyone. I knew Jesus died the ultimate death, and had nails driven through his hands and feet, for EVERYONE, no matter who they are or where they live. Just in that moment, with Michele's little hand grasping mine, it felt more like reality than head knowledge. I could see and feel the love of God. Lice and sewage running down the road didn't even bother me any more. I was too in awe of God. I was too amazed at what I was getting to take part in because of Him.
Our team, with our little entourage of children, went door to door, inviting other kids to our service. Michele pointed out her friends to me. She also told me I was married to 5 boys because of the 5 rings I wear. (To that, I laughed...). She kept smiling every time I said anything to her in my less than perfect Spanish. She didn't mind. She just liked that I was smiling back at her. She was a beautiful little girl; so filled with joy, despite her situation and very rough life.
Once all the children had gather together in the church, we sat them all down on the dirty, cement floor and started our service. I would say there were about 30 of them. Their eyes were fixed on us as we disappeared behind a big, blue felt thing (a puppet stage). Music began and the kids erupted with laughter as puppets popped up and began to dance and sing about praising God. Some team members not behind the stage got the kids doing hand motions along with their new puppet friends. SUCH JOY!
After the performance bit some of our fluent Spanish speaking members got up and gave testimonies about God's love and power in their lives. Pastor Daniel, my youth pastor's best friend, gave a call for salvation. Little hands popped up all over the room when he asked who wanted to pray for Jesus to come into their hearts!
I thought I was overwhelmed with love already, but I just kept getting more and more so as we went. That little girl Michele was now my little sister in Christ. I may never see her again in this life, but some day I will see her in heaven! That brought me close to tears (and if you know me, you know it takes a WHOOOLLLE lot to get me to that point.)
With the salvation call given, we started giving out something else. Clothes. Our church did a clothing drive for several months prior to the trip and we had gathered 12 suitcases worth of clothing (that day we brought some specifically for the women and children). The kids just sat still, watching in awe as we pulled out our giant, green bags full of clothing and handed it out to them. On looking mother's started to become emotional. We'd pull out something, look at the size on the tag and try and find a kid it would work for. We would hand them the article of clothing and they would just glow. Moments after we would look over at them to find they were clutching it tight to themselves. Some would hold the clothes to their faces and just inhale deeply. They had never smelled fresh, clean clothes. They'd never had anything with a price tag on it. The clothes they had on their backs might have been their only outfit.
*more overwhelm-ment* I realized I have so, so much that I am less than grateful for. I have a closet full of shirts. I buy new ones all the time. And they never make me *glow.* My eyes never widen. I usually don't sniff my laundry, piece by piece, taking in the freshness. Watching them receive our little gifts was really powerful. Something so simple, and yet very practical, touched them so much.
Also, along with the clothes, I left the Pastor's wife with a bag of 500 lollipops I had brought along with me to distribute to the kids. I wish I had been there long enough to watch them get those too, but unfortunately it was time for us to leave. We loaded back into our bus and waved goodbye to our new little friends.
On the trip we got to see God move in all sorts of amazingly powerful ways. Each person on the team got to be involved in what He was doing in a special way. Lots of moments on the trip stand out to us. This day, this morning with the Nicaraguan refugees, is what stands out most to me. I loved it. And I learned from it.
I consider it such a privileged to have been part of that. Jesus says in the Bible that 'whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Him.' It felt like one of those moments. We handed out clothes and did puppet pieces for Jesus. It wasn't pity; it was true compassion. Were they the "least" in all the world? Were their needs the greatest? No, of course not. But they, like everyone, needed to see the love of God. They had practical needs that needed meeting. And God sent us to THEM and we were able to meet some of those needs and point them to their Heavenly Father for the rest. I am so glad of that.
We didn't do anything amazing. We didn't change the fact they live in a country that isn't theirs, in little shacks, and don't have enough food to eat. We didn't build them luxury houses or dig them proper sewage systems. We didn't put rug in their church or glass in their windows. We didn't get rid of the scary guy with a shot gun delivering their soda. We didn't come as superheroes. We couldn't possibly fix everything. We just came with t-shirts, lollipops and the love of God and that was enough to change their lives forever. We came and said "We love you and the God of the universe sent us here because He loves you even more."
Their situation is still rough. A lollipop doesn't fix the fact that you are a refugee. A shirt or pair of pants doesn't help you make it through the rest of your life that promises to be tough. But the love of God changes EVERYTHING. Those kids might be living in a rough situation, but they now have God in their lives. Things might look hopeless all around them, but they have eternal hope.
And God let me be part of that!? I think that is the coolest thing ever. I could have stayed at that refugee camp all week. I would have loved to have spent more time with those kids, giving out lollipops and doing puppet pieces, but we only had a few hours. We gave God what we had to work with and He changed eternities. Is that powerful or what!?
Am I the only one excited about this? I dunno, maybe I have been reading too much Shane Clairborne, or maybe I have actually caught site of what the Kingdom of God is all about? The love of God isn't complicated. It isn't hard. It just takes a little obedience and boldness to step out of the safe, air conditioned bus, so to speak, and get it done. We did. And it was worth every moment. We were stretched, God's love broke out, and I now I can say I have a bunch of little brothers and sisters in Costa Rica who I will someday spend eternity in the presence of our God with. That is just too cool for me to even wrap my mind around!
*photo credit to Jeff Crandall and the Merge Ahead Missions photography team.
**If you'd like to see more pictures, or a video tour of the village, go check out the Merge Missions site and click on July 12th.