When I first began attending an international Spanish-speaking church as a language student studying in Costa Rica, I mistakenly assumed that the congregation was composed mainly of Spanish-speaking Costa Ricans. But that was not the case. Costa Ricans were a minority in the congregation, as were English speakers. Rather, our church was made up completely of outsiders: from Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, England, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, the United States, and Switzerland! In fact, it had been founded mainly by Colombian refugees years before who had sought asylum in Costa Rica.
I lived and worked as a missionary in the country of Costa Rica for six years, helping provide resources and workshops to train church leaders. The pastor of our church, Pastor Elgin, helped out frequently as part of the office team. I remember distinctly his fervent prayer one morning after a devotional. As we knelt praying in the office, I felt his outcry mix with mine in a spirit of gratitude toward the country and people of Costa Rica. His prayer went something like this:
“Thank you, Lord, for choosing this country, out of so many, to be a place of peace, to be exempt from the violence and suffering that has plagued neighboring Central American countries. Thank you for choosing Costa Rica as the place where so many have come to know Jesus Christ as their savior. Thank you for using this country and these people to teach me who Jesus is and what he can do in a person’s life. Thank you, God, for choosing this country. For choosing Costa Rica.”
Elgin is an immigrant in Costa Rica – a foreigner living there just like I was. His family fled from Nicaragua during the period of violence and oppressive regimes that threatened so many people’s lives in the 80’s. Costa Rica, in contrast, had moved to unilaterally disarm its national military in 1948 and has not fought in a war since. Costa Rica advocates for peace not just as a cultural value, but backs it up with political policy, making it a haven for fleeing refugees from other Latin American countries, such as Nicaraguans like Pastor Elgin and the Colombians that founded the church I attended. As a nation without a military, it was a prime choice for Quaker immigrants in the 1950’s as well, who emigrated from the United States after being jailed for refusing to fight in the Korean War.
What struck me was the earnestness and sincerity of Elgin’s prayer, recognizing that indeed the peaceful country of Costa Rica has been a driving propagator of peace, sanctuary, and kingdom outreach. Many of the seminaries and organizations I worked with were sending Costa Ricans and other Latin Americans all over the world as missionaries.
I do not mean to extol Costa Rica as some sort of peaceful utopia, because after six years of living there I am well aware that the reality is far more complex. In fact, Nicaraguans that live in Costa Rica having emigrated from their home country to the north are generally discriminated against and exploited. As a Nicaraguan, Pastor Elgin certainly had stories of how he was treated cruelly by Costa Ricans. Yet, he credited Costa Rica, his host country, as the place that had taken in him and his family when they were in need, and introduced them to the good news of Jesus Christ. A person who seemed to be at the whim of global forces treacherously crafting circumstances around him was instead transformed by the hospitality and friendship of Christ-followers in a country foreign to him.
Working with Pastor Elgin, both of us foreigners in a host country, I was able to see God’s global kingdom cross borders and break down barriers through his love and reconciliation.
When I left Costa Rica in 2014, Pastor Elgin anointed me in front of the church as a member going out from our congregation and returning to the United States. I count it an honor and privilege to be a part of what God is doing through his communities of followers throughout the world, and to in some small way be an incarnate link between them. And my prayer, as someone who has been blessed to experience this, is to plea that as global forces continue to shuffle people and their families across borders, may our communities of Christ-followers be a refuge and blessing to our fellow brothers and sisters, and in doing so become a beacon guiding the way for others seeking healing community.