When people think that they are acquiring more of God in inwardness, in devotion, in sweetness and in various approaches than they do by the fireside or in the stable, you are acting just as if you took God and muffled his head up in a cloak and pushed him under a bench. —Meister Eckhart
Marion Woods stood in the doorframe of the little house, slightly hunched, looking distracted. His eyes zipped back and forth, preoccupied by untamed thoughts. I extended my hand to the celebrated missionary man, capturing his wandering eyes. He gazed at me over the tops of his glasses, down the length of his face. The wrinkles under his eyes softened. A single drop of perspiration dangled from the tip of his nose and fell into his beard. Marion had stopped all haircuts and beard trims twenty years ago.
“I thought I ought to stop by and welcome you to the Farm,” the old man said.
“I’m excited to be here,” I said.
“How’s the house?”
“It’s great. More than I need. I could keep ten people in here.” And I kept explaining how excited I was to be in Costa Rica. How I was elated to have finished college so I could live on the Farm. I thanked him for allowing me the privilege of working with him. I went on. He placed his hand against the doorframe and turned his head away. Marion tugged and twisted at his back brace and suspenders.
“You don’t say,” he would occasionally mutter. I wanted him to feel like I was a good investment. I didn’t cost anything, not financially, but I was going to be taking up a lot of his time. More than anything, I wanted him to like me. Marion stepped back from the doorway, placed his hand on the wall, and stared at his untied shoelaces. “Well fine. That’s just fine. We’re glad to have you.” Marion mumbled more than spoke. “You take the next couple of days to rest up, you hear, cause after that, we’ve got a lot of work to do.
The old missionary man turned back toward his diesel Toyota pickup. Was the truck painted brown or just rusted? I couldn’t tell. Marion had bested the truck. Parts were falling off, crooked bumpers, wires dangled from brake lights, bald tires, rusted punctures in the body of the cab, a seatbelt drooped out of the driver’s side door. The truck and the old man seemed to share the miles but in different ways. The truck operated one bad day away from scrapyard oblivion. The old man: spry, inexhaustible, ebullient. Marion approached the barbwire fence separating him from his truck. He bent over, pushed the middle wire down, and slid through the artificial boundary with the agility of a gymnast. The clunker sputtered and choked when he cranked the engine.
I marveled at the man.
I had arrived in north-central Costa Rica the June following my undergraduate commencement to live and work at El Centro Rural Metodista, known as “the Farm,” a hundred-plus acreage near Ciudad Quesada owned by the Costa Rican Methodist Church. The Farm housed cows and pigs and horses and sugarcane and orange groves and tractors and, of course, farmers. But there were also unexpected things: a woodworking shop, an outside theater, cabanas, basketball courts, a soccer field, and plentiful meditative surroundings perfect for listening to the chatter of parakeets or catching the flecks of light filtered through a jungle canopy. The bosque absorbed the Farm, or maybe the Farm organized the bosque; regardless, the scarlet macaws and hummingbirds and butterflies, the wild orchids, dangling grapefruits and limes, the cool stream rubbing stones into ovals and perfected ellipses, the somnolent patter of rain on corrugated tin roofs, an old missionary man who touches the mountains and they smoke: the Farm functioned partly as Protestant monastery, partly Christian kibbutz, but completely Edenic.
Marion was from Kansas but came to Costa Rica so many decades ago it was hard to say how much of him was still American. If the true test of patriotic allegiance is proved by which soccer team you root for, he was safely Costa Rican. On the other hand, to my mind anyway, to be a missionary, the highest ranking among those whom God has called, Marion had to be considered an American. That is to say, to carry the message of Christ to foreign lands, the messenger must be “other,” and the overriding spiritual example of those who sent him.
The old missionary man was right. We did have a lot of work to do. I left the Farm within days of arriving to go with a short-term team to a farming village called Cuatro Esquinas, then with another team to San Rafael de Guetso, then Angeles, then back to the Farm, and then another team, and another village. These short-term teams were composed of American church folks eager to make a difference in the world. In international airports in the United States they are easily identifiable by their matching shirts, amplified conversations, and “can-do” attitude.
Team after team came and went. When a team left, I rode back to the Farm with Marion or Mary, relieved to be returning, longing to sit aimlessly on my front porch, pet stray dogs, or stare at cows eating grass. Again and again, we’d pull off the potted highway, bounce the mile down the river-rock road, pull into the Farm, and see the next team waiting in a green tourist bus with the luggage compartment packed. My job was simple: travel with the teams and help them move bricks, dig holes, mix cement, and, block by block, build a church or a home or a medical clinic. So I packed a new bag, grabbed more books and clothes, and left again and again.
The joy of my bohemian college life died within weeks. Going to and fro on the earth like this was not a task for mortals. For the first three months, the number of teams was relentless; but I clung to the teams the way a child clings to a security blanket, protecting myself from Costa Rica. The teams spoke English. The teams told the latest news from the States. They understood the need for hot water showers, clean clothes, and more than one day off a week. With the company of teams, I thought, something good was being done in the world, and I was contributing. And once one team left, I took up with the next team and their goals, their work project, which usually differed from the previous team’s. The teams were as changeable as the shadows of trees, always amending themselves for my benefit depending on the time of day, always offering a couple of degrees of separation from this world in which I found myself.
The odd occasions when work teams were separated by several days I worked odd projects on the Farm. Mealtime was spent with Mary and Marion. Mary was Marion’s third wife and it is quite possible his previous two wives died from trying to keep pace with the old man.
After mealtime, Marion unruffled a sheet of paper two or three days crinkled from his pocket and read an autobiographical poem. Marion didn’t have a quiet desk at which to ruminate a poem into existence. Most of his poems were composed sitting in his truck, waiting for hardware supplies, or sitting in a wooden, dusty pew, waiting for a meeting to begin. The poems were composed in that waiting time, when language fallowed undisturbed and most sincere. After years and years of waiting, Marion transformed this monotonous inactivity into a spiritual discipline. I wondered if the psalmists wrote their praises in a similar manner—waiting for something else. In Spanish, I had learned, the verb “to wait” is the same word as “to hope,” and in this way, Marion was the most hopeful person in the world.
As he read, I stared into his meek face; his wrinkles and creases were chiseled by certain and exacting hands. His mouth, hidden behind his Father Time beard—peppered with little pieces of food that had fallen from his fork—sang words. His tongue licked his lips trying to give a little more moisture to smooth the edges off certain rough words. He looked like an Old Testament prophet reading, believing every word was given to him. And these words were gifts, the incarnation of hope.
I marveled at the manner he twisted and turned common speech into elegance and testimony. The poems betrayed or revealed an inner longing, wanting more so that he could give more. He wrote about being a stalwart of faith and revealed a world of concealed details. His entire being seemed to me a form of selflessness, an actual embodiment of the life of Christ. I wanted more than anything to be like Marion: to have crinkled poems, to be old, to have a history, to look at a lifetime of accomplishments, a lifetime of charity, and pray, fervently pleading that it was enough. My eyes are weary with looking upward. But I wanted what Marion had without any of the lifelong waiting or hoping.
Mary grinned as her husband read. Then she picked up a book and read a passage from a devotional. Contrasted with Marion’s poems, the devotional was flat, generic, a Sunday school quarterly reading. What words of wisdom or comfort can a spiritual commoner give an old missionary man not yet worn out from years and years of cultivating God in the hearts and minds of an always younger generation? And if the devotional readings shriveled in significance in the presence of the old missionary man, Marion and Mary were oblivious. Mary finished the reading with a whispered “Amen” or a subdued “Praise God” and brought her arms up to her chest as if she were being hugged by Christ himself. She closed her eyes in a depth of piety and prayed with her ears. Then she began picking up dishes and went about her day.
The openness and shared intimacy of their cluttered house made me feel at home. They were my adoptive family, my new parents, and I was a missionary kid, helping out as best I could.
With the rainy season in full-blown hysterics, the short-term mission teams disappeared completely—justice may roll down like waters, but when it does, cement can hardly be mixed. I left the Farm and went to language school in the capital. For months I was drilled with Spanish. Breakfast conversations were in Spanish, telephone calls, Spanish, watching TV, Spanish, hiring a taxi to take me home, Spanish, dreaming, Spanish. Everything was Spanish. My head constantly hurt. Then one night hanging out with some language school classmates Marion would have surely not approved of and drinking a few too many cervezas and something wretched called guaro, I discovered that I had against all expectations become, to some measurable degree, bilingual. Pentecost was a temperate occasion for the Apostles, but the reversal of Babel in my life was followed by one terrific hangover.
After four months, the rain stopped, and I returned to the church farm. With blue skies came again, like migratory birds, skews of short-term teams. The little bit of Spanish I learned from language school changed my responsibilities. “I want you to go translate for the dentist,” Marion said to me the day after I graduated from language school. And after the dental team, I was sent off with another team without Marion. I was now the dental interpreter or the person in charge of ordering supper for thirty people at a restaurant or the person who would explain to the “gringos” what the Costa Rican foreman wanted the team to do. I traveled with the teams everywhere because someone had to help buy postcards and souvenirs. I liked the job of interpreter because I was suddenly not the one holding the shovel or carrying a block or hefting a bag of cement over my shoulder—and giving and receiving foreign words, making them my own, botched and ugly as they were was like taking my hand over silk when all I’d felt was sand.
Even still, there was a difference between being an interpreter and being a translator. An interpreter was not bogged down with the burden of exactness as a translator was. It felt right and more appropriate being an interpreter rather than a translator—living in an inexact world, inexactly speaking, inexactly understanding. It was there in the minutia that I lived, the minuscule emphasis. Halfway understanding, halfway confused. Halfway satiated with God’s calling, whatever it was, halfway starting to understand that God’s calling is perpetual improvisation.
Increasingly, I became friends with the Costa Ricans hired by the Farm to work with the teams, Marcelo in particular. I would eat dinner with his family, play fútbol with his friends, watch a movie at his house, or, on one occasion, go to a rodeo bullfighting event. He taught me how to drive the tractor, and I would go to his house at night and teach his wife basic English. Marcelo sat at the table throughout the lesson but cared little to learn.
The greater the sense of friendship and trust that developed between Marcelo and me, the more I came to see with greater totality the interworking missionary field. Marcelo explained that many of the Costa Ricans working for the Farm did not think of the short-term mission teams as mission teams at all. The do-gooding Americans were a means for the Costa Rican church to make money. The short-term mission team program was a colossal fundraiser. Provide a place to stay, add meals, throw in a little adventure and a sense of altruism, make it tax deductible, and American self-righteousness is easily exploited. The Americans will return home, whistle “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and thank God for all their stuff. And Marion was the grand businessman.
This, I was told by Marcelo, was not an altogether bad arrangement, and there was no resentment toward the Americans. Marcelo liked Americans and had good reason. The short-term teams paid his wages, pumped money into the local economy, and did genuine good. Most of all, Marcelo said, departing Americans were quite generous when leaving poor Costa Ricans in poverty. Team members dug deep into their wallets, left sizable donations, and all kinds of good but dirty clothing. Marcelo didn’t receive charity from the teams. What was charity and donations from the Americans was payment of services rendered and a hefty tip for the Costa Ricans. Marcelo had a job, not a ministry.
Cast in this new light, I was starting to see for myself that the short-term missionary enterprise seemed more than a tad superficial. Marcelo’s version of short-term teams was entrepreneurial. The Farm was a restaurant of sorts, taking reservations, receiving guests, seating them in a workplace, providing cultural ambiance, offering a souvenir-shopping-spree dessert, a bill, and a genuine goodbye with an invitation to “please come again.” And bills were settled. Teams paid for their accommodations, paid for a Costa Rican cook, paid for their own building supplies, hired Costa Rican workers, hired a team chauffeur, everything conceivable for a tourist sightseeing trip except that the many sites they saw were not the typical tourist traps. Tourism was the number one commodity of the country, and the Farm was very much open for business, Marcelo suggested.
Marcelo, I thought, had a point. Asceticism was measured by novelty. A beans and rice diet, cold showers, rustic living conditions, unfamiliar manual labor. Praise God and Halleluiah? These novelties commercialized my Costa Rican friends. They made the entire country feel shrink-wrapped and UPC coded, something else for North American consumerism to buy.
At the orientation of each team, I heard Marion give the same stump speech. He would talk about how North Americans could send checks instead of coming themselves. He acknowledged that the same work could be accomplished—perhaps even more. But then he would lower his eyes and lean over the podium. “But God didn’t send us a check. God came to be among us in Jesus Christ. Christians are called to be a community of faith, an incarnational community,” Marion preached. “And it is hard to be a community if all we do is put a check in the mail.”
Marion’s sermon was exactly right, and the results were hard to dispute. A church, a halfway house for women with special needs, homes for the homeless, all these and more were built. And maybe, just maybe, what the short-term mission teams accomplished, Marion would say, was sending home missionaries more willing to help their neighbor across the street. Even with the postcards and souvenir trinkets, the cameras, and the sometimes self-righteousness of do-gooders in action, the absolute sincerity of an old missionary man seemed exactly like seeing the hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick.
Marion found villages by following electrical poles, and sent teams. To a village called Tonjibie Marion delivered a team of dentists to work on jungle-rot mouths for a week and a half. Out of the bosque came women, children, men, toddlers and babies slung over the shoulders of mothers and sisters. They lined up outside of the church where the dentist worked for days, some not returning home for fear of giving up their spot in line. The dentists, for the most part, said all they could do to help the people was pull teeth. One extraction after another. Not only had these people never seen a dentist before, they, in all likelihood, didn’t have toothbrushes. One man came to the clinic, had every single tooth pulled, and returned home. Two days later, he reappeared with his shirt folded up like a basket. He brought oranges. He fell to his knees in the church and let the oranges roll from his shirt to the feet of the dentists. The dentist, hovering over an open mouth with a mask covering his face, looked at the man on his knees and then at me. The Costa Rican said to me, “Éstas son todas que puedo dar. Dar es dar.” “This is is all I have to give. To give is to give. Thank you.” I interpreted his words for the team, but it was all I could do to keep my composure. A scriptural moment came to life: the leper returns to Christ to say thanks. The man and his oranges were a gratitude Christ rarely saw, and to fulfill the scriptures, we played our role and took the man’s oranges.
This scenario materialized in one form or another with each work team. The poor were served in the name of Christ by the teams. And the poor responded as only the poor could. They gave of their hearts because their hearts were all they had. Was it right to receive this gratitude? I didn’t know. It seemed inconceivable, heartless even, to shun a poor man’s offering, to tell the man to collect his oranges and return home. But still, the scriptural narrative being played out privileged us in the role of Christ. Every team member made a sacrifice to come to Costa Rica. They used their vacation days, spent their own money, left behind family members. But these sacrifices hardly merited the honor of resembling Christ. What if Marcelo was right? What if there was no sacrifice at all? What if the short-term mission teams were a tourist trade—vacation poorly disguised as Christian charity? Could the scriptural narrative be so unbalanced? I didn’t know that either. Marion’s sermon was lived and relived again and again. Christ comes to be with the least, the lost, and the poor. But to Marcelo’s unarticulated point, Christ didn’t come on an airplane and hire local disciples and take a day off to immerse himself in the hot spring baths of a five-star resort and send postcards home saying, “Wish you were here.”
The world was a dualistic place. The short-term missions were either an authentic Christian benevolence or self-serving and hypocritical. Marion was either a saint or something else. They couldn’t be both. Learning Spanish, being an interpreter, not a translator, rubbed against this mentality. Linguistically, nothing I understood or said was exactly correct. It never occurred to me that the Word became flesh was a contradiction, or that God’s first language was inconsistency.
In the midst of receiving all the American missionary teams, new guests arrived at the Farm. These were not Americans.
Fields and fields of sugarcane grow everywhere in Costa Rica. The Farm was no different. When it was time to harvest the sugarcane, Nicaraguans came sneaking out of the bosque like jungle ants freighted with hope and expectation two or three times the weight of their own bodies. In Costa Rica, they could earn factors more than they could if they worked the Nicaraguan fields. Nicaraguans were unwanted, frowned upon, thought of as parasites on Costa Rican resources, but needed.
Buses traveling within Costa Rica were routinely stopped and inspected for undocumented Nicaraguans. My tourist visa had long since expired when my bus was stopped. Two officers escorted two Nicaraguans off the bus and presumably all the way back to the border: “Illegals.” There in the crevasse of inexactness, I came to understand the duplicity of the world. Here I was, in the country just as illegally as the Nicaraguans, and yet, this transgression was overlooked—every time. I was a criminal migrant worker too, but because I brought money into the country, rather than taking money out of the country, the trained eyes searched past me.
I wanted to know what life was like for the Nicaraguans. I asked Marion for permission to work in the cane fields at the Farm and he looked at me with a funny smile. “I’m sure they need the help,” he said wryly. So off to the cane fields I went. I carried with me a machete that could cut down a tree, or, and much more likely, cut off my foot. I was in great shape. I could do all kinds of unskilled heavy lifting labor for twelve hours a day, for six days a week and enjoy it. There was inhuman pain, however, lurking in the cane fields. I was clumsy and dangerous swinging a blade. More than once, the machete slipped out of my hands to go flying off in any number of unpredictable paths. The thick brush swatted my blade to the ground again, and again, and again. I was hacking the cane more than I was cutting it.
The Nicaraguans seemed to enjoy the vulgarity of my sugarcane cutting technique. I dressed in my thick, industrial-strength Dickies and steel toe boots. The Nicaraguans wore button-down shirts stained with perspiration. Their pants functioned only in the capacity for maintaining dignity. Little hairs shot out of their unshaved faces and when they stood, their frail frames naturally slouched forward to the earth. They grinned and talked eternally and took few breaks. And when one stopped working, they all stopped working. They took their machetes and whittled away the sugarcane like sculptors and gnawed their few nubby teeth on the sweet fibers. They sat between the rows of harvested crop watching me try to split the cane. They jeered unhelpful suggestions until eventually someone came over and did it for me. I always yelled at the man for helping me, quickly exhausting all my angry Spanish words. They laughed louder, and I laughed too. On these breaks, I sat on the floor of the field and looked at them enjoying their sugarcane treat and I was ashamed—ashamed I could walk away anytime, ashamed I knew I would walk away eventually. I was “other,” I reminded myself. I was a missionary. And that holy title felt not just wrong for me but wrong.
When it became apparent that I was a greater hindrance than help and blisters welted through the palms of my hands and down my fingers, and I could barely stand upright for scathing pain, I became the self-appointed “tractor driver.” Everyone agreed this was a good idea. It was easier to get out of the way of an approaching tractor than it was to duck my volleyed machete.
Working in the cane field went on for the better part of two months. I didn’t work with the Nicaraguans most days; I still had other obligations with the work teams. But the Nicaraguans were a welcome guest at the Farm as far as I was concerned. I enjoyed talking with them, bantering about, pushing my inexactness of language as far as it would go.
On a Sunday, I walked by the stables and found all the Nicaraguans hanging out. This was odd. The stables kept a horse, an occasional sick cow, and lots of pigs. The chicken coop was next to the stable, but a boa ate most of the chickens. The stable was not a place to hang out, but there they were. I asked them what in this world they were doing in the stable. “Dormimos aqui.” I did not believe them. I walked in the stable. Horse shit and pig shit were everywhere. A shovel and a bucket leaned against the gate to clean it up. Little bags, nap sacks, pocket combs, and other personal belongings were on a shelf above the pigs’ reach. Boards supported by tree stumps were beds. A string of laundry stretched from one side of the stable to the other, drying out their shirts and pants to a sweaty-starched crispness. They were not lying. Our help, our guests, the ones who crossed the border illegally and were hired by a church farm so a church could make money, slept with the pigs.
The work teams left the comfort of home to live the ascetic life of living in remote Costa Rican villages, with Costa Rican helpers and employees: a pilgrimage. The Nicaraguans left their families to make a pocket full of money. In return, they were being housed with the farm animals we slaughtered and fed to the North Americans.
I went to Marion to tell him what I discovered. I expected him to find this arrangement just as unacceptable as I did. I needed him to find it unacceptable. So much of what I could see and couldn’t see about the world, my place in the world, and what was to become of my future hinged on this simple response. The Farm was equipped to host a hundred or more Americans and Costa Ricans, and even when we were double-booked with short-term teams, only once did we actually run out of beds. Why was there no room for Nicaraguans?
Marion’s answer destroyed me.
I was told the Nicaraguans would steal everything not nailed to the wall. This may have been true. Items around the Farm did mysteriously disappear with the arrival of our new guests, and this, I was told, was as annual an event as the harvesting of sugarcane. But there was a problem with Marion’s justification: everything in the cabanas was nailed to the wall. Literally, nailed to the wall. There was nothing to steal. The answer was absurd.
I brewed with anger and dismissed everything the old missionary man had ever done. His answer tipped the scales in my either-or worldview. He had turned the short-term mission teams into a short-term-mission-tourist trade, I decided. I wanted to know how Marion would write a poem about that. It was Marion’s humanity, his sheer fallibility, that I couldn’t accept. It didn’t matter to me that he was the holiest man I had ever encountered. It didn’t matter that he was the flesh of Christ.
But it wasn’t Marion’s sin that I couldn’t accept. It wasn’t his sin I couldn’t forgive. I had no less than eight beds in my house and a sofa. I had a kitchen capable of feeding all our Nicaraguan helpers. Not once, not a single night, did I invite them to stay at my house. I wanted to work with the Nicaraguans, play soccer with them, I wanted to steal their vocabulary words, and have that feel-good-holiness-sensation of working with the poorest of the poor, but I never truly wanted to enter their world. To avoid my own failings, my own duplicity, my own sin, I blamed. And nothing anesthetizes shame better than blaming.
A month or two after the incident with the Nicaraguans, I returned to the states. On the plane home we were given all the immigration and customs forms. One question asked, “Did you visit any farms?” I didn’t understand the question. I studied it more. Had I been on a farm or a retreat center? I tapped my pen on the folded down tray.
Where had I been for this past year? Did my year in Costa Rica merit acknowledgment? I checked the box: “No.”
Another question. “Business or tourist?” Which was it? Had I been a tourist? Had I been a missionary? It was an either-or world. There was no box for both.
The whole world was both.