One of my “Other Ministries” in Costa Rica

Let’s label this ministry as: “Hi homeless friend! Would you like some breakfast?”

On Saturday, I go to the local grocer and buy a kilo of local farmer’s cheese, a couple of loaves of bread, and big bottles of iced tea. Then I make up sandwiches for 25 or so people, gather paper cups, 2-3 New Testaments in a simplified version, maybe some second-hand clothes.

On the streets of San José, Sunday around 7am, I leave the car in a parking lot and head out with a jammed-full backpack. I take basic safety precautions, such as keeping all the people in my field of vision – but since I go out early, most of my contacts are still docile after their Saturday night. The street people migrate from one spot to another, so they aren’t necessarily where I last left them.

Then suddenly, there they are. It takes a second for the brain to register, That pile of rags is actually a man; that cardboard box is someone’s house.

Homeless man in San José, file photo

Wherever I see a cluster of people I stop and ask, Would you like some breakfast? I used to ask, “Are you hungry?”, but I switched my phrasing in order to preserve some of their dignity. Everyone gets a sandwich, maybe a second for lunch if there are extras. I shake hands all around and ask their names. They are pleased by the sandwiches, since Turrialba cheese is a local favorite; I pick it for that reason, and also because it’s a cheap source of protein for them.

Then it’s: Let’s see what I have today: we have some nice clean socks, or maybe underwear, or a shirt. Or a Nuevo Testamento. (But never money). They respond very happily, and seem to have a group code for who is needier and thus who gets what. Then it’s: May I sit with you for a few minutes? These people too often get the message that they are not fully human, and I want to spend some time just talking. Won’t you tell me about yourself? With the men I talk in the Costa Rican fashion, occasionally touching them on the forearm or the shoulder. As a wise person recently said, our dealings with the poor must be done “looking them in the eyes and touching their hands” because “tossing money and not looking in [their] eyes is not a Christian” way of behaving. [1]

There is often some man or another who appoints himself my protector and guide, who takes me in hand and shows me where I might go. This week it’s “Michael,” who happens to speak English. He takes me around to some people he knew: “These people you see here are okay,” he says, “but don’t go down that hill, those are bad characters down there!” His friends include young and old, mostly men, some women. Not unusually, I meet a transsexual prostitute, a common sight in San José.  Every one of them, one of God’s creatures.

“You speak perfect English!” I said to Michael. So he told me his tale: he had lived in California for 47 years, had a wife and two daughters there. Then they arrested him and held him in county jail in Arizona for two and a half years before he was finally extradited. “I told my wife to find another husband,” he said, “I’ll never be able to go back.” It clicked only later that he had specifically said “the county jail in Arizona,” and that I should have asked him if he had been held in Joe Arpaio’s Maricopa County Jail, where they had illegally housed immigrants. Nor had I bothered to ask him if he had been arrested for being undocumented or for some crime – he had hadn’t volunteered any information and I didn’t feel the need to know.

In Costa Rica there is none of the prickliness about religion that one finds in the USA; I always say to my street friends, “My name is Gary, and so that you know why I’m here today, I’m a servant of Jesus Christ” and I point heavenward; or I show them the cross that hangs around my neck. Smiles, nods, “Amens” and “Gracias a Dios” are their responses. They are pleased to get a New Testament. Some will even pray for me or quote me Bible verses!

My part-time ministries include being a consultant for Bible translation; writing a new book; talking with street people. My work philosophy is: to do full justice to my main ministry (teaching and writing and blogging about the New Testament) for most of the time; to do other ministries part-time. Feeding a few street people not only helps me to be more well-rounded as a Christian, but also as a Bible teacher.

To close, a couple of personal meditations, things I turn over in my mind when doing this small, side ministry:

Personality Issues: By nature, I am a doer rather than a discusser. This is no criticism of the planners and strategists – whom I admire – but I gravitate toward finding 25 real people whom I know by name and by sight than to, say, serve on a committee to solve homelessness. Another personality issue is that I am made uncomfortable by “throngs” – and sometimes, when you appear on the street with food, you do get thronged!

Mental Process: It is easy to question the value of visiting my homeless acquaintances. It’s only a few times a month! What about the other days? What will they do for dinner? What about the hundreds of San José street dwellers you didn’t help? How does this mitigate the long-term problems of drug abuse and mental illness? Am I being an enabler? My philosophy is to avoid overthinking it and to rest on: I do not need to fix the world this week; but here are a couple of dozen people who will eat better and have warmer clothes and have an outsider look at them as if they really were human and to have it all clearly connected to the name of Jesus.

Temptation Issue: I am very aware that a  certain thought process is always lurking in the back of my mind – the pleasing image of “Look, here’s Professor Shogren feeding the homeless without being told to do so!” It’s an image that can easily turn into an idol and from there a false god. As C. S. Lewis’s devil says, ironically: “Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact?” [2] Likewise, I used to take a few pictures with people, but for now I give that a pass; I wonder whether I would be dehumanizing people more than necessary if I took “here-I-am-being-generous!” selfies.

(Note: There is a video titled “The Homeless of San Jose, Costa Rica” on YouTube that might be of interest to you; warning – the video is graphic and not suitable for the kids!)

NOTES:

[1] http://thecatholicspirit.com/news/nation-and-world/dont-worry-spent-always-give-homeless-handout-pope-says/

[2] C. S. Lewis in the incomparable The Screwtape Letters, p. 44. At certain times of the year and if the light is just so, it is my favorite Christian book. The words I quote are supposedly from a senior tempter trying to tell a new one how best to ruin a new Christian. Download the book for free by clicking: C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters.

‘One of my “Other Ministries” in Costa Rica,’ by Gary S. Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica


Tagged: Bible, Christian, homeless, Poverty