By Mariana Sierra
Special to The Texas Catholic
SAN ISIDRO DE EL GENERAL, COSTA RICA — Like many of his Dallas Catholic high school counterparts, Christipher Ivie went to Costa Rica in June knowing little: little Spanish; little of most of the other students around him; little of the Central American country, and little of what it meant to be a missionary.
The faith that he brought with him, however, was big and that is what allowed Ivie and 48 other Dallas missionaries and 20 chaperones to bring the love of Christ to the Costa Rican people and, surprisingly to many of them, to receive “little drops of Jesus” in return.
“During my time here, I got to see the true simplest form of life,” said Ivie, a rising senior at Bishop Dunne Catholic School. “In the mildest simplicity you get to see the true lightness of God.”
The youth mission trip is organized annually by the diocese’s Office of Pastoral Services, which Deacon Charlie Stump has led since 1999. That first trip was to Trujillo, Honduras where missionaries were sent to help after Hurricane Mitch demolished the homes of many impoverished towns.
However, in 2012, violence related to drugs and gangs escalated in Honduras and the U.S. State Department issued a warning cautioning Americans against traveling to the country. As a result, from 2013 through 2017, the mission trips were moved to Nicaragua. Earlier this year, Nicaragua was added to the list of countries with rising violence, forcing the mission trip to change countries for a second time.
“I couldn’t let the mission die,” Deacon Stump said. “I knew that if I let it die for a year, it would have been very difficult to start over again. I think this helps students to realize that even though a door closes, God has another opportunity for the kingdom to be built in another way.”
The 2018 Diocesan Youth Mission Trip was the first one to get its hands dirty in the beautiful communities of Costa Rica.
Although Costa Rica’s economy has improved in comparison to its neighboring country, Nicaragua, there is much to be done.
The National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC) reported more than 1.1 million Costa Ricans live in poverty, with an overall poverty rate of 22 percent. Most of these households are located in rural and developing areas, where the Dallas missionaries were sent to serve.
In addition, the number of Catholics continues to drop in Costa Rica. The Center of Investigation and Political Study of the University of Costa Rica reported a decline of Catholics from 73 percent in 2013 to 69 percent this past year.
Students from Bishop Dunne Catholic School, Bishop Lynch High School, Cistercian Preparatory School, John Paul II High School and Ursuline Academy traveled to Costa Rica June 10-22. They were joined by chaperones—mostly teachers and staff—from the same schools.
Upon arrival in Costa Rica, the missionaries were divided into four groups to work on four different sites, with students helping the local residents in their particular projects. Those included building fences to protect the parishes, beautifying the parish by painting them and even helping with electrical infrastructure.
They dug trenches and painted fences, among other works. But they also played soccer. They talked to those in the communities. They made bracelets for the Costa Rican children, and more. And their days were filled by surprising acts of generosity and kindness in the work sites, local schools and even in the kitchen, where local humble cooks prepared their meals on a daily basis.
“I got a lot of sense of appreciation for the little things,” said Lexie Dunn, a rising senior at Bishop Dunne Catholic School. “I’ve learned to have a lot of respect for the people here. I was shocked by the genuine attitude of the people that we are working with.”
Although, few missionaries and townspeople spoke the same language, strong relationships were built.
Take, for example, the case of Matthew Sawtelle, a rising senior at Cistercian Preparatory School, and Manuel Eduardo Mena Acuña, a 56-year-old man working along the missionaries at Bambú Parish.
Sawtelle was a 6-foot-plus student waiting for his SAT and ACT scores and Mena was a short construction worker with a big family to feed.
Mena would rarely smile; he was strict but polite. Sawtelle would smile often, mostly because he couldn’t understand Mena’s instructions.
During the first few days, Mena was very quiet around the young missionaries, with only a few words exchanged amongst them.
“The first day I didn’t talk much, but one day when I was digging the trench, I met Manuel.” Sawtelle said. “He was very accepting and he was cracking jokes with me. Even though we did not speak the same language, we still laughed. It’s not been me so much; it’s been him wanting to have a relationship with me.”
Mena had lost his younger brother to drugs and he shared his story with the missionaries because he was moved by their kindness and joy.
“They are very good kids. They’ve taught me so much,” Mena said. “When I was their age, I made wrong decisions, and I’m surprised and glad they chose the right path.”
Faith & Kindness
Like Sawtelle, other missionaries were touched by the selfless acts of kindness and hospitality of the Costa Rican community.
“This is a very humbling experience,” said Emily Arenas from John Paul II High School. “I want to go back home and show how much I care for everyone. I want to be aware of how privileged I am with everything that I have.”
Missionaries woke up at 6 a.m. to go to daily Mass, had breakfast and spent the rest of the day at the assigned worksites. After work they returned exhausted to cold showers, a simple meal mostly of rice and beans—sometimes with chicken—and a humble dormitory room where they shared laughter, stories of themselves and experiences and, for some, who and what they missed back home. They wrote in their journals and gathered nightly in a circle to describe their encounters of the day.
“We came into this trip not knowing each other,” said Jane Onuoha, a rising senior at Bishop Lynch. “We were in a circle for 30 minutes and it was suddenly like we were a big family. We are so close already and it’s only been a few days,” said Onuoha.
The bond created among them was undeniable. Although the days were long, missionaries kept their spirits up by supporting each other.
“We are all going through the same thing. We all chose to be here,” Marina Barraco from Ursuline Academy said one afternoon as she was sifting dirt and gravel over a wire screen at her assigned work site. “Some of us have never been to a foreign country before and we are all very faith-filled, which makes us understand what everyone is going through.
“Not having our phones makes it easier to talk to each other,” she said. “We are not distracted by social media. It’s genuine conversations.”
The work done at the parishes were for long-term projects. Neither the students nor chaperones were able to see the finished product. Even so, local workers said their help was significant.
“This construction can take over two months to finish,” said Omar Robles Segura, a craftsman who volunteered to rebuild his local parish. “But thanks to the help the students gave us, we saved a week-and- a-half of work and we greatly appreciate it. There are no words to describe how much we have learned from them.”
Aside from the labor, the missionaries built relationships with the children of the community and it was the core of the mission experience for the students.
John Paul II High School rising senior Alejandro Coto, formed a close friendship with three pre-teens named Camila Robles Segura, Rigoberto Segura Cerdas and Steven José Acuña Segura.
Coto played with the children daily, engaging them in a game called “Que Anda,” a tag game.
The children were attending a school next to the work site where Coto and 12 missionaries were working.
As soon as school was over, the children ran to the missionaries. It was difficult to determine whose smiles were bigger.
At the end of the week, Coto gave Rigo a cross he had hanging around his neck.
“Rigo asked me if he could have it to remember me by and I gave it to him,” Coto said, while finishing his last lunch with the children. “Throughout these days, I have been teaching him a little bit of boxing and when he put the cross on, he said, ‘This will give me boxing powers and this can protect me from anything.’ That was a very special moment.”
Like their counterparts before them in Honduras and Nicaragua, the Dallas missionaries planted seeds in Costa Rica.
Remember Mena, the construction worker, and Sawtelle, the Cistercian student, who became close friends? When it came time came to say goodbye, Mena was in tears.
“Matthew is different,” Mena said, a tear falling down his cheek. “He is a special kid.”
Perhaps, what said it the best were the special gifts from a young Costa Rican boy named Dilan Avon Araya González for the missionaries that he would now consider lifelong friends. He had sewn small, white cushions emblazoned with the Costa Rican flag that could fit in the palm of a hand.
They read: “Amigos por siempre.”
(Friends for always.)