By Bruce Case
Walking into the mission house for the first time is unnerving.
There are 50 teenagers from all over the United States sitting on the porch. Very little chatter. That scares extroverts like me. The only talking going on is in the kitchen—in a language I’m still trying to learn.
At least I can tell we are about to eat well!
I am in Alejuela, Costa Rica, for one week. Fred Curry, a long-time friend from Petal, Mississippi, had been harassing me for years to come and experience Rice and Beans Ministries (RABMIN), a program that meets people’s physical needs with food and spiritual needs with Christ. Fred, director of RABMIN, explains it best in this short video.
Like many other pastors, I had been knee-deep in other relationships through my church, Parkway Hills United Methodist of Madison, Mississippi, that kept me from being able to participate in Rice and Beans; but, Fred had caught me at a weak moment a few months earlier, “Bruce, I need you to be our preacher for base camp week in Costa Rica this summer. Can you come?”
Before I could come up with an excuse, I had replied, “Ok, Fred. I’ll be there.”
But now, standing in that mission house, I realize I hadn’t thought it through. All of this sounded great in Mississippi in January. I wasn’t as convinced in Costa Rica in July.
I am going to be preaching to people from all over Central America and the United States; people from all different religious traditions and languages. Can I pull this off?
I think of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, “Do what scares you.” I also think of what God said to Moses, “Don’t worry; I’ll give you the words.”
As the food is served, the youth groups from all over begin to share small talk. Small talk turns into laughter. Laughter turns into community. Strangers turn into friends—and very quickly! (Anyone who has been on a mission trip knows how rapidly relationships intensify.)
Rice and Beans operates on a pretty simple concept. At night, you worship with people from all over the area. During the day, you team up with people from local churches and form small groups that spend the mornings playing with neighborhood children of all ages and afternoons delivering food to local families.
From the mornings filled with soccer balls, glitter, glue, frisbees, and construction paper, I learn that fun, like love, is a universal language. I learn that smiles, hugs, laughter, and games can break down fear. And I learn that very few things in life can remind you that you’re alive like being immersed in another culture. Some of my favorite stories in the gospels are about Jesus crossing boundaries, as He did with the woman at the well and with the demon-possessed man waiting on the lakeshore and when Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus made a run across the border to Egypt.
Every afternoon, our Rice and Beans leaders take us to a new neighborhood, where we bring in bags full of groceries and drop them off to every person who opens a door to our small group.
As each door opens, we say, “We are missionaries. This is a gift from God. We are grateful to give this as a reminder of God’s love for you and your family. Is there anything you’d like us to pray for before we leave?”
Almost without exception, there is a response with a list of concerns, “My husband needs a job. My child is sick. My daughter is in another country, and we haven’t spoken for years. My stomach has been hurting for a long time. I’m asking God for healing.”
Our small group grabs hands—including those of the family members—and we all pray out loud, all at the same time.
Every house is different. Every house is the same.
And for each moment of prayer on the porch, I have what can only be described as a pentecostal experience—a moment of clarity and understanding that goes deeper than any language, economic, or cultural boundary. I am struck by what can happen when we hold one another’s hands and pour out our hearts with one another to God.
In the evenings, the silence of that first meal becomes more and more of a distant memory as each meal with locals is a loud, boisterous exchange. My ears ring, but I’m not complaining.
We worship every night at a different church. The services are full of lively music and testimonials that beg your entire being to be present. Heart, hands, mind, and soul are all invited to participate.
Time is of no consequence. Nobody looks at their watches during worship.
There is one church I’ll long remember. Wire walls supporting airy mesh canvas are all that veil the inside from the outside of the structure. And, from the ceiling, hang bright, beautiful curtains that, during one particularly beautiful night, dance in the wind as we sing praises to God in that canopied building.
I am given the opportunity to preach three times in moving environments like this. And God comes through for me with solutions for the barriers I had feared. People from all over the world share their kindness and tell me that they appreciate my messages. Many people have phones that translate their Spanish into English text so they can communicate with me.
The energy and spirit of the worship services carries me and directs my sermons. I ride this wave that I didn’t start, and I enjoy every minute of it. Preaching through a translator is not as tricky as I had thought it would be, as every night the same friend helps translate my messages to folks who speak Spanish.
Worship. Serve. Pray. Have fun. What a week! I am really glad Fred caught me off guard. I’ll go back to Costa Rica to serve again soon.
What a gift to be lost (and found) in translation!
Bruce Case has been senior pastor at Parkway Hills United Methodist Church in Madison, Mississippi, since 2010. He and his wife Jen have two children, Tripp and Susannah. Click here to listen to podcasts of Bruce’s sermons at Parkway Hills.