My wife and I first enjoyed Costa Rica with a Mission Work Team in 1995. We were brand new at First UMC, Wilson. Our team’s task was constructing a building for a Methodist Church school in a remote mountainous area. Being a part of that team in a poor area doing things with needy, delightful, loving people was a wonderful way for a new pastor and his wife to get to know and be known by their congregation.
Last month, Barbara and I returned to Costa Rica for the first time in 25 years with a Duke Alumni Travels group, and again we were rewarded with great companions, some even older than we (!), and we capped off the visit with a visit to Panama and its legendary Canal. These two little nations together have less people than North Carolina but are recognized worldwide as a garden spot in a region of turmoil that produces hordes of people longing for a better life in a less violent part of God’s creation. Some are willing to risk their lives and their children’s lives to find that in our nation that for most of its life has welcomed “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…” That door has been slammed shut for that class, long before COVID-19 sent us into self-quarantine.
While an articulate, intelligent young Panamanian tour host proudly showed us his country as we rode on a bus, I asked him why Panama and Costa Rica were such exemplary nations in such a mainly poor, crime-ridden and gang-infested part of our hemisphere. He quickly answered, “Because we have no military.” He went on to explain that Costa Rica did away with its military in 1948 and Panama followed a decade later albeit with a police force that Noriega militarized and corrupted before it was overthrown by our military. Now, both nations spend much of their resources on great public schools and healthcare for all, money that ours and other rich nations direct to armaments and large numbers of armed forces. Maybe his answer was a little simplistic, but he’s got at least a partial truth.
In this strange time in our world and nation, it’s good to remember a poem by Saint Oscar Romero, who was martyred just north of these two nations in El Salvador for championing the poor:
No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God—for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel. God with us. Without poverty of spirit, there can be no abundance of God.
May God give us all such poverty of spirit as we face this pandemic, and may we come out of it a better, more humble, more Christ-like world.
A Prayer adapted from St Oscar Romero:
I cannot change
except to seek to follow the gospel more closely.
And I can quite simply call to everyone:
let us be converted
so that Christ may look upon our faith
and have mercy on us.
Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy;
Lord, have mercy.
From the NC Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Immigration Alliance
To become educated this week:
Inform your legislators and local public officials about the practical problems families are facing.
To cultivate growth this week:
Host a listening session/forums and invite affected community members to share their stories.
To advocate this week:
Advocate with elected leaders for immigration reform that creates a legal pathway for our immigrant neighbors.
Charles Michael Smith is a retired elder in the North Carolina Conference residing in Washington, NC.