LA FORTUNA, Costa Rica — Finding an actual Costa Rican in this Central American tourist town is a bit of a challenge.
On a Friday afternoon, the streets of the main plaza are choked with visitors from the U.S. and Europe, popping in and out of the ice cream shop and “Chocolateria.”
They come here from around the globe to ride horses, brave rapids and zip-line over lush vegetation, all in the shadow of the majestic Arenal volcano.
Rolando Castro came here to plant a church.
He and his wife, Daisy, along with a handful of other church members, moved to La Fortuna seven years ago. The congregation they helped plant has grown to about 25 members, meeting in an unmarked building near the town’s square.
It’s more important that believers point to Christ with their lives than with a sign, Castro explains, but the congregation does plan to buy one eventually.
Sitting in folding chairs on the auditorium’s concrete floor, Castro talks with fellow believers from the capital, San Jose, about the congregation’s work. The visitors are in town coordinating the Pan American Lectureship, meeting at a hotel near the volcano.
In a classroom behind the auditorium, Daisy Castro and three other women sit with open Bibles, writing a curriculum for their Sunday morning children’s classes.
The La Fortuna Iglesia de Cristo (Church of Christ) is using its finances to build the classrooms and an apartment, Castro tells the visitors. The congregation secured its second loan from the bank for the improvements. The previous loan, which the church paid off, built the auditorium.
The congregation also is searching for a minister. At first, the preacher may have to find a secular job to help support himself, but the church has committed to support him full time eventually — without funds from outside the church.
Castro, a second-generation church member, has seen Christians suffer because of reliance on foreign aid.
“Sometimes the support from the U.S. has caused issues among the members and has been a stumbling block,” he says. His dream is for the church “to accomplish the mission of Christ in this area” and to have the means to finance the work. CHURCHES THAT ‘LOOK OUTSIDE THEMSELVES’
Self-reliance is a common characteristic among the 4.6 million people who live in Costa Rica. The country has enjoyed greater political stability than its neighbors, Panama and Nicaragua, and has a better standard of living than most Central American nations.
The country’s unofficial motto is “Pura Vida” (“Pure Life”) — a laid-back enjoyment of simple living.
“We don’t have an army, but an army of teachers,” says one of the visitors, Steven Guerrero, the last member of a mission team working with a congregation in Sabanilla, an eastern suburb of San Jose.
“People here are very well-educated, in a secular way,” Guerrero says.
Costa Rica has about 50 Churches of Christ, ranging in size from 20 to 250 members. That’s fewer than other Central American nations, including Guatemala and Honduras.
In those countries, poverty and social inequality have made people receptive to the Gospel, says Carlos Ulate, minister for the Heredia Church of Christ, north of San Jose.
Ulate, who was baptized while studying at the University of Florida, served as director of a ministry training school in Catacamas, Honduras. There, he saw how meeting people’s physical needs allowed churches to then address their spiritual ones.
Though the people of Costa Rica have fewer physical needs, “the problem we’re having is that the greatest institutions of society are falling apart — marriage, family and the church,” Ulate says. “So my dream is that … the leaders of the churches see themselves as God’s instruments to heal individual lives, to heal marriages, to restore families.”
Too often, church leaders are mired in the logistics of buildings and finances, Ulate said.
“It’s my dream that the churches learn to do the right work,” he said.
Ronald Martinez also dreams of Costa Rican believers becoming missions-minded. He preaches for the Desamparados Church of Christ in San Jose. The 120-member congregation has planted a new church in a nearby town. The church also has an active youth ministry and women’s Bible study. Members visit poor farming communities, play games with children and give them Christmas gifts.
The church sent aid to victims of Hurricane Mitch in Honduras in 1998. Recently, Martinez and another Costa Rican minister traveled to Haiti to give funds and aid to victims of the 2010 earthquake.
Seeing the living conditions in Haiti made Martinez grateful for the blessings he and fellow Costa Ricans share.
“All people, rich or poor, need to understand that we’re heading for heaven and judgment and prepare for that,” he says. “The church in Costa Rica can learn from the church in the United States (to) have vision, a mission mindset, to look outside themselves.” A CONGREGATION’S BIRTH
Missions-minded Christians from the U.S. and Costa Rica played a vital role in the birth of the Sabanilla Church of Christ, says Guerrero, a native Costa Rican who owes his faith to his adopted father, a minister from El Salvador who came to Costa Rica in 1979, fleeing the war that ravaged his home country.
Guerrero became a Christian and studied ministry at the Baxter Institute in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He joined a mission team — a mix of U.S. and Latin American Christians — and moved to the San Jose area about five years ago to reach young spiritual seekers.
The team and a group of short-term workers from the U.S. hosted a bilingual church camp, modeled after one organized by the Mars Hill Church of Christ in Vilonia, Ark. The team rented a campsite on the side of a hill. Seven youths were baptized at the camp and then brought their families into the church, which now has about 75 members.
Guerrero laughs as he remembers baptizing the youths in the frigid waters of the antique campsite. The temperature dropped near freezing, and most of the campers and counselors had only shorts and T-shirts to wear.
“But we made it through,” he says, “and that’s how the church started. And we’re going to have elders.”
Two men — Pedro Morales and Jorge Salazar — are training to become the congregation’s shepherds.
Thinking about the days ahead for the young church, Morales prays that his congregation will be self-supporting and will show love to its community.
“The Gospel has been preached in Costa Rica a lot,” he says. “We have the doctrine. … We used to preach out of fear, not out of love.
“I would like the church to be like cereal with dehydrated bananas. You add spiritual milk and it expands — bursting with flavor.” A LEGACY OF FAITH
Though the streets of La Fortuna teem with foreigners, the tourism industry here has taken a hit from the sagging global economy, Castro says.
He, like most of the church’s members, works in agriculture, but the downturn has hurt all sectors of his country’s economy. Some of the church’s women are unemployed, so the congregation helps support them.
“Members here believe everything belongs to God,” Castro says. “We share what we have.”
As his visitors from San Jose walk toward their car to return to the lectureship, Castro’s father, Orlando, pulls up in an old pickup. He became a Christian — and a minister — more than 40 years ago, while attending a gospel meeting hosted by missionary Ray Bynum and Costa Rican evangelist Efrain Valverde.
“I believed the Word of God. I believe its importance,” he says, explaining why he became a Christian.
When asked how he feels about his son carrying on his legacy of evangelism, he smiles and places his hands over his heart.
“That’s the best thing that has happened in my life,” he says.