“There are two kingdoms, the kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of God. One works one way and the other another way. And you can really see the difference between them.” That was how Pastor Flor summed up her ministry. I’m visiting her home and her work in a shantytown (or precario), along with my own pastor, Marvin of Nazareth Bible Church. Maybe the best symbol for the two kingdoms is the holes that pepper the outside of Flor’s church. Marvin sticks his little finger in one and draws my attention: “Do you know what these are? Bullet holes. The drug lords shot it out here one day and this is a reminder.” They make sure that I saw the man seated a few feet from the church, smoking crack cocaine.
We are walking through one of the most notorious precarios of the region. When I mentioned to a friend that I was going there, she exclaimed ¿Por qué? and made me promise to be careful. The name of the place is synonymous with narcotics, violence, prostitution, and murder. In short, the drug lords run the town. To get here, we drove a mere 5 minutes from ESEPA Bible College and Seminary where I teach, a cheerful place with well-lighted classrooms and happy students. Then we entered another planet. It is a village that takes up only 10 acres or so. Yet some 6 to 8 thousand people are crammed in. You have to cross a narrow foot bridge over a river in order to enter. While we waited for the pastor to meet us there, a couple of ladies spoke to us and pointed to the spot where I was standing. “This is where they murdered that taxi driver on Saturday night,” they said. “He drove too close, and they broke in to the car, dragged him out, took his clothes and car and everything and left him for dead.” “Right here?” I said. They nodded.
We were permitted in only because Pastor Flor came and walked us over the bridge and into the lower part of the precario. She wears mud-spattered boots; she later jokes that they weren’t nearly high enough for what she had been through in the last few weeks. After I took a dozen or so pictures she suggested that I put the camera away. “Drug traffickers aren’t happy about having their photos taken.” We passed a small grocery store, and Pastor Marvin asked me if I had seen the man in there taking pictures of us. “They are always watching,” Flor shrugged.
In this precario, Pastor Flor is known for the service that she does for families and children. The criminals leave her alone and it is her presence that gives us protection. A 50-ish woman, she founded the only church here and has served as its leader for 15 years. She is married and her husband supports her ministry and has a job elsewhere; we didn’t meet him. As we picked our way along the broken path, she greeted each person by name, and stopped and conversed with a few. One family was made up of young couple. They had a small lean-to with a dirt floor. She had a baby on her hip and two other small children, and she was pregnant with her fourth. The man was working with some wood, and the pastor introduced us and said that he had been off drugs for couple of months now. Pastor Marvin spoke with him for a while and prayed for the family. Back in the street, barefoot men stumbled past us and stray dogs wandered around looking as dazed as the humans. The only creatures who seemed to know what they were doing was a boy who followed us around, and a few goats grazing nearby.
Cross over the threshold into the Jehovah Shama Christian Church and Training Center, and you leave behind the darkness, mud and confusion. “This building used to be the…” Flor said, using a word I wasn’t familiar with. “You understand?” said Marvin. “The house of prostitutes. Today, Flor’s office is where the proxenata used to manage her business.” That word I did understand. Flor picked up the building and the property a few years ago for about $6500. On the second floor is a sanctuary that can seat about 100 people, and there are nice bright Sunday School rooms tucked into every corner of the building. The church has an indoor playground, a computer training center and a rec room. In an adjoining building they offer cooking classes and a craft shop for women. Today they are making vases to sell at the local farmer’s market. The church is decorated for Christmas. Everything is high-security with metal doors and mesh grates over every window.
November 4, 2010 – Costa Rica declares a national emergency. Jehovah Shama Church literally came to the rescue of its neighbors on November 4. For two days, tropical storm Tomás had pounded Costa Rica with torrential rains. In the middle of the night in several areas close to us, the mud let loose and buried houses and people alive. At the same time the rivers rose and flooded people from their homes. Two dozen lives were lost, including an entire family. The president declared a state of emergency, and government forces and the Red Cross swooped into most places to rescue the missing and take hundreds of people to emergency shelter. It was the worst disaster to hit Costa Rica for many years. This particular precario was hit late at night by a mudslide from above and a flood from below. Flor pointed to a spot on the bank, which looked like it was threatening to erode even further. It seems as if every place has its hellish anecdote: “Right there, there were two men standing on the path. And so they were talking, right? So, one man said to the other, well I’ll see you later, turned to go, and from out of nowhere the water hit him and he was swept away.”
“Did the government help you after the flood?” I wondered. “Did the Red Cross step in?” Pastor Flor shook her head no. “We only had ourselves. You see, the government doesn’t come here anymore. Ambulances refuse to come when we call, so do the firemen. Not even Red Cross workers will pass over that bridge.” I guess it’s one thing to put your life on the line for people in need; but why risk being shot at or robbed or murdered here, when there are other places which will be glad to welcome you? Later I figure out that this explains why there were no pictures of this particular precario in the news.
And so, the morning after the disaster, Pastor Flor put on her too-short boots and waded through three feet of water to help the victims. That home that we had visited, with the baby: they put her on the kitchen table so she wouldn’t fall in. The water rose almost as high as the table, but not quite: she was a survivor. Pastor Flor brought them food, milk, diapers. In fact she reached out to all of the homes on that street, providing them with emergency supplies and helping them to put their houses back in order. One family was evacuated entirely and brought to live in the second floor of the church.
Flor is a planner as well. We leaned over the river bank and she pointed out how the church had reinforced it four years ago. “It took us just one month,” she said. “Everyone, men, women, children, we were working to try to strengthen this bank to protect us from the next flood. We used thousands of old tires, which we filled with concrete and gravel. It was filthy – sewage was running down from the hill all over us, but we kept at it day and night.” The bank held during the November flood; the reinforcement probably kept the church building from being destroyed.
Pastor Flor seems to get her resources from all points of the compass. Her two grown children are professionals, and they help to support their parents and to underwrite the work of the church. But in this case, she received a special gift from WorldVenture of Denver, Colorado. WorldVenture is our mission sending agency. It’s a sign of the times that our regional director, Jim, keeps his eye on Facebook to make sure that his people are okay. It happened that I and another missionary posted an alert the day of the flooding, asking people to pray. Within the hour, Jim sent back an e-mail, asking if there was any tangible way in which the mission could help. We suggested a donation to buy supplies for the rescue shelters. But within days, the shelters were well-stocked with blankets, food and shoes. And so finally the donation was channeled through Nazareth church to Pastor Flor in the precario. This single gift reached every one of its flood victims.
Weeks later, and the kingdom of darkness is visibly doing its work, peddling drugs and human beings. Alongside of it, the kingdom of God is being heard in the reconstruction of these simple homes. Each one of them hears the gospel message; each one also knows that brave Christians stand at the ready to help them, even at personal risk. As the apostle Paul said: “We determined to share with you, not only the gospel of God, but also our very selves.” (1 Thess 2:8). Muchas gracias, Pastor Flor and our friends at WorldVenture.
Gary Shogren, “The Night that the Rivers Rose and the Sky Fell.” Originally posted on November 30, 2010