Costa Rica 2015 – Part 2

Prison SignTo say that prison in Costa Rica Is different from prison in Alabama would be an understatement. In Alabama all the inmates wear white. That is what distinguishes them from the officers. In Costa Rica inmates wear their own clothes including caps, bandanas and clothes of all descriptions. In Alabama jewelry (except watches) is strictly forbidden. Not so here. If you have jewelry feel free to wear it. In Alabama inmates are fed by the State. Families are not allowed to bring food into the prison. Here, families bring food once per week on a regularly scheduled day. These are but a few of the differences between the two.

Unfortunately, there are also many similarities, especially among the inmates. They are for the most part young and uneducated. There are two men we’ve gotten to know. One can read and write a little bit; the other man can do neither. Drugs and alcohol compounded by violence have a great deal to do with what brings these men to prison. The drug culture is just as much a problem here as it is in Alabama. I’ve heard these stories so many times now that I’ve lost count.

But there is one other similarity between here and Alabama; many of these men know that if they stay on their current path it will result in a dead end (perhaps literally). They know they need to change and Kairos gives them that opportunity. Only God knows whether or not genuine change will happen in their lives. That is not for us to worry about. Our task is to love as God loves and to show them that there is another way available to them in Jesus Christ. Hopefully they will take that way because it is the way to life, peace and hope that will change their lives forever.

Costa Rica 2015 – Part 1

Prison SignThe Kairos team began its work on Wednesday with a visit to APAC prison. APAC is a faith-based prison run by the Costa Rican prison system. It houses up to 96 men at one time. These are men who have made a conscious decision to change their lives.

There are specific programs to help the men achieve their goal of living successfully in society and not returning to prison. Most of the programs are conducted either by volunteers or inmates. Upon entering the prison we met a retired math teacher who comes four days per week to tutor the men in math. She taught high school math for thirty-one years and has been volunteering at the prison for eight years. Her goal is to help the men pass the math proficiency section of their exams. This will help them to receive a diploma like our GED.

We also had the opportunity to attend a worship service.Ben Sherrod, one of the members of our team spoke to the men about the importance of making good choices and focusing their lives on developing a deep relationship with Christ. Our team was able to pray with and for seven men who were ready to give their lives to Christ. We also prayed for the leaders of the small groups. Each man belongs to a small group for accountability, learning and support. These leaders have a great deal of responsibility so it was an honor to meet them and pray for them.

The Kairos weekend starts today (Thursday) and runs through Sunday. We are looking forward to a busy and blessed time.

Costa Rica 2014 – Part 3

InPrisonAndVisitedOne thing that has struck me during this time in Costa Rica is something that strikes me every time I travel in the developing world. When I travel in the developing world I’m always reminded of how high our expectations are as residents of the U. S. We expect to have our own room. We expect to have meat at every meal if we want it. We expect that the electricity will always be on unless there is an emergency. We expect to have these and many other needs met as a natural and ongoing part of our lives and if they aren’t for some reason we feel as if we’ve been shortchanged. Most of us are blessed because our expectations are almost always fulfilled.

But having these (and our many other expectations) met doesn’t necessarily make us happy. Many people who have most if not all of their expectations met just aren’t happy. It’s been shown over and over again that material prosperity, convenience and comfort don’t automatically translate into happiness.

The expectations of people in Costa Rica are much more modest than they are for most of us. Rooms are shared. Meat is a luxury that must be stretched when it’s available. Rarely, is meat the centerpiece of the meal. Electricity is almost always available but it can go out most any time and sometimes it just does. It went out for no apparent reason for about an hour or so while we were here. But even though expectations are a good bit lower here than in the U. S. life goes on. And it goes on with faith and hope and joy.

I have learned a great deal from those whose expectations are lower than mine. One thing that I’ve learned from these friends is that I don’t need nearly as much as I think I do. I can tone down my expectations a good bit and it will be fine. I don’t need as much room or as much meat (food) or constant electricity to be happy and fulfilled.

Happiness and fulfillment come from having a deep and meaningful relationship with God and from having deep and meaningful relationships with other people. That can be done most anywhere or any time with far fewer resources than I sometimes think that I have to have. I’m learning to redirect my expectations toward maximizing my relationship with God and with others.

That is one of the wonderful gifts that I’ve received from my time in Costa Rica, Chile and the other places I’ve been privileged to visit. May God bless us all to find out what really matters rather than settling for that which looks good but turns out to be hollow and unfulfilling.

Costa Rica 2014 – Part 2

Costa Rica - Based on OCHA MapThe Kairos weekend got off to a great start on Thursday evening (May 22). Today (May 23) was the first full day of the weekend. As we’ve been spending time in the prison I’ve been noticing some things . There are definitely some differences and similarities between our prison culture and the prison culture here.

First the differences. Here the men wear their own clothes. There are no uniforms as there are in Alabama. Here men can choose how they want to wear their hair, beards, etc. There are men with long hair, short hair and mohawks. However, I haven’t seen a mullet yet. There are all sorts of beard styles as well. Here the prison is staffed at full capacity. There are corrections officers everywhere. At home our facilities are chronically understaffed. Here, the families of the inmates can bring them food. At home that is tightly restricted.

Now the similarities. The inmate population is achingly young. At the communion service on Wednesday night I was struck by just how young the inmates are. That is also true of the Kairos participants. Just like at home there are many teenagers in the prison system. Drugs and alcohol are a major factor in criminal activity here just as they are at home. There are several participants in the weekend who don’t know how to read or write. Lack of education is a major factor in criminal activity here just as it is at home.

There is one other similarity that I noticed right away. The men here respond positively to our presence in the prison. When they are shown the love of God in real, tangible ways they are very receptive to it. That reminds me once again that God’s love is the greatest power in all the world. It doesn’t matter whether that that love is shown in Costa Rica or Alabama. It doesn’t matter where it happens. It does matter greatly that it does happen. I am thankful for a church like Bluff Park UMC that prays for and looks for ways to show God’s love to the world whether that happens at home or in a country far removed from home.

Costa Rica 2014 – Part 1

Flag_of_Costa_RicaTom Duley and John Gates arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica last night, a little tired from travel but none the worse for wear. We have settled into the Hotel Franco which is a bed and breakfast in the heart of San Jose. San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica with a population of 2 million. It is a busy and bustling place. Hotel Franco is an urban version of the Hostal at El Vergel we stay in when we go to Chile.

There are eight members on the team. All of us are from Alabama. We come from Birmingham, Huntsville and Demopolis. We all have extensive experience in Kairos prison ministry. We are here to work on a Kairos team with the Costa Rican Kairos community. The Kairos weekend begins on Thursday.

We will spend the day today touring two prisons. Rev. Carlos Cunningham is the leader of the Kairos community in Costa Rica. He is also chaplain to several prisons in Costa Rica and the pastor of a small church. Through his efforts the Costa Rican government has dedicated one prison as a faith-based prison. The first prison we will visit is this faith-based prison.

The second prison we will visit is San Sebastian prison in the heart of the city. This is the prison where the Kairos weekend will be held. There are eight cell blocks in the prison. Each cell block has an inmate pastor who has been trained by Rev. Cunningham. These pastors care for the men in their cell block in much the same way that all pastors do. They teach, counsel, visit, lead worship, preach, etc. As a part of our time there today we will worship and celebrate communion led by the inmate pastor in one of the prison’s cell blocks.

It promises to be an enlightening and inspiring day.