Spirituality and service in Costa Rica
I am part of the National Leadership Council (NLC), a youth group for Christian Scientists. For our third summer in the program, my fellow NLCers and I traveled to Costa Rica on a community service trip. We all looked forward to having an opportunity to interact with the local children as well as fix up the area surrounding their school. We were excited to be able to help the local community, and we quickly started filling our heads with thoughts of big building projects—like maybe fixing up the school’s rodeo arena—and of being able to leave a positive mark that would last for years.
On our first day of service to the Costa Rican school, we were shuffled into different groups, each with a different task. Some of us got started moving a pile of wood from one spot to a different spot some 30 feet away, some of us painted watering cans, some of us dug holes, and some of us painted the school’s rusty metal fence with shiny new paint. Over the next several days, we continued with the same chores. We started to wonder: when would the large-scale building projects start?
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The next day, when my group had finished painting the watering cans with one coat of blue paint each, we were handed the same cans for a second coat of paint. Later we were assigned to paint trash cans, and to paint the inside of the school’s rain shelter. The following day we went out and painted water tanks that were located about ten minutes from the school. Basically, we had our fair share of painting!
As our group realized that we weren’t going to be completing any grand projects, we started to feel really down on what we were doing. It was a chore to get through each day, and while I can’t speak for everyone, I wasn’t feeling the satisfaction of work well done at the end of each day.
As our group took stock of how bad our attitude had become, we decided to do something about it. We held a town hall meeting, a meeting specifically for the teens—no adults present—to discuss our feelings toward the work and how best to go forward.
To be honest, we spent the first half hour or so complaining about our situation. We talked about how we weren’t being given the chance to help enough, and basically blamed the school for not letting us do enough for them. After some time though, the conversation switched to really evaluating our motives. We realized that we were being selfish, wanting to claim all the glory of community service for ourselves. We had gotten caught up in the idea that the bigger and better the project we did, the better we would feel about ourselves afterward! We weren’t putting the community’s needs first.
A more spiritual outlook transformed our trip.
Eventually, we conceded that the leaders who were instructing us on what service to do really knew what was important to the community, and that each minute of service we did for them was exactly what was needed. A quote in Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy was relevant to our situation: “God never punishes man for doing right, for honest labor, or for deeds of kindness, though they expose him to fatigue, cold, heat, contagion” (p. 384). Sometimes our work felt repetitive and tiresome, but only good could come from the activities we were doing. Our time was not being wasted, and along with the community, we could only benefit from the work.
Once we changed our thought, our experience changed dramatically. Our spirits were lighter, the hours flew by and we definitely got more done. The relationships between our group, our mentors, and our Costa Rican guides grew stronger every day. When we departed the school for the last time, we were able to see the difference we had made. A large section of the rusted fence was now a sparkling clean silver. The 20 or so trash cans that used to be faded and dirty were an electric blue. Though we hadn’t realized it at the time, a week’s worth of painting and touching up had really made a difference, and our guides were so grateful for the time we put into their school.
I was so grateful to see how a more spiritual outlook—being humbly willing to do whatever needed to be done, knowing that God was guiding us and the community leaders—had transformed our trip. The whole experience changed our views on motivation, and I think I can speak for the whole group in saying that we were as happy to have learned a spiritual lesson as we were to have been of benefit to the community in Costa Rica!