by Text and photos by Sue Schumann Warner –
CAPTAINS Rodrigo and Elizabeth León (l), with residents of Tierra Prometida and (r) Major Doug Danielson.
While Costa Rica may have an exotic reputation for its tropical birds, rainforests, and eco-tourism, beneath the glamour lies a country with a large internal debt, a growing problem with drugs, and a population (20-25%) that doesn’t earn enough to cover its basic necessities.
Here, The Salvation Army battles on the frontlines in a war on poverty, illiteracy, and spiritual need. “There is no standing Army in Costa Rica,” said Divisional Commander Major Doug Danielson. “The only Army is us!
Danielson and his wife, Major Rhode Danielson, are USA Western officers. In June 2002, they were appointed as divisional leaders after serving as training principal and director of special services at the Latin America North training college. They have also served in the South America East Territory, and as human resources development officers for Latin America and the Caribbean. They have two children, Caleb and Hannah.
Costa Rica is the largest division in the Latin America North Territory, with 14 corps, four major social service centers, three alcohol/drug rehabilitation centers, four day care centers and eight feeding programs. When the Danielsons were appointed as divisional leaders, it had a $120,000 debt as well. That has been whittled down to $60,000 and, with the sale of a piece of property, it may be cleared all together.
Satan’s living room
It seems every place the Army raises the flag, lives and communities are changed.
At the Sagrada Familia Corps in San José, Sergeants Gerardo and Elizabeth Rodriguez are in charge of the corps and the feeding program. The surrounding neighborhood is rough—and the adjoining neighborhood, called “La Punalada” (“the stabbing”), is even rougher.
Here, the Army provides a haven of physical and spiritual nurturing for children and families. As with most Army feeding programs, the government provides partial funding ($1 per meal) and additional funds must be raised to cover the costs. One hundred forty children enjoy the hot meal—for some, it will be the only meal of the day.
On a Sunday morning, 35-40 come from the neighborhood to attend the corps’ holiness meeting. “Thirty-two came for our first Alpha meeting last night,” said Rodriguez. “We are beginning to make a spiritual impact in the neighborhood.”
Across town, Sergeants Carlos and Irma Rueda have recently assumed leadership at the 25 de Julio Corps. After pastoring churches for 18 years in Peru, they sold all their belongings and came to minister with The Salvation Army two years ago.
“This is Satan’s living room” said Irma as she described the neighborhood surrounding the corps. “Poverty, prostitution, and drugs surround us. There is violence here.”
The men in the community, she stated, make their living selling drugs—crack, marijuana, and heroin. The area’s nickname (Aguanta Filo or “able to stand after a knifing”) reveals the depth of the problem.
“Many here do not know what real family life is like,” Carlos stated. “Our goal is for the gospel to reach the community in this place.”
That is happening through programs that touch lives in a practical way:
A feeding program serves lunch to 80 children ages 2 to 14, five days a week. It costs $1,000-$1,500 per month to run; government assistance provides some funds. Last month, I.M.A.S. (“Mixed Institute for Social Help, a government agency) sent a check for $632. “It’s a challenge,” said Rueda. To stretch their dollars, they collect vegetable donations at the wholesale market, and purchase what they are not given. “We live by faith.”
The Pura Vida coffee company supplied five computers for a computer lab, plus instructors. Microsoft provided software. Twenty children ages 7-12 attend the lab four days a week. Some attend the corps as well.
On Sunday, 25 adults and children attend Holiness meeting, and 25-30 participate in Sunday school. The Home League has grown to 13-16 members.
Recovery programs battle addictions
Twelve miles out of San José, in a rural neighborhood filled with lush tropical vegetation, the Army’s Centro Modelo is home to teenage boys who are trying to beat their drug or alcohol addiction during the nine month residential program.
While Costa Rica used to be seen as a ‘bridge’ for drug traffic from South America to the U.S., it now has its own drug problem—a major portion crack from Colombia. “In 1997, the average age of youth at Centro Modelo was 16,” said Danielson. “Now, it is 13. We see girls start in prostitution as young as 11 or 12.”
At Centro Modelo, the boys engage in work therapy and psychological therapy along with academic coursework, with a goal of returning to their families. Up to 35 can stay at the facility.
Forty percent of the program’s funding comes from the government through PANI (Patronato Nacional de la Infancia—the national child welfare agency). An innovative program raising and selling pigs, contributes to the shortfall. Manuel Nicolas, a graduate of the men’s program, breeds and cares for the pigs. He currently has 37, and wants ultimately to have 50 sows. “They are weaned at 45 days, and I keep them for two more weeks before they are sold.” The going price is around $50 each.
In San José’s ‘red zone’ of drugs, prostitution, and crime, Refugio de Esperanza is a beacon of hope and renewal. Sergeant Allen Abarca, the on-site administrator, oversees a program that provides residential care, work and psychological therapy, and spiritual support for up to 30 men. The El Faro Corps (Lighthouse) also meets here.
“My prayer,” said Abarca, “is that one day this will be the initial stage for a more extensive program. There is a great need for programs like these.”
He graduated from the men’s rehabilitation program when it was housed at Central Modelo. “I was an alcoholic from 13 to 28; on May 6 I celebrated 18 years of sobriety.” Called to serve God in The Salvation Army, he has been working with addicts in rehabilitation for 15 years. “Here, I am able to give something back for the help I received.”
Healing body and soul
It’s not far from San José to San Isidro del General as the crow flies—just 70 miles. But on a twisty, narrow two-lane road over the highest mountains in Costa Rica, it takes two and a half hours to get there, maybe three and a half if rains hit or fog shrouds the road. A visit to Tierra Prometida makes it all worth the trip.
Captains Rodrigo and Elizabeth Leon have worked for the past nine years as directors of Tierra Prometida, or “promised land,” a “substitute house” that is home to nine men and one woman, ages 22-53, all of whom have been abandoned by their families. All have special needs, including: autism, mental retardation, premature aging, and muscular dystrophy.
The entire staff consists of the Leons, their son and daughter-in-law, and a housekeeper; a local businesswoman, Maria Picado de Halder, donated this property—a former motel—and a number of other properties here to the Army
“The name of the home implies a couple becomes substitute parents,” said Rodrigo. “This is a family—one family—not an institution.”
Residents who are able attend a special education school and shelter workshops, with a goal of attaining their greatest autonomy.
The government asked the Army to step in and run the program nine years ago after it was learned the residents had been sexually abused by members of the church that had been responsible for their care.
The government pays 35-40% of the cost of running the home. “Government support is fundamental to achieving our goals. We couldn’t carry out the work without their support,” he said. While there are eight homes of this type in Costa Rica, this is the only program whose sole focus is working with people with handicaps.
The Leons started their ministry with the Army as sergeants, then became auxiliary captains, and were commissioned last November as full captains. Salvation Army service follows a successful career for Rodrigo as a businessman in the dairy industry.
A thread of salvation
Throughout all The Salvation Army’s programs in Costa Rica and the Latin America North Terri-tory runs the thread of the redemptive love of God through Jesus Christ. Divis-ional Social Services Secretary Capt. Joaquin Calvo found that thread when, as a teenager, he applied for a job at the Army.
“I was 19 years old, and answered an ad for a woodworking teacher at Central Modelo,” said Calvo. “I came for a job, and in the end, most of my family got saved.” His whole family was changed: his father was an alcoholic, and stopped drinking eight years ago. His mother reads the Bible, prays, and attends Bible study at her Catholic church.
Siblings found Army service as well: his brother, Major Esteban Calvo, is the divisional commander of the Guatemala and Honduras Division, his sister, Captain Margot Obando, serves with her husband Captain Eddy Obando as corps officers at San Jose’s Central Corps, and his other brother is the sergeant major at the Conception de Tres Rios corps. Joaquin’s wife, Captain Kathy Calvo is the division’s finance officer; her parents are SA officers in the USA Eastern Territory.
The Army’s ministry comes full circle with Captain Agripina Góchez. Born in Mexico, when she was 12, she and her three brothers were sent to live in a Salvation Army children’s home in Reynosa. She was sick when they arrived, and she recalls the kindness an officer showed her: “The divisional commander was at the home, doing in-spections, when we came. He took time to care for me—I was touched to see someone who wasn’t my family care for me. Later, I learned he was a very busy man. His kindness impressed me.”
The impact of genuine compassion and caring, demonstrated through the lives of Salvationists, led to her becoming an officer. As divisional youth secretary, she now directly affects the lives of hundreds of young people.
She sees the need for teens to have role models, adults who will appreciate them and not criticize. She also sees the need to activate youth programs that have become inactive: junior soldiers, corps cadets and girl guards. “This is a process,” she said. “My goal for this year is to have a group of youth, one from each corps, form an evangelistic group. I’m praying for that.”
“The Army wouldn’t exist without women”
“Without women in Latin America, The Salvation Army wouldn’t exist,” said Colonel Shona Forsyth, territorial president of women’s organizations. Women do the visitation, run feeding programs, and conduct 90% of the League of Mercy programs. In fact, said Forsyth, most corps start from a Home League.
She cited Army feeding programs as an example of the women’s commitment to service, explaining that Home League women run all the corps’ feeding programs. That includes cooking the meal for the children, cleaning up, and then taking collection boxes out on the streets to obtain donations for The Salvation Army.
It’s clear that women make a difference. “They’re the workers in the corps,” said Forsyth. That’s on top of working at home while they care for their children: some sell plates of beans and rice from their home; others sell their craft items on the streets or at stop lights. “It’s a meager existence. They live from day to day with what they earn.”
Major Rhode Danielson, divisional director of women’s ministries, noted women are resourceful in finding ways to share the gospel. In Guanacaste, at the Liberia Corps, school teacher Siria Soto teaches the Bible, as well as reading and writing to men and women in prison. One corps’ League of Mercy had members choose a family from the feeding program and invite them to Sunday school, then share a meal with them afterwards.
Making the decision to become a Salvationist is not easy in Latin America. “Many Home League members are senior soldiers, but some don’t want to give up their Catholicism. To be Latino is to be Catholic; it’s part of your identity.”
There are 2,093 Home League members in Latin America North; 662 are in Costa Rica.