Lessons Learned in a Missionary Position in Costa Rica and the Importance of Being a Jackhammer

A tropical breeze gave movement to the sheer curtains as I entered the dark bedroom in search of love’s embrace. A familiar silhouette was visible in my bed, something I’d fantasized and longed for the entire day. As I undressed and slipped into my evening attire, I was already imaging the blissful feelings I would experience in mere minutes. Carefully, with teenage giddiness, I pulled back the sheets and lay down. As my head softened into the pillow, I could sense the day’s work practically flow from my body. My hands and fingers found their way to the deliciousness next to me, the second pillow that I pulled close. This was the moment I’d dreamed of since waking at 5:00AM. This was it! This was going to happen!

I closed my eyes ready to release myself to the Costa Rican night. I was in a missionary position, part of a team that had spent it’s first day building a church alongside Spanish-speaking construction workers, and I was EXHAUSTED.

For readers who began this article hoping for a 50 Shades of Grey story, you can click your back button. Sorry to disappoint.

Episcopal mission trip in Costa Rica by Carey Anne Photography

In July of this year, my oldest daughter and I traveled to San Jose, Costa Rica with our church’s mission team. We knew no one past first names and some fellow travelers were complete strangers to us, although we find ourselves in the same religious building each Sunday. Lodging and food for this mission trip was provided primarily through the Episcopal Diocese of Costa Rica in a large house with bunkrooms and several smaller bedrooms for four people in bunk beds. I was assigned the latter with three women who quickly became my friends thanks to late night laughs, commonalities and inside jokes.

Episcopal mission trip in Costa Rica by Carey Anne Photography

Our mission team’s task was to help local construction workers erect and finish a new church while a smaller number from our group livened up a second church’s school house with new paint. No one’s job was glamorous or better than. We all smelled of sweat and body odor at the end of the day. We were all learning through service to others and we all wanted to be there.

Episcopal mission trip in Costa Rica by Carey Anne PhotographyFor myself, the lessons learned during this week as a missionary proved to be life-changing and valuable and numerous, so I’d like to share just a tiny few as encouragement for others to seek a similar experience.

Lesson 1: Breaking down old walls to build new walls transforms a metaphor into reality

Have you ever seen a group traveling through an airport all wearing the same shirts? Me, too, except I was a member of the group and wore the same light blue shirt as everyone else on my team. I could be identified as an adult female who owned a large green bag. Other than that, there wasn’t much anyone could use to stereotype me or my group. Essentially we were all the same, treated the same, with no division based on income, education, church membership length or other label. We had no walls for separation other than the physical walls of the house in which we slept.

Episcopal mission trip in Costa Rica by Carey Anne PhotographyOur days were spent hauling rock, mixing concrete, and laboring with tools. We chipped away old tile alongside one another and engaged in simple conversation like, “What was the first album you ever bought? First concert you went to?” rather than, “What do you do for a living? Where do you live?” We smoothed drywall compound on new church walls as we chatted about our lives, free from our everyday wardrobe and creature comforts. Old ways of relating to new people, or old walls, were replaced with new walls, both literally and physically.

Episcopal mission trip in Costa Rica by Carey Anne Photography

Lesson 2: Wordless language is useful communication, no matter where you travel

Working with only Spanish-speaking locals was challenging for those of us without a full dictionary of Spanish. Several team members were fluent and could step in to translate, but we tried to communicate with the little words we knew and crude forms of sign language. Construction work was easy for wordless language. Everyday requests were not.

For example, one of my roommates saw the need for more toilet paper in the restroom shared by 16 females. She found a house assistant, but he spoke no English. She attempted to tell him her request, but was failing his understanding. So, this grown woman resorted to basic, wordless language and mimicked wiping herself sans actual toilet paper. He got the clue and our bathroom was quickly restocked. Problem solved and many laughs at her retelling the story later that night!

Episcopal mission trip in Costa Rica by Carey Anne PhotographyHumor aside, there is something primal and basic in wordless, or limited language, communication. You are challenged to think outside of the box, to express emotion with facial movements or body language, to struggle. Success achieved when the other person begins to understand what you are relaying feels huge, even when the idea might seem small. Isn’t it always the little joys that can make a difference in how we feel?

Episcopal mission trip in Costa Rica by Carey Anne Photography

Lesson 3: Crappy vulnerability is better with friends

Crappy vulnerability is always navigated more successfully with friends, especially when they are sitting in the same dirt and hammering away at the same old tile with you. Kindred spirits perhaps, or at least for that hour. Connections are made, bonds formed, over smacks of hammers on hands or fingers. “Oh, that sucks! I know how that feels, because I did it yesterday. Want me to get you some ice?”

Episcopal mission trip in Costa Rica by Carey Anne PhotographyWhen you’re in pain or discomfort, knowing the person with you has been there, done that can be reassuring. Take, for example, one of my roommates (her name or identifying information will not be shared to protect her privacy) who felt uneasy relieving her bowels in any place outside of her home. (Disclaimer: this was me just a few short years ago) We were near the end of the week and she still hadn’t gone. For those of you who have been there, done that, I can almost see you wincing as you read this. Think about a week of fruit, beans and rice at every meal and no pooping….. Finally, late one night, we encouraged our non-pooper to at least try. I described a downstair’s bathroom that had an open window and Lysol spray and we all chanted cheers as she left the room. Her struggle with not wanting to poop on a toilet that wasn’t in her house was real and her sharing this fact was…… wait for it…… crappy vulnerability!

Episcopal mission trip in Costa Rica by Carey Anne PhotographyThe process of being vulnerable, especially with people you’ve only met days prior, is like it’s own spiritual experience. Long days of hard labor, not enough sleep, struggles through communication and trying to lean in to living with 25 other people leaves doors wide open for vulnerable situations. Relationships and friendships were tested, but yet somehow we all came back to the states with positive outlooks and an appreciation for having been part of something bigger than ourselves.

Episcopal mission trip in Costa Rica by Carey Anne Photography

Lesson 4: It’s important to be a jackhammer

On the very first day at the construction work site, I was assigned tile chipping and handed a chisel, pair of gloves and a hammer. As I began the arduous task, I remarked to a teammate that this job would be better served with a jackhammer. He agreed and we called our mission team host, Paul, over (English-speaking American) and offered to pay rental fees for a jackhammer that we figured could complete the task in two hours max. Paul chuckled a little and said, “You are the jackhammer.”

Disappointed, we returned to our chipping and soon shared observations of our work. It was slow and seemed unrewarding until you looked up and saw the large pile you’d amassed. We referred to the repetitive slamming of hammer to chisel as zen-like and mindless and surely we had the best job on the entire site. By days’ end, with a smashed finger (my teammate) and huge blisters (me), we weren’t so certain we were good jackhammers.

As the week progressed, teammates grumbled when assigned to chipping, but most discovered our secret of rewarding work in small doses. By week’s end, teammates had begun to work together with many chisels to break off large chunks of tile and cement. Chipping techniques made their way into dinner conversations. There was a drive to complete the work that just five days earlier had seemed impossible. We had learned how to be a jackhammer and would wear our injuries and scars home with pride.

Episcopal mission trip in Costa Rica by Carey Anne Photography

The Big Lesson

Pastor Rob Bell said recently during a podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert that encompasses the biggest lesson learned in Costa Rica, “If you can pay attention in the valley, you will have no problem paying attention on the mountain.” What better way to be in the valley than a mission trip in a foreign country, surrounded by new people, learning to break down old walls with semi-wordless communication while trudging through vulnerable moments and tedious labor?

My mission team walked through a dusty, smelly, dirty valley without losing focus and, fatefully, one of our best evenings during the week was sharing a meal at a gorgeous mountain-top restaurant where each and every one of us spoke of small, but powerful, moments of gratitude as we stood around an outdoor fire overlooking San Jose. Darkness around us with the twinkle lights of the city in the distance below us might have proven difficult to pay attention, but we all saw the purpose and goodness of life. We all saw love and felt it’s embrace and isn’t THAT what it’s all about?

Episcopal mission trip in Costa Rica by Carey Anne Photography