Let’s be honest. Border crossing day is generally disgusting, noisy, dusty, and long. I expected nothing less from the Costa Rican border and was pleasantly surprised to find the complete opposite of what I’d imagined. As I left Nicaragua behind, I gladly embraced the luxury of a border station equipped with a coffee shop, flushing toilets, and tiendas that sell real chocolate. Pure bliss. I noticed busloads of tourists passing through, and as I caught a glimpse of a white boy carrying a shortboard, I realized I had just reached Latin America’s surfing paradise. The team excitedly drove to a quiet fishing village called Playa de Coco and decided to camp out on the beach for the next few nights. After a long day of travel and border paperwork, I fell asleep to the sound of the waves, thankful for this taste of heaven.
The following day, a group of us went to grab some food at a local restaurant before heading out to do ministry for the afternoon. The restaurant where we ended up was started by two drunk guys who visited Costa Rica and never left, and you could sense that their moral compass wasn’t exactly pointing north. It was clear that the owner had way more respect for a bottle of liquor than for any of the women working at his restaurant. The waitress who helped my friends and I was in a terrible mood and was very short with us while taking our order. I was tempted to boycott this restaurant and leave a bad tip to show her how I felt about her attitude. Yet, my kind-hearted teammates (who never cease to amaze me) approached the situation with the opposite spirit and said we needed to minister to this woman. Ministry isn’t a special time set aside to show people we love them; it’s just living normal life intentionally. The men on my team sensed the disrespect of women in the restaurant and felt we needed to show our waitress that she was valued. Sweet Liz prayed about what to do and said God told her to give the waitress a bar of chocolate. Seriously? I thought. Not only is that culturally bizarre, that woman has been rude to us for the past hour. But Liz stuck to her conviction and boldly ran down the street to a local supermarket and purchased a bar of chocolate. When she returned to the restaurant she approached our waitress and said, “My friends and I thought you looked a bit down, and we just wanted you to know that God loves you so much.” She handed the woman the chocolate along with a note that said, “Dios te ama” (God loves you). The waitress’s face completely lit up, and she looked like a different woman for the rest of our time in the restaurant. In that moment, I remembered that often the people who seem like they deserve our love the least are those who actually need it most. And opportunities to show that kind of love don’t require big mission trips or elaborate plans. It can be as simple as eating lunch in a random restaurant with a cranky waitress who looks like she might need a little affirmation.
Later that day, a group of us decided to travel to a nearby beach village to do a ministry called “treasure hunting.” I had never done this before, but was willing to try. The idea is basically to search for the Lord’s “treasure”, which are simply His precious people. You choose a location and ask God for clues to bring you to the people He wants you to bless. As you pray, if God lays anything on your heart, you have to step out and take the risk of following what you’ve received. As we drove to the beach village, the five of us in my car asked the Lord to show us visions and images in our minds of those we would soon encounter. Some of the pictures seemed really random, but God was faithful and did weave them together.
We visited two different beach villages, and I’ll never forget the second. This particular beach looked pretty barren, but Natalie and I decided to walk along the water and see who we could find. We walked for quite a while, and no one stood out to me. We passed by one man who was just standing alone looking at the water. He said hello, but we kept walking. I wondered if we should speak to him, but it felt awkward and forced. We continued on a bit more and saw no one, so we decided to turn back.
“There’s no one around, but I guess we could go pray for that one guy,” I said to Natalie. To be totally honest, I didn’t really want to but figured it couldn’t hurt.
As we walked back towards him, Astrid approached us. Earlier, she’d said God had shown her a picture of a pineapple. When we reached Astrid, she explained that as she had been walking along the beach, she saw a top of a pineapple floating in the water, directly in front of the man that Natalie and I were headed towards. I had kind of chosen him by default, but Astrid recognized the pineapple from her vision and felt we needed to approach that man. I still felt pretty hesitant, but Natalie insisted that we go.
“Wait,” I pleaded. “We need to think of a question or something so this is not totally awkward.”
The girls laughed but agreed that that was a good plan.
I swallowed my pride, approached the man, and asked him if he spoke English.
“A little bit,” he responded in a thick accent.
“Um, well we were wondering where a good place to surf is,” I asked, trying not to look or sound like a total creep. “The waves here seem pretty small; do you know of a better spot?”
The man didn’t know of a good surf spot but began to engage in small talk nonetheless. We found out his name was Aynid, and he lived in the area. Natalie noticed the cross necklace he was wearing and asked Aynid why he’d chosen the cross symbol. He said he wasn’t a Christian but that he liked crosses. That seemed kind of weird, so we asked him why. He told us that was a good question; he wasn’t really sure himself. As we continued talking, Aynid revealed that his family had separated when he was young. It had really affected and hurt him. I could see the pain in his eyes as he opened up his heart to us. We asked him about the tattoos covering his body—gruesome skulls and other angry symbols. He explained that he had been very angry when he got them but didn’t feel the tattoos had significance in his life any longer. Aynid declared that he was currently at a point in his life where he needed to make a big decision. He wasn’t exactly sure what the decision was, but he knew he was facing a turning point. He went on to explain that he knew that when we walked by something special was about to happen. He said that he could just sense that this moment was going to be a significant one but he didn’t know what to do, so he merely said hello. We told him we also believed this was a divine appointment, that we’d prayed for people to connect with, and God had led us to him. We spoke about our faith and let him know that we believed God could set him free from the anger and hurt he’d experienced in his past. He agreed to let us pray for him, breaking off chains from his past and praying truth and love over him. We explained that God’s love is so lavish that he would send three girls from Germany, Russia, and the U.S. just to let him know how loved he is. I could see the wheels turning in his head as he asked himself, Is this really true? Is there really a God who loves me this much?
Aynid asked us our names, and when I said “Caitlin” he looked confused; so I reintroduced myself as Catalina, the Hispanic version of my name. He smiled and told me I had a beautiful name. Aynid then explained that his ex-girlfriend was also named Catalina. He told us that Catalina had been a really significant person in his life, and he said that he now counted us three as special people in his life. He promised that he would never forget one of our faces. He believed this had been a divine appointment, and we were part of the turning point in his life. Natalie asked him if he would like to make the decision to accept Jesus, but he seemed a bit hesitant. I suggested that Aynid spend some time doing some soul searching on his own. He agreed that he needed some time alone, just him and God, to reflect and pray. He knew he was on the brink of big decision and realized the weight of making a decision to follow Christ. Though I will probably never see Aynid again, I am confident that something changed inside of him. I could see it. God was undoubtedly doing something in his heart, and I know that he will find the truth he’s been searching for.
It seemed crazy that God had used a vision of a pineapple to bring us to Aynid. God is weird like that sometimes. I also felt honored that God had used my name as a part of this crazy encounter. I suppose part of Aynid’s hurt had stemmed from breaking up with Catalina, and I knew it was no coincidence that God had sent Aynid a new Catalina to tell him about God’s love. Inspired by God’s bizarre and beautiful redemption, I went back to our little beach camp feeling encouraged and full of faith. However, my joy was quickly dashed when I found out that Rose had been robbed while I was gone. Thieves had broken into our camp and stolen her phone, iPod, wallet, and bag of valuables. Over one thousand dollars worth of cash and goods had been taken. I was told to check where I’d been sleeping to see if any of my stuff had been stolen, and immediately my heart sunk. I’d carried my wallet with me to the beach village, but I’d left my laptop back at the camp. I slept next to Rose and knew that if her things had been stolen, there was no way my laptop was still there. Sure enough, I went to check and confirmed that my computer, the only thing of real value that I own, had been robbed. Natalie checked her things and found out that her valuables had also been stolen. I felt like the wind had just been knocked out of me. The reason why losing my laptop was particularly upsetting is because I am in the middle of writing a novel. I’ve been documenting our journey on my laptop since September, and my dream is to publish the novel when the year is over. I’d written a lot so far and couldn’t remember the last time I’d backed the document up. My first reaction to being robbed was panic that I’d lost my writing. “My novel! My novel!” I cried, not even thinking about the monetary value of the laptop, all my music, pictures, and other documents I’d lost. Before leaving for Latin America, I’d known being robbed on this trip was a distinct possibility, and I was scared that I would lose my laptop since it’s the most valuable thing I own. I couldn’t believe my worst fear had just been realized. My teammates heard what happened and immediately came to comfort me. They hugged me as I cried, mourning the loss of my hours upon hours of hard work.
After I calmed down a bit, Liz told me I needed to go to the police station and file a report of the robbery. The police officer who wrote the report used old-fashioned pen and paper and took hours to record a few simple things. As she documented the robbery at snail’s pace, other officers came in and out of the office. When they heard what was stolen, they all replied, “Oh yeah, that’s a bad neighborhood. You shouldn’t leave your stuff there.” Annoyed I was receiving that advice now, I simply glared at the officers and said nothing. I impatiently watched the woman continue to attempt to file the report, writing as if she had learned to use a pen the day before. Everything in me wanted to grab her pen, write the report for her, and run somewhere--anywhere. But instead, I stood there waiting, watching the officers chat amongst themselves, knowing they didn’t give a rip about what had just happened to me. To them this was just a missing laptop; to me this was a huge roadblock for my dream.
After I got back to our camp, I tried to go to sleep but couldn’t. My head was spinning. I finally caught a couple hours of sleep but soon woke up to the morning heat, feeling groggy and sad. A group of people from my team reminded me that we were heading out to a beach called Playa Avenilla and asked if I were still coming. I decided to put my thoughts of being robbed on hold and go with the team, because this was important. In order to understand the significance of our visit, you need a little bit of background. Let me back up for a second:
While our team was in Guatemala, Dianne received tragic news from her son. His wife, Rhiannon (Dianne’s daughter-in-law), had been in Costa Rica with her youngest son, Julian (Dianne’s grandson), and went swimming with him at a beach where there are pretty bad rip currents. Rhiannon and Julian began to struggle in the water, but there were no lifeguards in the area. A group of local teens saw them struggling, and a kid named Johan grabbed his surfboard and paddled out to make a rescue. Rhiannon and Julian got separated, and Johan was able to save Julian, but could no longer see Rhiannon. When news reached Dianne in Guatemala, Rhiannon’s body still hadn’t been found. Dianne flew to Costa Rica immediately to be with her son and grandson. Liz, one of our other team members, accompanied Dianne to Costa Rica to be a support to her. By the time they got to Costa Rica, Rhiannon’s body had been found and, sadly, it was confirmed that she’d drowned. Dianne was obviously devastated by her tragic loss. Liz did her best to serve as a comfort to Dianne and the family, and she tried to remain strong while the family grieved. After the memorial service, Dianne flew back to the states to be with her family for a while. Liz flew back to Guatemala and met back up with the team. She shared with us about the events she’d witnessed in Costa Rica and the trauma she’d seen among Dianne’s son, grandson, and the teen surfer who carried the guilt of not being able to save Rhiannon. As she debriefed, Liz realized how much the tragedy had affected her personally. She felt little sense of closure from her time in Costa Rica but was forced to carry on as we travelled through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Yet, the moment we hit Costa Rica, old feelings came rushing back. When Liz found out that the beach of Rhiannon’s death was just two hours from where we were camping, she asked if some people from the team were willing to return to the beach with her. She wanted to pray for Dianne’s family, seek some closure, and possibly find Johan, the teen surfer who had rescued Julian.
Liz has been an amazing friend to me, so despite my own frustrations, I knew I needed to go support her and visit Playa Avenilla. About ten people total made the trip. When we reached the beach, everyone took some time to walk along the sand alone and pray for Dianne and her family. We re-congregated a while later and did a footwashing ceremony for Liz in the ocean, a symbol of service and cleansing. We prayed for closure and healing for her. Liz felt strongly that she needed to find Johan and see if he was okay. While she prayed about finding Johan, she felt God saying that He would bring Johan to her. Sure enough, after asking just a couple locals if they knew Johan, he appeared on the beach. Ah, the beauty of a small surfer town and “coconut wireless.” Liz greeted Johan with a big hug and asked me to translate between him and the team. I used my broken Spanish to explain that we were friends of Dianne and wanted to thank him for what he’d done. I told him he was a hero, and our team is so proud of him. I also asked him to share the details of his heroic rescue, and he explained how he was able to save Julian but unable to find Rhiannon in the water. Johan let us know that he wasn’t able to sleep for weeks after the incident and took sleeping pills for a while. I asked him how he is doing now, and he assured us that he is good. We asked if we could pray for him, and he agreed. We prayed for blessing and healing over him, as well as release from all guilt. We assured him that both we and God are so incredibly proud of him and so very thankful for what he did for Dianne. After praying, Liz treated him to a cool drink at the restaurant by the beach. We asked him a bit about his family, and he informed us that his mother had died when he was seven years old. Interestingly, Dianne’s grandson was around the same age. I found it remarkable that God had chosen Johan to be the one to save Dianne’s grandson, someone who understood exactly what it felt like to lose your mom as a little boy. God redeems things in such unexpected ways.
After praying with Liz and seeing her reunited with Johan, I could see a burden lifted off of both of them. The reunion was such a beautiful time of redemption. And as I walked along the ocean, reflecting on what Dianne had lost, suddenly losing my laptop didn’t seem so bad. Dianne had lost someone precious to her, someone she can never replace. And all I lost was a computer. That certainly put things in perspective. The most important thing in my life is God, and I am so thankful that no matter what, I cannot lose Him.
The next day, we made our way towards the Panama border and stopped in a town overnight to cut the journey in half. Before our second long day of driving, Jesse agreed to leave a little later than normal so that a few of us could go surfing. One of my selfish dreams for this trip was to surf in Costa Rica, but I didn’t think we would find the time to do it. After feeling like my dreams of writing had been put on hold, it was amazing to have a totally different dream come to pass. As I paddled through gorgeous waves, a familiar peace rushed over me. I felt safe and at home. And although I’m not a very experienced surfer, that day I miraculously caught wave after wave after wave, riding long perfect sets to shore, watching my board rip through the current. It was like God’s gift to me. That morning was the redemptive refreshment I needed. That perfect surf is my last memory of Costa Rica and is what I will carry with me rather than bitterness about being robbed.
Costa Rica was a crazy experience, but I’m thankful for it all—the good and the bad. I saw God’s power to restore what had been lost in Aynid, Liz and Johan, and myself. Our stories are very different, but they all sing of redemption. Though it’s always sad to lose, I am grateful to have experienced the restoration that follows loss first-hand. I am more determined than ever to push forward, run this race well, chase after my dreams, and watch God continue to give back what has been lost.
by Caitlin Scudder