Investing in Students’ Futures

AMCA gives kids place to belong

AMCA GirlsSAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Though it’s Costa Rica, the evening begins like any typical Christian youth group in the U.S.: socializing, worship music, message. The two-story house in San Jose’s San Francisco neighborhood swells with sounds of teens laughing and the student worship band tuning their guitars. For many visitors, the sound of English being spoken also provides a welcome to the AMCA youth group. As Costa Rican and North American teens gather in the brightly lit meeting room, they are welcomed by leaders and encouraged to take a seat. Kids begin to pull out their Bibles. Jay Fast, a volunteer leader, asks if anyone is willing to do the Bible chant. The hand of a teenage boy shoots up. He walks to the front, raises his Bible above his head, and leads his peers in the chant: “This is my Bible! I am what it says I am! I will do what it says to do! And I will go where it says to go! Now open it up and read it!” After the message and near the end of the evening, Chris and Cynthia Gault, AMCA house directors, invite the three North American students who won’t be returning after the summer to come forward. The rest of the youth group surrounds them with their hands extended, and students begin to pray. The next tear-filled 30 minutes of impassioned prayer suggest this group is anything but typical.

Reaching missionary kids

Asociación de Ministerios Cristianos (AMCA) international youth group is a ministry in Costa Rica targeted toward English speakers ages 13 to 18. The ministry was started in 1970 and at that time included the international youth group and English Bible studies. One of the key goals of the international youth group is to reach missionary kids. About four blocks from the AMCA house is the Spanish Language Institute;,an intensive Spanish language school attended by many missionaries learning the language skills needed to minister in Latin America. “About half of the students at AMCA are North Americans, who are kind of transient,” Fast says. “Maybe they’re here for six months or a year while their parents are doing language school or that type of thing. So it gives them a place to connect and speak and English and not feel like they’re totally out of their element.” Melissa Putney, a missionary with ReachGlobal, began working with the AMCA youth group about 2 ½ years ago after being asked to lead a Bible study for the high school girls. Since then she has taken on more roles, including helping with the Saturday night  big group of 70 kids and discipling some of the girls who attend her Bible study. “For the missionary kids involved in the group, it provides a spiritual community for them,” Putney says. “It recognizes that just because their parents are missionaries doesn’t mean that they have it all together or that they’re definitely already Christians. They need people to invest in them as well.”

Cross-cultural haven

In addition to ministering to English-speaking North Americans, the ministry also targets Ticos (Costa Ricans). “For the Costa Rican national students that are here, the Ticos, I think it’s a great place for them to connect on a regular ongoing basis,” Fast says. “They have a solid youth ministry in the area where they can be plugged into for four, five or six years — all through middle school and high school.” Andrea Duarte, a 16-year-old Tica student, says her favorite aspect of the AMCA youth group is that it is cross-cultural. “It doesn’t matter that some people only speak Spanish or some people only speak English, you find ways to break that barrier and join together in love and worship for God,” Duarte says. “It’s not about the language, it’s not about the culture. We all share the same God and that’s the greatest thing.” In this group marked by transition, Putney says that the recent influx of Ticos provides stability. “Most of the Costa Ricans aren’t going to leave until they graduate so they’re there for longer periods of time,” Putney says. “So then there’s more of a base now than there used to be of longer-term students. Ale Castro, a 15-year-old Tica student in Melissa’s Bible study, says her involvement in AMCA has helped her mature in her faith. “It has been a really good experience because I’ve  learned a lot of the Bible and I’ve been growing a lot in Christ,” Castro says. Putney says that the enthusiasm and spiritual growth she’s seen in student’s like Castro motivates her to continue being involved in the AMCA. “It’s been really exciting to see their growth and what the youth group means to the students,” Putney says. “They don’t want to miss out. They don’t miss a Saturday night big group or camp-out or anything. They always go.”

Making an Oasis From Grief

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Ministry offers safe place for women suffering abuse

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — At the bottom of the hill that runs through the slum of Guarari stands a two-room building.

Despite its humble appearance, the building is a refuge for many of the women who live in Guarari. The Costa Rican missionaries who come here regularly seek to make it a place of unconditional love.

“Jesus never intimidates women, hurts them, or sexually threatens them,” Shelley Snitko says while teaching a Bible study to some women here.

For many of the 40 women sitting with her, trusting Jesus is difficult because of both his masculine character and the troubled circumstances they believe he allows them to live in.  Snitko, a member of a short-term team from Huntsville, Ala., appeals to these spiritual obstacles by contrasting the character of Jesus with the oppressive men that control many of these women’s lives.

“Jesus is the light in the darkness, hope for the hopeless, peace for the restless,” Snitko says. “He is everything.”

Melanie Wilson, a missionary with ReachGlobal, initially became involved with ministry to the women of Guarari after going there in January 2012 with a short-term team.

“After getting to know the Costa Rican missionaries, I was really excited to join with them because they pretty much are the only people working in Gurari consistently,” Wilson says.

Serving with street-smarts

The ministry, which has been active in Guarari for six years, is led by Costa Rican missionary Hugo Salas. Salas grew up living on the streets and says that experience gave him a heart for others suffering from hardship.

“God gave me the vision to work in a community like this,” Hugo says. “And I began to get involved in this type of community work. I became dedicated to the ministry and the kids.”

The ministry leads Bible studies for the women and children, and also teaches women crafts like jewelry-making and painting to generate more income for their families. Salas says that in the six years the ministry has been working in Guarari, the spiritual state of the community has improved.

“We’ve been teaching the women how to love their children,” Salas says. “But apart from that, we are doing Bible studies and discipleship. Not just for the women, but also for the teens. All this is simply for the reason to tell them about the love of God.”

According to Wilson, one of the main goals of the ministry is to provide a physical place where the women can take refuge.

“It is one place where the women and children can come and it’s safe,” Wilson says. “Many homes have physical abuse, sexual abuse, alcohol abuse, drug abuse. Violence is everywhere in some form or fashion, sometimes just one of those things and sometimes all of those things. So it’s a safe place where there’s no violence.”

Redemption on display

Wilson says that one of the most powerful testimonies to the power of God’s word that she’s seen in this community happened this past June when a short-term team from Huntsville came to work with the Guarari ministry for a week. In October, Wilson had sent a prayer request asking the team to pray for a young girl who lived in Gurari and was the leader of a drug-trafficking gang.

“We sent them a prayer request to pray that God would work in the gang leader’s life and that the gospel would transform her life,” Wilson says. “We started praying in October, but then kind of forgot about it.”

To the amazement of the short-term team and the rest of the women in the community, the gang leader came with her mother, sister, and daughter every day to the June Bible studies that the short-term team held.

On the last day of that week, the women and the short-term team were trying to fill time while waiting for a pizza to be delivered. One of the ladies from Huntsville came to the front of the room and gave her testimony about her daughter who’s been heavily addicted to drugs. The woman talked about how she copes with that and how it affects her relationship with God.

As she spoke, the mother of the drug dealer cried uncontrollably. Afterward, the mother and daughter came forward.

“This is what I’ve done to my mom,” the daughter said.

“They really were touched by God’s word so we’re praying that the seed was planted and it will grow,” Wilson says.

Despite these small victories, Wilson says spiritual opposition is strong.

“Spiritually, it’s just hard to break through the hold that Satan has,” Wilson says.

As the ministry establishes itself as a place of refuge for the women and continues trying to drown out the darkness of sin with the light of Jesus, the missionaries say their greatest need is prayer.

“I would say to anybody who reads this, pray for the protection of the missionaries there and that the spiritual light that is there will shine brightly and Satan will be thwarted in all of his efforts,” Wilson says.

© 2013 EFCA. All rights reserved. ReachGlobal News is a division of EFCA-ReachGlobal.

 

Equipping Students to Break the Cycle of Poverty

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A short, young boy in a school uniform bounds up the dusty hill that runs through the slum of Río Azul. He extends his hand.

“My name is Oscar. How are you?”

Oscar is one of the star students in an English class taught by Dave and Angie Ziel, missionaries based in Costa Rica with ReachGlobal. The Ziels climb the steep slope to Faro de Esperanza (Lighthouse of Hope) Church in Río Azul every Tuesday afternoon to teach English to kids ages 7 to 12. Trekking up the trash-ridden hill to the church, Angie points at the ominous clouds overhead, recalling her and Dave’s weekly race up the hill to beat the imminent downpour.

Faro de Esperanza is a dimly lit room with a tin roof  and a small whiteboard hanging from barbed wire at the front. The church building might not look like much, but to this community of mostly single mothers, Faro De Esperanza provides a glimmer of hope. The community training that the church offers helps Rio Azul residents break the cycle of poverty.

Teaching English, Offering Hope for a Better Life

The Ziels initially became involved with teaching English after meeting Gilbert, the pastor of Faro de Esperanza, and discovering a shared passion for his vision.

“He had a vision to become a resource for the community by developing skills in computers, cooking, music, and in whatever else would be of use to them,” Dave says. “For adults, skills that would help them make a living and for the kids, skills that would keep them advancing in school.”

The ministry, which also hopes to start teaching weekly cooking classes for the women of the community, revolves around the idea that impoverished people need to break that cycle themselves.

“People need opportunities,” Dave says. “For some people it’s not going to matter what opportunities they have. They want to stay in the life they have. There’s a cycle in poor communities where there are ministries or government organizations that give and give and many of the people are content to receive. If that cycle continues, as population grows, the situation just gets worse.”

The Ziels believe that offering opportunities, such as free English classes, will combat this cycle and enable the ambitious members of the community to succeed.

“Teaching English will give kids the skills to promote what they’re doing in school so that those who have initiative have another edge to get out of the cycle,” Dave says.

Although English instruction is part of Costa Rica’s national curriculum, many kids in Río Azul will drop out of school before they finish because they can’t keep up or because their families need them to work. In addition, many of the schools lack the small class sizes and the one-on-one interaction needed to develop good English. This one-on-one interaction with the students is so important to their English education that the Ziel’s must turn kids away from their classes in order to keep the class small enough for interaction.

“Each class, we do group interaction between the teacher and the whole class and also one-on-one interaction,” Dave says. “We practice introducing ourselves each week to each kid and they introduce themselves back to us and ask us how we are.”

In addition to greetings, the Ziels work on telling time, occupations, and naming body parts.

“We’ve seen kids catch on with what we’re talking about quick,” Dave says. “We’re not certain about the level of knowledge that all of them have. Some of them have talked about these things before but it doesn’t jump out of their mouth.”

The Ziels utilize a variety of creative teaching techniques in order to make the concepts they teach stick. In order to help the students learn the names of family relationships, Angie draws a family tree and shows pictures of her own family. Students who answer Angie’s questions quickly and enthusiastically are rewarded with a marshmallow.

“It’s their favorite treat,” explains Angie.

Cautiously treading down the hill, Angie expresses her astonishment about one student who didn’t know the word for “one” in English.

“He’s probably taken eight years of English in school and doesn’t know even the most basic English,” Angie says.

Despite challenges with the Costa Rican education system’s English instruction, the Ziels have high hopes for their ministry and summarize their twofold vision: “The first and most important hope is that these kids come to know Jesus as their Savior and that we are able to shine the light of Jesus in this dark place,” Angie says. “We also pray these classes will help these kids one day to find a job and break out of the cycle of poverty that these families are in.”

Finding the God She Lost

Inmate finds friendship, reborn faith through missionary

Photo by Francesco Vicenzi

Maybe a prison courtyard full of people and noise wasn’t the best place for Sonya and Judy to meet.

Then again, maybe Sonya should have known better than to carry a bag given to her by her boyfriend’s buddy onto an airplane. Maybe she shouldn’t have trusted a stranger so easily – but hey, she’d run lots of international errands for her boyfriend. Maybe this guy was OK, too.

Of course, maybe if Sonya hadn’t left her home in Germany at age 14, she wouldn’t have gotten caught up with people ready to take advantage of her. Maybe she wouldn’t have left her home and her faith in God if her mother hadn’t been reading the Bible one minute and beating her in drunken rages the next.

Maybe then she wouldn’t have agreed to carry a double-bottom bag containing 3 kg of cocaine onto a flight from Panama to Costa Rica in July 2007.

But she did. And yes, she got caught. She was tried and convicted of international drug trafficking, and served three years at El Buen Pastor women’s prison near San Jose, Costa Rica.

Surviving

Photo by Francesco Vicenzi
Photo by Francesco Vicenzi

El Buen Pastor (“The Good Shepherd”) is the only women’s prison in Costa Rica, a country of about 4 million people. Built in a former convent, the prison houses more than 700 inmates, all of whom live in overcrowded rooms like the one that Sonya shared with 23 other women the entire time she was there.

It’s that first day that sticks out, though.

From the jail where Sonya spent the two and a half days after her arrest, she climbed into a steel cage in the back of a truck for the ride to El Buen Pastor. “I felt like a dog,” she remembers. She arrived at 10 a.m, still handcuffed and sick to her stomach from the ride, and waited until 10 that night to get her mattress – a foam mat that proved no match for the hard bed slats underneath.

That 12-hour wait gave her time to think about how she got there — and about the new reality bearing down on her.

“I was scared,” says Sonya, now 28 and living back in Cologne, Germany, near where she grew up. “I couldn’t speak the language. I didn’t understand what people wanted from me, what they were thinking about me, what they were saying about me. I couldn’t call anybody – I didn’t have any money. So it was hard.

“I couldn’t trust anybody, because I got betrayed. It was sort of like my trust was gone. I didn’t have any trust in anybody.”

It took Sonya – a 5-ft.-7-in. Kenyan-Japanese woman — about a year and a half just to get used to the mostly Latina prison. She learned to watch her back and how to survive alongside people she knew might smile at her one minute and try to stab her the next. She went to art classes, learned to speak some Spanish, learned not to scream when she saw a cockroach.

A friend comes knocking

Then around fall 2009, a ReachGlobal missionary named Judy came to El Buen Pastor to talk to another inmate who was taking her sweet time getting ready. Judy had heard from another woman who also ministered at the prison that there was a nice inmate from Germany who also might need a friend.  While she waited for the first woman, Judy recognized Sonya and started talking to her.

Photo by Francesco Vicenzi

Judy continued to visit the prison once a week. Every week it was the same drill – wait an hour or more for the first woman, and talk to Sonya in the meantime.

Judy recalls the time when she pulled Sonya close in the noisy courtyard and sang a hymn in her ear, a song about how God knew her and saw her tears and longed to be her Savior.

“I would just sit with her,” says Judy, 63. “And it just seemed that the Holy Spirit planted a love in my heart for this young woman.”

In the months that followed, Judy became a second mother to Sonya – helping her with homework, reading the Bible with her and listening as Sonya talked about the difficulties of prison life.

“She believed in me even when I didn’t believe in me,” Sonya says. “He reflected His love in her.”

That relationship continued after Sonya was extradited to Germany in July 2010 to finish the final six months of her sentence. It helped her deal with the death of her mother two months later, and continues to encourage her as she works to earn concurrent high school and business school diplomas designed to prepare her for a career as a commercial trade assistant in the import/export business. She’s even found a church on Judy’s recommendation.

“I found my way back to God,” Sonya says. “It took me a while, but I found my way back.”

Sonya’s real hope, however, is to work full-time with street kids. Judy was the first person she ever told about that dream, back in the chaos of that covered courtyard at El Buen Pastor, when Judy was helping her understand and accept God’s love for her.

“I want to help kids on the street in Third World countries,” Sonya says. “I want to help them get education – kids who got raped, who got abused from parents or some adults or whatever. I just want to help them find God so they understand why things happen, and it’s not their fault, and it’s for a reason.”

 

Read more about Sony’a story.

Read more about ReachGlobal’s work in Costa Rica.

Read about ReachGlobal in Latin America.

 

Taking Bytes of the Bible

ProMETA delivers seminary courses online

For Latin American church leaders like Hernan Aguilar, the online education revolution has delivered something that was once out of their reach: a top-shelf theological education.

Hernan is a member of Vida Abundante Del Sur Church in Desamparados, Costa Rica. He leads a discipleship program of 200 people within his church of 700 members, on top of his full-time job as a field representative for a large Christian non-profit.

As a father, husband, career man, church board member and discipleship leader, Hernan (like thousands of other Latin American pastors) has little time for seminary classes, let alone the money or the means to travel to them.

However, with ProMETA (the Spanish acronym for “Accessible Master’s Programs in Theological Education”), Hernan has been able to take seminary classes without sacrificing the other responsibilities in his life.

“ProMETA for me was God’s answer to prayer,” Hernan says.

Sharp students, accessible courses

ProMETA is an online, non-profit seminary program started in 2006 by ReachGlobal – after six years of testing. Based in San Jose, Costa Rica, ProMETA offers flexible and accessible Biblical training to Latin American leaders, all in Spanish, though additional materials are available in English and Portuguese. 

A full 60-hour master’s degree curriculum costs about $4,200. Students can earn a master’s degree either in contextualized biblical theology or Christian leadership.

ProMETA currently has 109 students from 19 countries (incoming students must have a college degree). The average student age is 42, and many are professionals who come with a master’s degree or even a Ph.D. Many students also work as pastors, either full-time or in addition to other full-time careers such as engineering or medicine.

However, most have no formal Bible training — and it’s the Bible training they really want, says Ted, ProMETA’s Academic Dean.

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“You’re talking about people very thirsty for learning more. So they’re sharp people with a lot of motivation.”

— Ted, ProMETA academic dean

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“They’re in ministry – this isn’t preparation for ministry,” Ted says. “So they are looking for answers, they’re looking for ways to improve their ministry, deepen their knowledge and skills.

“You’re talking about people very thirsty for learning more. So they’re sharp people with a lot of motivation. That makes it a wonderful learning experience – for the teachers, above all.”

Education made relevant 

A typical ProMETA class might have 10 students from four or five different countries connected through the class forums and, often, live discussions over Skype. Through its online forums and discussions, ProMETA wants to make theological education both flexible and available for Latin American leaders like Hernan, says Keith, ProMETA’s director.

“We are targeting the Hernans of Latin America that can take principles and craft something … that is relevant to their culture and totally biblical,” Keith says.

Hernan, 44, has been attending ProMETA classes since 2010 and has completed about 40 percent of his theology degree coursework. His goal is to pass on what he’s learned as a ProMETA student to other leaders in his church. His hope is to increase the number of people in the church’s discipleship program from 200 to 560 – 80 percent of the church.

Along with Vida Abudante del Sur’s pastor and other leaders, Hernan developed all of the discipleship material from scratch. The discipleship program teaches basic theology and doctrine of Christianity, leadership, and other key ministry values—for example, excellence, discipline and friendship.

Hernan leads the committee that produces the materials, and he then assists in teaching the leaders within the program who go on to teach their own private groups. That kind of vision and initiative exemplifies what ProMETA tries to instill, according to Keith.

“The advantage that Hernan has is he’s writing it as a Latin American and he knows how to contextualize it,” Keith says. “The way he writes it, the examples that he uses, the words — they all connect with the new believers, whereas a missionary would be totally oblivious to all of that. So that produces more effective disciples.”

Hernan, who has not yet finished the program, says he is enjoying his education and the professors so far. He has found the program rigorous and relevant to Latin American culture.

“I have developed skills and knowledge and ambition as a leader — ambition that all of our members of the church become disciples,” Hernan says. “The program has helped me to serve better in my church.”

And that really is the motivation behind what ProMETA does.

“We’ve got a very strong feeling and desire to equip those people who are in a position to make the biggest impact on their region so that there’s a strong ripple effect from these folks,” Ted says. “They’re capable of teaching other people already. We just want to make them effective in that.”

PRAY 

  • For students’ lives, ministries, and nations to be transformed as a result of their studies with ProMETA.
  • That ProMETA will find new ways to make the school accessible to a wider audience of Christian leaders in the region.
  • That ProMETA will find new sources of long-term funding for its programs.
  • That ProMETA will attract and retain students who can train others in solid theology and practice.
  • For the health and growth of churches that ProMETA students lead and minister in.
  • That God would widen the positive influence of ProMETA students and their churches so that the gospel of Jesus can penetrate more and more communities.

LEARN MORE

See a photo gallery about one area of ReachGlobal’s work in Costa Rica.

Read more about ReachGlobal’s work in Latin America.

GIVE

If you’d like to support the development of ProMETA courses, go here.
If you’d like to support the ProMETA scholarship fund, go here.