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.


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.


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.