In this month of love, we need to listen to others. But now for a time I’m also trying to practice what my friend Julio does – turn off the noise and do my own creative work.
The view of the rooftops and the mountains of Alajuelita, Costa Rica, from my shared bedroom in the barrio.
I don’t know about you, but in this time of political change I have been trying to listen to everyone. It’s overwhelming, but I’m trying. I’ve been listening to Fox News, NPR and PBS, left-wing (as in actual left-wing, not Democrats) podcasts, pretty hard-line conservative Trump supporters, women, men, white people, black people, immigrants, foreigners abroad, religious people, people struggling with religion, people who gave up religion long ago or never were religious. In talking with some friends, we agree that our heads are spinning right now.
So I’ve been trying to focus on my breath and connect with outdoor beauty, my inner voice, and friendships and love I have in my life. Some of the best experiences of love happened to me in the church and barrio where I volunteered in Costa Rica, and I’m so blessed to be able to stay connected with those friends with the help of technology. I'd like to tell you about part of that experience, and about one of my friends from the neighborhood.
I originally moved to Costa Rica in 2008 to volunteer in a Lutheran Church, La Iglesia Luterana Centroamericana, and two of its congregations, Sola Fe and Jesús Nuestro Refugio. Both congregations were made up mostly of refugees and immigrants from Nicaragua, a marginalized population in Costa Rica that is often on the receiving end of xenophobia and discrimination in “the country of peace.” It was in these churches that I really learned about love, because I received love from the people who have become my lifelong friends, and I couldn’t help but love them back. That experience also taught me a lot about listening, something I’m trying to do better these days, and something that perhaps we all need to practice a little more.
When I lived in San Sebastian, south of San José, for my first year in Costa Rica, I started by sharing a room for a few weeks with the daughter of one of the members of our church in the precario, a “shanty town” filled with homes built by the families themselves out of whatever materials they could bring together. Many of the men in the neighborhood are construction workers, so over the years they have been able to build solid homes out of cement block and steel beams, but the houses all share walls, and windows look out on small alleyways and rooftops made of collected corrugated aluminum sheets.
Brian peeks out the window of his home above the church in San Sebastian, next door to where I lived when I first arrived.
This means that you can hear everything that is going on next door, or around the corner. The ears rarely rest. Music and televisions blare. Arguments carry through the air and tingle the gossip-cords of the barrio. The shouting and shrieking of children and adolescents brings a sweet energy and a zest for life, an energy that middle class Midwestern people try to stifle in our insulated homes far from our neighbors, but in the precario this energy is the pulsing heartbeat of the neighborhood.
It can be hard to sleep with that much noise. Inside homes, walls are thin or don’t even reach the ceiling, if there is a ceiling, so babies learn to sleep through anything or just survive on less sleep. Many houses just have the tin roof, with no indoor ceiling to hide the electric wires or muffle the thunderous sound of the torrential tropical rainstorms. While living in the precario or when I moved a couple of blocks away to my own apartment (where car alarms and neighbors’ sound systems were just as loud as in the barrio), I often wondered about the health of everyone’s eardrums, or how much people’s lives would be different if everyone could just sleep for 8 straight hours each night.
Whether I wanted to or not, I was listening to my new home.
As a foreigner and a recent college graduate, I didn’t really have all that much to offer the church people in terms of… well, anything of consequence, but I have found that as an outsider I can bring something a lot of people want and need: a listening ear. Over the nearly 9 years that I spent as a part of the church in San Sebastian (and another church west of San José in Pavas), I had the great privilege of listening to many stories. I got to hear about the traumas and dramas of life in middle- and high-school from the kids. I got to listen to stories from Nicaragua told by the parents, of how they used to have to walk with their children to the river to wash clothes (a difficult task made all the more frustrating by energetic toddlers) and how backbreaking the walk back would be, now with wet clothes to hang up at home to dry.
I heard stories of past traumas, things that people may not yet have had the courage to tell their closest friend, but things that needed saying, that needed recognizing, acknowledging. I often found that after someone confided in me, even if, in my stumbling and mumbling I could say nothing in response (which was often the case!), they would find more courage to share their stories with their loved ones and find the support they needed.
I didn’t always know what to say, but I did know that I loved them, these people who welcomed me with such open arms that they gave up their bed for me to sleep, that shared the small amount of food they had as if it were a never-ending banquet. And they listened to me, too. Our weekly Bible studies over soul-food meals (I liked indio viejo and olla de carne more than I liked chickens’ or pigs’ feet!) were about listening to the biblical text (with insights that were new to me – reading about tending sheep or walking dusty roads or fetching water from a well with people who had actually lived these things) and to the real-life context. We would talk about what the text meant to us, and then talk about what we thought the community needed to hear that week to bring life or healing or admonishment or advice.
Some the best evenings were spent sharing food and talking about life and the Bible with dear friends.
We had a couple of projects that were exercises in listening, like sister church relationships. One sister church congregation from Nebraska would come to visit us each year or two, and on a couple of occasions they would also host some people from our congregation to visit them in Nebraska. They would purposely invite folks to visit during January or February, so the Nicaraguans and Costa Ricans could experience a Midwest winter! We worked on listening, to what God could teach us from the “other,” while valuing ourselves at the same time. Isn't that a challenge…?!
But the listening is kind of overwhelming, too. As a mom I know that my kids want to be heard. They make themselves heard, even when I’m too tired or busy or frustrated. I want to be heard, too, and so does my spouse. Everyone wants to be heard. There are claims out there that every group under the sun is being silenced, canceled, censored, etc. Everyone wants, and needs, to be heard, particularly at a time when resources are scarce, politics are a mess and political parties seem to be reshuffling, and life is just hard.
There is a poster in my house about How to Build Community from Syracuse Cultural Workers. I’ve had it for many years, and the suggestion at the bottom has always stuck with me: “Know that no one is silent, though many are not heard. Work to change this.”
I have been listening, thinking. I have turned to music when politics and news and even comedians don’t make any sense any more, or are just too overwhelming. There are plenty of musicians out there who have composed notes and written lyrics that speak to times of uncertainty. The Central American peasant masses are liturgies that bring the stories of the people into the theology and spiritual expression of the church, music written by artists who were listening, paying attention to the signs of their times, and channeling a God that loves even the poor, the peasants who were losing their land and being killed in wars in Central America throughout the 20th century. In our church in Costa Rica, made up of mostly immigrants from Nicaragua, we often thought that we should compose new liturgies that reflected the urban reality of migrants in the 21st century.
It turns out that one of the youth from the youth group (well, he’s grown up now) is now doing something like that. He has a voice I’d like you to hear (check out the lyrics to his song at the end of this post). Julio is a smart, loving, thoughtful and creative person, who, when I met him in 2008 had the same sparkling smile that lights up a room that he has today. He’s now a father of two and a great husband to his partner, a hard worker, and he’s working on a new creative project, just like I am. For those of you reading this blog who have met Julio when you have visited Costa Rica (or when he went to Nebraska for a visit), I know that you will be remembering fondly any interaction you might have had with him, and all of the energetic, funny, smart, caring kids in San Sebastian.
Right to left: Julio back when he visited our sister congregation in Nebraska. Julio now. Julio (and Brian and Martha) carrying out one of the most Midwestern activities possible: tying quilt tops with church ladies in Nebraska for Lutheran World Relief.
Julio's voice is one that you might not hear if you didn’t read this blog. He has a YouTube channel (his goal is to get 1000 subscribers, so please visit him there and subscribe!). He raps about life and love and struggle and God, and about taking care of oneself and one’s family. You’ll notice in the videos that he records in his car. I thought that maybe he was recording on his way to work, or while driving for work, but he told me that he does this because that’s the only place he has where the noise from outside doesn’t get picked up by the microphone (see my above description of the neighborhood).
I LOVED that – he doesn’t let anything stop him from his dream of being creative and getting his music and thoughts out there, and he finds a way to cut out the outside noise to do his creative work. We need to listen to others, and I’ve been trying. But now for a time I’m also trying to implement what my friend Julio does – turn off the noise (which isn’t necessarily bad noise!) and listen to myself, too.
At Christmas-time, 2020, Julio shared about the impact of Covid-19 on his family, his neighborhood, and the lower socioeconomic class in general:
Julio César Cruz, known as JC Marañaa, Diamond of the Barrio, raps from his car, where he is able to cut out the noise and do his creative work (see my translation of his lyrcis at the end of this post).
Many of the people who are not heard are also the most vulnerable: women, children, minorities, immigrants, the disabled. It’s my goal to pay attention and listen to these voices. When we listen to the vulnerable we can then act and make things better for everyone. If you have half an hour, I recommend you watch this video from the Institute for Central American Development Studies (ICADS), where I used to work, to learn about the impact of Covid-19 on small businesses and restaurants in downtown San José, Costa Rica. You can also sign up to learn more by participating in an ICADS program.
This month on the blog we’re going to hear from some more of these people we should be listening to – young people. They are angry, and they are hopeful, and they are full of love. I have found throughout my life of working with young people (young immigrants from Nicaragua living in Costa Rica, young college students studying abroad in Costa Rica, young college students in Gary, Indiana), that young people have insights, and they also have open hearts.
Next week I hope to bring to you some voices of high school students from my own little town of Valparaiso, Indiana. I interviewed them a few weeks ago, and they gave me amazing parenting advice for raising bilingual and bicultural children, direct from their own experience.
For the week of Valentine’s Day, I will bring you voices and musical talent from young artists in Costa Rica who are reckoning with the culture of violence against women. They are coming into their own, growing up, and realizing that the issues of the world are their issues, too.
At the end of the month I will bring you voices of Venezuelan refugees living in Colombia, and an effort to help support the young children of these families.
Thank YOU for listening.
*** SONG LYRICS ***
by JC Marañaa, Diamante de Barrio
San Sebastian, San José, Costa Rica
…2020 was bad for everyone, especially those in the lower socioeconomic class...
“2020 is over, and it will remain a memory
A different kind of year, not a very nice one
A lot of people were without work, without employment
Bills at home, and taking virtual classes
Some went to bed without food
The pandemic affected our elders 100%
Our loved ones that were so afraid of it
We thought it was a joke, we thought it was a game
The economy was bad and families in economic freefall
All of those children who didn’t receive Christmas presents
They don’t understand, they don’t perceive
In their innocence they shout, Santa, Santa lives!
The telethon [fundraiser for the children’s hospital] tried its best but didn’t reach its goal
The rich didn’t contribute – they aren’t interested
There we saw that the poor contribute most to the cause
The poor always give without a care for their poverty
Those goodbyes over a cell phone
Fallen victims that cannot have a wake
Visiting the hospitalized through a screen
It doesn’t matter if it’s your neighbor or even your own family
Let this year pass
That in 2021 nothing will lack on our table
Let 2021 give us strength and fortitude
This Christmas is a little different
Because of our loved ones who aren’t here anymore
For those who aren’t here and for those who have gone ahead
This pandemic has caused us to value and love our families
Tell them you love them and take advantage of the time you have
Because when they are gone all you have are the memories
Tell them "I love you" and hug them in life
When they are gone what hurts is their leaving.”
And then Julio wishes for work, food on the table, and well-being for all in 2021.