“Weird Church” Brews Relationships, Shows Love in Central America’s Red Light District
From a tortilla factory to a red-light district to a surfer’s paradise, God is working in unexpected ways through our partners in Central America.
I held a mug full of cappuccino in my hands, its warmth permeating my palms. As I took the first sip, a middle-aged woman stared at me with anticipation, for she had made the drink with great care and intentionality. Much importance rested on the quality of that cappuccino, as it symbolized a new life for her.
You would never have guessed that she was a prostitute.
Just outside the doors was a red-light district of San José, Costa Rica. She was one of many whom the Great Commission Church of Costa Rica, just down the road from the district, ministered to through building friendships, providing meals, doing Bible studies and even providing vocational training. The cappuccinos were the products of such training and were made on an espresso machine donated to the church. The church hopes to open a coffee shop in the area and train prostitutes seeking to leave “the life” to be baristas, giving them a way to earn an income.
I, along with Sean Cooper and Sarah Mattingly, Northland’s Global Missions pastor and director, respectively, enjoyed laughing and talking with the “baristas.” I couldn’t help but ask myself, How do a few Northlanders end up drinking cappuccinos in the middle of the red light district in Costa Rica? We asked ourselves, How did we get here? many times during the five-day trip to Costa Rica and Honduras. After years of partnership with several churches in both countries, we were honored to finally visit their various ministries and congregations.
From Choluteca, Honduras, to San José and Jacó, Costa Rica, we were honored to see how God is working through churches and ministry partners in unexpected ways to reach communities of people who have yet to experience the light of Christ.
Choluteca, about a three-hour drive through the mountains from the capital city, is located in one of the poorest regions of the country. Like in many regions in Honduras, the stains of a violent, war-burdened history are found in the forms of disease, broken families and poverty.
“We are a ‘weird’ church,” Pastor Carlos Gomez with the Great Commission churches says. “We believe in entrepreneurship and that we must care for a person’s physical and economic needs in congruence with spiritual needs.”
One such effort comes in the form of a tortilla factory. Women selling tortillas in the marketplace had made them by hand each morning and baked them over an open fire. Due to the carcinogenic effects on their lungs and the time inefficiency, the Great Commission Church of Honduras sought to provide a more effective opportunity by purchasing a tortilla-manufacturing machine. Women pay a small fee to use the machine, saving time, money, not to mention their health, and make more than double the number of tortillas than before. As they bake, members of the church spend time with the women, building friendships and sharing the love of Christ.
The people behind the ministry? Congregants from all walks of life who want to serve the Lord through their church body. All are encouraged to take the church into Choluteca.
In San José, another Great Commission church follows a similar model of engaging in empowering ministry initiatives to reach the community members by both inviting them into the church and going out to those who won’t set foot in the building.
Forming friendships with prostitutes and offering them vocational training is just one among many outreaches. The church is passionate about justice, and it offers seminars on ethics to local police. As a result, the church is a popular hangout place for the police – so much so that it often is confused with a police station!
Located two hours from San José, Jacó Beach is a popular destination for tourists and beach bums. The summer heat and torrential rains do not keep away the thousands of visitors who come each year. Radical Life Ministries is one of just a handful of churches in Jacó and it opens its doors to any and all.
“Other churches here do not welcome anyone who wears shorts or tank tops, or people with piercings or tattoos … so just about every single person in Jaco,” says David Knapp, the pastor. Radical Life seeks to be a haven for any wayfarer or local in Jacó looking for life fulfillment and a community that will love him or her.
Each of these churches is engaging proactively with its community in ways specific to the needs around it. For those who won’t set foot in the building, congregants are encouraged to start churches and small groups that fit their context.
Back at Great Commission Church in San José, a congregant was doing just that with a group of prostitutes, studying the Bible with them in a small group. By providing physical and spiritual care, the church had shown these women that there was a place for them in the family of God.
As we finished our cappuccinos, the pastors told the woman that one day she herself would be a pastor of a church, perhaps for other prostitutes. She smiled, and the years of abuse and exploitation melted from her eyes.
“God is here,” she said with confidence. “Why would it not be possible for there to be a church?”
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