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Faith and Service in Costa Rica

The first two sites we visited on our studies were to Maria Auxiliadora and RAHAB, two organizations which we would describe as “faith-based” in the States. When I realized these organizations had religious components, I was definitely disappointed. Coming from a faith-activism background, I was looking forward to learning how non-religious organizations work. So many faith-based organizations link the provision of services with some sort of religious compliance: attending religious services, confessing faith, showing up at Bible Studies, attending theological classes, sitting through gospel presentations. Faith-based organizations are also well-known for refusing services to members of the LGBTQ community, or providing this community with services only after shaming them for their orientation and love relationships. And these are only some of the reasons I was hoping for non-religious organizations during Study Abroad. But we started with religious organizations anyway.

A catholic organization founded by a nun in the early 20th century, Maria Auxiliadora provides a number of vital services to the poorest people of Costa Rica, most of whom are Nicaraguan immigrants. Funded primarily by donations, this organization provides housing assistance, medical care, food, classes and many other opportunities that these people couldn’t otherwise access in Costa Rica. Unlike the U.S., Costa Rica’s medical care is only available to those who pay into it, which means that the poorest people, and people with disabilities who cannot work, do not have access to any medical services unless they have someone who will pay in for them. There is also no government-based food provision for the poor in Costa Rica—nothing like our SNAP (“food stamps”) in the U.S. People who can’t afford food receive hand-outs from social organizations. Called a “diario”, this consists of 15 days worth of rice and beans and maybe something else if it’s available. Maria Auxiliadora had a staff of doctors and nurses who provide basic services for almost-free in their clinics, offers the diario, and also has a school for girls which offers help with supplies and uniforms for those who need it to get into school.

Though they didn’t mention it in the tour, the Maria Auxiliadora web page refers to a requirement that people attend mass (or religious class? I can’t remember.) in order to receive some of the services.

Not a Catholic organization, RAHAB refers to a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” as one of the things they offer clients, and spirituality is listed as part of their mission statement. When I asked about it, our presenter said that spiritual education and Bible Study is available for clients, but in no way mandatory. Their staff seems to be quite professional, with qualified mental health practitioners (Social Workers, Psychologists, etc.) who work with the clients (sex workers and women who have been sexually trafficked). They offer a number of empirically supported interventions, seem to be fairly trauma-informed, and welcome all women including trans women.

It’s hard to say, without being a client of either of these organizations, how much the faith aspect impacts the services offered, and how many of the clients are bothered by it if it does. For Maria Auxiliadora it’s impossible to miss—the workers are nuns in habits, and there was mass going on while I was there. Not to mention the miraculous water that’s said to have healing properties, which people come just to carry home with them. Is involvement in faith mandatory for those who receive Maria Auxiliadora’s services? Maybe not. But even if it was, one wonders how many people in this Catholic city in this Catholic country would be bothered?

Linking services like food and medical care and vocational classes with a religious practice requirement really bothers me. I don’t feel like I know enough about the culture of Costa Rica to understand if it would bother most of the population, but I suspect that there are people who will avoid somewhere like Maria Auxiliadora because they don’t feel Catholic enough, or because they’ve been wounded by religious practice or legalism and can’t handle the idea of approaching what is--in essence--their abuser to get food, or medical care. Religion is a good motivator to help people, and if you’re not bothered by it, then great. If you’re one of those people who have been hurt, though, having a faith-based organization as your only source of assistance can mean not getting any help at all.

PS-We did end up seeing SEVERAL more non-faith-based organizations throughout the week. I was pretty pleased with that. 😊

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