The Church in Costa Rica

Mission Field

I served my mission in Costa Rica (1996-1998). I went to a couple of missionary reunions between when I returned and when I left the religion (2002). I haven’t had much contact with companions since then. I’ve also had some contact with people I met in Costa Rica, but not much. It’s really just been one member, whom I know has remained active from his Facebook profile and updates. He has, quite determinedly, kept in touch. He will email and message me via Facebook on occasion, and I attempt to respond in my broken Spanish (thank you Google Translate for making me seem like I haven’t forgotten more Spanish than I have). This friend, let’s call him “Javier”, was recently in the US and near where I live. He messaged me via Facebook and asked if I wanted to get together.

I have to admit at this point that I am: (1) pretty convinced that Javier does not know I left the religion 9 years ago, and (2) I think this because I can’t imagine he would still want to be in communication with me, let alone take time out of his trip to the US to come visit me given that I’m an apostate. (Though maybe he’s different that way, or maybe I’ve just got the wrong perspective of Mormons – family notwithstanding.) So, when he asked if I wanted to get together with him, I was reluctant because I just wasn’t sure what he would think if Mormonism came up, which it no doubt would given that he is, well, Mormon, and that was what we had in common. Additionally, I was reluctant because, while he understands English fairly well, my Spanish really has gone down hill. I can still understand it, but speaking it is hard. I hedged, but eventually relented. Javier was coming over.

When he arrived, I did my best to speak in Spanish and ask him about all sorts of things, none related to Mormonism. But that lasted all of about 15 minutes. I didn’t know what else to ask him, so I eventually gave in and asked about the Church in Costa Rica. The floodgates opened. Turns out, I’m glad I did. My status as a member never came up, but he spilled the beans about what’s happening in Costa Rica (well, in his city anyway). He lives in Limon. When I was there, Mormonism was growing – we opened a new branch and it was on its way to becoming a stake. Fourteen years later, it is once again a district with no wards, just branches, and the in-fighting among the members has forced the leadership in Costa Rica to put the district under the direction of the Mission President and the District is currently without a President. Additionally, the district has shrunk from five branches to three (I think I’m remembering that correctly, maybe it was from 7 to 5) and all of the branches have lost active members. He did say that Mormonism was growing in Punta Arenas and Guanacaste, both of which are poorer areas, but that there has been virtually no growth in Limon since I left (and Limon is not a wealthy city by any stretch). What’s more, all of the leadership is made up of long-time members; either people who have been in the religion for decades or the children of those people; I knew them all when he named them. Converts aren’t taking over the leadership.

We’ve talked about how much the LDS Church is growing (at least, claims it’s growing) on MSP before, but I thought it was pretty interesting to hear that an area where I served that was doing well at the time has reversed course and is now declining in active members. I wonder how many other locations are like this. And it’s no wonder the leadership fudge the numbers to hide this, keeping everyone the rolls despite their inactivity.

Another point of interest from my discussion… According to Javier, the children of the leaders (who have become leaders themselves) aren’t particularly faithful members either. Javier had a run-in with one of these people when he was unknowningly disfellowshipped for failing to support his new District President (the husband of a daughter of one of the long-time members). Their squabble ultimately required the intervention of the Mission President and an area authority to resolve it. Javier’s reason for not supporting him? Because the guy’s kids were out drinking, smoking, and having sex, and then were being sent on missions as though nothing had happened. I’m not sure what this says about the state of affairs in Costa Rica, but I found the discussion interesting.

Before he left, I pulled out my photos from Limon and asked Javier about some of the people in them, particularly the converts I baptized and other members. Of the twenty or so people I showed him pictures of who were active when I was there, less than half were still active. He knew many of the formerly active members still and interacted with some of them regularly. He said they were doing well, but they had no interest in Mormonism any more.

So, how would you characterize the state of the Church in Costa Rica? My diagnosis: Terminally ill.

15 thoughts on “The Church in Costa Rica

  1. My understanding is that Pentecostal/Charismatic Protestantism surpassed the LDS Church in terms of both numbers and growth rates in most Latin American countries years ago.

  2. Sooo, you probably know my brother and possibly a guy I dated that also served in CR during that time. LOL. Small world.

  3. Did you ever discuss with Javier that you left the church in 2002? If so, what was his response? If not, why not?

  4. I didn’t discuss it with him. Now that I think about, I’m wondering why I didn’t. Part of the reason, I think, is that he was in my house and I try to be a kind host to people. Another reason why I wouldn’t is because I try to model the behavior I’d like to see in other people. I’m not a huge fan of proselytizing; I don’t get excited by trying to convert unwitting individuals to my way of thinking. So, I wasn’t going to bring it up. Also, he didn’t come over to discuss religion but to see me, at least that’s how I’m thinking about it. So, I didn’t want to make the discussion about religion. Friendship is more important to me than religion. If me bringing up my views on Mormonism means I’d lose a friend, I’d just as soon not bring it up.

    My last thought is that I didn’t want to “blindside” him. He came with one understanding of the situation; I don’t know that it would have been useful to disabuse him of that understanding. It also would have been kind of mean. I hate to say this as it seems somewhat elitist, but knowing what I know about Mormonism, I think any discussion with an unsuspecting Mormon about their religion is primarily just going to end up with that person becoming defensive and angry. How is that a good thing to do?

    My initial thoughts. Great question.

  5. I respect your decision not to discuss your disaffection and think given the circumstances it was in the best interests of maintaining a friendship that would otherwise be challenged. However, if someone to inquire about my current church calling, or what ward I attended or any other church related query, I would not hesitate to respond and provide further explanation if they are really willing to listen and want to know my reasons for leaving. Would you agree?

  6. Yeah, I think I would agree that, had he asked me about it, I would have been honest and told him that I was no longer a member. However, in my experience with Mormons, when you tell them that you were one, they seem to become very wary. And the more you reveal you know, the more wary they become. Maybe I’m bowing to societal pressure to not push my irreligion on people (while allowing them to push their religion on others), but I think I’m also simply trying to prevent people from feeling uncomfortable. So, if he had asked, I probably would have simply said something like, “I’m not really involved with Mormonism any more.” If he had pushed for more information, I probably would have said, “I just don’t believe it any more.” Usually that ends it. If someone is genuinely interested beyond that, I’ll let them have the longer version of why I left. But I try to keep it simple and non-threatening.

  7. Re #1, one of my biggest frustrations during my mission to Brazil (has it really been almost twenty-five years ago?) was watching as the Assemblia de Deus (and other crente outfits) ate our lunch, handed our asses to us on a plate, and otherwise … [insert similar metaphor for getting pwned by a bunch of hillbilly evangelicals who eschewed Mormonism’s promises of upward mobility in favor of down-home patriarchy for the gents and utterly dour fashion statements for the womenfolk]. Identifico crentes distncia and if you served in Brazil, I suspect you can spot them coming from a mile away, too.

    To the LDS church’s credit, they built some beautiful chapels back in the day. A year into my mission, what kept me going was the hope that filling them might contribute something to the development of Brazilian civic society generally (I rationalized that even though I might have doubts, I’d grown up with all the benefits of small-town American civic life … UTC [who sponsored my little league team], American Legion [sponsors of speaking contests for young kids], and on and on … and I figured maybe LDS [sponsors of youth dances and futebol matches and regular family home visits] could serve a similar purpose in the towns where I served).

    Good luck with that, Elder Echols, you eager, well-intentioned naf. Maybe things have changed, but my memory of our Area Authority will always be of a Wyoming rancher who was all-too-happy to enjoy my services as an interpreter during stake tours but none-too-thrilled to hear my take on the actual state of affairs on the ground once the dog-and-pony show had concluded.

    My mission president was a kind-hearted, relatively open-minded, better-educated-than-most Mormon, but when I complained about our AA, he repeated the mantra back to me that our Anglo leadership only appeared to be flailing because the local Brazilian membership simply wasn’t on par with North American congregations in terms of commitment or abilities, and then I knew I was done. As important as metrics are to management, so is accountability, and there was none. Zero. Zip. Nada. Only excuses, aka CYA, voiced to exonerate the fly-in, know-nothing leadership from the USA.

  8. But it doesn’t really matter, because high growth is a fulfillment of prophecy (Daniel’s stone that rolls out to fill the Earth), but so is slow or no growth (only the elect will remain in the church in the latter days). Either way, it proves The Church IS True (TM).

  9. We just had two people from Costa Rica join LifeAfterMormonism (LAM) this month. Interesting that the numbers are declining so. I witnessed major inactivity and poor retention in my mission to Chile in 98-00. I’m talking 1000 people on the rolls of a ward and only 30-40 people at church. Sometimes members of the bishopric were inactive too, and even the bishop of one ward. Correlation has killed the church’s ability to adapt to the cultures that would otherwise preserve themselves if allowed. Do a member search on the country of Costa Rica on LAM to see if you know either of them.

  10. Concerning low church attendance and the problem of correlation in foreign countries, I once heard a story about a man in Guatemala who had converted to the LDS faith. He attributed the rapid growth of his business (partly due to the LDS investment in the area) to his conversion growth such that he had to work on Sundays. When he was asked about how he feels about making the sacrifice of not attending church on Sundays for the sake of his livelihood, he was insulted by the question. There’s no sacrifice by working on Sundays, he said; in fact, he is very pleased to be working more and finds the suggestion that he has to go to church on Sundays ridiculous. Being Mormon isnt about going to Church, he said.

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