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.