I had just completed seventh grade when my parents took us four kids on our first big trip “out west.” It was my grand introduction to the spirituality of travel. My father constantly encouraged us to “pay attention to everything.” As I observed weather patterns, ever-changing geography, and the variety of plant and animal life, I also began paying attention to the language, dress, culture, and habits of the people in the places we visited. Especially enthralled by Yellowstone, Arches, Glacier, and Grand Canyon National Parks, I reveled in the handiwork of God around every corner and always wanted to keep hiking when it was time to turn around. I announced one night that I wanted to be a national park ranger when I grew up.
After my first overseas trip in high school with my church youth group, I realized that if I learned other languages, I could better connect with people around across the globe and celebrate that we are more alike than different. By participating in mission trips at home and abroad, I understood the importance putting my faith into action but also struggled with the danger of inadvertently exploiting the very communities we hoped to help. While studying music in Germany during college, I developed deep friendships and came to embrace a much simpler and meaningful life. This made it extremely difficult to return to our much more consumer oriented society in the US.
Today I strive to travel with humility, prayerfully seeking God in the most unexpected of people, forming relationships with those who speak, dress, live, and worship differently, and challenging myself to see my country and my own life with new eyes. One of my favorite travel quotes is from Maya Angelou, “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
Gary and I just returned from a vacation in Costa Rica, and I am still reflecting on the spiritual impact of the land and its people. The national motto of Costa Rica is pura vida, which literally means “pure life.” Costa Ricans use this phrase to greet people, convey gratitude, and express the value of living simply. I experienced in Costa Rica a people who enjoy life, are not obsessed about “getting ahead” or competition, and are deeply connected with the land. For a country that is smaller than Lake Michigan and has 4.9 million people, Costa Rica leads the world in ecotourism, environmental imagination, and living in harmony with all of God’s creatures.
- Costa Rica (CR) is the third “greenest” country in the world after Finland and New Zealand
- CR contains 5% of the entire world’s biodiversity but only 0.03% of the world’s surface
- CR uses 99.2% renewable energy, including hydroelectric, geothermal, and wind power; no nuclear, diesel, or coal is used
- CR has vowed to become the first carbon-neutral country in the world by the year 2020
- 25% of CR’s land is owned by the government, including 27 national parks, 58 wildlife refuges, and many other protected areas that enhance the distinctive and diverse natural habitats found throughout the country.
- CR is home to10,000 species of plants and trees, 850 indigenous and migratory birds, 205 species of mammals, 35,000 species of insects, and over 1,000 species of fish
- 10% of the world’s butterflies are in CR
- 99% of crops in CR are organic; McDonalds is not permitted to import beef or veggies because of the risk of pesticide contamination
- Children are required to bring recycling items to school
- CR has not had an army since 1948, when a conscious decision was made to use the money saved for education
- CR has a government-run universal health care system
- 98% of Costa Ricans can read and 66% have a university degree.
- Everybody works, with employment offered to tens of thousands of neighboring Nicaraguans as well
Pura vida is an intentional acknowledgment of Costa Rica’s intimate connection with the environment and each other. As I reflected on my opportunity to visit Costa Rica, I wondered, “How can we recover a sense of pura vida in our country and world? How can we do better?
What will it take for us to realize that we have one precious earth that is shared by 7.5 billion people and countless other living creatures and that it is our human responsibility to care for it? What will it take for the US to have a national health care plan that prioritizes caring for the most vulnerable among us rather than giving tax breaks to the wealthy? What will it take to engage each other in open and honest conversation around issues that threaten to divide us, such as racism, immigration, poverty, world religions, human sexuality, and creation care?
To put it more simply, as people of faith, how can we ensure that all people experience pura vida? What is our responsibility as human beings created in the image of God to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” by embracing and witnessing to pura vida?
In Krista Tippett’s 2015 book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, she interviews Dr. Ellen Davis, with whom she studied the Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School in the 1990’s. In the interview, Davis says that a student approached her one day about how she lectured all the time about care for the “the land.” Davis said, “You can’t go more than a few chapters without seeing some reference to land, water, its lack of health, the absence of fertile soil and water.” Davis realized that in her own travels, she had become more aware of the huge difference between the detailed attention biblical writers give to the land and our obliviousness to the land in the US.
Tippett asked Dr. Davis, “So how do you step back from the Genesis language of subduing and especially ‘dominion’ – what do you see that is not clear in the way we have translated and used this text?”
Davis answered, “The Hebrew word is a strong word, and I render it ‘exercise skilled mastery amongst the creatures.’[i] The notion of skilled mastery suggests something like a craft, an art of being human… But the condition for our exercise of skilled mastery is set by the prior blessing, in previous verses, of the creatures of sea and sky. They too are to be fruitful and multiply.” Pura vida.
Why is travel a spiritual act? Because it reminds me that, as an American and a citizen of God’s world, I can do better in my attempt to live a pura vida that respects the diversity of all living creatures. Because by connecting with and learning from people who are not like me, I am a more responsible world citizen who acknowledges the impact that my decisions can have on people across the globe. Because humbly embodying the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit has a difference-maker effect on others and our earth. Because travel enlarges our borders and draws the circle wider than it was before.
Mark Twain writes in The Innocents Abroad/Roughing It, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
I really did want to be a park ranger, but God evidently had other plans. God wants to use each one of us to exercise skilled mastery and work for the day when the natural world, its human citizens, and every living creature experience a pura vida that embraces our common humanity. Wherever our travels lead us, may we be open to life-changing surprise, build understanding, and develop empathy for the millions of people the world over who attempt to live on far less than they need for a pura vida. May we always celebrate the amazing variety that is “us.”
[i] Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise; An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, New York, Penguin Press, 2016, pp. 37-39