Greg and Colleen Mitchell are no strangers to foreign missions. After spending several years in the Caribbean as a young couple and several more back in the States caring for their growing family, the Mitchells felt a call to return to the mission field following the death of their infant son Bryce, in 2009.
They founded the St. Bryce Foundation in his memory and now serve as full-time missionaries — along with their other five sons, ages 7 to 16 — to the indigenous Cabecar people in Costa Rica.
Summarize your family’s call to the missions. How did it all begin?
Colleen: Even before we were married, we both wanted to radically serve Christ. We started life together with that in mind. Over time, we were doing the grind of a young family, with lots of little babies. What happened to this radical call we wanted to live? We began to ask God to show us how we could embrace that again. When Bryce passed away, we just had this strong sense that God wanted to use that pain and sorrow for something bigger than us, that he was going to redeem the sorrow.
We felt strongly that we were called to help with the evangelization efforts of these people (in Costa Rica). At first, we didn’t know that would mean giving everything up and coming here. Under the guidance of our spiritual director, we began to build the (St. Bryce) foundation. In November of 2011, a local church (in Lafayette, La.) supported Greg to come here and investigate. [The whole family] arrived in January of 2012. We work directly with the bishop here (in the Diocese of Cartago), the priests in charge of the mission and also under the counsel of a chaplain and bishop in the States.
Describe the Cabecar people. What is their culture like?
Greg: They’re an ancient Central-American people. This was the bridge between the Incas in Peru and the Aztecs in the north. There’s a family line that goes back 2,000 years. They eat what they can grow: beans, bananas. They raise a few cows and chickens. They hunt and fish, mostly.
Colleen: When Costa Rica was colonized by Spanish settlers, the Cabecars were one of the few indigenous tribes that did not integrate with Spanish culture. It’s a different kind of mission than working in the Latin-American culture, where Catholicism is embedded in the culture: Even if they’re not practicing their faith, they are familiar with the faith. You think about Costa Rica, and you think about beaches and vacations. I could never have imagined there was a population of 20,000 people living back in these mountains — hours and hours into the jungle — who still really don’t understand the message of Christianity. There are many Cabecar people who are baptized Catholic, but they don’t know anything more about their faith. Their cultural norms and ways of life are still very much influenced by their beliefs in forest gods, spirits and magic. And their language is totally different than Spanish. We’re learning a few basic words in their language and enlisting our Cabecar friends to help translate.
How do you reach the Cabecar people?
Colleen: We are willing to go and stay with them. They know that we love them. That has built a trust relationship that we wouldn’t have necessarily had if we entered in with a lot of big programming or with a plan to do things a certain way.
Greg: The bishop and priests are here with our family, and we’re focusing on the primary message of the kerygma — the Gospel. God is love. We respect their culture without changing Church teaching. Christ came to fulfill their culture.
Colleen: We really try to help them understand the reality of who the Person of Jesus Christ was and why he’s not just any other “good guy” — why he can’t just sort of exist side-by-side and be friends with their gods. We work on the creation story, really capitalizing on their love and respect for nature and instilling the message that all of that was created for our good and well-being. We introduce the idea that we sin, and we need a Savior.
Greg: We’ve also rented buses to take members of the Cabecar people to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels (in Cartago, a one-and-a-half-hour ride). Similar to Our Lady of Guadalupe (in Mexico), Mary gave an image in stone to a young indigenous girl here. We see Our Lady as the forbearer of the Gospel for us. [The Cabecar people] relate to motherhood very well. The image of the heavenly Mother who cares for them bridges the gap between their [main] god, who tends to be heady, abusive and womanizing.
You are caring specifically for Cabecar mothers in your new St. Francis Emmaus Center. Tell me about that project.
Colleen: Cabecar women in the past gave birth at home in the reserve [their home area], but as the medical system in Costa Rica has improved, they are very open to coming out (to deliver their babies). We’ve felt a particular compassion for the Cabecar moms, who walk hours and hours in labor to get to the hospital. They are so far away from medical access [at home]; if something should go wrong, there is no backup. Even though that is a good choice — coming out for medical care — the problem is they are away from home. It’s difficult for them to find a place to stay. When we realized that this was contributing to an infant mortality rate five times higher than the rest of Costa Rica, it seemed like a no-brainer for us. We have a safe, comfortable house. We have transportation and food.
The St. Francis Emmaus Center was initially inspired by a couple of moms we met. One mom was walking on the side of the road carrying a 3-month-old baby who had diarrhea and had been vomiting for three days. She stayed with us until the baby could go back for a checkup to be released from medical care … but during that time, we realized she did not prepare the prescriptions for the baby properly because she didn’t know how to read. The local doctor confirmed that the baby could have been in a life-threatening situation if he had been back in the (Cabecar) reserve.
How did you choose the name for your facility?
St. Francis shared everything with the poor. Our calling was not to run off and build a center somewhere, but to open our home and share our space and our resources with people. We picked the second part of the name —Emmaus — because we want the home to be a place where, on this long journey, they can encounter Christ and find him in the love that we share with them.
We started small (in September 2013), with room for only one woman at a time … to see if this really was the need and if people really would come. [In the months following], we served 10-12 women in different capacities. Some stayed overnight for prenatal appointments. Some families stayed while their kids were being hospitalized. A few moms waited out the final weeks of pregnancy and birth of a baby.
[This past summer], we moved into a (bigger) house that is walking distance to the hospital. We’re using half of the house as our personal family space and the other half for the center. We have 12 beds, and on average, we serve five to six families a week. As we receive women, we’re working with the National Ministry of Health and other groups to develop a program of (prenatal and postpartum) education. Once the baby is born, we focus on infant care, by getting first-aid items into the mom’s hands: electrolyte solution for diarrhea, infant Tylenol, wound care. Statistics show that if you can improve a child’s baseline in the first year by giving moms adequate pre- and postpartum health care and some education, it will stay with [the children] for the rest of their lives.
What words of encouragement can you give families who may be feeling called to full-time foreign missions?
Colleen: One of the biggest inspirations that prepared our hearts to be able to say “Yes” was studying the Church documents, especially the writings of St. John Paul II (Mission of the Redeemer, in particular). And now we have the gift of Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). The Church still has a mission to the unevangelized people that is not complete. For us, that was very eye-opening to know: that we’re not making up this calling. This is real. This is something the Church calls us to. Our other suggestion is to be feeding yourself with the Bread of Life in the Eucharist as much as possible, such as in Eucharistic adoration. That has sustained us through all those struggles and kept us anchored and focused. God really revealed himself to us in that daily discipline of prayer.
Sometimes we feel excited about the possibility of doing something radical, and then it’s squelched by our fears of all the things that could happen and what people would think of us. That can take up the space in our hearts that God might be trying to use to grow a calling. If God’s calling you to it, then “don’t be afraid” (St. John Paul II).
What advice do you have for families with young children?
Colleen: The kids are the best missionaries. Everyone loves kids. It’s much easier for families to open their doors to you when your little boys are running around kicking a soccer ball with their kids. It has helped us build trust. [Our kids] don’t think of it as “my mom and dad are missionaries, and we tag along.” They call themselves missionaries. They know they have something to offer.
How can families in the States instill a heart of service in their children?
Colleen: Bring your family to the mission field (instead of taking a vacation). If you can’t get to the mission field, find a mission you want to support and involve your kids in it. Find the place on the map. Let them have bake sales and lemonade stands and offer their own support. Inspire them with the stories of the missionary saints.
Our children’s hearts for service grows when they don’t just know about the poor; they know the poor. They’re their friends. They’re people with names and faces and stories. Step out in your community outside of your comfort zone. It requires you to make space for it, prioritize it and be intentional. In our American culture, that’s hard. But if we’re serious about living the Gospel, it’s mandatory.
Kimberly Jansen writes from Lincoln, Nebraska.
Check out the Mitchells’ latest endeavors (including an outreach to Tanzania) and/or support their mission at http://StBryce.org/.