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Jun 03, 2014 | Carol E. Barnwell

Axe-wielding Bishop has Clear Vision for Church Growth in Costa Rica

Bishop Hector Monterroso is very clear about his priorities for the Episcopal Church in Costa Rica. He wants to plant new churches, create more opportunity for Christian formation and model Christian testimony through service to the community. And he takes his vision literally. 



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[Diolog MagazineIn March—wielding a pickaxe—the former mechanical engineer joined a mission team from North Carolina to clear ground for a new sanctuary for La Iglesia Ascensión in San Jose.  


“I want all of our congregations to be part of the solution [to needs] in their communities, especially where it concerns women and children,” Bishop Monterroso said. 


Ascensión already has an active ministry to women with HIV/AIDS. Last year, eight women approached a number of churches in the neighborhood asking for a place to rest when they came to an area hospital for treatment. Their trip and the wait at the hospital were long.  Ascensión was the only church that didn’t turn the women away. Now they have a designated space to rest complete with industrial-sized sewing machines to help them earn a bit of money between their treatments. The HIV/AIDS group has more than tripled in size since the ministry has become more organized. And, the women reach an additional 250 patients, whom they now peer-counsel. 


When the new church is completed, the congregation of 25 plans to provide breakfast to local school children in its locale, one of the most populated areas of the country’s capital. Members worship in the parish hall next to the kitchen, behind partially completed walls, piles of sand, debris and stacks of rebar. Despite the cramped quarters, they also cook for visiting mission teams.  


Ascensión’s rector, Eduardo Chinchilla, works as a journalist for a local newspaper and an ecumenical publication. He is also the director of communications at a local university and serves as chaplain at the Hogar Escuela in Barrio Cuba, where the diocese sponsors a school for nearly 200 children.  

This small and vivacious congregation is self-sufficient and reflects the hope and faith of their bishop.  All of the diocese’s 20 congregations are self-sufficient, as will be any new starts.  When the bishop arrived 10 years ago, there were seven clergy. Today there are 25, most of them bi-vocational and non-stipendiary (receiving no pay). The diocese’s large needs and insufficient funds “moved us to be creative,” Bishop Monterroso said. 


“We have needs and no resources,” the Bishop said. “The only way I know to do things is to trust. I read about miracles and transformation in the Bible, and I trust,” he said, adding, “We have accomplished many things and the church has many things to offer to society. We must be ready; we must reflect the love of Christ, and we must really believe and be guided by the Holy Spirit.”  


In all the Church’s outreach, the Bishop asks: How does this project bring transformation to someone’s life? “That is the more important question,” he said. 


Costa Rica is like other Latin American countries, full of religious buildings, used mainly on Sunday. “It’s a blessing to have property and we are called to use it for the good of the community,” the Bishop said. 


Two congregations worship in chapels that are located in schools sponsored by the Diocese.  Echoing the commitment of the Church to outreach, Hogar Escuela in Barrio Cuba is open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., as is Hogar Escuela in Heredia. Both provide the only hot meals many of their students (infant through eighth grade) receive during the day.  These two schools in San Jose serve children of single, poor mothers who are either working or going to school.  In addition to the children’s meals, each school provides some health care and immunizations, as well as English and computer classes for the mothers to help them break the cycle of poverty. Work at a call center can pay $1000 monthly, many times what most the mothers currently earn, but it takes skills that most don’t have access to learning. 


Many of the poverty stricken students are children of illegal immigrants who have traveled from Honduras and other nearby countries looking for work. They live in overcrowded, lean-to shanty towns throughout San Jose. 


Young Church Planter

Bishop Monterroso helped plant his first church at the age of six when he served as an acolyte to a new Episcopal congregation founded in his parent’s home in Guatemala.  Called to the priesthood at an early age, he settled for a mechanical engineering degree in college because there was no seminary in Guatemala. He didn’t have the money or the proficiency in English to study in the United States, but a few years into his engineering career, the bishop of Guatemala opened a seminary for professionals.  He studied there in the evenings for four years. “Then the bishop asked me to quit my job and sent me out to plant a church,” Bishop Monterroso remembered. “It was always my dream and it turned out to be one of the most important decisions of my life.” 


His election as Bishop of Costa Rica echoed his belief that God had been preparing him to be a church planter all along, and he embraced his new position with enthusiasm. 


It would be hard to overstate how far the Diocese of Costa Rica has come during the Bishop’s 10-year tenure. When he arrived, the Hogar Escuela had 40 students and was about to close, and the diocese was about to lose the property. “It was a place for us to give our Christian testimony through our service,” Bishop Monterroso said. “We had trust, we prayed and now we have 185 students. That is a good answer for us!” 



The Dioceses of Texas and Costa Rica signed a formal partnership agreement in February. Costa Rica already has a long relationship with the Episcopal churches in North Carolina and they welcome many mission teams to help build needed facilities and to share ministry. The diocesan center in San Jose was constructed to provide comfortable dormitory rooms for teams and a commercial kitchen to provide meals.  The construction projects, maintained to a high standard, are planned and overseen by a local engineer and architect.  


During a lunch break at Ascensión, the mission team talked about their experiences. “I’ve been here six or seven times,” said Michael Beaumont, an IT manager for Wells Fargo in Charlotte, North Carolina. “I love working with the Bishop.” 


Janie Metts, also a member of Christ Church, Charlotte, is happy to meet and work with people she has never run across in church before. “There is an awareness of being part of a larger church,” she said. “I see a deeper sense of community and anytime we can get out of our own ‘world’ it’s good.” 


Winston Paschall said the mission work is “the Gospel in action,” adding that Bishop Monterroso’s example encouraged everyone on the team. “He’s a bishop who is not afraid to get his hands dirty,” Paschall said. “The lesson we learn from him is to have patience and God will provide.” 


Learn more about the partnership here.