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Faculty Research Focuses on Community Development


Barrio Cristo ReyThe Cristo Rey barrio outside the Costa Rica city of San Jose. Dr. Beal spent six weeks researching a faith-based non-governmental organization dedicated to rebuilding this community and others like it across the country. The group, AOES, runs 40 free programs including women and children's shelters, soup kitchens and agricultural courses to help communities take care of their own. See a slide show of photos from her trip.

By Dr. Amanda Beal, Assistant Professor of Political Science

My father was a student of history and politics. When I was a young child, I would watch the news with him and regularly flip through his National Geographic magazines. I was captivated by the way people in less developed societies lived. I imagined myself in one of those places, taking pictures of refugees or learning about their way of life. As an undergraduate, I studied Journalism and photography, convinced that I would become an international photographer. My path unexpectedly changed when a family tragedy taught me what it was like to be on the other side of the camera, having people document your suffering. I decided that I would study ways to ease the suffering of others instead of capturing it to show the world.

As a graduate student, I began studying when, how and why governments provide benefits for their citizens, but throughout my studies, I became disenchanted with the research because it assumed that the nation-state could alleviate suffering through material conceptions of development, emphasizing education, healthcare, pensions, and social assistance. Research demonstrates otherwise: people with higher educations or greater income are not necessarily happy. My childhood suggests the same – I was raised in a Christian family with strong familial and community ties. We had little money, but we were happy. Financial security, education, and good health alone do not result in a better quality of life. In fact, these conceptions of development may be less important than community and spiritual formation.

At the Mount, I began researching conceptions of development and wanted to find non-governmental organizations whose approach to development is faith-based and community centered. I had never been to Costa Rica before, but I decided to look for an organization that focused on urban poverty in the country. Last January, I left to do some on the ground research in and around San José, the capital city. God, it seems, already had a plan for me; my first trip to Costa Rica was guided by providence.

Before arriving, I had reserved a room at Madeleine’s B & B and made arrangements for a ride from the airport. I was astonished to discover that Madeleine volunteers for an outreach organization called La Asociación Obras del Espíritu Santo (AOES), a faith-based organization that was founded and is currently run by Father Sergio Valverde Espinoza, a Catholic Priest in Cristo Rey, San José. The next evening I joined Madeleine out on the streets and, with a large group of volunteers, we fed, prayed with, and danced with at least 40 children from indigent families. 

My search for an organization was complete before it had begun. The AOES perfectly fit the kind of organization I was looking for – it is concerned with the spiritual development of individuals and rebuilding the community of Cristo Rey. It operates over 40 free programs throughout Costa Rica, including hunger outreach, a soup kitchen, spiritual retreats, daycare, a children’s shelter, women’s shelters, and programs to teach single mothers how to use a computer or to garden. It also holds regular gatherings for the community.

This summer I spent six weeks living with the children at the AOES shelter and researching the organization. The community immediately embraced me as a member. Everyday, I watched them demonstrate what we should all be aware of – material conceptions of development are important only in so much as they relieve suffering, but community and spiritual development fosters the responsibility that we each have to one another and the foundation for this type of development is love. Those with enough to share provide the material goods; those who have the ability provide the work; and in turn, those who receive are asked to participate. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:48).

With this mission in mind, Father Sergio has rebuilt the community of Cristo Rey and shaped the lives of thousands of people – the indigent people in the slums of Costa Rica, the companies and farmers that donate resources, the women and children who receive housing, and the people who work at the association all have a better quality of life because they support one another.

My current research project is a description of how the AOES defines and approaches development. I argue that their approach has a different set of goals and they are more successful in accomplishing those goals than most nongovernmental organizations. The article I am now writing will be presented at a International Studies Association North East conference this November.

 
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