Each week, Baptist Women in Ministry introduces an amazing woman in ministry. This week we are thrilled to introduce Ruth Clowater.
Ruth, tell us about your calling and your ministry journey?
I grew up in a Christian home in rural New Jersey. My parents set the bar really high in demonstrating service above self and had the best marriage that I have ever seen. Nonetheless, I went off and did my own thing, only coming back to the church in my late twenties. Within days of doing so, however, I sensed that God would call me into ministry, somewhere in Latin America, and at the time I assumed it would be Mexico.
In 1990 I participated in a short-term mission trip to Mexico City. Worship services, Bible studies, street evangelism, visiting the sick, we did it all. It was a fantastic experience, but at the same time, it felt a bit orchestrated. After several days of getting to know our hosts, the pastor, and other leaders began to speak openly (one needs to be able to speak the language to really communicate with the locals), revealing their frustrations with “orders from above” not corresponding to the “reality of below.” This even included congregational singing. They were prohibited, they said, from anything but traditional hymns. I love the theological depth of the hymns, but we have no business dictating such a thing, and they were mockingly referred to as the “bautristes,” a play on the words bautista (Baptist) and triste (sad) because of it. Yet they were afraid not to follow orders because they felt they needed the support of the mission board.
The Mexico City trip was transformational, as it affirmed my sense of calling, but in other ways, it was an eye-opener as to how we Americans and our ways of doing things might not always be the best. Our testimony rings hollow when we spend the day with desperate people living in precarios (slums) where crime, unemployment, and drugs run rampant, but then we head off to a prestigious high-rise hotel each night. The experience caused me to re-think the idea of joining a missionary-sending organization. I did not want to be in a position of having to execute a plan concocted by committee in an office back home; rather, I wanted to be truly free to “follow the Lamb.” This way I would know that if I achieve a measure of success it is because of God, and if I fail, I will have no one to blame but myself. There have been negative consequences to that decision, but I do not regret it.
Meanwhile, for the twenty years following, I pursued a career in business for two decades. Then, when the company I worked for in Charlottesville, VA closed its doors, I had some time on my hands and decided to take a course or two at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. One thing led to another, and I eventually emerged with the Master of Divinity degree, but during my time there, I was inspired by my professors to “think outside the box” (Pam Durso once commented in an email to me that I live outside the box).
I had made a couple of mission trips to Costa Rica, never once thinking about doing ministry there. I still had Mexico on my mind. Then, during my third visit, I had a little down time. I was sitting along the Caribbean shore. The sea was calm, and I was hypnotized by the rhythmic sound of the waves gently caressing the coral reef. I was not really thinking about anything in particular. Suddenly, it was as if one of those waves had lifted itself up, and came crashing over my head. “I want you here,” a voice in my head seemed to say. And that little sensation put the wheels in motion for me to resign my job, temporarily take a hiatus from seminary, sell my house, and move to Costa Rica. I knew nothing other than that God wanted me there; I had no idea of what I would be doing, or with whom, but I knew I was supposed to go. I have always been a tither, and in this instance I took the tithe from the sale of my home, figuring that it was enough money for me to live on for a year, if I am frugal enough, while hoping that God would clarify things before I ran out of money.
Tell us about SIGA Ministry and your work in Costa Rica.
SIGA Ministry Partners is a non-profit which I founded in 2004. We call ourselves “ministers of encouragement,” because that is what we try to do, in whatever we become involved in, which ranges from children’s education, micro-business, eco-farming, and theological education. I live in a tropical rainforest in Costa Rica, very near the border with Nicaragua, and do ministry in both countries. In fact, even in Costa Rica most of my neighbors are Nicaraguan, either undocumented immigrants or first-generation descendants.
As an ordained minister, I guess I just assumed I would be involved in starting a church, but over time I realized that the best way to grow what I call our “megachurch project” is to encourage and equip local people to serve in their communities. The little villages in the jungle sometimes number fifty inhabitants, sometimes more, and there are often are tiny churches struggling to survive in their midst. Pastors, both men and women, struggle to serve but with very little support, either academically, spiritually or financially. So I try to encourage them. I have helped some of them start home-based micro businesses so they can feed their families, and I also offer seminars in theological studies such as hermeneutics and homiletics. We have recently partnered with some of them by initiating community-based library projects, which will help children and youth, but also increase the stature of the church within the community. By my calculations, if we can help 20 small churches thrive and grow (I currently work with about 15 pastors), we will have the potential to directly reach 2,000 people or more—a “megachurch!”
We also built, about eight years ago, a learning center in the village where I live. This is a result of having volunteered in the local school in my village, where I realized that the children had no books—no textbooks, no reading books, nothing. How can a child learn to read without books? So we built a library, a computer lab, and a classroom where courses in sewing, arts and crafts, small engine repair, cheese making, masonry construction, and other topics have been offered to the community. I also, on an as-needed basis, tutor children who are struggling in school, as well as high-school students preparing for the national exams which they must pass in order to receive a diploma. When I came here ten years ago, we never had one child successfully graduate from high school. Now there have been several, and some are even in college.
About six years ago, our work expanded into Nicaragua. I think possibly this will be the most important work that God calls us to. Our focus is a community of Native Americans known as the Rama Nation, an ethnic group of fewer than 4,000 people. In the community where we serve, there are about 300 of them. I do not publish many details, because Nicaragua is not a politically stable country, and the “powers that be” could deny us access if word about what goes on up there gets out. The Rama are truly the poorest of the poor, and they have been dislocated from their ancestral lands. They struggle to survive as a distinct, cultural and ethnic indigenous people, and if things don’t turn around for them, I fear they will become extinct in a generation or so. Anyway, after the Nicaraguan Civil War died down, several of them moved to the village where they are now. They consider themselves to be Moravian but have no church of their own. They are English-speaking (thanks to missionaries in the 1800s who persuaded them to abandon their native tongue) and do not feel included by the local churches, most of which are mestizo, Spanish-speaking congregations. So we are helping them build a church of their own, and I am providing one-on-one theological education to their future pastor. This project is extensive, and I anticipate it will take several more years to complete (if ever). But as far as I can see, it truly is the only sign of hope for these people. The problems are far greater than our ministry—or anyone else for that matter—can resolve. But we have hope and faith in a God that is bigger than the problem.
What have been the greatest joys you have encountered in ministry?
I feel that I am a lot closer to God here, out in the jungle, than I ever have felt back home. My spirituality has grown exponentially. The needs are great, but I find joy in seeing the small yet significant ways that God is working, not only through us and in us, but around us. It is humbling, but it is also a relief to realize that success does not depend on me.
Of course, it is a joy to see some of the youth succeed at school and move forward to go to college and realize their dreams for a better future. I hope that the example they have set for their peers will encourage more of them to dream. The culture here is “Christianized,” saturated with God talk and religious programming on radio and TV. However, what seems to be lacking is for people understand that they are important to God, that their lives have meaning and purpose. That is why I don’t see much need for evangelists as much as encouragers. People not to tell them how things ought to be done, or even what to believe, but to walk alongside and live among them. That is what we try to do, although honestly, I could go for a few more frills. Frills are nice!
There have been a few times when I have wondered if the sacrifice is worth it, but they have been very few, and God has pulled me back from the abyss of discouragement on more than one occasion in humorous ways. I remember one time, after a rather extended and stressful process of trying to put textbooks into about 10 local schools (just imagine trying to learn without textbooks!). There was an attempt by a local organization to divert funds that our ministry had raised for the schools in our region. After a long day fighting with powerful people who could not seem to understand how I would dare to question them, I was driving home. I remember mumbling, “It’s not worth it! All of this frustration is for what?” The road trip is a two-hour grueling journey over very primitive roads, through farmland and jungle, just to travel maybe twenty miles. More times than not, you never meet a soul on the way. But then, I see two little girls, sitting on a boulder alongside the road—where there was no house in sight—with a giant, colorful, “princess” book in their hands, reading, smiling, oblivious to the car passing in front of them. Where did they come from? Did I really just see that? It made no sense for them to be there. But I accepted that as my answer to that question I had just muttered, “all of this frustration is for what?”
Your eye needs to be trained, or you need to be hungry, I think so that you can be attuned to these many little “signs and wonders” that God gives us. If you are too preoccupied with getting too many things done, you might miss the little girls by the roadside.
What have been the greatest challenges?
Contrary to what some might think, it really was not a big shock to leave behind the material trappings of home, because they can do just that—trap you. Here we lack certain creature comforts that most people in the US take for granted, things like air conditioning or hot water or a dishwasher or automatic washing machine. There are no convenience stores nearby, and going to the supermarket is a major production that takes up an entire day. Coming from a culture where I can order things online and have them delivered to my home, and adapting to a culture where it can be an all-day affair just to make a bank deposit, I continue to be frustrated when my time is wasted doing simple things.
Long term, I think that extreme isolation has been one of my biggest challenges. While I have never felt a need to be surrounded by people, sometimes you just want to pick up a phone and talk to somebody. When I first got here, I had no phone, no car, and no means to communicate with family. That was lonely indeed. It has gotten a little better in recent years, but we still are without Internet, which is my main means for communicating with the outside world. As a ministry that depends upon financial donations from individuals and churches (remembering we are not part of a mission organization), getting the word out is important, as people tend to forget that you exist unless you keep reminding them and they see you are doing something. Of course, it affects our ability to raise funds, but God has been faithful in keeping us afloat.