The first time we visited Solón and Juana Castillo we walked over with our two children and the wheelbarrow for some young banana plants. Lacy gavilán trees linked arms high above the muddy road. It was raining.
In the glow of her cooking fire Doña Juana chopped culantro for the salad she served with black beans and rice. Her kitchen was little and it grew dark while the rain roared on the bare tin roof above us. It grows dark early in Costa Rica. While we ate and she brought more tortillas from time to time, Don Solón settled down to talk.
“The Guatusos,” he told us, “still lived in large round houses, open in the middle, when I was a child. From where we lived on the lowlands of San Carlos we would go see them and they came to us.”
Some of the story sounded familiar: Pioneer families in the rain forest, a sick woman hauled out on a two-day journey by ox cart, many children in a palm-thatched house among slash-and-burn plots of ñampí and pineapples under pejibaye palm trees. Don Solón came from a particularly poor family. He did not learn how to read and seldom, during his childhood, did anyone from his family travel as far as Alajuela or San José in the Central Valley.
Poverty followed Solón after his early marriage to Juana Castro and the arrival of their first children. Looking for work they found their way from farm to farm east to the Turrialba area where he worked for an evangelical doctor: Arturo Cabezas. From there they found their way through La Virgen to Arenal.
While living northwest of Tabacón in the late 1960s Solón and Juana experienced the first eruption of “Cerro” Arenal (known from that time as Arenal Volcano—for years following the most active one in the Western Hemisphere). It began on a densely clouded and rainy day at the beginning of the coffee harvest. All morning the Castillos thought they heard thunder. It grew louder and longer. The sky grew darker, and black sand began to fall with the rain. Then fearful crashes and rumblings began as house and barn-sized rocks landed among the trees. One rock came down behind the Castillo’s slat-walled kitchen, flattening the pig shelter and killing the pig inside. Solón and Juana grabbed their children and set out in the rain for Tilarán.
All that day and night people struggled on muddy trails away from the volcano—that is, those who survived to struggle. A ball of fire rolling down from the crater annihilated the village of Tabacón. The earth bulged and cracked open, among mud slides and thick streams of lava squirming through the rain forest as a new cinder ridge formed toward the east. Many who fled on foot got struck by rocks falling from the ash-laden sky. One young man rescuing his girl-friend on horse back saw her struck on the saddle in front of him and carried her out, dead in his arms. It rained all day and night. The river had turned into a raging torrent and a crowd of refugees fearing to cross, grew steadily smaller as rocks picked them off.
After the Arenal eruption Solón and Juana settled on newly populated lowlands north of the Sarapiquí River. By this time their boys were old enough to work and their situation improved somewhat, but Solón did not feel settled. Over the years an empty feeling in his heart bothered him more and more. He worried about his soul. He worried about his children growing up in the village and what they should do to please God.
The evangelical doctor had spoken to Solón about the Lord Jesus. Then a friend who became a Bible student told him, “You need to read the Bible for yourself.” Solón agreed. But how? He had never gone to school. With some hesitation he bought a Bible and learned the alphabet.
Night after night, driven by an inner desire to know the truth, Solón practised reading from the Bible. Juana could not read either and many times the most difficult words escaped him, but the two of them rejoiced as their understanding of God and the Scriptures grew. At their friend’s urging they asked for baptism by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
For several years the Castillos faithfully attended meetings in the Kingdom Hall. They learned much. But as Solón’s knowledge of the Scriptures grew he came to see beyond what the Jehovah’s Witnesses could teach him. Through conversations with his evangelical neighbours and his discovery of personal prayer to God he came to true repentance. Then, in a small Pentecostal congregation, Solon and Juana found the blessing of warm fellowship in Christ for the first time. Their hearts no longer felt empty but flowed over with joy! They sang with all their hearts and praised God for leading them from dark superstition into his marvellous light.
Some of the little churches the Castillos came to know after their conversion left a good witness in the neighbourhood. But others did not. Sin and disobedience, even among pastors, caused many to speak evil of them. Solón did not like it. But he purposed in his heart to keep on doing right, regardless of the rest. Then, in the late 1970s a new group of people moved into the Sarapiquí area.
The new settlers spoke German. They came from a Kleingemeinde Mennonite colony in Belize. On a large cattle ranch called La Estrella they built wooden houses and dairy barns. They planted coconut palms and built a little white meetinghouse and school in the centre of the colony. Solón found work among the German immigrants.
More than work, Solón and Juana found a serious-mindedness, honesty, and humility among their new neighbours, that spoke to them. Was this not the work and community of Christ?
For several years Costa Rican and German Christians lived side by side, coming to know and appreciate one another more all the time. Then a Spanish-speaking Mennonite family moved into the village where Solón and Juana lived. They began to hold meetings one with another to study the Scriptures and pray together.
Step by step they studied the Lord’s way of peace, the possibility of holy living, freedom from worldly fashions and entertainment, and how Christians live and function together on earth. Every studied truth fell into place with the deepest feelings of Don Solón’s heart and soul. His face shone with eagerness not only to accept the full teachings of Christ but to put them into practice. And practise them he did, after the group in the village merged with the German settlers to become one congregation in the Lord.
For a number of years, Don Solón Castillo, heavy-set, slightly bow-legged, and with a machete slung from his belt under a sombrero de lona (Costa Rican cloth hat) worked among the farms and fields of La Estrella. Quick to smile in greeting, always cheerful, slow of speech but with twinkling eyes, he never for a moment wavered in his commitment to the body of Christ.
Rain flooded the creek the night Don Solón gave us the banana plants (one of the biggest floods we had in years). After the storm ended we took them home and they bore beyond our expectation. The second hanger I cut had 148 bananas. Then the time came for Don Solón’s cutting down.
Not long after our visit his health began to fail. His steps grew slower and the day came when he set his black rubber boots on the porch for the last time.
Don Solón took his terminal illness (a cancer) as the opportunity of his life to warn everyone, great and small, of the nearness of death. Earnestly, joyfully, with all his remaining strength, he spoke to those who came to see him—once bedfast he got streams of visitors every day—of Christ and eternal life. “There is only one way,” he told the people. “It is easy to find, but you alone can choose it.”
In the fall rainy season of 1993, Don Solón died in peace at his home by the Vaca Blanca creek. But banana plants live on, and of his life’s work we are still counting fruit.