This article first appeared in the 2016 issue of THE FEAST, the print magazine of the Diocese of Eastern Michigan.
Last July I had the privilege to go on a one-week mission trip to the Dominican Republic.
It was a wonderful trip, but upon returning I found it difficult to describe its impact to my family and friends. I often told people the material things that I did, like how my group painted a whole church – inside, outside, ceiling, roof, and a water pump building.
I spoke about how getting supplies was next to impossible because the paint store simply didn’t have them. About how we dipped paint rollers into five gallon buckets and quickly slapped the paint on the wall as it dripped.
I shared that I got to practice my Spanish language skills. I was able to work with many native speakers and they were so kind to me, even though I was a bit rusty.
It was my personal spiritual and emotional growth that was harder to put into words. My friend from work told me to try to describe the trip in one word. I thought about it for a bit, and finally settled on ‘empowering’.
It was empowering to work with the Dominican people of Mozovi.
It was empowering to work with the Dominican people of Mozovi.
Every day we traveled over an hour over a gravel road from Puerto Plata, where our hotel was located. Picture the worst road in your neighborhood on a bad day, now multiply the amount of potholes by ten and add unpredictable motorcycles weaving in and out. It definitely wasn’t for the faint of heart!
Upon our arrival to the village, a woman named Ana greeted us. She was born with the Zika virus, which causes the head and brain to be smaller than normal. She is considered innocent by the Dominican People, which means she is protected by God. She is not strange or weird like how many special needs adults are treated here in the United States, but rather a person that should be taken care of and treated with kindness.
Ana was our cheerleader for the week. I remember she could run faster than most of my high school track team. I was impressed that she knew many English words. She would yell, “Hello, friends!” when we arrived. When she had a muscle spasm, a side effect of the disease, she would point to where it hurt and say, “Here,” indicating that she wanted you to help alleviate the pain.
In Ana, our group saw that the Zika virus was not the death sentence that it is often portrayed as in the media.
Along with Ana, there were around thirty people from the village working alongside us each day. The men dug a long trench from the new well to the water pump at the church over the course of just one day. The women and young people helped paint and clean. Concrete footings were dug, cement mixed, and then finished under the foundation of the small original church – which is to be used a patio for Bible studies and as a place for people to sit while children play in the soon-to-be daycare at the church.
I thought I was going to be helping the “poor people” of the Dominican Republic, but instead I was met with one of the richest cultures. They embody the hospitality lessons that the Bible teaches us. I often heard these lessons in my church, but they never really impacted me until my trip.
My group arrived only hours after the local priest returned from a spontaneous three day meeting with the Dominican Bishop. Each priest in the Episcopal Diocese of the Dominican Republic has three churches they travel between because they have such a shortage of clergy. All the money for projects has to be approved by the Bishop as to avoid the corruption that plagues the area.
Because of logistics there was a lot of down time when we first arrived and throughout the week when we ran out of materials. At these times we were invited to sit with the Dominican people and simply be together. They would bring platters of fruit for us to eat. My favorite were limes that were the size of oranges. Sweet, with just a touch of bitterness at the end.
They took us to the local river so that we could dip in our tired feet. These people – so impoverished that sometimes they could not afford shoes –hosted us with open arms.
They regularly run out of water, only have electricity for a few hours a day, and live in what we in the developed world would call shacks. They are monetarily poor, but they are so filled with God’s love and embody his words in ways that makes our culture seem like the poor one.
I was also impressed by the Dominican Development Group. They are the organization through which the D.R.E.A.M. Project, the collaborative effort between the three dioceses of the Lower Peninsula – Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Western Michigan – operates. They coordinate staggered mission trips throughout the year and ensure that the relationship continues both financially and spiritually.
David Morrow, one of the three founders of the group came to meet with La Reverenda Arsila, the local Dominican priest, and the Rev. Beth Drew, who leads the trips from Michigan. I thought it was awesome to meet and speak with one of the founders of a huge non-profit. I expected him to be in an air-conditioned office, not personally checking in with us.
I also got to visit two other churches – San Símon and Santa María – to see the schools and medical clinics that are being created. I liked that the Dominican Development Group was working to work with the Dominican people rather than to “save” them. They look for communities with no churches, no schools, no doctors, and then, working with area leaders, provide opportunities for sustainable projects. They meet regularly to ensure the relationship is working toward their goals rather than what we might think they need.
One of the many sustainable projects is a new college partnership working with students from Florida and Caribbean Cruise Lines to help teach Dominican people how to make soap. I actually brought a bar home with me. The students are coming over to teach the soap making process and to help set up the business. They are going to help figure out costs, prices, and other logistics. Caribbean Cruise Lines is providing the transportation for the students in return for the ability to advertise the program. The Dominican people will be incorporating several different scents using fruits from around the island and then will sell them in local shops and at the churches to benefit continuing parish ministry.
In addition to the impact of the Dominican Republic and its people, our Michigan mission group was amazing. There were eleven of us. It was such a diverse group and yet each person inspired me with their faith.
There were three teenagers, Amy, Brittany, and Cooper, who were young but so devoted. They were typical teenagers who joked around, played cards, and openly talked about God. In my church experience, I had not yet had the privilege of working alongside many teens in the Episcopal Church.
Two moms, who were their youth leaders, came on the trip as well. These women discussed how to keep improving their programs with absolute rigor. I remember they were impressed by our Vacation Bible School at St. John’s in Otter Lake, because they had never heard of local churches collaborating to put on such a “large” program.
At our hotel there was another Episcopal group from South Carolina, almost all teenagers with their youth ministers and parents. I got to see the teachers trade program ideas, and the kids talk about their churches, about sports and school, and discuss the expectations they had before the trip. One said, “I thought language was going to be the biggest barrier, but, you know, ignorance was harder to deal with.” – pretty impressive for a 15-year-old kid experiencing a whole new culture for the first time.
I was also empowered by my friend Phyllis. She is seventy years old, has fought and beat breast cancer, and went on this trip and worked just as hard as the teenagers. The native people called her Mama, to show her respect.
She heard about the trip in the newsletter from the Diocese of Western Michigan, looked at her calendar, and said, “Well, I’m free”. So for those of you thinking that you are too old to be called upon for a spiritual adventure, Phyllis scoffs at you.
Her faith is unyielding. Her positivity kept spirits high all week. And the woman was better than Mr. Clean when it came time to pick up our messes.
My trip was empowering because it demonstrates how people can be connected by faith.
My trip was empowering because it demonstrates how people can be connected by faith. Across differences in language and culture, across the Dominican people and the folks from the United States, we worked together to create a better world.
We were eleven strangers who showed up, speaking a different language, saying we were there to paint. They sat with us. Talked with us. Took us into their space and into their hearts.
We experienced radical welcome. They embodied it as they treated us like family. Would we do the same? +
Allison is a student at Central Michigan University and a member of St. John’s, Otter Lake in the Diocese of Eastern Michigan.
Another day begins in the DR. The people here are incredibly good at using what they have available to them. The man who sweeps the hotel area in the morning is making a new broom from one of the palm fronds he found at the edge of the property.
Once on site, we begin the day with prayer. Padre Bienvenido feels that it is important for the hired laborers who are not members of the church to be reminded of what we are working on each day that we are there. We used our copies of the bilingual prayer book to say The Lord’s Prayer with them in Spanish.
Phyllis was excited to get on with the day. She immediately grabbed her favorite tool — a machete — and began work. We’re not sure where she gets her skills from, but nobody wanted to ask.
Meet Bill. He’s been arrested at least fifty-eight times. His experiences range from work in the civil rights movement, thus the arrests, to world traveling. Now, he can add nail straightening to his incredible resume.
This is the back of the church. I thought the picture was pretty. (Thanks, Sandy!)
While we worked incredibly hard, there was always time for play. Dae, the young man on the right, has done a great job of representing our Michigan friends. He has a great curiosity for other cultures, and he’s done his best to explore the island and interact with the people here.
So far, every day for lunch, we’ve had chicken. Remember the man making his broom: The people here are incredibly good at using what they have available to them, all of it. Misty has decided against having chicken for a while.
After lunch, we convinced a few of the re-bar specialists to play a fiery round of Go Fish.
And there’s always time for baseball. Materials needed: one stick, one wad of trash (neatly packed into a roundish shape), and four sandals for bases. Final score: Dominicans 4 Americans 3
We’re working on building a two-story building. Currently, we’re preparing the structure, so it can support the second floor. As you can see, that requires lots and lots of re-bar.
But getting it up to the second story is harder than it might sound.
Work day three complete. Three more to go. Keep us in your prayers.
by Phillis Seitz
- We worked, prayed, danced, and played together to build God’s house for San Marcos.
- During our stay the ceiling/floor of the second floor was completed by putting in the re-bar and laying the cement.
- We were there to learn and not to teach them how we would do it in the USA.
- We ate together. Learned about their foods. We don’t care foreating chicken feet and the Dominicans do. Their fruits were especially good. The noon lunches were prepared by the church families and brought to school to be eaten.
- We learned patience as we waited for an opportunity to discover how we could be of assistance in the building process in this country.
- We learned that our priorities certainly are not always their priorities. There is a reason for mixing the cement in small piles with many workers. The cement will not dry out before it is put into place and more workers/volunteers were “working” together. The cost is greatly reduced and large pre-mixed cement trucks delivering yards of cement are not available in that neighborhood.
- Waiting for a new work opportunity allowed time for the boys to play ball and/or to juggle or rap with their counterparts. Or was it a chance to get out of the sun?
- We reflected on our progress and the “little bits of success” we had each day with each other at meal times and in the evenings.
- We learned how important it is to drink lots of water as we perspired during those sunny days. The Dominicans could work longer and perspire much less than the “gringos”. We needed clean at least one liter water or gatorade each morning and each afternoon to prevent dehydration. Getting and paying for drinking water is difficult for the Dominicans.
- We learned a little about how the high building costs can prevent progress toward completing the church in San Marcos. The weak economy means many unemployed workers. Food costs for a family are very high and may be the biggest expense for the poor. We did not learn about their medical costs or the availability of medical services for the poor. So much more to discover. What are their challenges and dreams?
- The Dominicans are a very proud people who seem to share the joy of family and family experiences as well as neighborhood and extended family support in their everyday lives. For some of us at things seem to be more important than family. Volunteers, especially young men worked day after day to build their church. The priest encouraged them to be there. If the boys were there, they weren’t getting into trouble. Smart man.
- We joined hands to pray together with everyone at the work site in the beginning of each work day.
- The need for water at the new church is essential and we dug a 6×6 hole or was it 8×8 hole behind the church?. The large 7 foot deep hole was dug with pick axes. The loose dirt was thrown from the hole with shovels. The work was very “back breaking” and was shared between the Dominicans and us. However the school volunteer boys would work long after we left the site..
- A clean work site was important to Americans who did not shovel. We packed the trash into garbage bags and placed it in a small room in the new church. Trash disposal is difficult. The next day we noted that the Dominicans had burned all the trash, the site was as clean as possible.
- Humidity allowed us to work more slowly or to find a cement block to sit upon to take a break. There are not trees at the work site but the cover over the first floor is wonderful for shade..
- Perfection and inspections are important but a margin of acceptance appears to be built into this church, God will provide what is needed. Is He the final inspector?
- The Dominicans can teach us lots about how to celebrate our relationship with God in our lives at the church services. They shared services with us twice during the week. At the smaller neighborhood church when the people first came together they sang for about 45 minutes. Maybe that was to remind the local worshippers that it was time for church. Families came. Children were everywhere. Dogs visited too. Jesus is alive in their hearts, We ate with them. The power of the Holy Spirit was amazing in both services. We took flashlights. The electricity came on when the service was half finished. The mystery was why and how did the electricity happen to work. Did the lights came on because the local people felt the need to impress the Michiganders and Texans and stole the “juice” from the nearby wires or did it just happen. Our team members participated in the actual worship service. Both groups had translators and used them as needed. The rest of us spoke with our eyes and our hearts. It was a wonderful experience.
- We visited a local cafe and had sodas, watched the pig head and feet being cooked for the noontime customers, and relaxed for a bit. That family operated business was raising two baby chickens as pets. One chicken was painted blue, The logic escaped us. They have few material possessions and we have so much. Everyone was happy.
- It was special to know we have a common God and a common form of worship that is meaningful to all. Thanks be to God.
- The work site for the past two weeks meant there were paid workers and volunteers building God’s house from two countries. The common goal was inspirational to everyone.
Look what amazing things have resulted when many hands help God build his church in such a short amount of time.