Joy has no price tag

Bless the Lord oh my soul, oh my soul, worship his holy name.

Day six in Juan Tomas, Santo Domingo Norte, no street address, DR. Our mission trip is coming to a close. Last day here before we head over to La Romana to visit a different mission our leaders support. Tomorrow we tour a hospital and school which they helped to build.

But today is still here. Today we work with the kids. And paint.

The nights have become very short. Last nights worship service ended at 9pm. I went straight to bed when we got to the dorm at 9:30. And then it was 7am. Seventy five tarantulas could have clung to my mosquito netting and I would not have stirred. I’m going to miss such sound sleep back in the states.

Our little group is very quiet this morning in the dining hall. We are dotted across the benches, in our own cocoons of thought and morning grogginess. Worship music emanates from our leaders Bluetooth speaker. The electricity gets turned on and the fans begin to hum. We hear Mari and her team in the kitchen behind the sheeted gates, rattling off conversation periodically dotted with peals of laughter. Joy. We pray before breakfast, the serving window opens but not one of us moves. We sit huddled over our coffees, the ache of our bones and muscles extinguishing our hunger. The school staff and team are fresh faced and energetic in contrast to our sad bunch. I’m humiliated at my lack of resiliency. Lol.

Argenis sits aside us and we share coffee and conversation about his changing role here (teacher to ambassador), travel, the possibility he might visit Cornerstone in the coming months, and how to make the best pasta sauce. He cooks the garlic in oil until it is dark brown. He uses pork and tomato paste. He also adds a little coconut milk at the end. We agree, when he comes, he should cook us sauce.

After breakfast we try to find Yada. She is to take us to the last house to deliver the food. Ashley tells us she is in Richards office so we call in through the louvres of the front window. Yada shouts back that she will be right out. Which means within the next hour. Or so.

The night was cool so we are bundled still in sweat shirts and pants. We meander past the 5th grade classrooms and head into the courtyard. The sun becomes a bit stronger and so we walk into the shade and settle into two of the five school desks out on the cement. We watch children buying chips and water (in bags) at the little cement block store. We watch the upper grades pose and flirt. About an hour in, we see Yada approach carrying Emanuel, her 18 month old son. She tells us she needs to wait for a response from the woman’s friend. So we all sit and chat for a bit, watching Emanuel play in the cement. Some students come up to us shyly, gazing into our faces and say “Halo”. They hug us and hang on our shoulders, as if we are their aunties or staff here at the very least. I think it’s the intentionality of the gaze, the open, vulnerable eye contact, hanging in anticipation, that I will remember. Joy speaks for the eyes of these children. It beams from their faces even when they are not smiling.

Yada wanders off and we think this may be longer than we thought. But soon she is back carrying a bag of salami from the fridge, and we know we are now leaving. She hands me the keys as we cross into her gated yard. Her van sits in front of her orange creme colored cement home, with white iron ornate grates on the windows and doors, and wet clothing hanging all along the iron swirls like pendant flags.

Her van is tucked under some banana leaf plants. We get in – my teammate, Yada and I – and I release the parking brake beginning to back out. I tell Yada that today she learns how to drive and she laughs “Really? Ok!”

A group of men have gathered at the driveway gate which closes off Yada and Richards yard from the street. I back up slowly, not wanting to hit anyone as I maneuver out to the red dirt road. But these men aren’t moving. Yada says “Is ok, go, go”. I can’t beleive she means it and I continue to back slowly. My teammate videos the second drive of the week, and as she is speaking and aiming her phone camera, Yada is chattering and I am watching the group of men. As if in slow motion, suddenly a loud crunch and the whole van shifts to a stop and rocks for a moment. All three of us women stop talking. I stop breathing. The moment hangs like a judgement in the air. No one moves.

Yada speaks first “Oh” is all she says.

“Oh my God” I croak out, just above a whisper but not quite a howl, and put my hands to my face. In the rear window I see the side of a red SUV, stuck up against the back hatchway of the van. “Oh my God” I say again, because I can’t remember if I already said it. And for good measure, once more “Oh. My. God”

My teammate exclaims my name from her post in the back seat– “SONDRA!”, and Yada turns to me in a wide eyed stare. I’ve never seen her get excited, but at this moment her face is expressing humor, surprise, even excitement. I turn to her and declare, in a voice much louder than required or even intended, what we all now know and what everyone on the red dirt road knows “I hit a car!”

In the commotion of the backing out and female chatter and avoiding the men, I never even saw the red SUV parked across the road from Yada’s driveway gate. “Is ok” Yada says again. I cannot conceive that it is, and remain frozen with my hands against my face, mouth open in horror. “Go up, go up” she says. I put the van in drive and pull forward. “Ok “ Yada says and makes a motion with her left hand somewhere down around my right knee, “Wait here”. She opens her door before I even stop the van. She leaves her door open as she slides off the passenger seat and walks toward the back of the car. I want to crawl under the seat. I’m humiliated and saddened by what I have done. Yada comes back and slides back into her seat “Go, go” she chastises as she waves her hands in a swiping motion toward the front of the van. I slowly pull forward to where she is now pointing and stop on her cue. She gets out again. I momentarily think to get out too, but realize that I am not the best negotiator in this moment. A few minutes later she gets back to the van “Is ok. I told him we take care of it. Is not bad, just paint scratch.” I cannot believe it’s just paint, given the sound and jolt of the impact. But then again it may be my paranoia interpreting that moment so…

I slowly- oh so slowly– inch south down the road, until Yada yelps “Wait” at which point I slam on the brakes causing us all to wrench forward like a trio of crazy spring loaded dolls. Apparently we are picking up one person. Of course we are. I have learned that in Juan Tomas, every excursion becomes an adventurous journey, attracting friends and neighbors like lemmings.

We wait mid road journey and shortly, the Haitian pastors wife Liliana approaches with one of her children and they both climb into the van. “She is bringing breakfast to her husband at the farm” Yada says. The door slams shut and we head off down the road. I am rambling to Yada my apologies, my regret, my sorrow at the “accidente de carro”, to which she says repeatedly “Is OK, Sondra”. I love how she says my name. It feels more rich when she trolls it in he Dominican accent.

Graciously, Yada takes the blame. And shares it with my teammate. “Me y Gabriella were talking to you”, she explains. I’m still mortified and begin to try to calculate how much I should give each of them – Yada and the car owner– to cover the cost. 50 Dominican pesos is about one American dollar. But 50 Dominican pesos goes so much farther. So $50 American dollars is about 2,500 Dominican pesos. Each. Is that enough? I just don’t know.

As I am doing these mental recompense finance calculations in my mind, we reach the end of the red dirt road. Yada tells me to turn left onto the tarmac road, which I do. The traffic is light but the sides of the roads are littered with people walking, milling in groups, and generally hanging out. A little 3×4 foot cement cafeteria kiosk built on the edge of the break down area of the two lane street has cars and people gathered around it. The van rattled over a speed bump, which I find a comical attempt at controlling traffic on this island. Yada points to a dirt road on the right. “Here” she says “Lilliana’s husband works down here”.

We ease down this narrow road, the van rumbling and bouncing up and down the rivets in the dirt worn by rain and tires. We pass some men on the left behind fencing, working in the brush with long sticks. They reach up into tall palm trees. “Coconuts” Yada says. Here she points out a parcel of land to our right, cordoned off with hurricane fencing “We are building our house here” she says “My brother is building over there” she points to another parcel secured behind fencing. “And Argenis and Rosmery over there”. Yada gazes our onto the mostly treeless field of grass behind the fence. “I don’t like to move here but Richard says we need space from the school”

The parcels are beautiful, they sit atop a hill with open space surrounding them. Views and breezes abound. “My brother owns this parcel too. He has too many lands” Yada says, with a scoffing laugh as she flaps here hands in dismissal. Then she points to a freshly plowed field, with even divots in rows of black soil running from street to back acres. “Yucca” she says “This is my brothers farm” We come over a hill and down a slope. At the bottom is a baseball field filled with men playing. “Slow” Yada says “Lilliana’s husband is working in this field somewhere.” We all peer into the dark earth backdrop, straining for a sighting of a man. Then Yada sees him and we pull up along the fencing. Lilliana jumps out with a plastic bag filled with foil covered bowls and hands them to her husband. She quickly bounces back into the van and we back up slowly and k-turn to head back up the road.

On the main road again Yada points to another dirt road on the right. This one is even more narrow. As we turn onto it I see two beautiful white stucco porches affront homes being built behind fencing. The gleam of the whitewash primer on the cement is jarring against the filth in the streets and the hovels that are houses across the road and down the small hill. I ask Yada about these newly built homes, as palaces along this slash of road, and she says, people are trying to move in. They make no where for people to live when they buy their home and build. I think she means that this area is being gentrified. Like Brooklyn, I consider.

We bounce down to a dead end. I slow the van to a halt, having no further ability to drive forward on this strip of dirt. Lilliana and Yada are suddenly animated, chattering back and forth between the front and back seat in Spanish, hands flying. Then they both stop

talking. “Ok” Yada says turning to me, “I understand now. Go forward and turn right”. I follow carefully and there to our right appears a narrow alley. Or road as it may be in the DR. I turn cautiously and soon we are heading back up the hill from which we came, on a different road. Lilliana reaches forward and simultaneously points and thrusts her hand into a stop position. I stop the car, but there is no where to pull over, so we just park it. Right there. In the middle of this narrow dirt road. This is the Dominican way. If someone comes along they will either wait or try to drive around it, navigating the side grass-knolls and low cement walls that frame the van.

Yada and I open the hatch and hoist the bag from the back of the van. She puts in two big salami’s and we begin to walk where Lilliana is pointing. My teammate, Lilliana and her son follow.

The path on which we walk is littered in broken glass. Shacks are nestled into the slight angle of the land all around us. To the left and right of the path are mounds of bottles. All sorted by types. Green bottles that used to hold sparkling water in one pile. Brown bottles of ale in another pile. An interesting pile of glass bottles that have a decorative weave of rope around them like netting. Clear bottles from refresco de naranja. All neatly piled into mounds by style, amidst plantings and black earth.

We soon approach a shack painted shades of blue, its walls of hand ripped boards from trees and aluminum sheeting. A door of aluminum is held closed on the back with a stone. Lilliana goes along the side of the house to a little ground level front porch at the far end. We cannot see her know, but hear her as she calls loudly, then knocks. She waits and calls again. Turning around the corner back into our view, she shakes her head and

raises her arms and shoulders. “No one is home” Yada says out loud. “She is pregnant and at the hospital maybe”. I’m not sure if this is a story Yada is fabricating or an actual explanation for the empty home.

We turn and make our way back through the Willy Wonka playland of

Glass. I suggest Yada keep the bag of food and try again tomorrow or Saturday after we leave. She agrees.

We emerge from this small community, driving carefully past more dogs then I have ever seen. Puppies even, here. Two men watch us quizzically. I say to Yada that this small group is so much easier than the big parade of people we had a few days ago. She nods in agreement. “Yes” she says “That’s too many. And people talk about us”. We agree that smaller is better. I think our volunteer leaders will be happy too.

We bump along in relative silence for a spell. Periodically Yada gestures to the steering wheel, flapping her left hand gesturing for me to stop. As I do, she rolls down her window to talk with someone along the road. A couple walking with their three yr old boy. A single woman, very thin. “She was Pentecostal and fasted too much. Now she is sick”. I don’t disagree or try to correct, although I am aware of how

primitive some of their beliefs and explanations are, very similar to things and ways my immigrant grandmother believed.

We drive a bit more and stop a bit more. I fear we will pick up more passengers, but no, it’s just Yada on tour. I forgot I am driving the unofficial mayor around the communities here. I remind myself to ask Yada again for the rest of her story about Juan Tomas and Richard.

On a flat space of road, back in the outskirts

of the village, I stop the car and gesture to Yada– “You drive now”, I say. At first she feigns to turn the offer down, but quickly is opening her door to come around the van to the drivers side. I crawl over the center console and assess how easily I might be able to save us from disaster with this driving lesson.

Yada settles into the seat and moves it closer to the wheel. I show her the brake and the gas. I tell her to punch the silver button on the side of the shifter and pull it down to D. As she does so, I instruct her to remove her foot from the brake. The van slowly lurches forward. Yada moves the wheel back and forth in animation as the straight section of the road dictates. Wildly ricocheting between both road aides, but she is driving!!

Soon her steering evens out and we are smoothly gliding down the road. I intended to have her only drive the straight length but she isn’t showing any desire to stop. And so we went with it. I take a picture of her driving. I instruct her to step on the gas through deep mud puddles, so as not to get stuck. She oversteers on turns but I grab the wheel and bring her back. Soon she is pulling up along the low wall and fencing of the school. Still driving, she reaches to roll down her window and hanging her head out, shouting to the female teachers in the yard tending the younger grades. She sees her daughter Naomi and waves both hands yelling “Look”. I grab the wheel, because someone has to drive. Yada pulls her head back in, and we steer the van to the side of the road in front of her house. I place it in park. Yada is beaming. We all clap.

Back in the school compound I tell no one yet of my misfortune with the car accident. I’ll wait till dinner. Our teammates are playing with the pre-K and Kinder group. This is a shift in plans. Painting primer onto the porous cement blocks had to wait, for lack of a mixer. It was there, somewhere, but no one can find it now. So they returned to play games. We blow bubbles and receive hugs until our volunteer leader gets a text that the mixer is now there. Playtime is over.

We amble down to the school. I forget my work shoes and have to return to the dorm to retrieve them. On my way back, the church courtyard is crowded with high school students. I assume they are on break, but one can never tell, the kids schedules are so fluid and they are often outside. I am reminded that Stephanie invited us to her classroom at 11am to help with English. Just another hour. I join the others, now painting the cement blocks outside the vocational building, with a very liquid primer. It’s difficult because the blocks absorb so much. As I am rolling the wall, three students approach. They ask if they can interview me. They are interviewing many of our mission team. They ask me questions in English, fairly well. They get to “How old are you?” And we all laugh. I tell them I’m a grandmother and they write that down.

The hour of painting passes quickly and soon my teammate and I are in a classroom of 25 Dominican teenagers. Stephanie, our connection from Converge and a teacher at the school, stands in front speaking English. She is teaching them simile, metaphor, alliteration, and theme. They barely listen. She is good natured and calm. She continues forward with the lesson. Surprisingly, despite their boisterous behavior and loud voices, they appear to be learning. Stephanie reveals to us that when she first started she was struggling to figure out how to get better control over her class. So she visited some other classrooms in the school. They all looked like hers. So she just went with it! And it seems to work. The Dominican way.

The personalities in the class are so familiar. Except for the language differences, it could be any high school classroom in America:

The quiet studious girl and boy.

The boisterous rambunctious girl and boy.

The beautiful girl and handsome boy.

The loud obnoxious pair.

The helpers.

The leaders.

And those students who just want to get through the day!

The lesson descends into chaos when Stephanie directs the children to form groups and she calls out the groupings. In typical teenage style, instead of just getting up and moving to another desk, half the class begins to lift their desks and carry them- over their heads, on their backs- to where their group is forming.

Chaos.

Fifteen minutes later the children are settled in their seats. Stephanie writes on the board 10 simile statements: My hair is like_____. My eyes are like _______. I dance like _______. She gives the class directions, to write a poem about themselves using these ten sentences. And to help each other come up with the simile. And be nice!

We wander through the class and try to assist. The kids are more interested in us and ask us many questions. We oblige.

Around noon, other of our teammates pop their heads in the (Dominican always open) doorway. We gather our things, bless Stephanie and her zoo, and head to the dorm to wash up. While in the dorm, I hear Yada calling Gabriella’s name. Yada needs no megaphone. I come out to the steps landing and see her below, at the base of the stairs, with one of the young cleaning women for the school. “Ay, this is the women whose car you hit” Yada smiles. Oh. My. God.

I scamper down the stairs and plead forgiveness again. Yada laughs and the women shakes her head and smiles. No worries, Yada says. I say “No! Please tell her I am embarrassed and I will cover the cost.” Yada translates. “She says it is nothing. Just a little paint” I am firm and the this beautiful young woman hugs me. I smash her car and she hugs me! And smiles and laughs. Joy in all things. Remarkable. Yada pats my back. And they leave.

Lunch is served at 12:30pm. When I reach the front of the serving line, Mari from the kitchen winks and puts her finger to her lips as she places a third fried yucca nugget in my plate, alongside the pasta with chicken cream sauce and vegetables. She is a blessing in her quite servant leadership. I captain of this food emporium. And a mother all wrapped up into one.

Lunch goes down slowly. The food is too much and too heavy, but it is so tasty. During lunch, I can no longer keep silent and I confess to my team about my accident. My teammate shares the video of the moment of the crash. They are gasping and laughing and rambunctious over this all. I can feel the heat in my face from shame. I let them know I am going to give both Yada and the woman $50 American dollars each for damages. Someone mentions the condition of the cars here, what is one more dent or scrape. But that’s not the point. It is my fault. I caused this and I have to recompense for it. In good humor, Yada approaches the table and laughs as well. I feel slightly reconciled but not until cash changes hands. And yet, despite this crash, battered cars, long dusty, hot walks to feed sick and impoverished people, the joy in this community is palpable. Singing. Laughing. Caring for any child within arms reach – yours and others. Living life by the moment and not the clock. Aluminum wood shacks and red dirt yards. Barbed wire makeshift fences and gates. Rice and beans three times a day. Barefeet and garbage and stray dogs . This village, this school, this church exudes joy. Joy has no price tag. Currency not accepted.

We linger over our after lunch coffee and Yada brings a big plate of sliced dessert bread. I think we all feel more comfortable with each other. I’m sad it ends tomorrow.

We gather our paint things and head back down to the school. One of our volunteer team leaders stays back, waiting for Yada to take her to bring a walker purchased for a village child. Yada said 1:30pm. We all know what time means here now. And we are ok with it.

The painting at the school continues. We cut in trim in the roof of the porch and roll outside walls. I am shocked at how my muscles and sinew scream in pain. I vow to use them more going forward back in the states.

We soon run out of paint and paintable surfaces. It is only 3:15. We move back toward the dorm to lay down, taking advantage of the reprieve the Lord seemed to lay before us. We pass our volunteer leader pulling out of the school yard, driving Yada and Pumpa and a gaggle of kids to deliver the walker. The same walker that she was waiting to deliver at 1:30pm. It is currently 3:30. She slows the van and rolls the window. I lean in and point to Yada “Watch out, she will talk and make you crash” The van erupts in laughter as they drive off.

Back in the dorm I drop to the cot. I’m not even showering I’m so tired. A few hours of rest and I’ll be good.

At 5:30 I awake. Our volunteer leaders come back to the dorm. They have been invited to a barbecue at one of the staffs homes so we will make our way to dinner on our own. They remind us that at 7pm Richard and Argenis will lead a scholarship discussion. They will be back by then, they say. It’s remarkable that even after six days here, we still believe the clock controls the people here as it does in America. Dinner is quiet. We eat slowly, some of us reading some speaking in small groups. 7pm rolls around. Richard and Argenis arrive and ask to wait for our volunteer leaders. 7:15. 7:30. 7:45. We yearn to go to bed even though it’s still light out. 8pm and we call it a night. We can chat over breakfast about scholarships.

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