I recently had the honor of being part of a small group of people headed down to the Dominican Republic to work beside a team from the area expanding on a school, teaching children and caring for those in the village center. In the next few days, I’ll be posting a series of reflections on this trip from my daily journal.
Day five and I wake up with the realization that the dorm in which we are currently housed- with its slatted walls that reveal spotlights at night which pierce our sleeping eyes, with its semi-open lavatories where full-on conversations continue between us all without missing a beat, with its cold water shower that propels water in a single weak stream, with its constant smell of chicken poop and it’s nighttime parade of bugs and spiders and other unidentifiable skittering critters, this space we have had to learn to endure, is better living conditions than 100% of the places we visited yesterday. I appreciate this space.
Breakfast this morning is a flavorless oatmeal bread, with sides of papaya and pina. I wonder if the papaya and ina are from school payments made this month by villagers. That’s a real thing here- trade for services still exists and it is remarkably valuable and a reasonable approach. Along with our dry bread is our strong coffee. We eat quietly. Tiredness, both physical and emotional has set in for all of us. I can see the age of our group showing around our edges and the neophyte energy, brought on by the excitement early on in our mission, waning day by day.
Can we talk about my hair? Yes, it is now clean. But good lord! It’s untamable and bushy. I pull out the clips I placed into is last night to sleep and it literally stands up straight facing north, east, and west. I have captured it under a wide Lycra band and for the moment it behaves. But I feel it trying to escape at every minute of hard work. On my next mission, I will shave my head before I go. One less thing to worry about.
It is with a tired body and soul that we rise from the picnic benches in the dining hall and prepare ourselves for a morning of games and devotion with 5,6, and 7 graders. But today we do not have our Converge missionary teacher, Stephanie, to guide and organize the school. We are on our own, floating on Dominican Time. And so our start time of 9 am comes and goes. At 9:15 Richard appears and we ask if the classes are ready. He says he can help assemble everyone and he mentions the size of the combined grades. 70 children at a minimum! So we decide to divide and conquer. Half the class will go to games, half to devotion and then we will switch. The seventh graders arrive and our teammates begin devotions. At the halfway mark, we attempt to switch. But no, a change of school schedule. It appears that today is another half day of school, so they now have recess. We sit momentarily, stealing precious moments of peaceful rest before we decide to go paint the vocational school instead. Painting is possibly the one task I despise the most. And yet here it has become a spiritual activity. Communal. Shared. I relish the opportunity to pace through the brush strokes quietly in conversation with the six other women of this group. We work through the morning this way, talking of nothing and everything until Pumpa arrives to announce lunch.
After our lunch of pork, rice and pigeon peas, as well as coleslaw, we go out to do bubbles with the kids. It’s 1:30 and school is out. But the yard is still filled. Young girls say “Halo”, practicing their English. They smile and hug our waists. They love to practice their Inglese! We teach them the words for lollipop, soda, lunch, and other common items. When we are done with bubble play (when the boys turned it into killed the guy with the bubble jar), we walk once more to the vocational high school building to do some more painting. Pumpa now joins us and soon, because this is what we do what we aspire to solve in life, the women all begin to discuss who she should marry. Yoan is a wonderful choice. And maybe some others. We talk about our own sons. I offer my pictures. “I like their eyes” she says. Its resolved then, she will somehow marry into one of our families “But they must live here” she says. Pumpa, along with everyone in this village, is devoted to staying, or returning as the case may be from colleges, and building up this little Juan Tomas. What a dream. What a purpose. I think of our ancient forefathers growing distant lands they claim as home. What a joy to be a part of that legacy.
At 3pm a teammate and I prepare to transition to more village work. We await Yada who will be leading us in delivering the final five bags of food in the village. After the parade that was inspired a few days ago doing the same thing, we have agreed it is better to go in much, much smaller groups. Or at least that’s the plan. It is Juan Tomas after all. Every outing is an adventure for all to join. Yada tells us to meet at 4pm. We realize after six days that the time noted is an average time of day, but we do arrive in the dining hall at 4pm as directed. And wait. Pumpa comes through. Ishmael wanders in. Village children play outside, yelling through the screens “Halo Americana’s!”. At 4:30 Yada comes in, she points to me and says “Do you drive?” Me? Visions of the Santo Domingo city center cross my thoughts. But I quickly realize that we won’t be going that far. “Sure!” I’m always up for an adventure.
The three of us carry the final four bags to the school compound courtyard. Yada walks through the commons wall door and beckons me to walk with her to her house across the dirt road. She hands me a ring of keys and we get into her van. The van has seen better days. The windows have months of Juan Tomas dust and grime embedded in them, along with children’s fingerprints. The interior is lived in. I stress about the dashboard, brake, and gas pedals. Is it standard!?! No, it’s automatic. That’s a relief. I put the key in the ignition, release the parking brake and start her up. All good!
We swing the van around in the narrow red dirt-packed road and park in front of the compound door. Four-year-old Naomi appears and her mother hoists her into the van. She climbs to the far back. Car seats not required. Willi appears and helps to load the four bags of food laden with rice and beans, and sardines, and oatmeal, and more into the back. We wait for the salami’s which have been kept in the fridge. They arrive and we close the doors – Off we go!
We bump along more divots and potholes than flat lane ahead of us. I quickly learn the most important thing is to avoid killing dogs. They are everywhere. Lying on the road. Crossing the road. Standing in it.
Yada points us to a house on the right. She says “This is me Mamas house.” Next to it and up a set of cement stairs, Yada explains, lives a Haitian refugee family. The father was a deacon at a church in Haiti. Richard met him at a conference. The family needed to get out of Haiti and so Richard and Yada got them to the Dominican. They rent this three-room flat from Yada’s mom.
We park the car in front of the two-family buildings and disembark. Yada calls hello between the iron fencing to her Mom’s house. Small cousins emerge and shout back to Yada. Yada laughs and waves her hands at them, while they giggle and scamper toward us, curious as to our mission. We climb the stairs with the hoisted bag between the three of us. It is heavy but we make it.
At the top of the crumbling steps we are greeted by an open door (open doors are so common I wonder why they have any at all). Inside is a radiant woman, petite, with a perfect smile. Yada introduces us, she is Liliana, and my teammate speaks to the woman in Spanish, asking the names of her children. My teammate explains who we are and from where. She asks if the woman has any “peticiones” for us, as we would like to pray for her. Liliana asks for prayer for someone from her church back in Haiti. He has broken his arm. Now obviously in the U.S. that’s not necessarily always a dire situation. But in a torn and squalidly poor country like Haiti, it can mean life or death. We pray in Spanish and hug and kiss goodbye all around.
We descend the stairs and head back to the van. Our next stop is one of the cleaning women from school. I’ve seen her all week. Yada approaches her yard and reaches to unhook a makeshift gate, contrived from tree limbs and barbed wire. It is held up by a wire looped around a tree. Once released, it collapses to the ground in a heap, a trap for dogs and children. We enter her yard and she sits in a chair on the front cement slab that abuts the front door- which is open. Inside is a jumble of furniture and curtains separate the spaces. A TV plays from the back of the small house. On her lap is a baby no more than 10 months. At her knees is a young girl about five, half of her hair unbraided and she is holding a jar of Vaseline. The woman has a pink wide-toothed comb in her hand, as she uses the Vaseline and comb to try to capture the hair. From the house emerge two young boys, between ages 8 and 9. One takes the baby from the woman. My teammate introduces us and offers the bag of food we have brought from the van. We also offer a bag of clothes. The other boy takes them both inside. My teammate asks the woman if we can pray. She tells us of her needs: her husband wants to go back to Haiti, and he has been ‘being away from her” could we pray for her matrimony? Yada later explains what “being away” means- infidelity. The woman also asks that we pray fervently that her children will stay close to God as they grow. We pray and make our goodbyes.
Back in the car, on the travel back toward the school, Yada reveals that she doesn’t drive, but wants to learn. I tell her I can teach her and we laugh.
Our next stop on the return trip is a small (even smaller than any we have been in) house. We enter and Jarri calls our greetings. Inside is another beautiful young woman, also Haitian. She tells us of her trouble having children. She has lost two already. Her face is sad and I feel torn. On the one hand, she has nothing. This small house, her husband and … nothing. On the other- well she has nothing. Children would be a blessing. They would give her purpose. They would help pay expenses through work as they come of age. They would take care of her someday when she is old. We pray for healing and lay hands upon her and then say goodbye.
We head back to the van, as I come around to the driver’s side a pack of no less than eight dogs is hanging around my driver’s side door. I stop and call Yada, who saunters around the front and chases them off.
We drive back toward the school compound. One more bag but Yada does not know the address. Who are we kidding, there ARE no addresses lol! Yada needs someone from the school to come with us in the AM and point directions. I say we can give her a driving lesson then as well. She seems skeptical but pleased.
We park and enter the gates of the school. Bone tired and ready for a shower we head upstairs to the dorm. Dinner is at 6:30 and Wednesday service is at 7. Or thereabout.
At 6:30pm, Yada and others serve us fried salami, mashed plantain, mashed potato, and more coleslaw. This food is heeeeeavy. I eat only half. I contemplate skipping the worship service. I look over at our teammate who has been stomach sick since Monday evening. If he is up, I can be, so a few minutes of rest on the dining table bench and I rally.
The church looks amazing after the work from the men in our team all week. Walking in I see Annabelle, who was so upset yesterday at one of the homes we blessed. We wave hello. Over the week the staff and villagers have warmed up. Gone are the wary glances. The frozen stares. Yada hugged me hello today and laughed at our conversation. She even promised to tell me more about how she and Richard met. All she revealed today was that she was thirteen and helping her father work on Paul’s goat farm. Richard also worked there milking goats. They went to school together and then Richard went into college getting his MBA.
The 7pm service starts at 7:20. Close. We sing in Spanish, the words becoming easier. Then we break into prayer groups before coming back together as a congregation. I catch sight of the petite Haitian woman whose husband is a deacon, seated a few rows back, I go over and we hug. She smiles.
Later we drag ourselves back to the dorm. It’s been a long week. Tomorrow is our last day here before we move on to La Romana. Until then we have more children to Bless and walls to be painted.