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.
One day feels like a week here. Was it just yesterday we landed? The school compound is so intimately familiar all at once – like a memory from long ago. The vibrant chatter of Spanish from the women in the kitchen wakes me this morning as it drifts up to the jalousied window with no glass that sits at the foot of my bunk bed. The sound is amplified by the clear sky.
We shuffle through the morning routine of seven women getting dressed and primped for the day. We remember the important things that require us to behave differently: Don’t flush the paper down the toilet. Don’t use the sink water to brush your teeth. Tuck in your Mosquito Netting before you leave. This one for me is critical. Geckos and lizards, and tarantulas are not my friends.
The day is only at dawn and we can feel the heat. We assemble in the dining hall. Coffee greets us. Not just coffee. Dominican coffee. Cuba has nothing on the Dominicans when it comes to caffe! We savor the deep darkness of our first cups made lighter with powder creamer. And real sugar. From sugar cane. The kind of sugar that sparkles in the bowl like crystal sand. We pray before breakfast that God will guide us in how to be a blessing and to do his will this week.
Breakfast this morning is a massive pancake and bananas. And flies. Everywhere flies. On the honey bottle. On the syrup bottle. In our cups. We have paper napkins over our food while we eat. We wave our hands and sit under the fans to help keep them at bay.
What strikes me here, is how aware I am of food waste. This pancake is massive. And dry. And not very good. Eating three meals a day in a village that clearly needs resources heightens one’s senses on responsible living. Being the granddaughter – and daughter- of immigrants, I was raised with an appreciation for frugality. My grandparents rarely ate meat and most of the meals were beans, greens, and a starch. My mother still saves everything. And yet even with that, this experience is different. More humbling. Almost spiritual. I cannot finish my massive pancake. I’m sure the flies would love it, but it all seems wasteful. I ask timidly if anyone in our group would like to have the remainder of my breakfast. I would never offer this with strangers back in the states. But here it seems almost ritual. One of my teammates takes it and I am relieved. I’m dreading lunch and dinner because of the leftovers. The food here is heavy and the sizes they serve are massive. Even by American standards. I bring the remainder of my plate, cup, and utensils to the dish bins. I swallow a fly as I head there. It goes right down. I am barely fazed.
As we linger after breakfast in the dining hall, word comes back from the dorm that there’s a huge spider in the shower. Pumpa, the young school nurse who stays in the dorm with us, grabs it with her hand and tosses it out the window, claiming it was already dead. I’m not convinced. And later today, when I find a dead tarantula at the bottom of our staircase I am CERTAIN that was lurking in the damp depths of our shower. I may never sleep again this week!
We move from breakfast to the tin barn church across the street for Sunday worship service. The worship team is spirited and on the overhead screen projects lyrics to the worship songs, in Spanish. I sing along, not knowing the words but truly feeling the meaning. If that makes sense. The church fills with many families, many more than last night. Church clothes are in order and beautiful. Families come in lined up. Old men shake hands along the pews. Women of my age gather together in the pew in front of me, hugging and chatting brightly. Everyone seems so connected but more connected than an American suburb connection. This village is a family, a community that raises each other. One people. An eco habitat complete in itself.
Argenis Taveras, the principal of the school, is preaching this morning. His wife Rosmery is translating. She is beautiful. Not just physically but you can see the beauty of her soul as she gazes at him, awaiting the words she will repeat in English for our benefit. I am humbled by this – this school and church have made special accommodations to be certain we can be part of God’s gathering here. Not expected, but deeply grace-filled.
We muster after church and head out on a tour of the school and extended campus. I need to remind you that the term school in America means a building. We have a very clear image of what that would look like, the school building, sleek and efficient, brick or wood, windows, recreation equipment, desks, and lockers……. This is not that.
The low slung buildings at Fountain of Life School, with rusted tins roofs and cement slab pillars, have jalousie shutters for windows. No Glass. Most have four walls and a door that closes. One classroom is simply an alcove along the building perimeter with a roof. An outdoor classroom. Of course, the weather here suits that, always warm, sultry mostly, and a bit of a breeze at all times. I’m thinking parents in California would pay thousands to send their children to an outside school. Here it is a necessity.
The compound of the school is walled off and gated with barbed wire over the top. We all try to avoid thinking about the grounds for the barbed wire. I’ll soon come to learn that the little village of Juan Tomas loves barbed wire. \Small dogs roam inside the compound as they do along the road. Children of Richard and Argenis, who live in two school housing units across from the compound, play in the cement and dirt courtyard that doubles as a gathering place for school assemblies, a basketball court and a volleyball court, Other children from down the road in the village center jin them daily.
Fountain of Life School is a Private Christian school in the district of Santo Domingo Norte. The small village in which it exists, along with its church Iglesia Biblico de Jesus, is called Juan Tomas and it has no street names. That small. This school teaches 439 students from the surrounding area in grades Pre-k thru 12. Just three years ago the registration of students was hanging at 240. But God. The school was formed, by chance, 30 yrs ago as part of a mission effort of the Bible Institute. The founders Paul and Linda still live nearby tending their goats on a fairly large farm. As missionaries, Linda was homeschooling her three young girls and found village children coming by more and more, to sit and participate in the lessons.
Argenis is leading our tour this morning, his duties as pastor for Sunday service now over. He walks us to a brightly colored play area with picnic tables and benches to talk about the school. The message he delivers is simple. They teach to save God’s children here on the island. They aspire to teach more of them. The work of our mission group this week and others like us- dozens over the year- make it possible to use all the funds raised by their fiduciary parent nonprofit on study materials. equipment, and on teachers- who make $350. A month. My mind stops on that fact. How is this possible. It’s like a treadmill backward in time. When was $350 a month a basic salary in America? 1960? 1950? 1910??
Argenis leads us out of the compound and across the way to the tin church where we are told about the American donor who gave four “new classrooms” built next to the church building. And then four more. These classrooms are used for teaching but also serve as offices and a space for the school counselor.
We walk single file in the narrow alleyway that serves as the walkway along with the eight classrooms from the American donor. At the end of the walkway, we step down newly poured cement stairs that are set in a small rubble strewn hill and navigate across a gap of mud. We turn and see a very large cement cinder block structure- the bottom level painted bright blue and pale butter yellow, the top-level looking like a building leveled in WWII.
This, Argenis tells us, is the new vocational high school. We climb up onto the first floor wide front porch that acts as the outside hallway to all the classrooms. The flooring is polished tile. The doors to the classrooms are locked but the jalousie louvers in the windows are open. We peer into a beautiful classroom, a perfect size for 24 students. Our guide tells us the plan is to finish this first floor for use. Then to continue to build the second floor as money becomes available.
The whole story of how they even acquired this property is faith-building. Originally, with an eye on another piece of land owned by a Dominican family who was asking $500k for it, the school leaders felt that they could not make that happen. That amount, that dream, was much, much too big. And so when another parcel came up for sale for $30k, this parcel on which the vocational school is being built they made a promise to buy it. As Argenis tells the story- they had no money. But when God gives a direction you don’t ask how. Soon after purchasing this parcel, another parcel came for sale for $60k and they bought that too with God’s help. This land is special to Argenis and Richard, the school administrator, who has now joined our tour with his toddler son Emanuel.
They take us across a field from the school being built and stand us in front of a parcel of land that is just pure brush. Here, Argenis states, we will build a baseball field. To save the children.
In the DR God is king, but baseball is God. As most often happen with a market that lights up, such as baseball has done for Dominican players in the US, the athlete (or actor or musician, whatever the market may be) are taken advantage of by predatory characters. Young boys that show a little promise, are removed from school as young as 12 to train and practice full time with the promise (hope) of making it in baseball. At 18 they are shopped around to minor and major league teams. And after a few years, if they are not picked up, they are sent back to Santo Domingo where they are now young men with no education, no valuable skills. Argenis tells us many young men you see in the streets in the city are such tragedies.
But Argenis’ dream for this parcel of land in front of which we now stand is vivid. To build this baseball field. To have a major sponsor support the young men of this school to gain BOTH an education and a baseball career. To ensure that these children are not throwaways if their talent does not emerge. It is a good dream and one that solves a real problem. I want to help. We promise to talk more during the week.
Argenis also shares that the other part of this parcel of land will be developed into a futbol field – soccer. The young people of the village do not play futbol. These poor boys only play baseball, all gambling on the big break. But the wealthy men in gated communities of Santo Domingo play soccer. And so Argenis plans to build this soccer field to rent to them, generating more earned revenue for the school and bringing wealthy prospective donors to see the school regularly. This schools leadership team has excellent business sense.
Our tour has ended. We spend a moment in prayer as a group with Argenis and Richard. We pray for dreams to be revealed and fulfilled. We pray for Gods will. We pray for encouragement in this leadership every day. We pray for hope and we thank God for what he is already doing.
When we get back lunch is ready- rice, beans, strips of beef, and a coleslaw. This meal could easily last me until tomorrow. We rest a bit after lunch and then are led in a walking tour into the village. Johan guides us and Pumpa joins too.
No vacation in the world can compare to this experience of touring the village of Juan Tomas. I try desperately to place myself in the shoes of these villagers. Living their whole lives in scrabbled together tin, wood, and cement homes, 400 sq ft at most, along a hard caked rock-strewn red dirt road, watching our crew meander by on this hot Sunday afternoon.
We leave the confines of the school and head east past the goat farm of Linda and Paul and the tin church. We pass a fenced compound with statues in the courtyard, clothes hanging from wires strung between trees. Here is a beauty salon with no front wall, women in two chairs getting braids and being washed. Next is a manicurist with two customers in various stages of toe beautification. The new highway we heard about yesterday comes into sight and we cross a bridge over it. Not yet open, the Dominicans are undeterred and here come two cars, both driving north on either side of the two-lane divided highway. Father down a man sits aside on the center dividing rail. In the other direction, a horse and rider step down off the highways knoll and onto the tarmac, turn and head north. This will take some time for the local people to understand, once the highway does officially open if there are to be limited deaths on this freeway!
Over the highway bridge, music is banging from an open-walled bar, pristine compared to the buildings surrounding it. All along the road we tread are groups of villagers in various tableau’s of life: laundry, sweeping, sewing, playing cards, gathering families on a Sunday afternoon. They all stop and watch our growing crew of Americans and Juan Tomas villagers We are the parade. We realize this. Our Spanish speaking colleague calls out greetings as we proceed, that get a range of responses from timid to bewildered to friendly. The public school is pointed out on our tour. at the end of what must me Main St (no street signs), we arrive at a baseball field – not the kind your children play on but a Dominican semblance of that – and Johan proudly points out that here is where he played is league winning games. Baseball is God.
Hot and dusty, we purchase a dozen sodas from a local stand and distribute them to our group, to Johan and Pumpa and the growing number of young people they have picked up along the way. This walking tour is more like a crusade it seems. By the end, we may have a whole small city joining in our stroll. Including goats and dogs.
We pass the eleventh lottery hut along the side of the road and remark how extraordinary to have so many in such a small rural place. In such a poor place.
We head down a side lane where Johan points out the local witch doctor’s place- straight out of a Tim Burton movie starring Johnny Depp. He shares some terrific stories of headless chickens and dead cows, rumors of what goes on. Then we turn left past the public school and are back on our way home.
It’s now late afternoon. We are all dog tired, sunburnt, sweaty with literally the dirt of the village on our feet. A quick shower, an early dinner of a ham and cheese sandwich and back to the church where our leader gives a terrific Sunday evening sermon in English, translated in Spanish to the two dozen families there with gaggles of kids, all come to receive our colleagues generous gifts of toys for them from America.
It’s 8pm. But we are not done yet. A planning meeting in the dining area – what to do for 45 minutes the next morning as an outdoor activity with 70 children ages 4-6? And then another 45 minutes with them for bible study. We toss one idea after another. Honestly, I think we are fried! We land on three solid games for this age group and a very simple study. We discuss the construction teams for the next afternoon. And then we break.
I am done. But some of the team keeps on, setting up to play cards in the hall. I walk back with a teammate and ready for bed. This day is complete.