On June 3, twenty people from five Baltimore area churches traveled to the province of San Pedro de Macorís in the Dominican Republic to spend 6 days together with Dominican Christians in mission. Lansdowne UMC was represented by myself, as well as Greg and Kathy Brown. With the hope of providing a more full presentation later in the summer, I’d like to offer a few reflections on the week.
“How was your trip?” It’s a question that each team member encounters upon returning home. It’s almost always asked by caring individuals who, in addition to wanting to welcome us home, are genuine in their desire to hear about the mission. I confess that I have struggled to answer this question every year of the 10 years that I’ve traveled to the “DR,” simply because of the complexities of our experience. The trip can be truly overwhelming physically, emotionally, and spiritually. For this reason, beginning in the middle of our week in the DR, as a team we begin to think about how we’ll answer the question upon returning. My favorite response was by a college student who came on the trip for the first time last year. She said, “It was great! I cried every day.” Although a lot of explaining is still necessary, this response captures the paradoxical essence of the trip.
“It was great…” There are some ways in which the trip was (and tends to be) overwhelmingly good. Despite the pressures we encounter– the heat, the long days, and the language barrier, to name a few– year after year I see people rising to the challenges of corralling Dominican children, or conducting a medical clinic in a 90 degree heat that is very much not a “dry heat.” Then there are the friendships that form, not just among the Americans, although that is a wonderful thing, but also between us and the “other half” of our mission team– those Dominican Christians without whom we could hardly do anything of value. With the help of our friends, though, we are able to do some really phenomenal work. We organized and conducted medical clinics around some of the poorest areas of the province. We ministered to hundreds of children, fed hundreds of families, and provided dozens of beds for people in need.
The “greatness” of the trip also extends into the spiritual. The faith and faithfulness of our Dominican Christian friends is both moving and challenging. When they pray, a bystander wouldn’t be far from the truth to think that they won’t stop praying until God gives them what they ask for. They approach their Christian service with a deep humility, which extends to all their interactions with others. Go to spend the night in one of their houses, as some of us have had the opportunity to do in the past, and you may awake in the morning to find that while you’ve slept on a comfortable mattress, your host has slept on a tile floor.
“I cried every day.” It’s disturbing to see the level of poverty that we see in the Dominican Republic. How is it that I take for granted that I can turn on my faucet and get clean, drinkable water, when many of the people we serve in the DR only have access to water that makes them sick? How is it that it seems like a real trial for me to have a late meal, when many of the friends that we make in the Dominican Republic typically only eat one meal of rice and beans a day? How is it that my family can grow up in relative safety and security, when virtually everyone I know in the DR has lost a family member either to violence or a motor vehicle accident? These are the questions that I wrestle with. These are the questions that make me cry.
And then there is the ultimate question that the trip brings: in light of everything I’ve experienced, how do I need to change? I am still figuring that out. God isn’t finished using this year’s trip to change my heart. I can say for certain, however, that I’ve been spurred on to greater generosity. How could I not be when the needs are so desperate?
There is desperation here in the U.S., to be sure. Yes, the poverty in the DR tends to be more extreme, but that doesn’t make the severe poverty closer to home ok. That’s part of why I feel so blessed to be part of a church that is committed to serving people around us who are in need.
Yet I can’t help but ask myself, can’t we do more? Can’t I do more? (Aren’t these the questions we each need to keep on asking ourselves?). The needs around us are so great. Maybe our life as a church needs to take on a bit more of that paradoxical essence of mission that we find in the DR. When we’re confronted with the tension between the great work we’re already doing and all of deep needs that are remaining, perhaps we too will land at that place where we’ll say of our shared ministry, “it’s great! I cry every day.”