But the selfish side to me also enjoys getting to know church members where they are in their lives. Too often we pass each other in the hallways coming and going with a quick hello or nod and little else.
So on Sunday, Westminster’s Dominican Republic team spent time with each other. Oh, we met briefly with the people of Severet that we’ll be helping this week. But mostly we took time to get to know one another a little better.
Newell Price shared stories about the sweet spirit of his late son Dylan. Kara Maple Ruffin Gilbert talked about the dread and excitement of becoming an empty nester (t-minus two years and counting) and Rodney Hazel shared just about everything. You think I’m kidding? When we get back stateside, ask Rodney about America’s alleged lunar landings. On second thought, don’t.
Throughout the day a picture of each Westminster member began to emerge. If there’s a common thread among us, it is the excited anticipation of being the hands and feet of Christ this week.
We wrapped up the day by the beach. A full moon lit the group as Ed Lipskey and Adam Rosendale led us in songs. There were the usuals: This Little Light of Mine, I Surrender All and I’ll Fly Away. You knew it was a long day when John Denver and Darius Rucker slipped into the playlist so we packed up and called it a night.
Tomorrow we will head out into the countryside, eager to rock the people of Severet like a wagon wheel.
Times change, economies change too. Twenty years ago Dominican leaders realized their was more money to be made off tourism than sugar cane. That was when the immigrants fell off the edge of their world. That was the year the country abandoned sugar cane crop and with it a way of life for the Haitian immigrants.
The community of Severet is a result of that decision. Haitians and Dominicans live side by side in cracked cinderblock housing and roofs held up by sagging joists and faith. Floors double as beds. Water teems with bacteria.
The people of Severet — and really all of the Dominican — know their hardships all too well. They just choose no to dwell on them. “Our blessings are few,” sys Eli, one of our guides and translators this week. “We are grateful for the ones we have.”
Today Westminster tried in some small fashion to add to those blessings. A latrine was built. Cracks were patched. Homes were visited. Families were prayed for, and, at VBS school, Kate, Maddie, Tanner and Pierce made more than 50 children packed into a church feel like they were the only child there.
The work is hard and the heat is brutal. But there is good news to share: tomorrow we get to show up and do it all over again.
Or is it something more?
On Westminster Presbyterian’s second day in Severet, church members finished off a latrine and began scraping 30 years of paint and resignation from and an aging barricade that is home to about a dozen families here.
Even more impressive was who joined in to help: the residents themselves. As Jon, our guide tells it, Westminster is the first mission group to pass through Severet in years.
After a day of watching curiously from afar as Westminster’s crew shoveled dirt, swept porches, and dug a massive hole, families slowly got into the act today. Pick axes were swung, scrapers were grabbed, and spare paint brushes were hard to come by.
It was quite the site: Haitians, Dominicans and Presbyterians digging, scraping and painting side by side, not understanding a word the other spoke but smiling at splattered paint on faces and laughing at wood cut the wrong size — all while still moving toward a common goal of improving a community.
There’s that word again. Community. What if God’s love manifests on Earth through nothing more than the community of Christians? And what if that community was building more than just toilets? What if they were building something more?
With that notion in mind, Westminster’s prayer groups Tuesday ventured through the community, meeting with people who said they’ve never met outsiders before. Hearts were opened, prayers were offered.
Up the hill at the church, Westminster’s youth made crafts with more than 50 children who stopped jostling elbows long to learn about the fruits of the spirit.
Tomorrow we will wrap up our work in Severet and celebrate with a piñata party. There is no doubt the people will make great use of the latrine. They seemed proud of the fresh paint they helped apply to their homes. Children ran up after bible school to touch the walls as if they didn’t believe they were real.
From a hill, Pierce Ruffin and Tanner Price played tag with some of the community’s boys, racing up and down and up again dodging cattle along the way.
Families stood in front of their new homes smiling and pointing. There is still much more work to be done on Wednesday and beyond — others will follow us — but Tuesday had the look and feel of God’s love manifested on Earth through a community. From our little slice of the world, it felt good.
In a way, we are connected, too. This community and Westminster Presbyterian, that is. And like the progress made, there is no going back.
In a sense, today was a day of wrapping things up. The shower and latrines are open for business. The final coats of paint were applied to thirsty walls and a local artist painted murals resplendent against amarillo cinderblocks.
Lorenzo, a bare-chested boy, barely 17, spent the first two days a safe distance from us. But by late Tuesday afternoon he approached one of the community leaders and asked if he could paint. By today he was all in, painting and digging trenches with us like we were old friends.
But today was also about beginnings — between a church and community. Once separated by distance and language, I like to to think that Westminster and Severet are now connected through faith and hope.
Sensing our time in Severet was nearing an an end, Lorenzo showed us his appreciation by climbing a palm tree with a machete on his back. Within seconds he was three stories above us. Within a few more seconds the sky was raining coconuts.
We sipped the milk and feasted on the meat together. Thanksgiving in June with each group wondering who was more blessed.
We are connected now. There’s no going back. Today, after working through the morning, we visited with families in their homes. Tatu is the mother of four boys, two with muscular dystrophy. She quit her job to take care of both full time. Sisa is Severet’s unofficial matriarch. Her family — 13 grandchildren! — welcomed us in their shady front yard. Both are strong women who aak for even more strength to watch over their families.
Our pastor, Ernie Thompson, promised to include them in our church’s weekly prayer group starting next week. Tatu thought about the idea of perfect strangers in another country praying for her family and smiled. “Gracias,” she said. Oh, gracias.”
At VBS, Westminster’s teenagers acted like children themselves. There was plenty of singing and dancing and running and, of course, soccer. When it was time to leave, Westminster’s team gathered around the bus and said goodbye. Then they boarded, but very slowly. It is like that when friends leave town.
Tomorrow there will be a fiesta in Serevet. Piñatas will be busted and music will be blasted to celebrate a community and a church, strangers a week ago, now connected forever.
We can’t wait.
That’s where we found the people of Severet when we showed up today — our last day in their community.
After a day of eating, dancing and baseball elsewhere, we made our way to their community to say goodbye. Perhaps knowing their time with Westminster’s teenagers was now down to precious hours, Severet’s children — many dressed in their Sunday finest — hugged them as soon as they got off the bus, climbing on their backs for one last ride through the streets. If you ever want to feel like a rockstar, spend a week in Severet showering its children with love and attention. I promise you’ll receive both in return tenfold.
Among the adults there were handshakes and hugs. Smiles and tears, thank yous and graciases, too.
And there was a community in Christ. In Matthew Jesus promises that wherever two or more are gathered in His name, He will be there, too.
Under a billowing set of tarps, Dorcha, the wife of Severet’s pastor, read a scripture in Spanish. Four children stood and sang of God’s love and promise to all. Then Westminster’s flock shed its mission label for a new one: choir. We sang “This Little Light of Mine” to those who gathered. Hands clapped, arms swayed like palms. What played out today under those tarps had all the trappings of a church. All that was missing was Wednesday night’s chicken dinner.
Eventually, the winds grew lusty and the sky lowered. Lorenzo, who climbs trees with the greatest of ease, had no problem climbing on the roof of his freshly painted home. He smashed open the piñatas and showered the children with candy.
After all the festivities were over, Westminster’s group met with the pastor and his wife in their church further up the road for some quiet reflections and goodbyes.
“You now have two churches,” said Dorcha. “Your church back home and here.”
That, I thought, was beautiful.
Tomorrow we will drive through the Dominican’s forests and mountains to the other side of the island. We’ve been promised Santo Domingo is packed with history and sights — a world away from tiny Severet.
But the community — our community — will not be far from our hearts. After this week, how can it ever?
On the way back to the bus this evening, Kate sought out Rosalind, maybe 4, from the crowd. The two connected the first day and Rosalind was attached to Kate’s leg ever since. Every evening at the end of our workday, Kate would take hee new friend aside and make her a promise.
“Hasta mañana, Rosalind,” she would say.
“Hasta mañana,” Rosalind replied.
Today, of course, was different.
“Hasta mañana,” Rosalind said, hugging Kate.
“No, lo siento” said Kate. “Adios.”
Rosalind tried to correct her. “Hasta mañana!” she said, as if insisting on it could will it so.
For now, adios, but there’s always the promise of mañana.
Westminster’s mission trips are touted as a great way to serve as a vessel of love for others and, in the process, change the course of someone’s life.
This is true, of course. You just don’t expect that life to be yours.
The ones at Harris Teeter are hard and stringy and messy to eat.
The people of Severet throw nothing away. A pair of worn-out sneakers have their tops removed and the rubber soles are used as door hinges on a shed.
A tire rim left on the side of the road becomes the base for a charcoal grill. We throw out our laptops after a few years. The children of Severet have been using the same beaten-up 1998 Dell laptop whose screen is smashed and has maybe nine keys remaining as a lap desk to draw on.
They scrimp and save like this because they have so little. What they do have an abundance of is mangoes. This time of year the trees are dripping in mangoes and the community is always offering them to you as a way of thanks.
On Monday, while Westminster Presbyterian members were helping build the community’s first latrine ever, we ran out of wood so we went out into the hillside to find some limbs long enough and thick enough to bring back.
We found the wood. We also found a mango tree. One of the community members who looked my age, shimmied up the tree with his machete. The people of Severet think of machetes the way we think of cell phones. They are an absolute necessity of life. Only one of us is right.
Within minutes mangoes were falling out of the three. Three…five…nine…13 in all, we gathered them in pile and feasted on them in the shade of the tree. All the while the man I was with looked at me smiling and proud of his gift.
The rest of the week we were offered mangoes whenever we stopped shoveling or painting for a minute by people gracious for our help.
If you measure Severet’s people by their possessions they are a poor people. What they lack in materialism they more than make up for in appreciation.
Those mangoes I ate on a shady hillside? They were hard and stringy. The sticky juice ran down my face and neck and clung to my shirt the rest of the day gathering dirt and dust.
I love mangoes.
The trip took us from one ocean (Atlantic) to another (Caribbean) through an unfurling mountainous countryside dotted with tobacco barns and baseball field wedged into what precious little flat land there is.
The city is the nation’s capital, but it doubles as a shrine to Columbus. Not that Columbus — his brother Bartholomew. There are statues and monuments throughout the city to the explorer, his wife — even his son.
Colonialism is still hard at work here. There are auto dealerships, a Hard Rock Cafe and, of course, McDonalds. But if you push inward into the city you’ll find pockets of the old world. Leafy cobblestone alleyways and flowering courtyards whisk you back centuries. Pastel arcades line the streets, and wrought-iron balconies billow overheard.
We spent our last night in the Dominican at an outdoor cafe under a massive rubber tree. The rhythmic thump-thump-thump of a band’s salsa and merengue music spilled out into the town square.
Island time means ordering your food and then waiting…and waiting some more for the staff to bring it out.
No one in our group seemed to mind. Lots of fellowship, laughs and memories of the week that was made the time go by. First and foremost. a Westminster mission trip is about serving others, but a bonus is getting to know more about church members you only think you know.
We talked about our first meal back home might be (steak) and what we missed most after family (clean water for brushing your teeth).
Eventually our food arrived and we shut up.
Tomorrow we head home, so we made our way back down the city’s narrow brick streets to our hotel but slowly. Mostly because we were fat and tired but also, I suspect, because many were still brimming with the ecstasy of the week.