Homeward Bound

Family and friends – we are en route to the airport to head back to Spokane. We started the day in batey Altagracia for one last cultural immersion. Our day won’t end until we are boarded on our flight to New York. It has been an amazing adventure. We are forever grateful to our hosts Franklin and Edwin and the people of the Dominican Republic, who have continuously blessed us with their smiles and graciousness. Our hearts are full of love. We look forward to seeing you tomorrow night! (We smell)

-Taran Denning

Snippets of Our Experience

Today, the morning began at church with a nearby Pentecostal congregation where our youths’ eyes were opened to a new and different cultural and denominational style.  We then spent the afternoon at Casa Bethesda and most purchased Larimar from our friend, Alejandro before group games and our nightly reflection.  This evening I asked our youth to each write a few sentences about their experience.  While it is hard to capture the width and depth of this week’s experience, one can hear the different ways in which our youth were shaped by their encounters in the Dominican Republic.  As they served, they received.  – Taran Denning

“Wow, just wow.  When I went on my first DR trip, I didn’t quite get this same feeling that this time gave me. And I think it was because I wasn’t ready. You have to be ready, ready for God to leave these impressions on you, for people to touch your heart in ways you could never imagine. You have to be ready to change, and let me tell you, when I met the people of the Dominican Republic, I knew I would never be quite the same ever again. So, thank you to all the Dominicans, thank you to our church for making this happen. Thank you for making me ready to change.” – Grace Anderson

“The people of the Dominican Republic live the way we should.  They love one another and are always willing to lend a helping hand.  They teach us that materialistic items do not matter and the most important things in life are the people we surround ourselves with.” – Sydney Wilcox

“Throughout this trip I have changed my definition of wealth. Before this, I thought of wealth in the way that most people do; having all of the latest and greatest things with a big house and lots of money. While this material definition of wealth is correct, wealth can also take the form of love, openness, and happiness. The communities here have next to nothing, but yet they are the wealthiest individuals I have met in my life. They have so much love and hospitality to give, and that has had the biggest impact on me this trip.” –Josh Fritz

“No matter where I go, how old I grow, or what I know, I will always remember this past week at the Dominican. It has had such an impact on my life that I will never be able to put into words. Mom and Emma, I love you and I will be home soon. Bill, if you’re reading this, your shampoo sucks bro.”­ –Calen Wiechert

“Seeing people who are so dedicated to God that they would stand for hours in a sweltering church makes me feel guilty that I get fidgety when Pastor Jim talks too much. The DR will always have a huge chunk of my heart and I cherished every second spent here. I can’t wait till I’m reunited with my home away from home and the amazing people that inhabit it (Especially my best friend Franklin). “ –Mak Albrecht

“This trip has showed me what pure joy, happiness, and love looks like. Even though the people we have helped here have much less material wise, they are much more wealthy in what is actually important in life. Getting a big hug from the little kids everyday and seeing them smile over the little things like getting piggy back rides or just getting an empty water bottle from us is something I am always going remember. This trip has had an amazing impact on me.” –Alyssa Pukitis

“The people of the Dominican Republic continue to amaze me and teach me in so many ways. They amaze me through the love they are so eager and willing to give to anyone and everyone no matter who you are. The Dominican Republic and the people I’ve met will forever be in my heart. To my family reading this, I love and miss you, see you soon.” –Tori Veter

“I cannot express how greatly I have been impacted by this country and these people. In comparison to the culture of America, the Dominican culture radiates love and compassion to all that come to their home including me, a foreigner, whom they just met.” –Delaney Fritz

“There is no better way to experience God’s love than in person.  Dominicans, Americans, and all people are loved by God.  Material items are pointless, but the light from Jesus is priceless.” –Ella Heideman

“I will never forget the place or the people. Welp mom I’m also Dominican now , love you.”- Q Stingley

“I won’t forget the joy on the kids faces as we rolled in to the Bateys. It’s crazy how selfless and grateful these people are, this is for sure an experience I will never forget.” –Danikah Johnson

“I’m thankful I was able to go on this trip because I met people who I will forever remember. They showed me that although you might not speak the same language or might not be from the same country, it’s easy to love or care for people you don’t know.”  -Caytlynn Crider

“The way the children ran up to us in the bateys and they were just incredibly happy to see us. It filled my heart just to see the smile on the children’s faces.”-Colin Buell

“The first thing I thought of when going on this trip was how long it would be until I got home. Now, all I can think about is how long it’s going to be until I can come back to the DR.” –Austin Albrecht

“Everyone I met was very welcoming and loving. Most were also very proud and happy of their homes. Lastly it’s a paradise.”  -Adam Fritz

“I loved to see all the kids’ faces when we pulled up to the Bateys. They were all so happy to see us and it was just so amazing to experience their joy.” –Madison Stull

“This trip has truly been life changing.  Seeing the excitement on all the people’s faces was just incredible.  I feel like I learned a lot and I will remember this forever.” –Alexia Williams

“I have a lot of stretched shirts, and am really tired, but I’ve had a lot of fun.  The children have been great of course, but I have no idea how they have as much energy as they do but I love it.” –William Strauch

“One time I went to the Dominic Republic and I just couldn’t wait to go back to football in a week or so but then I saw how with very little the people of the DR were still as happy as us Americans and how much they loved when we came to their village.- Kristopher Prince

“Words cannot describe the never-ending support the Dominican provides. They have so little materially and it leaves room for the love that envelopes each and every person who steps foot in their home.” –Gabby Johnson

“A home away from home.  Everywhere you go, everyone welcomes you with open arms. The children in the bateys have forever touched my heart and showed me that items don’t make you happy but your family and friends do.” –Alyssa McKibbon

“The people here are so kind, even though they have so little they give so much. They have taught me to be loving to everyone, including complete strangers. I have been welcomed like family by them.”  -Carmina Heideman

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Raising Children Who Transform Nations

That is the stated mission of Children of the Nations (COTN) through whom we are traveling on our mission trip.

At a glance, I think it is hard to relate that mission statement to our commitment and efforts here to pour floors for four families in the Alta Gracia batey.  We drive through the bateys or look up the hill at the Don Bosco community, and the little houses go on for miles.   Our work feels like a drop in the bucket, but the COTN staff assures us that even more important than floors is the HOPE we encourage.  While we will physically leave behind four floors, in the short time we are here, we are building community and witnessing to God’s love.

I think COTN is honoring that mission statement.  Even four years ago (on our first visit) the children of the bateys, although impoverished, were not facing starvation or pandemic disease.  And COTN had already made an impact bringing education to the descendants of Haitian immigrants who work in the sugarcane fields.  Today that work continues, but (with government support) there are also street curbs and in some cases paved streets.

Implied in the COTN statement is the desire to make lasting change while still attending to basic needs.  And they include the love of God and a hope in the cross in everything they do.  “When hope is secure we can reach for new heights.”  COTN children have gone on to become doctors, teachers, and engineers.  Many return to work with and give back to the bateys.  There is hope in the bateys and change is happening.

But, what about our youth?  They are being transformed as well.  They come here wondering what they need to do to earn the love of these Dominican kids.  And the Dominican kids come loving our youth as if wondering if they would ever come.  There is a beautiful moment in that exchange where each  receives a gift of understanding that can only be described by grace.  And hopelessness becomes hope.  It is a gift both will carry back to their homes and carry forward in their lives.  And, yes, nations will be transformed.

Someone recently introduced me to the 3 C’s of life – “you must make a choice to take a chance if you want to see a change.”  Our youth have made a choice to raise funds and take a week out of their summer to “take a chance” on the Dominican Republic.  They have plunged into the hard work, endured the hot sun, and immersed themselves in the people and culture of the bateys.  We are forever changed.

–Brendan Wiechert

 “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” – Hebrews 4:16

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Half Way – Full Day

Our kids this evening returned to the casa exhausted. Their day today began with hot, strenuous labor and their late afternoon/evening was cool, refreshing fellowship.

This morning our team poured two concrete floors while also surrounded by the children from the same batey we have been working at all week.  Several youth mentioned the heart-warming sight of our bus turning into the bateys and seeing the kids nudge their friends and run after the bus.  I think my fanny-pack gives me away as one of the leaders (that’s what I’m telling myself), but I had on particular Dominican boy come up to me and ask for one of our youth by name.  The relationships are the real foundations being laid here.  And as we work on mixing cement, lives in these homes are also being poured.

Then in the afternoon, our group went to “the falls”.  These beautiful waters are again the secondary matter of what happened this afternoon.  Our interpreters for the week along with our Venture leader, Franklin and all of the COTN staff were invited (and came along) to join us for this afternoon.  The cold waters, jumping and playing together and watching the inside jokes were all things that the falls drew out of our group.

Lastly, tonight our reflection was again a special time together. Tonight, I asked Alyssa McKibbon to share:

“Tonight during reflection, we realized that our time in Dominican Republic is fleeting quicker than we expected. As I looked around the group, several were brought to tears, including me. The harsh recognition that we would be leaving our newfound friends and our beloved island suddenly dawned on us. Thinking about coming home to such “luxury”– carpet, air conditioning, a door, flooring— really got to me. The little girls that I held, played with, and connected with were going to beds with dirty clothes, in a ramshackle shack with dirt floors.  Lacking so much of what I take for granted. That crushed my heart. Why am I so lucky to be born into such “luxury”? While they are born into poverty yet their hearts are so much fuller than ours. I am grateful for everyone that showed me that items don’t make you happy, but your friends, family, and God do.”

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An Immersion – Writing on our hearts

Jeremiah 31:33b – “I [the Lord] will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

We have talked about mission trips and the experience.  We try to equip our team as best we can, and yet nothing can quite prepares one for the impact felt in the Dominican Republic.

This morning we poured concrete floors in two of the houses in the batey, Altagracia.  Then in the afternoon we did a new type of project. COTN calls it Cultural Immersion. This project paired our group with three families who we joined for their daily chores and an afternoon of life in the bateys. Here is Grace’s reflection from this experience:

“We walked into la casa de la familia Dominicana, and it just hit me like a wall. This is real, this is no picture, this is no story, it’s a family’s house; a real family’s house. My newfound friend Gabriella let me carry her and showed me her room-  the single room she shared with the other women in her family. The other bedroom was for the four boys and men, the other was simply a living room. That was it.

Us Americanas played with our new Dominican friends, new games we had never played before. We ate together, and laughed together, and we bonded. When it was time to leave, I wanted to make sure to tell the mama of the house thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart, and that she has a beautiful house. And that wall hit me again. This family, they live in this house, they sleep on these beds, eat this food, live this life. This family, they welcomed us into their home, ate with us, played with us. They shared their lives with us, just these Americanas that a few hours before they did not know. That wall, that wall was what told me how different we were in that sense, not in anything but the fact that they lived in these circumstances, suffered through this all, and bore the shame of poverty, and still they invited us happily into their home. They welcomed us into their family, and for that we are all grateful.”

We can (and should and will continue to) talk about broadening our understanding of the body of Christ.  And we talk about economic poverty.  And we talk about mission work and service.  But as you can see for Grace (and for the group), the immersion of being here and holding hands with, washing dishes with and playing with families does something different. This something – that hits us like a wall, also writes something on our hearts. This something is God at work in and through the people of the Dominican Republic.  This love and these people continually remind us who our God is and allow us to encounter the broad reach of God’s people.

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IMG_1839We also got a chance to watch and join the I Love Baseball Team during their practice.  Franklin (our host) reminded us that the program has three focuses: God, School and Baseball – in that order. If you would like to learn more – check out COTN’s website.

Tour Day – Clinics, Schools and Bateys

Today we had the opportunity to walk and journey in and through the bateys.  Many described hearts that felt broken and simultaneously overflowing.  For both first years and returners, the level of poverty is a lot to take in.  The number of people that live in a 8 x 12 “home” with sticks as framing and sheet metal or bark as the walls is… well it is hard to put into words… it does many things to your heart.

This evening we shared some of the many emotions we were feeling as we described different snippets from the bateys and tours.  As you already know…(y)our youth are awesome as they began to unpack the day.  Many were struck by the genuine joy and love that children shower on us (as you can see below).  They cried out “Americanos! Americanos!” as they enveloped us in hugs, climbed on our backs, held our hands and braided our hair.  Many shared about the deep level of acceptance and love they felt from these children.

I asked Josh, one of our youth, to write one of his observations, which he shared with the group today:

“While we walked through the Batey of Dan Basco, I looked into a gap in the trees and saw the pristine blue waters of the Caribbean with palm trees scattered across the landscape. I realized that from the outside looking in, this is paradise. In America, a home (or even an apartment) this close to the ocean in Southern California or the tropics of Florida and Hawai’i would cost over a million dollars easily; yet, here in the DR there are people who lack the basic “necessities” like plumbing, electricity, and even flooring. It just gave me an insight into the vast contrast between luxury in America and reality in the DR.”

Again, the wisdom and insight from our youth was incredible thing to witness this evening as we reflected.  In addition to touring the bateys, we got to tour the facilities and places that COTN (Children of the Nations) runs year-round in country.  For most this was the first time we have seen the schools and clinics (we did not get to tour them 2 years ago). As someone pointed out this evening, a profound part of these tours was getting to see staff introduce themselves and proudly share their jobs and the work they are doing year round.  Their passion and energy was contagious. We are so thankful to continue to partner with this great team.

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These three were on our first trip to the DR in 2015 – standing in front of one of their week’s projects (helping construct a home).

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The Lord Prepared

 Exodus 23:20 – The Lord says, “I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.”

Yesterday afternoon we set out on our travels to the Dominican Republic with 22 youth and 5 adult chaperones for a week joining the ongoing work and ministry of the Children of the Nations (COTN).  We have arrived safely in country and are now settling down in Casa Bethesda here in Barahona.

As we began our journey, we prayed for God to protect us on our journey and bring us to the place that has been prepared for us this coming week.  For some on our journey, this place is new and everything around them is a fresh/new experience.  For others, the warm embrace from our host, Edwin was a welcome reunion that we were so looking forward to.  When asked tonight to summarize the experience thus far our team shared these words: “stunning, gift, joyful, welcoming, exciting, relief, home, peaceful, finally, happy, amen, new, humbled, amazing and surreal.”  What a wonderful testimony to the excitement we have now with our feet in Dominican soil.

To now arrive in country, feels like the first realizations of the place that has been prepared for us.  God has been preparing this time, these people and this place.  And while right now the physical place is now being taken in, God has also been at work in preparing our hearts and our heads for the experiences we are about to encounter this week.

We continue to trust in the ways God will continually show God’s presence as we join COTN in their mission of “raising children out of poverty and hopelessness so they can become leaders who transform their nations.” Our prayer is for God to continually prepare our ways each day in the relationships we encounter here in the Dominican Republic.

Also – TODAY WAS CARMINA’s 15th birthday! I think she heard the happy birthday song 4 times in English and 3 times in Spanish today! Happy Birthday Carmina!

Your brother in Christ, Taran Denning

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Days 11 & 12, Friday – Saturday, June 21-22

On Friday we traveled back from the country of Jordan to Jerusalem in Israel, and celebrated my sister Karren’s birthday. We celebrated the Hildahl’s 52nd Anniversary during the trip as well. We arrived back in Jerusalem about noon and had the rest of the day free until dinner time. Because Sabbath was to begin this evening (at sunset) museums, shops, etc. close early (about 2pm-ish). Some went shopping; some walked the Old City wall and wandered the streets of Old Jerusalem; some made it to the Israel museum before it closed; some watched the Muslims pour out of the old city after their time of worship (Muslims worship on Fridays, Jews on Saturdays, and Christians on Sundays); some hung out at the pool of our hotel (those not from Seattle were give rooms since they were leaving later than the Spokane group). Those from Spokane were picked up for dinner, taken to a restaurant, then shuttled to the airport for our flight home, via San Francisco. I was admiring a photo in the restaurant of the Old City Wall taken from years ago. I asked where and when it was taken. They said it was of Herod’s Gate on the Old City Wall, taken in about 1885. Our guide told me that they use to sell/trade sheep at Herod’s Gate on Fridays. So, this was taken on a Friday in about 1885 in Jerusalem at Herod’s Gate. Then the owner of the restaurant gave the photo to me. Incredibly kind! I’ll treasure that gift.

A few of us got a tattoo of the Jerusalem Cross at the oldest family run tattoo parlor in the world. This family immigrated from Egypt in about 1300AD. It has been handed down from once generation to the next – over 700 years! They said that for over a thousand years pilgrims have gotten the Jerusalem Cross tattooed as a certificate of pilgrimage and indication to their family, friends, and neighbors that they have been to the Holy Land and walked the steps of Jesus. In Egypt it was also used as ID on their right forearm to enter sanctuaries as the mark of the Christian.

On Saturday those from Spokane traveled from Tel Aviv to San Francisco – a fifteen hour flight! We boarded the plane just after midnight (Saturday morning), which started Rich Strauch’s birthday. With 90 mile an hour tailwinds for part of the flight we arrived at 4:30am San Francisco time (loosing 10 hours in time zones). Customs didn’t open until 6am, so we had to wait on the plane on the tarmac for nearly an hour and a half! We had a five hour lay over in San Francisco and finally arrived in Spokane about 1:30pm. We were saying Happy Birthday to Rich for ever it seemed. He said it was the longest birthday of his life!

It was a great trip! I pray it was a meaningful trip for everyone. I pray it left an indelible impression (it certainly did for those imprinted with the Jerusalem Cross). I’m confident it will change and deepen everyone’s reading of the Bible. I’m grateful that no one was hurt, sick, lost, or had anything lost or stolen (maybe a few incidentals were lost or forgotten, but nothing of significance that I’m aware of). I’m grateful for the broadening and deepening of relationship. I’m grateful for the patience and cooperation by the group of my shepherding. I’m grateful for Rich’s partnership in the leadership of the trip. Most of all I’m grateful for the opportunity and the incredible experience of pilgrimage to the Holy Land with people I love.

Day 10, Thursday, June 20, 2019

Our last day of the organized trip of seeing sites. We visited Petra. What a wonder of the world it is! Well worth the trip (6-7 hour round trip bus ride). I always imagined the cut through the cliffs to be about a hundred yards or so, but it’s over a mile and spectacular. To then arrive at the Treasury facade of Petra is breathtaking, mind-blowing, and jaw-dropping.

It’s hard to put into words what this trip means and how significant and important this experience has been. Seeing the sties, reading the Word, and connecting the dots is one thing; experiencing it with sisters and brothers in Christ and growing closer together and with God is a whole other thing that is indescribable, unimaginable, and a grateful surprise. We had a great trip without any significant sanfus. Tomorrow we travel back to Jerusalem and spend free-time exploring on our own before returning home at night. I pray safe travels upon all. I am thankful for all the pilgrims who journeyed together on this trip, and I pray safe travels home for all. Thank you! And God bless you.

Day 9, Wednesday, June 19, 2019

We had 8 of our group return back to Spokane today and the rest of us 35 went on to Jordan for a couple of days. Going across the boarder was an experience. Then we took a long bus ride to Jaresh to visit the ruins of an ancient Roman city that would have been one of the cities of the Decapolis in Jesus’ day. Along the way we stopped by the Jabbok river and read the story of Jacob wrestling with God and being renamed Israel. It wasn’t the actual spot attributed to the event (with a gift shop), but it was close enough and gave us a sense of what it might have been like. From Jaresh we made our way to Mt. Nebo. This was certainly a highlight. We ended the day in Amman, the capital of Jordan with a population of about 4 Million, which is about 1/3 of the whole population of Jordan. We ended the day enjoying the rooftop views and open air bar of our hotel overlooking the city of Amman.

This is rugged terrain, but no more so than Israel, but it seems with more vegetation. So, why was Israel the promised land – a land flowing with milk and honey? Why didn’t Moses just say, “Let’s stop here and call it good?” Only God knows, and determines.