The rooms are smelling pretty ripe now – time to go!
Clapping hands. Helping hands. Praising hands. Shaking hands. Holding hands. Waving hands. Hugging hands. Communicating hands. Working hands. Hands hammering. Hands uplifted. Hands lifting up. A hand out. A hand up. Hands offering. Hands writing. Hands creating. Hands catching baseballs and lizards.
“Give ’em a hand.” That was the call we heard from God. We assumed God was speaking to us. We assumed God was sending us to the D.R. to give a helping hand to people in poverty. Perhaps God did. Perhaps we did. But as we went to help, little kids put their hands in ours touching not just our palms but hearts. By the end of the week we realized “Give ’em a hand” may have been God speaking to the Dominicans about us. Perhaps God was saying to them, “I’m sending these white, affluent (by their standards), Americans down to see you and I need you to change their hearts and lives – give ’em a hand.”
Of course the most important hands are not ours that worked for them, or theirs that loved on us, but those hands that were crucified for all that we might know God’s love and grace and salvation – that we might be one. Those holy hands (hands with holes) transcended and united ours.
Four years it’s been since our last mission trip! There were so many obstacles that prevented it from happening that we wondered if God wanted us to go on a mission trip, or whether the devil was at work preventing it. It’s hard to know the answer to such unsearchable questions, but in retrospect our faith has said that we have seen God’s hand in making this particular trip, at this specific time, to that exact place, among these people. God’s hand at work, calling to both us and them: “Give ’em a hand.” It’s hard to know who God helped more. When we left both they and us were filled with tears, thanking God!
Today was our last full day in Barahona. We finished our work of building three houses and four latrines in the batey this morning, went to some waterfalls and pools to play in the afternoon, and ended the day by having a big banquet and party with the COTN workers, baseball boys, and some folks from a couple of bateys who came to entertain with singing and dancing ’til late. It was a fun day! Tomorrow we leave. After four years of planning the trip has come and now about gone. Though it was short in the big sceme of things, it has made a lasting impression on our hearts and minds. I’ve asked the chaperones to share some of their thoughts, feelings, and inspirations with you below. – Pastor Jim Johnson (Micah & Annika’s dad)
Live Generously! A phrase on our shirts that has been put into action this week. It has been a privilige this week to be part of such a generous group of people who have demonstrated God’s love for one another and the people of the Dominican Republic. Spending time with our youth has been amazing. They are so kind and caring with one another growing in faith and in relationships as they spend time working, playing, and praying together. The kids have shown their generous spirit with the people living in the bateys. They have overcome language barriers and found ways to communicate, shared treats, sang songs and played with the children. Great determination was shown in building three homes and four latrines for the families. Even though conditions were hot and humid and skills and tools were limited, the kids found joy in being able to provide for the families they had come to care for. It has been a life changing ecxperience to spend time in a culture that has so little, and it has given us a new perspective on living generously. We have been blessed. – Tammi Peterson (Blake’s mom)
As I sit here thinking of what to say, I feel so priveledged to be able to be here writing this. I have received so much and consider myself lucky to be on this trip. The chance to strengthen relationships amongst chaperones and the youth. To see all the youth become closer amongst each other. Being amongst the family in the batey whose home we built has shown me how much we truly take for granted, yet how much we can live without – that we can have joy without our “stuff!” How a strong family and community are important. The people here have made us feel like family and it will be hard to say, “good-bye.” I will hold this time here close to my heart and my hope is that we may carry home changed hearts and minds to do what the Lord intends of us. God bless! – Stephanie Johnson (Gabby’s mom)
Doing a little reflection on this past week and all I keep coming back to is the word “change”. This trip has changed me in ways I’m still trying to sort through, and I can’t tell all of you how extremely grateful I am for this opportunity. It is also amazing the changes I have seen in all the kids. Not only have they adapted to this change in lifestyle and become closer with each other, I truely believe they have all become closer to Christ. It’s been nothing less than inspiring to see them…all of us, bond and work together to help bring change to families and communities in need. I feel this entire mission trip has helped bring about a change in a way that will benefit all our families, friends, and other people we come in contact with in our daily lives going forward. This trip has been a blessing that all of us will most definitely have difficulty communicating, and portraying the true impact, to people back home. I don’t even know for sure if I, or any of us, will have an opportunity to witness or be involved in such a life changing experience such as this again. What I do know and believe with all my heart is the “change” we have all endured will make us all better, and more appreciative witnesses to Christ. – Doug Baker (Kaelyn’s dad)
The Dominican Sky
The sun is hot in the Dominican sky as we pull into the Los Robles batey.
The children of the batey find us; curious to see if we will offer the stickers and candy of previous visitors. We are another bus to them, and they are nameless faces to us. They offer us their hands and quickly capture our hearts with their smiles and laughter.
We walk together with our tools, wood, and coolers. We have come to repair and rebuild three homes and four latrines in the batey.
It is a hot sun and we stay to ourselves, keeping an eye on each other. We assign “buddies.” The people of Los Robles watch us from their doorsteps, but generally go about their days cooking and cleaning (always sweeping). It is their children who reach out to ours.
We are blessed with the skills of the two local carpenters, “Tony” and “Pablo,” and several Dominican translators. We have no power tools, – only hammers, nails and saws, – “like Jesus,” someone says. “He was a carpenter.”
Tony and Pablo carry machetes. As we get into the eves and odd corners, the machetes whistle through the air angling boards and trimming posts. Many of our posts are palm trees.
A large group of young men pauses to loiter just out of earshot. Do we inspire them? Do they wonder what we hope to accomplish with our efforts here? Their laughter carries to us as we work.
Our youth ask, “Why this house? They are all in bad shape.” Our collective talents in home repair are not much to offer, but our youth give an over-abundance of heart and effort. If we offer to finish hammering a nail, or sawing a board, they refuse. They are unvanquished. Their bodies shine with a collection of sunscreen, mosquito repellant, and sweat. That is not all. They shine with a spirit we have often missed. They shine with THE spirit.
Our arms and necks burn under the Dominican sky . Our water runs out, but more appears like magic. If only it worked like that for the people of the batey. We are told there isn’t enough rainfall in the area to economically build a resevoir system. They were born to this; and most of them will die to this. We were born to our own lives and circumstances – and those circumstances, along with our choices, have led us to Los Robles.
Tomorrow we will leave to begin our journey home. Our physical work has allowed us to leave our print on the DR. The DR has certainly left its print on us. Our work may not last generations, but it will last a lifetime.
Our work ends and we load the bus back to Casa Bethesda. The sun is hot in the sky. Our youth shout the names of the batey children and wave. The batey children jump and slap hands. They shout back the names of our own youth, and wave good-bye. They will see another bus next week with more candy and stickers. We will hold their smiles and beautiful faces in our minds and pictures, and their laughter will echo in our hearts. – Brendan Wiechert (Emma’s dad)
We spent the morning visiting the I Love Baseball program (IBL). They play on a dirt (rocky) “field” with a horse that roams the outfield as their lawn mower. What that horse is feeding on we have no idea! We brought them a bag full of donated baseball hats, shirts, baseballs, and the big gift: a radar gun for pitching. They were thrilled! Each player introduced himself, told us how old he is, and the name of his favorite baseball team and player. Their ages ranged from 11-17, and several of them love the Mariners, which won points with us.
There was a group of little neighborhood kids off to the side who were playing catch. Micah brought a little kid’s mitt to give away. We went over to the group with one of our interpreters to give it to the smallest kid there who didn’t have a mitt with him. Micah wanted to ask if he wanted to give this to a little brother or sister, thinking it was too small for him. But when handed the mit the kid’s face lit up and he said, “Gracias!” All of his friends started picking him up and gleefully saying, “Dali! Dali!”, which is his name. Our translator said this was his first mitt and would never forget this moment. We picked this mitt up at Value Village for $2.00 and it appeared to be the gift of a lifetime for Dali. We were moved to tears.
It was a dusty dirty day. Clouds of dust would kick up with the wind and blanket us with dirt. We played catch, played with kids, and each of us had a chance to bat – yes, even Rebecca Strauch and Tammi Peterson were wielding the bat! The most fun for some of us was people watching. We saw the most interesting things going by on the street: whole families riding on a moped, women and men hauling things on their heads, and stray goats drinking from the barrel of water they use to spread on the field (by bucket by hand) to keep the dust down. We also got to enjoy gnawing on some sugar cane on the bus ride home – another new experience for us.
In the afternoon we finished up on the three houses we built this week and started in on the latrines (we’re building four). One of the things that distinguishes the poverty of the bateys from “worse” places in the world is latrines, or what we might call an outhouse, biffy, porta potty, or honey bucket. Not having sewage in the streets is one way to prevent the spread of disease. The people are incredibly appreciative and excited that they are getting a new latrine.
I know I speak for us all when I say, this whole experience is exceedingly humbling.
We spent today back in the Los Robles batey building and re-building homes. For the second day, we were fortunate to be joined by a group out of Boston. It was our second long day of work in nearly 100 degree full sun and 75% humidity, and we challenged our kids to maintain a good perspective on what we are accomplishing. It was never an issue. We started the day with two half-finished homes, and ended the day with three nearly-finished ones. Our kids worked hard and played hard with the kids of the community, and always with a joyful heart. Tonight we returned to the Casa Bethesda for more community-building with each other, other guests of the casa and even a few of the kids of the I Love Baseball program.
We Lift Up
We have come to the Barahona District of the Dominican Republic to raise up its people; to be good examples of Christ’s love and Christian grace.
We have played in the ocean and lifted the Dominican kids on our shoulders in play and community. And we have lifted each other in pyramids in the pool.
We have walked the streets of the bateys, lifting kids on our backs and carrying babies in our arms.
And we have raised our arms in prayer and our voices in praise as we celebrated worshp with our neighbors at a local Spanish-speaking church. And we are reminded there of the Peter and John pulling up a lame man to walk (and dance).
We have lifted boards and saws, and hammers and nails, to rebuild and raise a home for three families in the Los Robles batey.
Our work won’t put us closer to God, nor better asure our everlasting life in heaven. But, perhaps we better understand Christ being lifted to the cross. And His grace in rising to save us.
We have come to the Dominican to offer up ourselves – our time and talents. But, we have also helped raise up each other in a new community. And in offering up our selves, we have risen to a new joy, a new understanding of God’s grace, and an greater recognition of His presence in our lives.
The last few days have been powerful experiencing the place, the people, and the culture, but today was great because we got to be productive and contribute something to better people’s lives and living conditions. We spent part of the morning touring COTN’s Dominican heardquarters in Barahona, which helped legitimize the organization. It was helpful to see where sponsorship money goes: to a clinic they provide, schools in the bateys, improvement projects in the communities (like we’re doing), support for the I Love Baseball program (ILB), and the staffing to facilitate mission trips groups coming down to work. It was great to get to deliver all of the shoes, candy, beanie babies, Pepsi frisbees, etc. Thanks to everyone who donated items! They were thrilled to get them and distribute them to kids.
After leaving the COTN headquarters we went to a different batey than we’d seen yesterday. Here we split into three groups. Kristin (who helped organize our trip for us) worked with a group from Massachusetts, and a mother/daughter team from Spokane who accompanied us, on a library project for the school. We brought 2000 books in Spanish down in suitcases that are now making up their library. Our group split into two groups that worked on demolition of two houses, and reframing and re-siding them. We didn’t get them finished today, but will finish them by the time we leave. Though it was very hot, and we were way too sweaty for our liking (or anyone else’s liking for that matter), and it was hard work, the kids were thrilled to work, to make a difference, and to see a tangible accomplishment from their labors.
We are constantly reminded that we are “not in Kansas anymore,” whether it’s using rudimentary tools and mediocre materials, branches from trees for studs, or a mother who walks up to Parker Bell (one of our kids) and hands him, a stranger, her 22 day old baby to hold. His question to me: “Pastor, can you imagine that happening back home?” Last night we ran out of water from the holding tanks on top of the Casa (house), so some didn’t get showers, we couldn’t flush toilets without getting a bucket of water from the pool, and to boot the air conditioning went out so we didn’t sleep much due to the swealtering heat. We introduced our group to the concept of “military showers.” We hadn’t imagined that water was limited and costly. Though we weren’t taking long “American” showers like at home, nevertheless, we now realize we can’t even let the water run while lathering. We can’t put toilet paper in the toilet, but have to throw it in the garbage in the stall. We aren’t in Kansas anymore. That said, our kids have been great about it all, “going with the flow” (or lack there of)!
One of the chaperones is also pictured in this shot. I’ll let you guess which one, but I’m not telling (or I’ll be in big trouble).
Nehemiah 8:10 – “your strength is in the joy of the Lord.”
Psalm 30:5 – “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
We visited four bateys today. A batey is a community established by the government to house (primarily) Haitian immigrants. They are the poorest of the poor in the D.R. This was poverty like I’ve never seen before; poverty that has left an indelible impression on all our minds and hearts. We’ve assumed that there can’t be people who are poorer than this in the world, but there are! Even in the bateys, as shocking as their conditions are, they at least have “some” electricity and some have running water. A man from another group with us said he grew up in India where many have no running water or electricity. Still, for us, this was extreme poverty. As Doug Baker (one of our chaperones) said when I asked him his impressions: “I’m not sure I can put it into words.” Many of the kids commented that it’s one thing to see such things in pictures or on TV, it’s a whole other thing to be here and experience with your own senses
The second we stepped off the bus we were surrounded by children holding our hands, guiding us through the streets and loving on us. We came to bring them stickers, bubbles, candy, and to love them. We were overwhelmed by the love that came our way that seemed far greater than what we had to offer. It was moving, inspirational, joyous, disturbing, disheartening, overwhelming, all at the same time. We have too much. They have so little. Yet joy is experienced by all (in a shared game of basketball as well). On many houses we saw “Christo Viene Ya”, which means “Christ is coming soon.” That is the source of their hope and joy.
The above Scripture I shared as a devotional on our first day. I said that Christians have a joy (and that joy is our strength) no matter where they live, no matter how much or little they have, no matter where we’re from or where we’re heading. Even if, or when, times are hard, sadness may last for the night, but joy will come with the morning. This was true for our Lord in the cross and resurrection, and this is true for His followers. This is true whether the stress is first world stresses or third world stresses. Joy is something Christians everywhere have because it is something that has us. This was probably the most impactful, lasting, and perhaps important impression of the trip: joy does not come from our possessions, but from what/who possesses us.
After the morning and afternoon spent in the bateys, we went to a two hour worship tonight and experienced that joy among brothers and sisters in Christ singing praises in a language that we didn’t know, but we knew there was joy, worship, and faith shared. One of the blessings that came out of the worship experience was an appreciation for the length of my sermons – so there’s that!
The pool was also opened to us today and brought a refreshing respite in the hot noon day after lunch. The Casa Bethesda, where we’re staying, and our hosts, Children of the Nations (COTN) have been wonderful. Tomorrow we start the hard labor.
Great day! We started off a little slow for my American personality as we continue to to adjust to “Dominican” time. Our group hung around the casa all morning talking, reading, and chasing lizards. Later in the morning, we sat down to share reflections on our experiences yesterday. Our kids are amazing in their insights and perspectives. Just after lunch, we climbed into a school bus and drove into Barahona to pick up several of the I Love Baseball kids, and then we all drove to Quemaito Beach to experience the Carribean ocean.
The drive was just as exciting as yesterday, but much, much shorter. The ILB boys blessed us with their energy and high spirits, and with the windows down and the ocean breeze, we were quickly at the beach.
Our kids didn’t waste any time getting in the water and soon we were jumping waves and thowing Doug’s Pepsi frisbee. Soon the international language of ocean play led to shared pyramids and dueling chicken fights. Generations of Americans visiting the area years from now will wonder why little Dominican kids are so comfortable climbing on their shoulders! (and once our backs and necks stop hurting, I am sure it will be a memory highlight). Other highlights will be a huge tuna brought in on a row boat while we were there, and my own foot, cut and scraped from wave jumping beyond the prescribed swim area.
Tomorrow we will visit four of the bateys and I imagine our hearts will be a little heavier, but tonight we are resting and reflecting on a day in the sun and the waves, connecting with our international community, hoping the collective joy we experienced today reflects on our hearts for a lifetime.
After about 24 hours of travel by airplanes and bus, we have arrived safely at our home for the week: Casa Bethesda in Barahona, Dominican Republic. It is beautiful! The 4 hour “bus” ride was an education. When we could keep our eyes open for parts of it, it was an eye full. We’ve seen more mopeds than imagineable, crazy driving with no ryhme or reason to rules of the road, babies running naked in the streets, goats and horses and chickens running amuck, skinned goats for sale by street venders, and we got a real taste of the contrast between the beauty of a Mediterranean Island and the real poverty of most of its residents. Customs went smoothly, all our bags arrived, and no kids are missing – all in all it’s been a good trip. It promises to be a great week with the promise of some very hard labor in hot, humid, temperatures. We’re all looking forward to showering, a good night’s sleep, and bunking with sweaty teens! And by the way, our kids are awesome!!!
A small world moment was running into Pr. Jim’s brother Joel and sister-in-law Rondi at an intersection of hallways in the Atlanta Airport, one of the largest airports – they were returning from a Thrivent Builds project/trip in Paraguay and we had just arrived on a red-eye from Seattle bound for Santo Domingo. It was very cool! It was also fun to celebrate Annika Johnson’s 14th birthday on our first day of travel.