I joined a student Task Force from my alma mater, Bethel College, on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic (DR). I was a guinea pig. This was a test to assess the possibility of adding alumni participants to future Task Forces. Keep in mind that I’m 55 years old. The next oldest person on the trip was 30. Yeah, that’s what I said, too.
Here’s the crew.
Our host, Students International (SI), was an organized, loving, flexible, and dedicated group. Every Bethel student was assigned their own specific ministry site. Each site had one to three Bethel students working there. These sites included dentistry, art, medical assisting, pre-school, physical therapy, special education, and more. The students spent each weekday at the same site working with an SI staff person who has been there for months, if not years. This staff person considers this site as their portal into the “mission field” of that community. Bethel’s students assisted with the work at that site. They were challenged, encouraged, loved, and changed. It was a good trip.
Those who suffer from insomnia or curiosity that would kill a cat, may want to keep reading for below is a more detailed account from notes I recorded during the adventure. I will attempt to report just facts. But commentary will be shown in italics to add some flavor.
Monday 3 May
We traveled to O’Hare by bus, a ride that actually took longer than our first flight segment to Miami. On the bus I met a young man who was part of another team heading to Africa. We discovered that I knew his parents, and our mutual interest in missions launched a great discussion that allowed time to pass quickly. I used the uneventful flights, O’Hare to Miami to DR, to learn the names of the team, read, and catch a nap. At the Miami airport, we met a group from Grand Canyon University who would be with us at the same mission camp. We quickly passed customs, were greeted by our hosts – Students International (SI), loaded our baggage, and traveled about forty-five minutes to where we would be staying for the next two weeks. On the nighttime ride I was impressed with the DR’s great roads, availability of electricity, and clean roadsides. It was clearly not like its neighbor, Haiti. Guys and gals headed to separate bunkhouses, and we were quickly asleep. Accommodations were awesome: hot & cold running water, bottles of water for drinking, and bunk beds with mattresses! I was elated to get a bottom bunk allowing me easier mobility for the numerous toilet pilgrimages common among the elderly.
Tuesday 4 May
With few exceptions, today being one of them, every weekday had a standard schedule:
- 6:45 meet for a morning praise chorus This was usually in Spanish. There never seemed to be enough notes to accommodate all the words!
- 6:50 read, meditate, and journal on a specific Bible reading I found this time to be reflective, challenging and a great way to start the day. The readings were well-selected; they threw some radical truth into my spiritual rut.
- 7:30 reassemble for more singing
- 7:45 a member of the SI team would present a teaching on the Bible reading we just studied on our own
- 8:15 breakfast Let me say that the meals were incredible. The food was a good mix of US staples and DR traditional foods. I liked some items better than others, but that’s true wherever I eat. I never went hungry, and I was always delighted to see fresh fruit for every meal. Delicious. Oh. Each day we packed our own lunches – sandwiches, fruit, cookies, and chips.
- 8:55 leave camp for the work sites
- 4:00 return to camp I used this time for showers, hiking, naps, cleaning clothes, reading, etc.
- 6:00 dinner The time after dinner was unique by the day, sometimes even starting before dinner. I really liked how the variety of activities seemed to energize me in different ways. Here’s a list of things we did – Bible study, eat with a local family, concert, learning DR dances, shopping and dinner in town, the story of SI in the DR, feet washing, team meetings, prayer walks, community evangelistic activities, “free” time than I often used for table games with some of the others, and a banquet on our last night in the DR.
- 10:00 lights out With only a couple of exceptions, the guys embraced this “curfew”. Probably because we were all tired and the morning came pretty early.
Anyhow, today’s morning included orientation time, goal setting, and some team interaction. We had a “picnic-style” lunch of hot dogs, potato salad, and jello in the dining hall. (I loved the potato salad. I didn’t find out until later that the diced “peppers” were really beets. I thought I hated beets.) Then each of us went to the site where we would be working for the next two weeks. I was able to visit a different site each day allowing me to see the broad scope of work done by SI. Today I went to the “social work” site. This social work site focuses on the needs of women and children in a specific community, a community of squatters. I had a stereotypical attitude that squatters were “bad” and needed to be removed from the land they “stole”. Fortunately the owner of this land has a more Jesus-like attitude allowing them to stay, work, and raise families here. It is a small community with chickens, children, and music easily moving across property lines. I was so impressed by the SI staff that worked at the site. We could hardly walk a dozen steps before we were stopped by yet another child or adult wanting to talk with them. I felt a sense a community that I don’t notice in my town. One lady invited us to visit with her while she killed, plucked, and cut-up a chicken. Some in our group enjoyed this experience more than others. It seemed so natural for this woman to invite strangers into her home as she prepared her evening meal. But it was natural because of the relationship created by the SI staff over a period of months, perhaps years. We returned to camp for dinner, some DR dance lessons, table games, and a good night’s sleep. It rained, too. It was rainy season, and the rains come often. And they can come hard. Unlike the storms in Ohio, these rains seldom contained wind. They were just downpours that fell straight down sounding like thousands of BB’s attacking the metal roof of our bunk house.
Wednesday 5 May
We left the camp at exactly 8:55am to go to our work sites. Today I worked at the Special Education school – Genesis. These students receive a wonderful mix of education, fun, and love. Placed in classes according to ability and age, the students receive group as well as individual attention. Classes had already started when I walked into my assigned classroom. Even through the closed door I could hear the singing and joyful noise. One smiling boy beat a toy xylophone without worrying about rhythm or notes, and a girl on the front row shook a tambourine for all she was worth. The teacher didn’t start class until after some singing, a Bible story, and prayer. She moved through the room talking to the students as she presented each one something appropriate to their ability and interest. I joined a young man in building towers, ships, and houses with building blocks. He was eager to teach me the Spanish words for the colors of the blocks, and together we counted how many high we could stack them. Some could work on counting and making letters while others developed motor skills using play dough, blocks, or a ball. As the morning advanced, the metal roof became a radiant heater as the clear sky gave free access to the tropical sun. I was glad for lunch time so I could exit the oven. However, everyone’s motor skills came to good use when classes were released to recess. The school’s yard is a child’s dream. Well-shaded swings, slides, and a climbing area were swarmed with laughing, yelling children. Others kicked or threw balls in a large grassy area. I quickly learned that if I stood still too long I became another object to be climbed. I found kicking a ball or pushing a swing much less punishing. Lunch time brought everyone together around some tables under the tree. Of course the students were eager to return to the playground equipment, and teachers relaxed during the siesta time. In the DR, noon to two was the unofficial time for lunch and relaxing – siesta. I became quite the fan of siesta time, finding an afternoon nap quite refreshing. However, the children were called back to the area where we ate lunch as siesta time came to an end. Suddenly the whole school was gathered together singing songs, clapping, and laughing. This sight was one of my favorite memories of the trip. The afternoon passed quickly as the class worked on drawing letters, numbers, shapes, or whatever was appropriate for the child. Soon the bus came to take us back to the camp. One of our team leaders challenged us to be willing to receive from those who we came to serve. I needed to hear that challenge. Sometimes it’s hard for me to receive, but that only denies others the joy of giving.
Thursday 6 May
Today I was off to the men’s sports site, which, when translated means baseball – the DR passion. I was concerned with two things. First, the blazing sun could cook me like a piece of bacon. Second, I never played baseball, and my shoulder wouldn’t let me throw a ball even if I wanted to. We arrived at a nice ball diamond in the city, and young boys were already waiting for us. Quickly we were on the field doing stretching exercising. But first I slathered large quantities of sun block all over my exposed body. Then I explained to Raul, the site leader, that I would be taking photos instead of playing. All was right with the world. After a thorough warm up and some skill building drills, they played a practice game. We broke for a quick lunch (no siesta!) then hiked to a river for some swimming. The kids had a great time, we learned a great game called blocko, and Raul called everyone together and had one of the Bethel students share a spiritual lesson. I was extremely impressed with Raul’s passion for the spiritual growth of the boys. It seemed that at every opportunity he was sharing about being a follower of Jesus. We ate dinner as the guests of a family in the community. The food was awesome. One guy had four plates of food. Then Raul taught us the DR’s #1 table game – dominos. We rode back to camp and called it a day.
Friday 7 May
I went back to the community of squatters and spent the day at a pre-school for children who lived there. I’m not wired for elementary-aged children, so this was a stretch. Friday’s are half days, and the morning went quickly – filled with the review of numbers, alphabet, and the calendar. Then small groups of students worked together on jigsaw puzzles. “Worked together” might be a little misleading. Let’s just say that some of the children showed an assertive quality. For example I was helping a group with their puzzle and, even though my Spanish isn’t very good, I’m pretty sure a four-year-old told me to get lost. The children left about noon, and the teachers prepared a “yard sale” for the ladies of the community. When the sale was open for customers, the women literally ran and grabbed whatever they could get their hands on. It reminded me of Black Friday at Best Buy. Oh, yeah. Out of respect for the culture, I had a siesta. On the way back to camp, we stopped at the dental site and observed them in action. They spent the week at one elementary school checking teeth, teaching children how and why to brush, and pulling teeth when necessary. After dinner we had a concert by the worship leader of a local church. I’m not real demonstrative, but I kind of got caught up in the experience. I think I actually raised my hands above my shoulders!
Saturday 8 May
This morning we left for an excursion. We hiked down a pretty steep path into a large canyon complete with a sizable waterfall. It was a nice time to relax, talk, swim, climb some rocks, and catch some sun. Some of the girls had a harrowing incident with a menacing two-inch crab. Since the hike in was downhill, getting out took some effort. It was good to reach the top. We then went into town for some souvenir shopping. We had a couple hardcore shoppers in the group; I don’t have their stamina. My favorite store was the grocery. Then we went to a local restaurant for dinner with ice cream for dessert. Delicious. We got back to camp well after dark, and retired for the evening.
Sunday 9 May
I went to the shower and found that the hot water wasn’t working. It was an exhilarating experience. We went to a local church and enjoyed passionate singing followed by a good sermon titled “Kill Sin Or It Will Kill You”. There were several missionaries in attendance at this church. One of them translated the sermon into English. Very helpful for me. People played cards, slept, read, or talked after we had a light lunch at the camp. I played cards and lost every game. The group met to pray for the city, after which we had a team meeting to renew our spirit, encourage each other, and review our purpose. We met in groups of two or three for prayer. After dinner we heard the camp director tell the story of how SI developed to its current status in the DR.
Monday 10 May
The group from Grand Canyon University has several members who became sick. It seems to be a stomach virus. The clinic (hospital) is checking them over. Today one of the staff members is going to drive the two leaders of the Bethel team and myself to visit several different sites: the construction team was building a composting latrine, two pre-schools, two social work sites, physical therapy, and the art leader who gives individual instruction. Each was unique and impressive in what is being accomplished. In our travel, we stopped at a roadside stand where the staff member bought us some “homemade” juice. The lady who ran the stand got her start through a small-business loan from SI. I told God that I was drinking it in faith that I wouldn’t get seriously ill. We returned to camp, I took a hike up the mountain behind the camp. I also had some evidence of potential intestinal trouble. After dinner SI had a “servant challenge”. We were given twenty minutes to meet with God one-on-one about whatever we needed discuss. I was impressed that I needed to do two things: 1) live up to my “redeemed” value, and 2) see other’s “redeemed” value and not their “cash value”. This comes from a coupon’s fine-print “cash value”. Then we were to get in groups of two or three and wash each others’ feet. Some of the students had never done anything like this. It was an extremely moving experience. My fears came true. During the night I had the toilet trots. I’m hoping it is just a brief episode.
Tuesday 11 May
I found out that three students from GCU were admitted to the hospital with at least one student on an IV. They all had a virus that attacked the digestive tract. I didn’t need to go to the hospital, but I did start taking Cipro. I went back to the men’s sports site. It had rained through the night, so the infield had pools of water. The kids rooted through the trash for plastic cups so we could remove the water one cup at a time. This was a good lesson for me. Little things done over time can have big results. We had a brief game, a quick lunch, and headed off to a game against another community’s ball team. The game wasn’t close, but it was played with good sportsmanship. At dinner that night I learned that the GCU students were going to be released soon. I asked about the costs. The total costs for meds, doctors, nursing care, hospital stay, and etc. was under $700 for all three. Think that one over. We had a team meeting. It was to discuss what was grabbing our attention on the trip. It was a good processing time. I was struck by the fact that the USA is blessed by having options and cursed by the options we choose. Also, I miss conversation with people my age.
Wednesday 12 May
The speaker for devotions was not able to come this morning so the staff member declared it “brag on God” morning. People could stand up and give a few words of praise for God. It bothered me that so few spoke up. Why do we rationalize reasons to not publicly “brag on God”? This morning I went to the art site. They set up a table under a tree, and children showed up to do crafts and art. The response was great. The kids were real serious and proud about their work. In the afternoon I rode along with the micro-loan director. He had to run to his apartment and invited me in. It was an awesome second floor apartment in town. I attended his weekly meeting with the ladies who are repaying loans. I didn’t understand everything, but I was really impressed with what I understood. He collects money on a weekly basis. This allows him to have a weekly spiritual lesson and give encouragement. One of the ladies is an artist. I bought one of her paintings for my “souvenir” of the trip. The GCU and Bethel groups were encouraged to sign up for one of two outreach groups: volleyball or prayer walk. I was on the prayer walk, and walked with two other people from Bethel. It was a deeply moving time, and I enjoyed talking about it with one guy after we got back to the camp. Pretty much everyone turned in early.
Thursday 13 May
I went to a pre-school in a different community. This school had fewer students but more space than the school I visited Friday, so it had some different dynamics. I was still impressed with what is being taught. One teacher had us hide the children’s homework out on the playground. I never saw kids so excited about getting homework! What a great idea. We had the beloved siesta from 12:45 to about 2pm then finished the afternoon with class work. After dinner the Bethel group had their final team debrief. It was good to hear people share about their experiences during the past two weeks. There are some really good team members in this group. It makes me feel good about the future.
Friday 14 May
The morning started with a shower followed by a double rainbow. Awesome! I returned to the same school as I visited yesterday. I had planned to go to the medical assisting site, but they were doing PAP smears all day. I thought I’d opt out. Being Friday, school was only a half day. The format was different, too. Singing, exercises, recess, and then a craft, we made puppets, and the day was over. We ate at the one teacher’s house then drove into town for ice cream. We returned to the camp and prepared for a banquet scheduled for that evening. We ate a great meal then moved to another shelter. There the site leaders said something about each student who worked at their site. It was a great evening. We returned to the camp and some of the Dominicans came to play basketball. I had the good sense to play euchre. My basketball days are gone.
Saturday 15 May
Up at 4:45am, and lifting off DR soil at a little after 8am. The transfer at Miami was a little cumbersome. We were all on an elevator and it froze. We were probably only stuck a few minutes, but it sure seemed longer. Arrival at Chicago was on time, and we had all of our luggage! The bus ride back to Bethel seemed long, but that’s probably because we were eager to get home. And home we arrived – safe and sound, but hopefully not the same.