March 21, 2003
The approach to this trip is, for me, worth mentioning in this initial paper. The chaos of a nearly 80 hour a week work schedule, end-of-quarter school requirements for 16 quarter hours, and discomfort with leaving my congregation in a time of national crisis, resulted in me questioning whether I should even be going. Couple these issues with my car breakdown on the way to the hotel Thursday night, and I felt as though someone was trying to tell me something.
When push came to shove, however, I knew I should and would follow through on the trip – and that I would love it.
The flights are both uneventful from a turbulence standpoint (a worry, I know, for some), but are interesting to me. I was isolated from others in the group, so I’m just watching out the window a lot. I am surprised and pleased, as we near Charlotte on the first leg of the journey, to fly past Grandfather Mountain in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. My family spent a week’s vacation there last summer, and it brings back many wonderful memories. I called and told my wife and kids about it as soon as we arrived in Charlotte. This lightened their mood a little, since they are all worried about me making this trip.
The beauty of the land, beaches and water of the Dominican Republic (DR) are almost stunning as we fly along its coastline, not realizing this is our destination. What a beautiful place! The airport is the most unique and beautiful I’ve ever seen. Its buildings and reception protocols are in perfect keeping with the character of the nation it represents. Beautiful palms, thatched roofs, bright colors and extremely warm, friendly people make me (and, I think, all of us) feel welcome and glad to be here.
I am - as are others, I’m sure – puzzled by the many apparent fires as we flew by the mountains – maybe we’ll have the opportunity to learn what those were about by the time we leave.
I am impressed by the quality and efficiency of the bus company, and the warmth of those who met and transported us. The driver’s willingness to stop and give us a break, so close to our destination, is very kind, and he shows no signs of impatience as he waits for us to return to the bus. I also appreciate his willingness to help with our luggage, and his concern with whether we have gotten all our things. I have a sense he was genuinely concerned – even if it is a job.
The bus trip provides an opportunity to get a microcosmic look at life in Dominican Republic, as we pass through several small and/or medium-sized cities, as well as miles of rural areas. Some areas appear relatively well-off economically, while in other areas the poverty is evident – sometimes in colonies apparently inhabited by hundreds of families.
Of course, our reception at the conference center with Dr. Dohn and his family and staff is great, as well. While we arrived earlier than they anticipated, they have obviously thought about many needs for our reception. They planned well for rooms – in spite of the “Orrin” debacle – and their desire to care for our needs is evident to me. I love the food, but the personal warmth of Mercedes has been my favorite thing of the night.
All these things are consistent with everything I have previously experienced while traveling in Latin cultures: Mexico on several occasions, Brazil, Peru and Columbia. The people are warm and friendly, open and generous. While poverty may be the way of life for most, they don’t seem to live in hopelessness or dejection because of it. The people seem to genuinely enjoy interaction with strangers and foreigners, and tend to be quick to smile and accept them.
Dr. Dohn is a gentle and obviously very bright man, and has a genuine heart for the people he has brought his family of 6 here to serve. Tracy Dohn’s willingness to serve is a great reflection of her dad and, presumably, mother, and reflects an awareness of important things in life. I don’t know how old she is, but I’d be willing to bet she’s not old enough for most Americans to expect such a mature attitude from her.
Our group walked down to the water, just two blocks from the conference center where we are staying. The waterfront is alive with nightlife – clubs and bars where people are gathering to listen to music, drink and hang out together. It’s not unlike the U.S. in this respect, where folks gather in a place where they don’t have to be alone with life’s struggles and disappointments.
Most of the people there are not poor. Most have come in or on vehicles of some sort, are dressed fairly nicely, and have money to enjoy the evening. There are many lovers, but even more who are still looking. There is a lot of laughter and dancing – the music is a binding, or at least connecting, force.
Still, the poor are always there. They walk or stand or sit on the fringes of the scene – not really a part, but soaking in some of the ambient effects of the community’s life. Some of them walk up and down the sidewalks trying to sell food or trinkets to make a living, to get their share of the action. A woman walking up and down the sidewalk, pushing a lit propane grill, and cooking hotdogs, scares me for her safety; but I can see the importance of trying to make a living on her face. But, of course, the poor’s share always falls short of the goal of deliverance from their place in society. The inevitability of permanence regarding their station in life is evident in the manner in which a poor vendor makes his or her “sales pitch” without a word and with downcast eyes.
Dr. Lucas sets the bar high for the week’s work by establishing a playful relation-ship with Josh and Angelo – two young DR boys on the street. It is a clear reminder that this week’s work is not about numbers, but people. The boys and Dr. Lucas make a connection that produces mutual joy and a connection that goes deeper than a common or translated language connection alone. It’s a powerful example, and I intend to follow it to the greatest possible degree.
At the end of the visit to the waterfront, as we’re beginning the walk back to the conference center, I took a picture of a little girl whose name I don’t know. It’s after 10:00, and the little girl is at the bar with her parents – in my mind, a testimony of the dichotomous relationship between seeking community and strength of family. I am struck by the youth of the mother who, a few minutes later, rides off with her little girl and another young woman on a motorcycle with a wave and a smile.
The highlight of the day for me is the chance to talk faith and research with Dr. Lucas one-on-one. We stayed up too late, but it’s worth it.