Saturday, January 14, 2012

Banica 2

In addition to all of the physical help we provided and were given in Banica, there was also an incredible spiritual experience. Before the trip it was very interesting to hear about the variety of people going on the trip; 8 missionaries and 20 students all at different places in their desire and understanding of their faith and trust in God. At the end of the week one thing was certain, not a single one of us was lacking in faith or trust. Several things attributed to this and I hope to capture some of those moments here.

One factor was simply that we were visiting amidst the season of Christmas. What better way to meditate on the birth of Jesus than being consumed in poverty ourselves? I remember several times throughout the week that I would stop and just think about the humble birth of Jesus. Especially compared to what we consider the “ideal birth” today; doctors, nurses, medical equipment, medicines, procedures. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph didn’t have any of that; it’s crazy for me to think about that. I realized that at the small hospital in Banica, they probably don’t have the same resources we have in the States either, this was one of the many things I witnessed during the week that was an example of poverty. I think that poverty usually has a negative perception, I’m not using the word here to insult or to pity the people that live with it each day, I think that poverty actually is rather beautiful and the Dominican people were a witness to that.

The Dominican people live with appreciation for all that they have; they live with great joy, simplicity, humility, and tranquility- which we referred to throughout the week as “tranquillo”. I saw on a shirt in the airport: “Dominican Republic, Laid back since way back” this statement is so true!! It was wonderful to see people living so freely not being slaves to their schedules and extra-curriculars. Granted, we did visit between Christmas and New Year’s so it may not have been a completely typical experience of their life, but I think what we saw is what you get in the Dominican culture. The idea or “Dominican virtue” (as Fr. O’Hare half jokingly referred to it as) of tranquillo was one thing us Americans really took a liking too, it really helped us to put things in perspective, to slow down, appreciate and to experience more fully just what we were a part of.

Throughout the week our group was blown away by the generosity and hospitality of the Dominican people. Being removed from the DR and having reflected on the two traits I listed, I think that we were so captivated by their generosity because in our eyes (as people that have so many often unnecessary material goods)they have so little, so how could these people possibly give so much or even want to give so much when they have so little? I don’t think a Dominican person would ever tell you that they were poor or that they don’t have a lot. I think that hospitality and appreciation for what we have are two major things that our group have brought back to the States and really hope to emulate, I know that I have (and will try to!).

Fr. O’Hare the priest for the parish in Banica, Pedro Santana, and Sabana Cruz is from Virginia. The Diocese of Arlington, Virginia has sent priests to this area for close to 20 years if my memory serves me correct. Fr. O’Hare is an incredible and inspiring servant to the Dominican people. It seems that the focus of his ministry is with the youth, but he does a great job of serving all people- and they really appreciate him. As one of my fellow missionaries pointed out to our group Fr. O’Hare is such a great example of Christ in how he serves the people. Not only is he living among the poor but he visits them, he feeds them, he clothes them.

Fr. was only recently assigned to the parish in Pedro Santana where he met an incredibly talented young man named Juan. Fr. soon learned that Juan could sing and play the guitar. So each Sunday as Fr. celebrates mass at two different places in the morning he drives out of the way to pick up Juan so that he can play the mass parts to allow the people to worship and praise God through song. The Sunday that we got to listen to Juan even the Dominican people were touched by his talent. He played songs that he had only just learned, Fr. encouraged him to do this so the people would be more apt to listen rather than just sing along subconsciously. At the end of one of the masses Fr. told us that Juan said that when he plays during mass that Juan feels as if he “is of the mass.”

A few of our students got to ride with Fr. when he gave Juan a ride home. Juan told them that he learned to play the guitar in his dreams, he simply had a desire to play, he dreamed about it, and then he picked up a guitar and taught himself. He really was talented. One thing I didn’t mention about Juan, he’s blind and crippled. I’m not sure what it’s diagnosed with, but his gait is not normal. I listened to a few people speak with Juan after mass and he had nothing but joy, he just seemed so happy, pure, and loving.

There a few of Fr. O’Hare’s homilies that I remember pretty well – even though they were in Spanish. Our first mass with him was in Pedro Santana on 12/29. I don’t remember the readings, like I said my Spanish is not that great. But his homily was about Belen y la casa de pan, which translated is Bethlehem and the house of bread. This really struck me on that night, I know I’ve heard it before, that Bethlehem means “house of bread” but it just hit me. Especially when Fr. went on to say something close to this, “from the manger Jesus announces He is the Living Bread and here in this Church the manger is below the altar where the bread will become His body, this truly is a Christmas sacrament.” I thought about this homily each time we went to mass there and each time that I received Holy Communion.

At another homily Fr. O’Hare reminded us of how unworthy we all are of God’s love, but nonetheless and for no reason at all He loves us. After hearing this I spent some time praying and giving thanks for how great God is. I also prayed that I would be able to love others the same way. I was thinking about some of the kids that we had worked with that week, how frustrated they had made us, and how we showed our frustration towards them by getting angry and impatient. Then I thought about how these kids all week long, for no reason admired us and just loved us. They’d high five us, jump on us, throw the ball when we weren’t looking at them, and they’d hug us, they were Jesus, we were serving and playing baseball with Jesus. This picture really captures that. A fellow missionaries snapped this photo and the text that follows the picture is what he wrote about it.

"On New Year’s Day we were at church in an impoverished community along the border of Haiti. Before Mass the church was hot, crowed, and a bit chaotic. In the midst of this noisy scene a little boy snuck through the mess of disorganized chairs and sat on the lap of the missionary student next to me. As he sat there I tried to engage him in a little conversation but his timid answers were almost muted by his intense gaze. I just happened to have my camera so I snapped a quick picture of this little guy and our student. As soon as I saw how it turned out I had an immediate recognition of His face… that is… Jesus’ face. The look this child exuded was that of complete innocence.  Simultaneously his look expressed joy, longing and an overall profoundness.  I was captivated by this image. Another stark feature of the scene… in the picture on the wall behind this little boy, Jesus’ face is covered up… perhaps a coincidence… or perhaps a deeper message from the Lord. All I know is that for me this was an encounter with Christ himself… and I was in Nazareth. When we got back to Miami last week to do our mission debriefing there was a notable change in each and every one of the 22 students that went on this trip.  A spirit of peace, docility, joy and overall zeal for the Faith that I assure you did not exist before they left for this trip.  These students were notably different from who they were one week earlier. This merely reiterated for me the fact that an encounter with Christ changes lives!"

There were so many incredible things that we experienced during our time in the DR. I will be forever grateful for having been able to experience it and to experience it with all the people that I did. It was very refreshing and a blessing to be traveling with almost 30 young adults with similar interests and passions (sports and faith). There were some wonderful friendships that began and some people that I am thankful to have reconnected with after a long time apart.

The people of Banica, Pedro Santana, Sabana Cruz, and Iguarrito, my fellow missionaries, and student missionaries will always be in my prayers.

Our Lady of Altagracia, Pray for us.

Please see this video for a better look at the mission happening in Banica. Along the Border Documentary

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bánica 1

As I wrote about in my last blog post from December 28th through January 4th I had the privilege of serving on a mission trip in Banica, Dominican Republic. The trip was an incredible experience that I will never forget. I hope to share in this post how the trip meant to me and the others that I was able to serve with.

The trip began in Miami, where our group met after traveling in from across the country. There were students and FOCUS staff from all over. The schools and places represented were: Benedictine College, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Nebraska-Omaha, Creighton University, Minnesota State University, University of Wisconsin, Seton Hall University, FOCUS National Headquarters, and a few guys that play for major league organizations.

We left for the Dominican on Wednesday December 28th and arrived in Santo Domingo around 3pm Atlantic time. I was expecting a 2 hour drive to our destination, but it was actually close to a 6 hour drive. Our destination, Banica, is along the Haitian border.

Welcome to Banica!
We arrived in Banica very late, I think it was close to 11. We settled into our home for the week, the San Francisco of Asis Parish Center. All 28 of us stayed under one roof and shared a room with 1-3 others. It was close quarters, but the only time we spent there was to sleep and to shower, the accommodations were perfect.

Our mission began the next morning. The first town that we got to work with the kids was about 15 minutes from Banica called Pedro Santana. Friday we were in Banica, Saturday we were in a small town that I don't know how to spell (sorry!!), and we ended camp on Monday in Sabana Cruz. Each day was split into two camp sessions, a morning session usually from 9-12 and an afternoon session from 2-4:30.

We were blessed to spend the time in between camps each day with a family that prepared lunch for us. Lunch time each day was very enjoyable for all of us although most of us spoke basically no Spanish. It was beautiful to see the generosity of the families and how hard they worked to prepare and serve us a meal with how little they appeared to have. Most of the women spent their entire mornings preparing lunch for us. We split into 5-6 groups and despite most of the groups having a few male student athletes there was always plenty of food left over after each meal. In addition to their generosity they were also very appreciative and so thankful that we were there to serve their children and grandchildren.

Going to camp each day we really didn't know what to expect. Last year the camp was at Banica for all four days and this year as I explained above we were in a different town each day. So although there were 5 guys on the trip that also attended last year, each day was somewhat of a surprise. The first 2 days we held camps at fields that were very nice. The last 3 days of camp were much different. The "baseball fields" were just fields, wide open mostly dirt fields that appeared to also be serving as pastures for various donkeys, horses, and cows. But the playing field did not keep us or the kids from having a great time.

The boys chalking the field
At those 2 other fields, I think what stood out most to me was the 1st on that we saw. We were all very surprised to arrive and learn that this open field with little grass and lots of "gifts" from the animals roaming around was the town's baseball field. After we took it in for awhile we again were surprised to see some of the older kids walk up with what appeared to be a bag of chalk. Sure enough the kids started to chalk foul lines and on deck circles. They took a string from home plate and pulled it tight to a tree in right field and another in left and poured the chalk on the string all the way out. It was really neat to see the pride they took in their field. The on deck circles were complete with half semi circles to create what looked like a baseball.

At our camp in Banica we were split into 3 groups, high school, middle school, and elementary. I was with the middle school kids and somehow ended up being the only coach in that group that could speak Spanish...and saying that I can speak Spanish is a stretch! But I was able to communicate with them well enough to organize a home run derby, it took me a few times to get across what I wanted to and the boys all laughed at me, but we eventually had a home run derby!

After the derby, our group got the baseball gloves. There were only a limited amount of gloves for camp and very few of the kids had their own. I could not believe how excited the kids were to play catch. They were so excited and so content to just play catch, it made their days to be using those gloves. Originally we planned to have the kids play catch for maybe 10 minutes, but since they enjoyed it so much we just let them keep playing.

There was one boy that day I don't think I will ever forge and I don't even know his name. He was about 15 or 16 and I believe he has downs syndrome. In the morning a lot of the kids were laughing at him and making fun of him when he couldn't do some of the stretches. When we played a game with our group it was his turn to bat. His teammates were complaining, but the boy grabbed the bat, made the sign of the cross, kissed his hand, and pointed to the sky, just like Sammy Sosa used to do after a home run. Sammy is Dominican by the way! The boy whiffed 4-5 times before I asked him if I could help him. We whiffed the first one, but the second was right up the middle into center field. The guy pitching told me that he wished he would have had a camera to take a picture of the boys face when he hit it. He was shocked he hit too because he froze, his teammates were yelling to run so he did. To first and then to second...even though his teammate was on the base. After second base he ran back to home plate where he again made the sign of the cross, kissed his hand, pointed to the sky and gave me a high five. The coolest part though was that all the kids were cheering and clapping for him, it was a really neat moment.

There are so many moments from the week that I will never forget. I was so impressed with the reverence that the children had during mass, especially the boys that were altar servers. Those boys did everything but celebrate mass!! They arrived early to set up, did everything at the right time during mass and often in unison, they stayed late to clean up and the priest almost never had to remind them to do something. I was even more impressed with their knowledge of the faith. During camp we would read scripture with the boys and give a brief version of our testimony to them with the help of a translator. One morning, our translator asked the kids a question. He asked them how to pray, how to express gratitude towards God and how to respect god. I wasn't expecting much from their answers, but their answers blew me away. The group that was asked was made up of 5-19 year old boys. Boys of all ages raised their hands to answer and shouted things out like: la Santa Misa, Eucharista, oracion, adoracion, and respetar otros. I was surprised to hear the younger kids say things like Eucharist and adoration mostly because I was mostly unfamiliar with those things into my 20's! And as confirmed at mass with their reverence, the kids were not merely just saying these things, but they understood what they said.

Christ was truly present in those that we served and those that served us and all of us from the States fell more deeply in love with our faith and our Savior.

There is still a lot more that I want to share about this trip, so I'll be writing another post soon!

Dios le bendiga!