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