March 18, 2010

Sabaneta Stories 5

Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!" -- gospel of Matthew

The Dominican is like many other places in this world, including our own, in this respect: If you want to see the whole picture of life here, get off the main roads and get out of your car.  Highways have a way of making people and places move by too quickly for real connection, and sealed-up vans provide too much insulation and false-comfort for learning the land. (If nothing else, roll the windows down as you roll along. Smell the smells. Connect.)

But nothing beats walking. When you walk (in groups, of course), you have to make contact with the world around you.

A pastor here says, "Every year I pray a small prayer to God that I could get a big SUV like those American missionaries have over across the mountain. But God keeps saying to me, "No, you are the walking man." And we should be a walking people. It is important, and Chritian, to look a person in the eyes. To see them, and to be seen. Each "hola" and "adios" and, even better, "Como esta?" is an enfleshed moment, a human encounter. And so one must walk around here, and move off the main drags ... even off of Cancu's otherwise terrifically hospitalable street. His is a great street, but it is only one corner of life here.

We walk with a guide, a friend to many, and we see things that are hard to see.  Move off the highway, and with each block further away from the Sabaneta church building the life-issues move from the long-range future-vision of Cancu down to yearly, then eventually weekly survival.  Three of our men and three of their sons stand in a 8 by 8 ramshackle tin shed. Holes in the roof and the hot sun above form minature Hollywood spotlights shining down to the floor, a plane cracked and broken. Half dirt, half concrete.  "Seven people were sleeping here when we came through with our medical mission," our guide tells us. "You can throw all the pills you want at people, but if they are sleeping in the mud and bugs in a place like this they are never going to feel better." Standing there, smelling there, that makes sense.

The side roads here are craggy and hard ... until it rains (which is often), and then they become rivers of mud and slop. A few houses are bright with paint and promimse, but most are in various stages of masonary construction, if that.  In one section there is a quarter mile stretch of concrete curbing along the road, but no pavement to meet it.  Curbing, on a lousy dirt road. We all ask about this. "Elections" is the response. Will the rest of it go down, the pavement? Who knows. Maybe in four years.

Turn the corner, and tucked into a row of otherwise dilapidated houses is a brightly painted, newly-built storefront. "Banco," reads the sign above the door. Inside is a counter, with plate glass, and a window.  The small space is air-conditioned (nothing here is air-conditioned), and behind the glass sits a pretty young Dominican with a low-cut top.  She has a computer to use.  "Banco."  But it is not a bank. It is the federal lottery, and these little shops are everywhere.  Understand: Next door to this financial institution is a two-room dirt-floor shack that rents for about 500 pesos a month, roughly 14 American dollars, plus utilities.  But, yes, certainly this neighborhood will be helped by the lottery.

Our friend Richard needs to check in on a particular side-street family. On Sunday, they brought twin babies into the world.  They are Hatians, though they have been here in Sabaneta since well before the earthquake. We duck down into the low doorframe and step into the small corrugated metal house they rent. It's dark inside, even in the middle of a hot afternoon. The one beam of sunlight slipping through the roof reveals the dust moving through the hot air. Mother's sister, a teenager, greets us gently. She has trouble looking us in the eyes, and it is hard to know if we (but not Richard) should be here or not. "Ma ma?" he asks.  We move into a side room, half as big, about the feel of something in which you would store your yard tools and mower. Mom is there, and on the corner of the high bed are two diminuative infants. That description would seem redundant, except that these are the smallest newborns I have ever seen.

Mom looks tired. Sister looks concerned. Babies lay there, motionless. "They are not eating," she tells Richard. 

It occurs to me that sweat is now pooling on my back, and I realize for the first time in a few minutes (attention having been fixed on the babies) that it must be 100 degrees in this room. The air is thick, like a sauna on too long, and on the top of my shaved head I can feel the heat radiating off of the metal roof.  This is a toaster oven. But then again, it is their home. My own shirt now wet with persperation, I notice that the twins are dressed head-to-toe in matching blue and pink infant jumpers. Their feet are in socks, and their heads are in little knit caps. Knit caps. Their heads are covered in knit caps ... in this oven. They are motionless. "They are not eating."

Now don't get ahead of me here. She's a good mother. You can feel it. The place might be rude and bare, but it is clean and has a kind of order about it. The bed is neatly tucked and the towel-shades are drawn tight, to mitigate the sun's intrusion, I'm sure. She is trying. She is tired, but she is trying. There is a silence in the room that names how hard this visit is all turning out to be. No, I mean for her. She is away from her home, her country, and although no one says it (in Creole, Spanish, or English), all of us--black, brown or white--seem to know that the future for these little lives on the bed is alltogether uncertain. They looked to me almost like royalty, in their little stylish jumpers, dressed to the nines, crown-caps on their heads. One can only hope these warm royal robes are not their undoing. 

Remember, she is trying.

(We suggest some cooler clothing, or none at all. And cool rags. We leave some bread, and Jesus' name, and we take our leave. We step outside into the sun, and instantly it is 15 degrees cooler on the skin. She seemed glad we came, which is generous of her. Risen Son, help the mothers of the world.)

Speaking of mothers, met on other streets: With skin as dark as night, Hatian women enjoy faces that beam beauty. Richard has one cooking lunch for sixty Hatian children six days a week. Rice, beans, and bread. She is tall, this cook, and slim, and when she smiles at you and slightly drops her shy face during a greeting, you feel as though you could be meeting the Queen. But this is not aristocratic beauty. She is strong, and scrappy.  She has to be. She has in her care a dozen children (most of them not hers), and with giggles and laughter they all dart around the property like a flock of birds. While we hear tell of plans for a Haitian free clinic down the street, the younger Evans holds court with a gaggle of little girls, teaching them to make funny puppets with their fingers. Their giggles seem inversely proportional to their prospects.

They are surviving here, and mom-cook-queen seems more than willing to take on one more if needed.

And it is needed. Children keep coming here from Haiti every week, more and more since the earthquake. Families scrape together what they have and send who they can across the Dominican border to rally with families already here in the D.R.  I teach a six-year old girl how to high-five, and Richard tells me she has just come from Haiti to join her cousins here.  She made it from the border all the way to Sabaneta (probably two days) on 25 pesos (about 70 cents).  As it turned out, she did not have to pay for rides on motorcycles, scooters, and in vans until the very last leg of our journey. As we practice our high-fiving, I see her in my mind: perched on a the back of a third-hand American dirtbike turned taxi, moving down the northern coastal highway at 50 miles per hour, weaving in and out of traffic, with her arms tucked around the mid-section of whatever stranger is driving. She is holding on through each dart in and out of wild Dominican traffic; she is holding on (out?) for life. Richard says, "She just kept saying to each driver, 'Sabaneta. Sabaneta.'" It worked. She is here.  She is six.

Hatians making a go of it here in the Dominican have it hard. There is existing, to begin with. But what´s more, many Dominicans make sense of their world by looking down on Hatians ("Animals.") the same way most of us make sense of our world by looking down on someone.  For my grandmother, it was blacks; as such, there were plenty of place she would never walk.  Keep those windows up tight.  I wonder, who is it for me?

But when you are a "mama"-cook-quenn, and the living is one day-at-a-time, you don't seem to worry much about complicated social dynamics and racial tensions. You just live, under your holy roof, on these hard roads, unfinished curbing and costly bancos all around. You stand up straight and you survive, with the giggles of your children in your ear and the stunning beauty of your face and the memories of home in your eyes. 

These are the back roads, hard and holy.  

What a gift that Mercy has passed this way. 

(Matthew 20:29-34)

March 17, 2010

Sabaneta Stories 4

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. -- the gospel of John


Come here just once, and unless you choose to stay disconnected through iPods, cheap paperbacks, or hiding out in your room each evening, before you know it you are giving fist-bumps to new Domincan friends and over lunch asking more about interesting Sabaneta congregational politics.  By Wednesday, you have forgetton about bills to pay back home, annoying in-laws, and the inbox that is probably growing exponentially with each day away.  By Hump Day, you are saying to yourself: "I am involved here now. In some small way at least, I feel a part of this place. I think I want to know how all this--this church, this neighorhood, this world--I want to know how all this turns out in the end."

On Monday evening, Pastor Cancu and his wife Altagracia spoke with us after dinner. He talked first, about his life story, his faith in Jesus, and his vision for this community.  But the real fun began when we asked him (them) how they had met some 30+ years ago on the other side of the island.  He told the story in his typical straight-up, no-nonsense style. It was all very nice. Then she protested, through our interpreter, "No, no, no!  Now let me tell you the realstory!" We howled in laughter like a pack of dogs. (If Cancu is in style a Walter Cronkite, then she is a Kathy Griffin ... without the bad language, of course. Those of us who are spouses laughed in the relief that marital tugs and twists are aparently a universal phenominon, transcultural.  Nice to know!)

When people tell their story, it is difficult to resist being pulled into their lives. And when that story is interwoven with the threads of providence, grace, and calling, it is difficult not to feel the baptismal bonds growing stronger--even across of gulf of culture, language, and blue-green agua.  Lives are shaped by stories. Stories are named with words. And words become a precious gift, especially when each one requires a careful exchange across linquistic barriers.

So if we share a Word-bond with our Dominican friends, a Jesus-connection across these many miles, this shared story is surely cared for by the lips of our interpreters.  That this trip each year would not be possible without them is obvious as soon as the plane's door opens in Puerto Plata and one needs to find a bathroom. But more subtle and sacred is the fact that their words, and sentences, and paragraphs, and hours and hours of verbal translation--these are the bones and muscles and ligaments that allow the Word to become flesh among us in this place, in this bond.  We can walk alongside Cancu and his kirk in a meaningful way, and they can teach us more and more about ministry in our own world, mostly because walking with us are those who can steward this living conversation, those who can speak the language.

The rest of us become all the more grateful as we realize throughout the week that translation is not a mere mechanical act, not a simple this-word-for-that, but rather a sagacious service cradled in understanding and respect.  The task is not merely to match one word for another: bathroom for bano, cepillo de dientes for toothbrush, or "el pastor tiene una nariz grande" ... meaning, of course, "the pastor has a large nose." (This ian an oft-needed phrase among these rowdy and disrespectful Presbyterians.)  Google Translate can match one word with another, but it takes an interpreter to steward a living bond. 

One must fall in love with the place, and the people, and the purpose of this work. And out of that love an interpreter labors to make the right connections, to listen well and so to fashion the best words, so that both parties are on the same page and everyone is growing in fidelity.  It is not just knowing the vocabulary, it is knowing why words matter at all.  Because with them, sentences are formed and stories are told and lives are shared and work is accomplished ... all "a la gloria de Dios y en servicio del Hijo," to the glory of God and in service to the Son, whose Sunday-new-life is the best word spoken anywhere. Resurrección.

Our heartfelt thanks to Sonia, Marite, Joel, and Elizabeth (and others) for practicing their interpetive craft for us all this week long.  Muchas gracias.



The Clen-More Presbyterians recently cooked up a pile of spaghetti in New Castle and sold it to those who came to buy it, in order to raise some money to purchase a new wheelchair for a young woman who lives just down the street and around the big corner from the Sabaneta church.  Here name is Jessica, and if that nomenclature rings a bell back home, it is likely because you remember seeing her stand on her new braces in the doorway of her home, our Sandy by her side.  Not that you've been to her home, likely, but you have probably seen the picture of that grand moment passed around our various churches. 

Jessica is a alive with playful energy.  It spills out of her smile and rolls out of her flamboyant gestures.  Even so, she is unable to direct enough of that energy downward so that her legs might move her to and fro. In her 20s now, she remains either bed- or wheelchair-bound ...except for the 40 or so minutes a day when she stands in the braces made for her two years ago by friends in our partnership. Mobility remains hard.  Last year this time, a used wheelchair was procured for her by our group. But the rough pavement around her family's modest morter home takes its toll on wheeled equipment, and that chair gave way.  Hence, spaghetti in New Castle.

That being said, the Clen-More Presbyterians are in danger of fashioning for Jessica something of an ego.  "300 people came to the dinner," their pastor reported. "We had a big picture of you for all to see."  Dominican daughter and mother respond with faces agape and sighs of glad unbelief.  In a word: Wow. "I am a movie star now, yes?!" Jessica asks in her broken English. We all laugh. Her legs may not work, but her impish sense of humor surely does.  Then a little more innocant ego surfaces for us to see: "Tell me again ... how many people were there?" She knows the answer, the little devil.  Mom shakes her head in light-hearted dissapproval, as any mother would. "O Jessica, Jessica."

But let the young lady bask in this moment. in the news of her grand ball.  First of all, there is something rather gospel-kingdom-like about an otherwise unknown young lady from the poor side of town with a broken-down body and a brave family through a twist of fate and a growing friendship becoming something of a celebrity in a strange town and and in unknown church far, far away. Maybe the last will be the first, after all. "A movie star!" she says from her chair with new wheels, primping her brushed hair and tossing her hand back like Marilyn Monroe. (Hang around her just a while and you realize that she is no dummy.  She gets the joke. And so we all laugh along, at her invitation.)

But what's more, let's be her paparazzi.  She's earned it. So she's stuck in a wheelchair with limp legs, on the poor side of town (most sides are).  Does that stop her from hosting 40 students in her home 4 days a week?  Yes, she gathers up the kids and adults and even a senior citizen on the block, all those who never finished school, and she gives them lessons, and lunch, and--dare I say it--life.  Stacked under their ramshackle tin carport (the car has not moved in a good while) are 8 sets of long Laura Ingalls school desks, waiting for the next session of class under her roof, in the dirt. And did I mention that she and her mother (who has the biggest, whitest, widest smile you will ever see) also cook a rice-and-beans lunch four times each week for 60 or more people along the block? 

So, sure, look around their home at the pocked walls and the aging furniture and the fading American posters probably picked up for song.  Watch your step outside, lest you trip over old water lines or frayed electric cords, or that cat whose ribs you can count. Smell the hard smells, shake your head, and see the girl in the chair.  It could all be taken one way, sure, if you did not know it was really the other. 

She is New Castle's latest Marilyn Monroe, the belle of her ball, with skin the color of rich chocolate and a smile that lights up a room and a sense of humor that will serve her well down the bumpy road still before her. O yes, and did I mention: She has a daily ministry of Christian outreach to her neighbors that would put most of our able-bodied congregations to shame.

Wheelchair delivered.  Say, Marilyn ... enjoy the ride.

March 16, 2010

Sabaneta Stories 3

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. - Paul, in Philippians

The pillow provided for me in my bed is someone's smallish sofa cushion, stuffed into a pillow case.  This arrangment offers a comfort similar to a 5 pound bag of flour.  Still, when I stop to think about it (at 2:30 in the morning), it occurs to me that the Sabaneta congregation has worked hard before our arrival to secure for us 30 beds from their own homes for use during the entire week.  When was the last time I gave up my bed ... for anyone?  Perspective.

Incidentally, imagine securing 30 beds, 30 sets of sheets, and 30 pillows for a week of 30 guests in your neighborhood.  Imagine cooking from scratch 90 portions a day for a week's time.  Imagine the hassle of closing down your child's school for a week in order to house a team of workers.  It's no small feat.
You could make a case that our construction workers are not necessary.  The blocks they are moving, the dirt they are sifting, the buckets they are lifting, it is not neccesary (or even efficient) to fly a dozen gringos in from the States for such menial tasks. That's the objective truth of the matter. We could just write a check, drop it in the mail, and be done with it. But then again, if example and service are the goals: Sending money is one thing, sending bodies is another. A bunch of strangers forming a block brigade as long as a house surely signals something important to this neighborhood.  We are here neither to take over and control this gig nor to sit back and passively watch others do it all, only to pay the bill.  Pick up a shovel and sift a truckload of sand and you say, "We are here to support this congregation in what it is about in this community. We are for this.  We are for them, and they are for you."  So let our middle-managers and engineers haul up one more bucket of sand to the second floor. Let the boys move one more bucket of mud. When you see the big picture of what this block, this wall, this building is all about, it begines to feel more like an honor to take one's place in an otherwise menial role. This, plus: Moving block gives a man some time to think about things back home, about the value of some (occassional) sweat, and about the gift of stepping back from the house at 4:00pm to see something you helped accomplish.  This is good for a man, and maybe only men can understand this. Besides, the breaks for water and shade afford some good shoulder-to-shoulder conversation among each other, and that's never a bad thing in this life.  Efficient use of persons?  Probably not, from an Excel perseptive.  Faithful labor under the son -- er, sun?  All depends on your perspective.
Incidentally, the second floor of Cancu's home is really taking shape. One can now see the outline of 5 small guest rooms, with a small kitchen space and dos banos, two restrooms.  There is a main room down the middle of this second floor, suitable for dining, and by tomorrow the outlines of numerous windows will be visable. This space for guests, workers, and missionaries is all a part of the long-range vision of this continuing partnership. It is exciting to imagine how this will change the nature (and ferquency?) of our visits here.
Practicing even simple medicine here can be a reall challenge for our doctors and nurses.  Patients usually use the most general of terms to describe any number of conditions--terms they have heard on the street, or picked up from the crowd pressed in on the chapel entrance when our medical teams arrive. "La congestión" many say ... which can cover a multitude of issues. The ambiguity is frequent and frustrating.  What's this person's story?  What is this family's living condition? Is this her mother, grandmother, aunt, neighbor? Is this problem acute, or are they here hoping to store up some meds for a chronic condition for use later in the year?  Is that a legitimate hoarding or not?  This is by no means an exact science. Still, our people do the best they can, and they seem glad to try.  For many who come, this is the only healthcare available to them and their children. Creams and vitamins and ibuprofen are simple markers toward a better future for even the smallist of children. (Today a woman brought in her 1 month old baby. Bonito!) Is all this really worthwhile?  Are these visits and diagnoses and ziplocs full of pills really contributing to the long-term health of the community?  Is it all making "a difference"?  Depends on your perspective, I suppose.  Surely the return of the same medical professionals for yet another year speaks for itself.
Incidentally, as of Tuesday evening, some 400 patients have been seen either here in Sabaneta or out in one of the travelling clinics, meeting in local chapels connected to the mother congregation. Our pharmicisit, here in the D.R. for the first time, has done a great job ... and many have pitched in on the nightly pill counting.  The entire process--from suitcases to sorting to counting to bagging to travelling to setup to disbursement--is a process of love to behold.
The electricity at the church/school complex stinks, and everyone knows it.  It will work fine for a day, then flicker on and off (mostly staying off) for hours on end.  There is an inverter system, yes, but with 30 guests running around in the evenings needing lights and charges and fans...the batteries have a hard time keeping up with our American comforts. What a pain.  Or is it?  A lack of lights has an interesting way of pushing people outside, and together.  A crisis of comfort can breed frustration, to be sure, but it can also birth an otherwise hidden creativity. When was the last time you sat around on a porch and laughed with friends about how silly we all are?  When was the last time a spontaneous card game broke out around you and you "wasted" an hour?  (Note to readers: Don't tell Cancu about the hearts games. No los juegos de azar.)  Who sits around anymore in our compressed and driven world and sings (and plays) for the sake of singing and laughing? Is it a bad thing or not that the wiring in the Christian school in Sabaneta looks like an explosion at a yarn factory? Depends on your perspective.

Sacrifice. Hospitality. Labor. Humble service. Compassion. Consistant care. Spontaneous fellowship. Singing for singing sake. Christian community. "Think on excellent, commendable, Christ-shaped things," urges the Apostle.  Think on these things. Fashion your perspective around your Easter faith.

When you lay down your head this night and think over a day now spent, has it all been run-of-the-mill and bereft of any meaning?  Has the time you have been given, has it been a burden or a blessing?  Is this mad world, and your corner it, a summons to truth and love or a draining depression?  Has there been today even one moment when just a bit of resurrection light has eeked its way into the troubled world around you?

Saint on the pillow, think on these things. Has this day been about death, or life?  It all depends.


March 15, 2010

Sabaneta Stories 2

"You are still whole ... to your family, and to God."

Coveyed in Spanish, those words of encouragement were offered to a Domincan woman who at 65 finds herself absent a limb and absent any reason to get up up in the morning. 

A treatable injury was not treated well, resulting in infection and the complete amputation of her leg. Now problems abound: an inadequate walker, lots of phantom pain, and a ramshackle house not laid out with an amputee in mind. She is discouraged. Who wouldn´t be?  She is the mother-in-law of one of the directors of the Christian school this partnership has help to build and helps to fund.  So through those channels word came to us of her situation, and one of our interpreters and our occupational therapist went out for a visit.  She is in a tough spot, this new neighbor to our group, and after another fall last week it is likely her tenuous wound will need to be operated on again.  Good medical counsel was given. A plan was hatched to secure this week a better walker (one that does not collapse when she puts her weight on it). In hindsight, however, perhaps the reason our pair was sent to her came in the heartfelt message.  Eye to eye, one woman to another: "You are still whole, to God."

Wholeness.  Peace.  Shalom. We forget that the Biblical expression of peace is not merely the absence of violence, but moreso the presence of true life.  Wholeness.  All can be well, even in this world, even in this body.

The Domincans make wholness in community and easy grace.  They are comfortable in their skins, content with themselves and their vibrant culture, and so it is a seamless effort for them to make us Americans feel comfortable around them.  After dinner, the assistant pastor pulls out a guitar and the Dominicans teach us songs to sing in Spanish. This goes on for an hour.  One cannot help but be pulled into the singing and clapping.  Ignorance of the tune or the rhythm is not a source of self-conscious embarrasment, but rather an invitation to learn--to belong.  A group game develops--a most Domincan game, quick and challenging for anyone who does not know Spanish. But our friends here are patient with us until we learn the play and lose ourselves in the fun.  Sure, they laugh heartily when we mess up the words and have to move to the end of the line, but they laugh just as lustily at themselves and their own playful demise.  They practice a certain peace with life, and as such they put us at peace.  One wonders if some in our group feel more at home here than in the States.  One wonders how long this wholeness will last upon our return, under the load of American ambiquity and disabling self-conciousness. 

- - -

Monday began with breakfast under Cancu´s canopy.  We read a Psalm and then Paul´s teaching from 1 Thessalonians: "So deeply did we care for you that we were determined to share with you not only the good news from God but also our very selves."  The plan for the day, for sharing our selves, was discussed ... and then the labor commenced.

Most of our men folded into the construction work. The project this year is to put a second floor on the pastor´s house, owned by the congregegation.  These extra bedrooms and a bath will (1) provide more housing for future groups in our partnership, (2) provide a safer place to stay for any who come down to work at other times during the year, and (3) will provide safe shelter for Cancu and others in the event of flooding--a frequent threat.

A Domincan worksite is an entire world unto itself.  Among the locals--many of them church members--there is always a brain to the operation, and then some quiet masons at work, and then some basic workers who haul and place.  It takes an American a little time to figure out just who is who.  The ingredients of the effort, however, are much more easily discerned: block, sand, cement, and rebar.  And it is with these rudimentary elements that our people come into the mix. We sift the dirt free of rocks and pebbles.  We hoist the resulting sand up a story to the roof of the house.  We move concrete block from the street to the sky, and then we bring the block to the Domincans as course-by-course a wall develops under their watchful eye. There is a kind of beauty to their work, another kind of wholeness, if you will.  They spread out morter like a mix for a meal.  They stack a block.  They examine said block.  They adjust that block in the still-maliable morter until it lines up just as it should.  And then the whole step begins again.  By lunchtime, and surely by supper, something like a room with spaces for doors and windows has taken shape.  They have a way of doing things, and it works.  The wise guest on these roofs takes time to learn what they are doing.

Meanwhile, it is hot.  Muy calor (no caliente). We Americans learn the hard way that we are now half the distance between the States and the equator.  Simply, we are closer to the sun.  And you can tell.  So the boys on the roof drink lots of water, and by the end of the day the bodega across the street has been bought out of Dominican Gatorade.  Fluid in. Sweat out. But stand back from it all (in the shade, mind you), and there is now new wall for all to see. Shelter. Home. Wholeness.

Medical teams (a doctor, a nurse, and an interpreter) are seeing 50 patients in the morning and another 50 in the afternoon, both here at the clinic in Sabaneta (across the street from Cancu´s church and school) and out in regional chapels-turned-clinics. After all these patnership years, this process is a well-oiled machine.  Domincans purchase tickets for each family member needing to be seen by a doctor.  No ticket, no visit. (Cancu says that people should have an investment in their own care.)  Only the common and treatable ailments are handled, with more serious issues referred to what specialists and hospitals exist on this north side of the island. Nevertheless, there is never a ticket not used. The investment is not in the short-term antibiotic, but in the long-term health of a region.  Better than pain meds, children´s vitamins are the better symbol of Cancu´s big vision.

There´s someting whole about a chapel turned clinic. By simple pragmatic plan, the docs and nurses see patients down in the front of the little sanctuaries--often on the small rostrum where pulpit, table, and font would be for Sunday.  Walk in the door of the chapel then, and one sees rows of families waiting to be seen, facing the front, toward the small wooden cross hanging up high at the apex of the ceiling.  These are buildings made for wellness, blocks and morter of wholeness.  Jesus-teaching for life on Sundays, Jesus-care for the body on Mondays.  That seems right.

Domincan culture at large is loose and flamboyant, easy-going to the point of excess.  By contrast, the morays of the Domincan Evangelicals are much tighter and restrained--no smoking, no drinking, no dancing, etc.  They have chosen to seperate themselves from the wider cultural norms in order to practice a faithful witness. Even the church and school buildings in Sabaneta have a kind of focussed, firm look out about when compared to the more free-flowing neighborhood around them.  Noticing this pattern, one of our youth asked, quizically, "If they are seperate from the people around them in so many ways, then how can they connect to them? How do they reach out?" Our informal late-afternoon circle of conversation, huddled under the shade of courtyard tree, pondered that missional question for a moment. Then someone said, "The meds."  And that was it.  The meds. Our friends are seperate, yes.  But they serve.  Or at least Cancu pushes them to serve. The medicines, the clinics, and the school, and the water treatment, and the pharmacy, and scholarships ... These are efforts at wholeness that, while not apologizing for seperatness, reach across the boundaries of social morays and transact Jesus-peace for thos who need it most.  This is how they feel called to bear the light, by beingn other, only then to serve others.  And so we lug our 22 suitcases of pills, our wheelchair in two large boxes, and our doctor´s tools that draw the suspicion of TSA inspectors--we lug these enacted prayers to this island to help our sisters and brothers bless their neighbors.  "Come to the chapel. Be made whole."

- - -

In the care of a recent American president, the term "compassionate conservative" took a terrible hit.  But down here, there might just be something to the approach.  Cancu expects something of people, because--you can hear it in his story--the Lord has expected something of him. He will not let the gospel be trampled upon by low expectations and a kind of easily-manipulated affection.  He takes the long view, and resists the temptation to conspire in quick fixes. "Cancu, we have brought you money for school lunches." "Thank you, but no. Lunches are here and then gone. Families can learn to support themselves in that way. What I could use are microscopes for our lab, and items that last for the school."  The long view.  "Cancu, how many patients should our doctors plan to see this year?" "I want you only to see a certain amount, so that there are medicines to last throughout the year and so our people do not think that care only happens when the Americans come around."  Restraint, born of a larger vision.  After 27 years, this community knows he is man to be resepcted, both because he will demand something true and right from you and that he (and Jesus) will aboslutely have your back if you are in need.  Somehow, he holds both together. Case in pont:

On Monday morning, the annual scholarship meeting was held.  The Sabaneta chapel was filled with parents and children, gathered to hear about the gift and responsibility of financial support for schooling--both here at the Evangelical school and, for older youth, at the university on the island.  Forms were filled out, expectations were named, and the Clen-More folks shared with the families who their American sponsors are and why Cancu believes education is so important. Later in the day, after dinner, he would stand before our group and explain that thanks to the help of our partnership, lo these many years, no less than 25 college graduates have come from this Sabaneta neighborhood.  What´s more, now some of those graduates are returning to the community--to run the schools, to practice medicine, to live and work and witness.  Hearing him speak, one realizes why in ministry we must always take the bigger and longer view: Cultures are not changed overnight, and brain-drains are not reversed in one flash-in-the-pan visit.  Community development, and a Christian witness therein, takes decades ... maybe a lifetime.  But the fruit of such labor is a kind of lasting wholeness: education and character and faith coming full circle, to bless and build up others.

"You are whole now, thanks to Jesus." 

Be at peace, friends. And whether your ministry today is on this island or on your own, transact that Jesus-peace in this stubborn world until all is well for all.

March 14, 2010

Sabaneta Stories 1

Santo Santo Santo! 
En numeroso coro, santos escogidos Te adoran sin cesar ...

"Holy, holy, holy! All the saints endlessly adore your name ..."

There is something quite right about the fact that our week in Sabaneta begins with Lord´s Day worship.  Though most of us cannot share in the language here (even college Spanish is found wanting with the rapid pace of local dialogue), and even though our respective skin colors reveal no apparent commonality ... despite ourselves, we share a sturdy bond in Jesus. That is both grace and summons.  This bond is made all the more palpable by the arms-wide-open hospitality of the Dominican Chrisians--more hugs and kisses than before church than even your grandmother could muster.  Yes, worship is exactly the right way to begin this week. Sharing in book, bath, and meal. Singing and singing and more singing. Laughter. Silence. Prayer. This is what the baptized do, and it is our priveledge to do it alongside our font-family here. The four plaster walls of the modest Sabaneta sanctuary reverberate with drums, shakers, and the voices of God´s people: Santo Santo Santo! Holy, holy, holy!  

Indeed, holy is the Lord, and holy is the space where Jesus´people gather to sing and pray.

Saturday was a long day.  Many us skipped an entire night of sleep in order to make a 2am departure. Our flights were seamless and uneventful, but still it made for a tiresome 24 hours.  Saturday sleep, then, was a true gift.  Sunday morning brought breakfast behind Pastor Cancu´s house--a sturdy, covered, open-air eating place built years ago by previous teams. Over breakfast, we practiced two songs we would sing in worship and talked about the agenda for the rest of the day: worship, lunch, tours, more pill-counting, and a special concert out in a nearby village.

They speak here of "Domincan time." If worship begins at 9:30, everyone knows that means 9:30ish.  A typical American finds this either annoying/lazy or endearing/wise. Choose the latter, because our Domincan sisters and brothers could teach us a few things about worshipping well as a community of saints.  They take there time with this affair.  There is plenty of hugging and greeting before worship begins. Songs are sung well, and there is always time for one more.  Why not? What else would we be doing on ressurection day? Look in their eyes and you do not see the next thing on their agenda, another waiting box on a to-do list.  There are no Blackberrys to silence (well, maybe a few flip phones), no matters at work looming over their heads.  It is time to worship ... and so we did, from 9:30(ish) until noon(ish).

I suppose some matters are worth doing well, no matter how long it takes.  Santo santo santo.

Pastor Cancu led us in prayer, and various church leaders read scripture from both testaments.  Words of welcome were spoken to us, and our group of 30 gathered down front to introduce ourselves and add two more songs of our own to the worship.  The preacher for the day lifted up the tale of the disciples scared out of their minds in the stormy boat, from Matthew 14. He leaned heavily on Jesus´ blessed admonition not to be afraid, for he is near.

Indeed, there is some fear here: Will there be another earthquake on this island? Will our grandsons be corrupted by the hard-thumping Reggaeton music, so popular now among the youth of this island?  Will our granddaughters be swept up into local prostitution?  Will Cancu serve us for more years to come?  There is much to fear, many things are unknown. The preacher insisted that, nevertheless, when the Lord calls us to do great things in this world, we do not have to be afriad. God is faithful still.  Santo santo santo.  

After the sermon, a young boy was brought forward to be baptized.  His face was worrisome, but Cancu--normally fierce with focus, straight as an arrow--was gentle and kind.  They moved together like father and son toward a smallish silver bowl.  Eyes closed.  Water all over the head.  Quiet all around, save for the most beautiful Spanish I have ever heard.  New life.  All is well.  The lad returned to the pew with his mother, greeted with a gladsome unison "Amen" in Spanish.

Meal followed bath.  Generous loaves of Dominican bread held high for all to see, and based on the blessed looks on the faces of the Amercans, some moments do not need a translator.  Come. Eat.  Be grateful.  Jesus is here.  The Domincan bread has baked into it what seems to be the slight taste of liquorice, of all things.  Point is, it catches the palatte off gaurd.  And it should: This is the blessed body of the Lord, broken for us.  Beware already-holy-selves, and be blessed you sinners.

Like I said: two and a half hours.  But the thing is you don´t know it.  No air conditioning, no PowerPoint, no bulletins, and it moves along in its own blessed way. What´s the hurry, American friends?  Santo santo santo.

After worship, we gathered back at Cancu´s house for a traditional Domincan lunch: rice, beans, and what are essentially boiled bananas.  Excellent.  (Imagine feeding 30 hungry Americans three meals a day for seven days, all on your back stoop, with a few propane burners and an open-pit fire. As my father used to say: "God bless the cooks.")

The afternoon brought more pill-counting for many, in the continual effort to ready the pharmacy to supply meds for hundreds of patient encounters throughout this week.  Meanwhile, those here for the first time were treated to van-tours of the surrounding countryside and adjacent villages near Sabaneta.  Stops were made at the various chapels associated with the mother church in Sabaneta, most of which have been built over the years by previous teams.

One tour stopped in the home of the chapel pastor near Boca.  A school teacher by day, on nights and weekends she is preacher, pastor, and prophet.  Almost daily, she makes her way down to the road, where gambling and the sex-trade runs deep but not hidden. She preaches to anyone who will listen.  She is on the front lines of a broken world--a brokeness apparent in ramshackle sex-shacks and on young girl´s faces.  This place is not typical Domincan fare, thank goodness, but it is here nonetheless.  A rough place. So she preaches, and prays, and serves those who will be served.  "It is my priveledge," she says in rapid Spanish. "I look forward to retiring from teaching so I can serve the Lord in other ways."  What did I do today to shed a little Easter-light on a darkened world? I wonder. Santo santo santo.

Evening brought dinner and, for many, a concert by one of the church members in a nearby chapel. He sang, we sang, and we all sang some more.  We clapped and swayed, and at one point, the tallest and whitest among us were ushered forward for some clumsy dancing near the front.  Funny thing about Domincan hospitality: One never feels made fun of.  It appears we are okay with them.  There is freedom in love.  Santo.

Nighttime brought wind, rain, and electricity that did a dance of off and on all throughout the night.  The fan is working ... now the fan is not ... now the fan--This is the Sabaneta version of counting sheep.  It is hot and sticky here, even in March, even at night.  But stiill, we slept.  Well, some slept ... and snored.  Others did not sleep. Patience with one another: through the night, at meals, in hard labor.  All part and parcel of practiciting Jesus community.

This too, in its own way, Santo.

March 2, 2010

On Marriage

"Two live best together who live in God."  -- D.P.