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.