What the Mission Field Has Taught Us
As Ellen and I look back over the last 16 years, we have gained a special appreciation for life. Neither one of us ever expected to live in a culture different from our own, much less a foreign country. We are not the same people who arrived in the Dominican Republic on December 7, 1995. This country and our Dominican and Haitian friends have taught us many lessons – some good and some bad. But it has been a learning-experience from the first day until now.
Bob – Like most missionaries we arrived in this country with some crazy ideas on what we wanted to do. The first lesson we learned was that mission isn´t about what you would like to do. Mission is about what those you came to serve would want you to do. This is by far the most important of all our lessons, but here are some others –
- LISTEN TO Dominicans – They know their country, they know their culture, they know signs of danger. If they say don´t do xxxx, don´t do it. Too many visitors coming here, think they know more than their Dominican hosts.
- My good friend and diocesan van driver observed that the poorer the barrio, the richer the spirituality of the people who attend our barrio church. He´s right. You want to see the richness of Christ´s love, visit a church in an area of poverty.
- The Spanish word for STOP in Spanish is PARE. A friend from Nebraska said this actually meant Proceed Aggressively Risking Everything. I remember this every time I come to an intersection and I am convinced I have had fewer accidents, as a result.
- The meeting will start at 9 a.m. really means it will start at about 10 a.m. (Dominican Time). When Dominicans want to start a meeting on time, they will say 10 a.m. American Time.
- While we are on the subject – Dominicans place more emphasis on personal relationships than on time. Even if a Dominican has an appointment, he or she will not look at their watch. They will give you the courtesy of listening to what you want to say. At first, we were frustrated by late starting or late arriving visitors. But we soon learned that to live comfortably here, you must learn to be patient.
- This is a go with the flow culture. Stay calm and patient even in difficult situations where you have no control. I have served in two weddings where the bride was over an hour late. I helped plan a funeral service that was moved to another city, even though it was advertised in a daily newspaper for Epiphany Church. The immediate family didn´t inform us or many of their own family members of the change. When the body and the family didn´t arrive at the church, we called our contact number only to learn the funeral was in progress in a nearby town. What do you tell family and friends who have been waiting for over an hour.
- Dominicans place great value on personal relationships. When they enter a room they will in most cases greet each person individually. We quickly learned we need to do likewise.
- This carries over to passing the peace on Sundays. It is important to greet as many people as you can. This great event of Christian-caring can last 10 minutes, and on rare occasions even more.
- Prayer heals people, solves problems, and brings peace to a troubled soul. I knew this in the head. My mission experiences transferred it to my heart.
- Street people know how to survive. Most will ask you for money, because their needs are great. However, what they often need most is someone who cares about them and will listen to what they have to say.
- If you have trouble trusting people, you will have trouble helping the poor. You need to trust people, even if they steal your watch. A fact – In 16 years, 8 car batteries, five side-mirrors, and one tire off the back of my jeep have been stolen. Our apartment has been broken into. Ellen was assaulted on the way to church. Even so, we trust Dominicans but are as wise as a serpent in doing so, around people we do not know. If we didn´t trust them, we might as well leave the country, because we could not be effective ministers of the gospel.
- If you are afraid to hug a men and women who are not related to you, do not come to the Dominican Republic.
- We will never be able to totally understand the poor, because we have never lived in poverty. But by being ourselves, those in poverty will accept us as one of their own.
- Build it and they will come concept really works. If the diocese wants to build a new church or school, the Bishop will with faith and prayer commit diocesan funds to put in a foundation. Three or four years later, the diocese will dedicate the completion of a school or church.
- I have prayed many times that I never, ever get use to seeing poverty. It is so easy to get a hardened heart when everyday you are surrounded by families living on the edge. When you don´t get emotional in seeing the many signs of poverty, it is time to leave the mission field.
Ellen – I realize that my thoughts will be slanted because most of my experiences have been with the church and church people. As I reflect about this, I realize that most people that I have had contact with have been very warm and friendly. The scripture readings lately have been about love and the love of God. I wonder if a person that loves God so much reflects that love back to others that they meet.
It is hard for me to pick one thing I have learned because they are all inter-related.
I think I have learned to always turn to God the Father when something goes wrong or when I have a problem. If a I turn to Him and ask Him for help, He never fails to help me out. I remember once when we were getting low on funds and our mission agency was ready to pull us out of the field. Bob and I prayed about this. In a couple of days, we received a check large enough to keep us in the field for at least three additional months. We were so relieved.
I also remember another time when a difficulty came up and I prayed about it. The next day the problem had been resolved. Sometimes the problems were resolved in a way I didn't expect. This in turn taught me to trust in the Lord. He is always faithful if we turn things over to Him.
Another very precious thing I have learned was how to share in a very different way. Somewhere I learned to share with an open heart, not worrying about what I might need, but to consider what another person needs were at that moment. I am more concerned about the needs of other, especially those that have a lot less.
My perspective of skin color awareness has definitely changed. After living in a country where I am in the minority, I am much more aware of how this feels. I stick out like a sore thumb with my lighter skin and blonde hair and blue eyes. One time when we were visiting a sugar cane village, a three-year-old ran to her father when she saw me coming, and was definitely afraid.
At first I felt that I would never fit in. I am now more be empathetic to those who are of different color or who speak a different language. My experience with the Dominican people is that they are very kind to a person who is struggling to speak Spanish. They are very tolerant of errors. However, they do think all North Americans are rich. They will try to charge you higher prices for things. But I have learned to use humor to change that around. I say," That is the North American price, now, what is the Dominican price." Then I laugh. Then everyone knows I am wise to their game.
I have also learned to relate to the poor and the street people. I used to be fearful of street people, but because we have so many come to the church where we are assigned, I have come to look at them in a different light. I believe God showed me that they are His children also. I have learned that a hug or a touch can mean so much to them. No longer am I fearful of them. In fact, I want to look into their eyes and understand them. I have a true love for them that only God can give.