I’ll admit it. I was being judgmental. As I absorbed the landscape along the Dominican coastline, the people in their cars and the store-fronts and businesses that seemed to be thriving, I thought, “What am I doing here? What help can I offer?” I couldn’t help but compare. After three heart-wrenching trips to Sierra Leone in West Africa, this trip to the Dominican Republic made me feel guilty. Like I was on vacation. A vacation where we had plenty of work to do, but a vacation nonetheless. There was poverty here but it was not the crushing, overwhelming, “I’ll never heal from what I’ve seen” poverty that I had witnessed before. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying the Dominican people were undeserving of help. Far from it. They had real needs. It was just a different level of need and it unsettled me.
I was struggling to know why God had sent me on this medical missions trip with SCORE International. I knew I was supposed to go. But I just couldn’t figure out why. I suspected (and by the trip’s end had it confirmed in Neon-sign fashion) that I was there for my fifteen year old son. He would never have gone if I hadn’t and the trip was incredibly powerful for him. God used him and grew him. But still, knowing that God is an equal opportunity teacher meant that He had something for me to learn, too. I wondered if it had something to do with the girls orphanage we were scheduled to visit.
Before the trip, our team had several meetings to get to know each other better, train and plan. During one of those sessions our leader, Jeff, told us that we would probably be able to visit an orphanage that SCORE had recently discovered. It was run by a couple who had, over time, taken in around 30 girls who had been rescued from slavery and/or abuse.
Then he told us a story of what had recently happened there on a SCORE Married Couples mission trip. While they were visiting this girls orphanage, the government brought in a young teenaged girl who had bruises and welts covering her thin body. She had been rescued and now needed a place to live. On that day, the married couples team shared with the girls that Jesus had already set them free. That they were no longer prisoners and that Jesus was their savior. The newly arrived girl, with horrific bruises covering her body, emphatically told one of the team members, “I need Jesus.” Right then and there she prayed and started a new life in Him.
I was so touched by that story. First by the willingness of this couple to open their home to 30 previously abused girls. Second, by the way this horribly abused young girl responded to the news that Jesus had come to save her. She could have been bitter. She could have closed her heart. Instead, she leapt at the chance to know her Savior! Beautiful.
So, on our first full day in the Dominican we were scheduled to visit the girls orphanage. I’d been to orphanages in Sierra Leone. I loved visiting the children there because they were so incredibly excited to see us, even when they’d never met us. All they wanted was to be our friends. And in a land that has been ravaged by guerrilla forces…one that has had its infrastructure decimated and its people consigned to poverty, there is a desperation in the eyes and hearts of children and adults alike. This desperation blows social reserve to pieces. There is no caution and no pleasantries exchanged. There is only, “I am so glad you’re here. Please be my friend and don’t forget me when you leave.”
That had been my experience with orphanages. But this was not Sierra Leone and I didn’t know what to expect as I ducked into this Dominican orphanage. I looked at the girls as our team of thirty plus filled their small home. Most were shy and hanging back, hesitant at first. Very different from the African children who swarmed each American, every time we visited them. I was out of my element…unsure of how to connect or what to say other than “Hola.” I walked straight through the house and out the sliding door to the back patio where several girls were standing.
Stepping through door my eyes locked on a girl with an angelic smile, holding a sweet little baby girl. There was no hesitation in her eyes. Only welcome and joy. Warmth. Drawn to her, I returned her wide smile and shook her hand as I told her my name. She told me in Spanish that her name was Franzia. I’m a writer but I’m not sure I can describe her eyes. Liquid milk chocolate might be close. Just so warm and beautiful. We were there to love on the girls but Franzia loved on me by immediately welcoming me with her smile and warm eyes. I had been uncomfortable, unsure. But she made me feel at home.
Beyond smiling and exchanging names, there wasn’t much we could do with the language barrier between us. Still, I helped her with a craft and encouraged her with hugs and pats on the back. Loving without words. The same type of scene was repeated all over the back yard. Within minutes, all shyness evaporated on both sides. Some of the team members were getting “manicures” from eager six-year-olds. Some were playing ball, jumping rope or just sitting and cuddling. There is so much more I can tell you about this girls home…I’ll need to write another post!
But it was during my craft time with Franzia that our leader, Jeff, looked at me and said, “Do you know that Franzia is the girl who was brought in when our married couples team was here?” I was stunned. This was the girl who, five months prior, had been covered in welts and bruises delivered from one who was supposed to protect her. If I didn’t trust Jeff, I would never have believed that this sweet, warm, welcoming girl was the same one who had so recently been living in hell. I looked at her with new eyes and what I saw was the amazing grace…the transforming power of the love of Jesus. She was a child of God. She knew it and it allowed her to love in spite of the pain she’d endured. She’d made a choice that each of us has to make. We can hold on to the bitterness and pain from the blows we’ve received, wearing the pain like a cloak, closing off from those who would help us. Or, we can let go of the past and run full tilt at the One who receives us with wide open arms. Full of love, forgiveness and healing.
With no more than five words between us I learned volumes from Franzia that day. I had made huge error in my comparison of the poverty in the DR and Sierra Leone. Because there is another kind of poverty that isn’t connected to how much money one has. It’s a spiritual poverty and it doesn’t discriminate. Regardless of the physical poverty level of a nation, all spiritual poverty is desperate. All people need to know about the love of Jesus…that He can set them free. So many just don’t know. They are spiritually bankrupt, beaten and bruised. They are desperately waiting for someone to show them that there is healing and love available to them. Just like the missions team before mine had told Franzia. Jesus is in the heart-healing business. And that is something I can speak to…something I have to offer…whether it’s in the dusty red dirt of Sierra Leone, the tropical heat of The Dominican Republic or the blustery snow-laden streets of Buffalo.