By: Pastor Lori Shannon
Gray United Methodist Church
Ah, the joys of an Iowa winter! In January while many of you dealt with the drudgery of scooping snowdrifts, chiseled ice from your windshields, or watched your breath freeze, I, along with seventeen others, traveled to Samana’ in the Dominican Republic, dined on rice and beans, swatted pesky mosquitos and slathered on sunblock. We represented the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission which annually sends a team outside the United States to an emerging church or one in need of assistance. Spending most of our time at the Iglesia Evangelica Dominica (Evangelical Dominican Church), we built retaining walls, painted church signs, fixed plumbing, and electrical wiring, taught Bible school in Spanish, sewed potholders, puppets, and banners, visited the sick and displaced, and, of course, attended worship.
At one of our introductory meetings, the resident missionary accompanying us said, “The Dominicans don’t have much to give, but they will give you the best they have.” And he was right. Whether it was the careful cooking of simple meals of rice and beans in big pots on an open flame outside, fashioning stunning table bouquets of pink orchids, birds of paradise and other native foliage, or showering us with hugs, they did indeed give us the very best they had.
Although it’s difficult to capture a life-changing experience in a few words, my emotions on readjusting to American life were these: I felt at once grateful, humbled, and ashamed. I felt grateful for being able to turn on the tap and drink clean water instead of relying on bottled water for my daily needs, grateful for air conditioning, grateful for the wide availability of food (no Hy-Vees or Snicker bars in abundance here). I felt humbled by the fact that the Dominican women considered potholders to be a luxury since they used rags to juggle hot pans. (I had never given the importance of potholders more than a second thought in my life.) I felt humbled by the quizzical, yet awed look in a Dominican child’s eyes when he or she held a crayon for the first time and wondered what to do with it. While many American parents and educators believe their children underprivileged without an iPad, iPhone, or a computer, Dominican youngsters would see a gift of crayons and scissors as having been given the world.
But most of all I felt ashamed, ashamed that I had not been more giving, ashamed that I had not been more grateful, ashamed that I had not been more loving. These feelings were only heightened by experiencing their worship on Sundays which was filled with still more hugs, enthusiastic singing and swaying to the upbeat music, and spontaneous heartfelt prayers in services that (gasp) lasted more than an hour. Dressed in their finest, even though they didn’t have much, the Dominicans gave God the best they had and their passionate praise and enthusiasm were infectious. I came away refreshed and inspired, yet troubled by still another thought. Who was really better off? We Americans are wealthy, almost obscenely wealthy materialistically, but I suspect we are very poor spiritually, worshiping halfheartedly, giving halfheartedly. The Dominicans give generously out of what little they have while many of us give reluctantly only out of our excess, only if it’s convenient, and only if it’s tax deductible.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink or whatever [emphasis mine] you do, do all to the glory of God.” From what I could observe, I could see that the Dominicans I encountered did that, but do we? Is our gratitude for all God has done for us reflected in our behavior and does our behavior glorify God? That’s a question and a challenge for us to consider.
The last day of our work at the church, the Dominicans gave us a further glimpse into their culture by performing some of their native dances for us, and of course, involving us in their exuberant celebration. I felt honored to have had the chance not only to have danced with them that day but also, in a way, to have danced through two weeks of my life with them—to glorify God. After we said our tearful goodbyes and exchanged hugs, we received gifts from our new friends who had become so dear to us. Mine was a little turtle bracelet fashioned from bits of brightly colored thread and a coconut shell. Most people would say, “Well, that doesn’t look like much.” But God and I know better. In Christian love, they had given us the very best they had.