Thursday, February 7, 2013
The Dominican Republic: Yo Soy Catalina
Yo soy Catalina. My name used to be Caitlin, but no one here in the Dominican Republic can pronounce it. “Caitlin” has become just a jumble of letters and sounds, something unrecognizable. In Puerto Rico, I still had my name and some of my culture, but those days are over. I’m Catalina again. I’m a missionary in a foreign country again. Having a holiday break in the states seems like a distant dream; now it’s back to reality. In the Dominican Republic, I can’t depend on electricity or running water or internet. I can’t go for a jog on my own in the neighborhoods where I stay. I work with people who don’t speak my language or understand my culture. People make constant comments about my hair, my skin, my body. Caitlin is being squeezed out of me all over again. Yo soy Catalina.
As challenging as it’s been to jump back into life here after being in the states, I wouldn’t have it any other way. As I sat in a poor farming village the other day, random dark-skinned children running their fingers through my hair and laughing, my heart felt at peace. I’m in the right place. Sure, I am challenged daily. But I am blessed daily. I love the islands. I love the people here. I love the kids, the prisoners, the lepers, and the senior citizens I’ve gotten to hang out with in the last few weeks. I love the beautiful Caribbean ocean. I love the simplicity of things here. Though being Caitlin was a lot easier, I love being Catalina.
My team began our time in the Dominican Republic in the capital city of Santo Domingo. After a short flight from Puerto Rico, we were greeted at the airport by Pastor Luis and Julio, his friend from the church. While driving from the airport to the pastor’s home, I could already sense a stronger Caribbean flavor than what we’d experienced in Puerto Rico. The main road from the airport into the city hugged the coast, providing us with breathtaking views of sparkling crystal-clear water. Palm trees hid people in their shade and swayed with the rhythm of the gentle ocean breeze.
On the way to Pastor Luis’s house, we pulled over at a man’s fruit stand where he treated each of us to a freshly cracked coconut. We swigged the sweet milk straight from the coconut, then scooped out the remaining fruit. Now we were in the real Caribbean.
As we continued driving, the roads became a bit more industrial, and we could sense a shift from laid-back Caribbean life to a chaotic favela community. Luis’s neighborhood is called La Canela, meaning “cinnamon” in Spanish. And just like the spice, this neighborhood is a flavorful little barrio, bustling with people, commotion, and noise. Whether dogs barking, stereos blaring, children playing, street vendors announcing their products, or motorbikes whizzing by, noise rules La Canela at all hours. The neighborhood is comprised of a series of steep up-and-down streets, weaving a wild labyrinth of roads filled with colorful homes.
Upon entering Pastor Luis’s home, we were excitedly greeted by his beautiful and bubbly wife, Belkis. She had heard through the grapevine that Roberta loves a traditional Dominican food called la bandera which literally means “flag” in Spanish. Belkis had a bowl on the kitchen table covered in a cloth and declared that she’d prepared la bandera for us. She pulled the cloth away to reveal a literal bandera--a flag folded up in the bowl. She burst into laughter at our look of surprise, pleased by our reaction to her clever joke. Moments later, she whipped out the actual meal of la bandera and invited us to sit and enjoy. We shared an amazing spread of rice, savory meat, and sautéed vegetables.
Throughout the week, we spend much time at the kitchen table surrounded by good company and some of the best food of our entire Latin American journey. Meals were a time to enjoy the local culture, share our hearts with Pastor Luis and his family, and gain corporate revelation about spiritual matters. Luis and Belkis explained that normally when visitors come to their neighborhood, they offer them a place apart from their house where they stay on their own. They are careful about who they let stay in their home. We were all surprised, because we were under quite the opposite impression. When we’d called Luis from Puerto Rico, he had offered us his home instantly, without asking a single question about us. But while in his home, Luis explained that the Holy Spirit had moved inside him during our brief Skype call, and he immediately knew he needed to receive us. Belkis nodded in agreement, explaining that when she prayed for us, the Holy Spirit told her we came with pure hearts. We’d done nothing to cause such certain expectations and such a warm welcome. God had done it all, and we undeservedly reaped the benefits of His work.
Throughout the week, we worked within Pastor Luis’s church; but more importantly, we took the gospel outside of the building. Preaching, sharing testimonies, and heading up a conference for church leaders were all good opportunities to share the love of God. However, my heart really came alive when I got to do ministry outside the church walls. Pastor Luis had hoped to light a fire for missions in his congregation, and we arranged several little outreaches that honestly began to spark something. Many people from the church had been interested in evangelistic outreaches for a long time, but they’d never taken the initiative to organize them. Our team got the ball rolling and initiated visits to houses within poorer areas of La Canela, a local prison, and a leper colony. Everywhere we went, young people from the church ministered alongside us. Once people saw how easy it was to jump in and how God worked so powerfully through these outreaches, they excitedly declared that they would continue the work after we left.
Pedro, a young pastor from Luis’s church, accompanied us on every outreach; and the fire inside him transformed from a spark to a burning flame in just a few days. He had a natural gift for preaching and evangelism but wasn’t yet operating in his full potential. The Lord had given him a vision to preach in every prison in the Dominican Republic, but he’d never been to a jail yet. So we went to a prison with him and encouraged him to preach. Pedro wanted to share the gospel outside the church, but had no platform to do so. So we went house to house within La Canela and prayed for needy families. Pedro wanted to pray for the sick, so we went to a leper colony together. He loved every moment.
During every outreach, we saw hearts touched and enjoyed our own breakthroughs with the Lord. But I saw the greatest breakthrough in Pedro’s life, and I rejoice for what God is doing in him. His eyes were opened up to countless ministry opportunities within his own community, and many doors were opened that he may not have attempted to open on his own. By the end of our time together, Pedro felt empowered to continue with the ministry we began together. Other members of the church were starting to catch that fire for missions as well; and I believe we witnessed the start of a powerful evangelism team who will share the gospel around Santo Domingo for years to come.
To be honest, I sometimes worry about coming into a city for only a week or so, because I don’t know what will happen after we leave. I wonder if our efforts ever go to waste. But God reminded me that He is faithful to complete the work He starts. In Santo Domingo, He connected us to the right people to follow through with the work that was started during our time there. I am confident that Pedro will revisit the houses within La Canela, the prison, and maybe even the leper colony. I am excited to hear about what God does through his life and the life of others within his church.
One of our greatest moments together happened while visiting homes inside La Canela. While walking through the maze of small homes that comprise the neighborhood, we encountered an older couple who asked for prayer for different health issues. The wife said she had pain in her back and knees, so we prayed for God to heal her. After, we asked if she could do anything now that she couldn’t do before. She began to bend over and twist. Realizing that she hadn’t been able to do those movements just moments prior, she began to celebrate her healing and excitedly praise God.
The woman was a Christian and wanted her husband to know Jesus as well. We asked how we could pray for him, and he explained that he had a heart condition in addition to diabetes. Earlier in the day, he had attempted walking from his bed to the front door but wasn’t able. He’d become too dizzy and had to return to his bed. We prayed for God to heal him too and afterwards asked him to try to walk. This time, the man walked to the door and back without problems. His dizziness was gone.
The man sat back down and explained that he had not yet accepted Jesus into his life. But he was happy that God had chosen to heal him nonetheless. So were we. The man went on to explain that during this very week God had begun to speak into his heart. God was inviting him into His love. Just one day prior to our visit, the man felt a real desire to go to church. He said he had been too sick to get there, but declared that God had brought church to his house today. His eyes radiated with true joy. His body looked old, but his eyes were like those of a boy—excited, pure, and captivated by the love of His father. The man said he wanted to pray with us; and inside his little home, he accepted Jesus into his life. Because God had just touched his body, it appeared as if he would now be physically strong enough to go to church. But no matter what, I rejoice that his heart was touched by God’s love, and no sickness can ever take that away from him.
After a week in Santo Domingo, we prepared to move on to our next city in the Dominican Republic. We had originally planned to travel to Santiago, but after going in circles with our contacts there, we realized this was another closed door. Pastor Luis went to bat for us and made several calls to pastor friends around the country. We waited to see what came through. We needed to leave on Wednesday, and on Tuesday night, we still had no idea where we were going. All we knew was that we were going to the bus station in the morning and would get on a bus—to somewhere. On Tuesday at midnight, plans were confirmed. We made plans with just hours to spare! A pastor from the city of La Romana invited us to work with his church and stay with a family from his congregation. La Romana is a coastal city about two hours east of Santo Domingo. With no other options, we hopped on a bus to La Romana and hoped for the best.
And the best is what we got! We were met at the bus station and hosted by two of the most joyful people I’ve ever met. Always-laughing Ramone welcomed us into his home, constantly calling us beautiful, giving us hugs, and sharing funny stories. His gorgeous wife, Lucy, showered us with hospitality as well—working tirelessly to prepare amazing meals and serving us with a smile on her face. The kindness of strangers blew me away once again. I immediately felt at home and looked forward to hearing Ramone’s infectious laughter each day.
One evening, while eating dinner, Ramone told my teammates and I that he’d seen us in a vision two weeks before we arrived. He had forgotten about the vision until that moment and then realized he’d seen the whole scene before. He explained that he’d seen each one of us sitting around his table, talking. We’d had no idea where we were going until midnight the night before, but Ramone had seen us weeks ago. God had it planned all along. Crazy.
We worked at Ramone and Lucy’s church, attending prayer meetings and preaching (apparently I’m a preacher now); but again the work outside the church walls is what really moved my heart. We connected with several women from the church who accompanied us to a senior home, a prison, an orphanage, and a Haitian community outside the city. One of the women, Maria Teresa, astonished me with her faith. She lives in a poor community and visits homes in her neighborhood almost every morning, sharing the gospel and praying for people. She regularly visits a local orphanage and a prison as well. She has almost nothing, but everything she receives, she gives to others. She waits for God to provide enough money for her to catch a bus to the prison and uses those coins on bus fare instead of her own needs. She walks long distances to get other places. She works tirelessly, day after day, loving people with radical abandon, yet receiving no glory. She is a faceless, nameless woman who will probably never receive due honor here on earth.
When I travel, I have strangers taking me into their homes and cooking me feasts. When I’m in the U.S., I have people showering me with generosity, praising me for simply doing the work I love. Yet, there are local people in these poor countries who never get praise, honor, or glory. They work simply because their hearts are full of the love of Christ. Maria Teresa is one of these women. She is a hero, and the world will never know.
I had already fallen in love with her genuine heart, but when I heard more of her story, I was literally in awe. Maria Teresa’s father had been her closest companion, the man she adored. He was unjustly murdered, and three men were accused of the crime. Instead of resorting to anger or bitterness, Maria Teresa chose to love. God told her to go to the prison and pray for the men who had killed her father. She started visiting the men who had been accused—to show them love. The three alleged killers all claim innocence, but they are still awaiting trial, so there’s no proof either way. Maria Teresa doesn’t care whether the men are guilty or innocent. She loves these men, and they love her. Over time, she’s become a mama to them. They adore her and shower her with affection when she walks into the prison. Maria Teresa is a walking story of forgiveness and God’s redemption. Wow.
Normally, she goes to prison alone whenever she can save up enough to get there. This time, my teammates and I arranged for a vehicle and went with Maria Teresa. She was very glad to have company and thankful for transportation. We arrived at the prison and were told to leave all our belongings at a dodgy kiosk outside the jail. We waited in the scorching sun for about an hour and a half, our water bottles and sunglasses already confiscated. Finally, we were led into the jail, where we underwent the most humiliating prison security inspection yet. We might as well have been prisoners ourselves. Each of us still reeling from the shock of that experience, we walked into the main meeting room where inmates were receiving visitors.
Immediately, we were greeted by a smiling Angelio, one of the accused killers. He didn’t look like he could hurt a fly. He was probably a few years younger than me, and I could see all he wanted was someone to hug. We sat down with him and chatted about his life. He said he used to live a godless life—doing drugs and getting into trouble. Open and honest about his past, he admitted he was far from perfect but declared that he had not killed Maria Teresa’s father. He had been accused of committing the crime with two other men whom he’d never met prior to being thrown in prison. When he met them in jail, he heard they’d been accused of the same crime and were his alleged partners in crime.
Angelio wanted his freedom back but said that he was thankful he’d met Jesus in prison. He said God had actually shown him mercy by bringing him to jail. All his friends from the streets had been killed. His life was heading in the same direction, but God spared him. Now Angelio knew God, cleaned up his life, and had hope in something greater. But the thought of never leaving prison was more than he could bear. He wanted to be free and start a clean life. He wanted to have friends he could trust. He wanted to see his mom.
We asked if we could pray for Angelio, and he knelt down in the middle of us, reaching out to hold me and Aleeza’s hands. Tears poured down his cheeks as we prayed for him. Afterwards, he stood back up and said, “I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.” He looked like a child, scared and longing for comfort. Without knowing quite what to say, we sat with him and held his hands. Roberta sat with her arm around him, and he drank in her presence like a young child does with his mother. He broke my heart.
Visiting hours quickly faded, and we had to say goodbye. Angelio left us with a smile, and I forced a smile back, knowing freedom was just steps away for me and maybe years away for him. I believed in his innocence but knew the corrupt system could easily find a way to prove otherwise. I wondered what Maria Teresa thought, but then I remembered that she doesn’t care. All she wants is to love. And she does. She loves Angelio with all her heart. And he knows it.
Yo soy Catalina. I am a blessed woman. I think my life is hard sometimes, and then I look at the world around me. I am free. I am loved. I get to see what God is up to all around the world. In the Dominican Republic, He’s up to a lot of good. He’s using selfless people to reflect His incredible heart of grace, love, and forgiveness. And lucky me—I get to see it. I am humbled by my time in the DR and amazed by God’s goodness. His love is beautiful beyond words.
By Caitlin Scudder