Friday, November 26, 2010

Guard Your Heart and Watch the Wind

This week has been incredible as life here always seems to be. I feel so blessed and excited that I am still in the process of making memories, and being intentional about continuing in my relationships has truly paid off. I haven’t checked out yet from being in this place, though it is so exciting to think about going home and being with friends and family for the holidays. I’m kind of afraid that I’m going to look back on this entire experience and it’s going to feel like a dream. I am so far removed from anything normal or familiar; that I feel like when I am back home and comfortable again, that looking back on this experience will seem surreal. Granted, there are absolutely still moments where I have a difficult time believing that this is my life and I really do live in this beautiful place.

This week in El Callejon, we had all of our Christmas parties. They were all so much fun, and it was great to see everyone dressed up with makeup on, looking their best. It’s interesting too to observe the women at the parties. There were some women who were there to genuinely invest their time in celebrating Christmas and their relationships. It was sad to see however that there were a number of women who were clearly there just to receive the gifts that Students International collected for them. Daisy and Caroline tried to compensate for those women who don’t attend class and just come for the parties for special days by making their gifts different or smaller than the other women’s.

All of the parties this week were really bittersweet. Although I’ll be working in El Callejon for two more weeks, we won’t be having any classes with the girls or the women. I’m sure that I’ll see them around town, but it won’t be the same because I won’t have time to spend with them as much. It was so sad to say goodbye to the teenage girls. I saw all of them twice a week for English class so I felt that I was able to build stronger relationships with them than I was with any of the other classes. At the end of our party, two of the girls specifically said thank you to me for spending time with them every week and being a good teacher. They then told me that they want me to come back in January to teach them and two of the girls said that I could stay at their houses if I wanted to. It was so sweet, and incredible to know that even though the girls probably didn’t learn a lot of English, they had a good time and we were able to get to know each other and laugh together.

Starting on Monday, we’ll begin working with the couples in El Callejon that want to get married. We will hold the weddings at the social work center during the week before I leave. Some of our preparations will be giving facials and manicures/pedicures to the women, as well as making decorations for the social work site to make their days more special. As of right now, there are 4 couples that are planning on getting married. If you think of it, if you could pray specifically for two of the couples, that would be great. The girls are under 18 and Daisy was unaware that it would cost significantly more to get a marriage license, as well as a trip to Santo Domingo to get special permission to be married. I hope that this will not discourage the two girls from getting married, because they are so young and it would be so beneficial to them to be in a more committed relationship. I am so looking forward to being a part of this journey with these women. Most of them have so little security and trust in their relationships that the fact that their boyfriends are willing to get married means that they are ready to truly commit to them.

This pattern of moving in with a boyfriend and never getting legally married is a thing that has been going on in El Callejon for a long time, and most of the people don’t see the value in being legally married. Daisy and Caroline’s purpose in starting to host weddings every year is to break this cycle and to help the women especially see the worth in being legally married. It will be more difficult for their men to simply walk out on them and their families, and hopefully the men will think more carefully before cheating, which is also a huge problem that couples face in El Callejon. Their ideas about marriage and relationships are so different from ours in America, it’s interesting to talk to the women and try to understand their perspective. The way I see it, legal marriage insures a sense of security and shows that both people are committed to the relationship. They don’t see it that way here. To many Dominicans, legal marriage is unnecessary and expensive, they don’t understand the deeper implications of being bound legally to another person.

Spending Thanksgiving here was actually not as weird as I thought it would be. During the morning I went to my site leader Caroline’s house and spent the morning with her husband Ryan, and his interns from our group at the microfinance site. We watched the Thanksgiving Day parade, the office, played Settlers of Catan and ate a ton of pizza for lunch. It was a very American morning, so don’t think I missed out because I was here. We went to El Callejon for a party in the afternoon with the teenage girls, but then we went back to Ryan and Caroline’s to hang out some more before dinner. We had the ultimate American dinner here at the base, complete with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, salad, rolls and pumpkin pie. It was incredible! All of the Students International staff was invited to dinner with us as well, so it was fun to talk with them and share the Thanksgiving tradition with the Dominican staff. We had a few minutes to talk with our tables about the things that we are thankful for, and I am amazed at how blessed I am. Being in this situation, it would be ignorant and obnoxious to not realize that, but I am blessed beyond measure in so many more ways than just having this opportunity and experience. We had some coffee to counteract the tryptophan sleepiness, and were able to spend the rest of the night hanging out.

For my day on Black Friday, we drove up to a beach on the north side of the island called Cabarete, which was so nice. It was a little bit touristy, but not nearly as bad as Boca Chica, which we went to during travel week. It was a perfect day to be at the beach, sunny but not too hot with a little bit of wind. I found peace in knowing that while many people were out in the cold shopping like maniacs to get the best deals for Christmas, I was sitting on a beach chair relaxing and enjoying the incredible people that I am here with. I definitely had one of those surreal moments where I couldn’t believe that I was there.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Bible verse in Romans 12:18, which says “So far as it depends on me, live at peace with everyone”. Thinking about what this means in my life is really convicting, because it means that I need to do my part to resolve conflicts. I need learn to do the best thing in all of my relationships, laying aside my pride or my hurt feelings, which can be really hard. It’s so convicting in light of certain conflicts during this trip. It’s encouraging though because I know that I can only be held accountable for my part of a relationship. It takes two people to make a conflict, and I know that I can only be in control of my actions and beyond that is not my fault because I cannot change it. I don’t think that this is asking me to allow people to walk all over me or to not voice my opinion when I’m upset, I think it’s just saying that I need to be mindful of doing the right thing in all of my relationships, even when it’s really hard sometimes, just a thought.

As always, I’m so looking forward to seeing everyone when I get home in less than three weeks!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Some Things Only Shine With Time..

I’ve recently come to the realization that I have less than four weeks left here. Coming with that idea is a grand mix of excitement and mourning, but I’m trying not to think about it too much because I don’t want to take away from what time I have left here. There have been three sunny days this week, which is apparently a miracle here. For some reason, we’ve had a really cloudy fall here; everyone who lives here is saying that it’s not common to have this much rain and so many cloudy days. It just makes me more grateful for the days that we do have sun; it’s so encouraging to feel the sun on my face.

Something that has given me great joy while being here has been teaching my Dominican mom, Denise how to say certain phrases in English. My sister, Katherine, is almost finished with her yearlong English class, so Denise always asks Kara and I how to tell Katherine to do things in English. She always wants to be reminded how to say “wash the dishes”, which ends up sounding like “wach da diches”. My personal favorite is when she says “Katherine, pay attention to me”. She always points with one finger and squints her eyes to look really mean, but she says “Kafreene, pen ten ten chu me”. I have spent so many nights laughing with her about her attempts to speak English, and we have plans for this Sunday to make videos of her English. I’ve tried to get her to let me record her before, but she refuses to do it until her hair is done, and she has makeup on and nice clothes. Love her J

I have had to keep myself in check this week about thinking about leaving. I’m realizing that something that I do when I know that relationships are going to come to an end is that i begin to pull away before I leave to make leaving easier and less painful. That is such an awful way to end such a beautiful semester. I have been reminding myself to be intentional with my family, with spending time with them and enjoying them while I can. I think that my pulling away is a defense mechanism that makes things hurt less when I have to leave, but it’s so unfair to my family and friends that I have made here. It has become a daily decision to spend time with people and keep making sure that I’m pouring into my relationships here as much as I can.

For a long weekend this weekend there are a group of Bethel and Taylor University professors here to check out what the program down here looks like for the semester students. Last night we had dinner with one of them at Paula’s house. It’s interesting to see the way that the teachers interact with Dominicans, because life and customs here have become so comfortable to us. It’s also interesting to see how they have interacted with our families as many of them don’t speak Spanish. It’s such a different experience because they can’t communicate and speak in order to build relationships, which is such a huge part of Dominican culture.

Last week I was able to find time with two of the teenage girls in my English class, Annerys and Patricia, to just talk to them about themselves. It was such a great time! Because we’re always in class and working on projects, I feel that we don’t get that much time to just sit and talk to each other. I was able to ask them about their families, school and their dreams. Annerys wants to be a singer/actress/model and Patricia wants to be an actress. It’s so sweet to hear about their dreams and how they plan on getting there. It was so nice to be able to talk to them without an agenda or a lesson behind it, just talking like friends.

Something that I’ve been thinking about as we’re preparing for Christmas parties in El Callejon next week is the idea of giving gifts. I’m only talking about it specifically in this context, because I think it’s a really different scenario. It’s hard to give gifts that the people know are from Americans, because there is such a stereotype that all Americans are rich, so I think the gifts are more expected than they are appreciated. We talked a lot before we came here about we, as Americans and part of their stereotype, need to be careful of how we give to people and the ways that we use our money in front of people who don’t have much. All of the gifts that we are giving to the 100 plus women and girls that come to class every week are the result of donations from America throughout the year, which is incredible. On Friday Caroline and I put together so many gift bags with toothbrushes, toothpaste and then a bunch of smaller age-appropriate gifts. It’s been a hard stereotype for me, as well as the long-term missionaries to overcome that we all have money, though it’s cool that people are starting to understand that we’re not here to give them material things, but rather to build relationships with them and spend time with them. Those are the kinds of gifts that we have brought to give; I am giving myself to these beautiful women, not just things bought on clearance in a store in the states.

Kind of following that, we read a book before we came here about how a lot of short term missions can actually be harmful to people rather than helpful. When a group of people go to a poor community for a week or two weeks, they do some good, but sometimes it can teach people learned helplessness, that if they let things go long enough, that eventually someone will come in and do it for them. Something that we have talked about a lot here with our ministry is that we should never do something for an individual that he or she could do for themselves. Think about that. We shouldn’t hand out money to someone who is able-bodied and capable of finding a job and providing for himself. That’s a hard thing for me to reconcile with when I see dirty children and clothes little better than rags. A much more valuable and lasting way to live is to pour into relationships with people, “teaching a man to fish”. This goes back to my idea that there is a poverty here of spirit that is much more pressing than a material poverty. There are deeper roots to material poverty, and throwing money or materials at people does not solve the problem over the long-term. Sorry if none of this makes sense, just some thoughts I’m having about whether or not I’m actually making any impact here.

On a closing note, if any of you were wondering, I have absolutely no regrets about climbing El Mogote last week, and I’m so glad that I pushed myself so hard to do something that i never thought would be physically possible for me. Now that the soreness is gone, I can really appreciate this view and look back at what an incredible experience it was:

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Hear Me Willow and Weep for Me

Hello world! These past few days have been so full and so incredible. I am still in awe of the fact that I live her e and I have a life here. I have been making so many more relationships with the people who live in El Callejon, there are always women greeting me by name and wanting to talk to me as I walk through town every day. It’s such an incredible feeling to be a part of something in this way and to be recognized by name, not just as the American who works with Daisy.
Next week is my last week of regular classes with the women at the social work site. I am excited to tackle next week and then have four days of Christmas parties with all of the classes. After that we’ll have two weeks to prepare for the weddings in El Callejon, which I am so excited about. Daisy and Caroline have been meeting with a number of couples about their interest in becoming legally married. It’s such a privilege for me to be able to see all of these different times at the social work center. I get to see their regular classes and be a part of their normal routine, but I also get to contribute to something really special in their community. I feel like it’s such an honor that I get to be here during this time.
For some reason, all of our classes this week were really crazy. I don’t know if the women are realizing that we’re getting close to the end of the year, but they were nuts! We started a new project with the women, a Christmas decorative pillow, and I think that all of the other classes might be kind of jealous of it, which is probably some of the problem. It’s so great to see the women get really excited about something that we are doing. This project is also a lot simpler than the ones that we have been working on finishing, so I am a little relieved for that.  
As I think some of you know, the girl that I was working with named Rachel had to return home to the United States a few weeks early because of some medical problems. It has been such a different experience at my ministry site without her. I miss her dearly; it’s hard sometimes to know that I’m the only one there and that I don’t have another American to share my experience with. It’s been hard having her gone too, because for a lot of reasons, she was my sanity. It’s definitely been an adjustment going from expecting to be with a friend all semester to doing more things on my own. Daisy and Caroline have been so incredible with working with me and lessening the load of things that I do each week. I am so blessed to be surrounded by such incredible women who are committed into pouring into me as much as I am committed to pouring out to the women here.
Something that I’ve been thinking and praying about for when I get home is finding a church to go to. I’ve struggled for the past three or more years about finding a church that I like. I’ve been kind of disillusioned with church, church can be such a judgmental legalistic place, and I think I’ve been running from that judgment instead of honestly seeking a place where I can be comfortable. Another thought that I’ve been having is finding a way to serve my community weekly. I think that when I get back to school, I want to find a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or tutoring center where I can volunteer once a week. While I am at school, it is so easy to get caught up in my own life and my homework and grades and forget that there is a whole big world out there. It’s so easy to live in my safe little dorm room on my safe college campus and forget that I live in a community where people are hurting and don’t have places to sleep, food to eat, or parents or siblings to help them with their homework. Being in a country where there is so much need has opened my eyes to how selfish I can be when I am at school. Going to school is a great thing, don’t get me wrong. But I feel like I am called to so much more than that, and after having had this experience and living in the conditions that I have, I don’t think that I can go back to being so selfish. These are just some thoughts about changes that I think I need to make when I get back.
I’ve realized in the last few days that we really only have four full weeks left here. There are so many emotions that come with that idea. The one that hit me hard today is that I only have four weeks to finish all of the homework that I have, so that is why I’m alone at the base today, locked up in a room working hard. It’s so strange to know that this experience will come to an end, I have gotten so used to being here. The day that I have to say goodbye to this place will be a sad one, but I find joy in knowing that I will go home and be surrounded by people that love me so much. I’m so excited to see all of you!
One really fun thing that I did this week is that I climbed a mountain yesterday, literally. It is the highest peak near Jarabacoa, though I don’t know how many feet exactly. It took us 2 ½ hours to climb up and 2 ½ hours to climb down. It was muddy both ways, and I’m pretty sure I slid most of the way down instead of hiking it. I think it was the most physically demanding thing that I’ve done in a really long time, maybe because it was over such a long period of time. I climbed on Saturday, and as I write this on Sunday, most of the muscles in my body are sore. I hit my knee pretty hard on a rock so it’s a little swollen and bruised, but otherwise I made it. Overall, it was incredible! There is definitely a new meaning for me in the phrase “mountaintop experience”, because it was such hard work, but totally worth it in the end. I’ll probably have even better feelings about it when my body stops hurting every time I take a deep breath. At the top, I had another one of those moments where I couldn’t believe that I’m here and these are the kinds of things that I get to do on the weekends, I’m so blessed! 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

This time I hope it's different. This time I hope I change.

Well I’m sure that all of you have been worried sick about the tropical storm that is in our area. J You shouldn’t. It’s been rainy all week, but we didn’t really catch any other weather from the storm besides that. It was kind of interesting thought that all of the public schools and many of the private schools were cancelled on Friday, because that was the day that the hurricane was closest to us. I think that hurricane days are a lot like snow days in the Midwest. I do however think that Dominicans view rain as a legitimate reason to not to go school, to work or to meetings. Dominicans hate rain, being wet, and ruining their hair, so they just don’t go out when it’s raining. It’s so different from the US, where we go to work or school every day, rain or shine because we committed to being there.

Everything has been so wet the past week because of all the rain that we have gotten. In late summer it rained fairly often, but it would just be an afternoon shower with sun most of the rest of the day. It has been overcast here for days; I’ll give credit to the hurricane for that one. Our Dominican mom did laundry for us on Monday and it took until Thursday to dry because of the rain and the humidity. It was the first time that Kara and I had to wait so long for our laundry to be done, but I think during the rainy seasons here that’s just a fact of life here. I guess I’ll have to learn to ration my underwear better next week when she does laundry. I’m realizing that any time I feel homesick it’s for the comforts of American life. I’m not trying to say that I don’t miss my family and friends, but the things I miss are simple. I miss heated dryers that shrink my clothes that are getting to big, and I miss the convenience of driving or transportation that we have in the states. I miss my cell phone and being able to get ahold of people instead of making plans a week in advance and hoping the other person remembers. It’s an adjustment here to not have small comforts like that, and I’m at the point where I’m feeling a little bit exhausted by it.

On a much more positive note, on Thursday night this week Kara and I went out with the boys from the microfinance site to celebrate our victory dinner for winning the photo scavenger hunt last week. It was so fun to be able to eat American food and hang out with friends. We played games at Ryan and Caroline’s house, the husband and wife couple who are the leaders of our two sites. Ryan taught Kara and I how to play Settlers of Catan, and though it’s been said that that’s a “boy’s game”, I’m a huge fan of it. We also watched a few episodes of the office after we had dinner, which was straight up food for my soul.

This week I worked on an article that I am sending to be in Bethel’s Semester Abroad/Task Force newsletter. I was asked to write a one page article on some aspect of the Dominican Republic or my experience here that has changed or affected me. Wow, talk about vague. It was really difficult to try to sum up my experience in one page or to choose just one thing to talk about to give an honest representation of my experience here. It’s something that I need to start thinking about because I know that every person that I talk to when I get home won’t want to hear about each and every experience that I had here. We’ve talked before about having a 2 minute summary of my trip, a 10 minute summary and a 30 minute summary, and I don’t know how to come up with any of those time frames. It’s so hard to think about summing up my trip with any amount of time, but to try to put it into one page or two minutes is kind of overwhelming. Yikes!

This week has been kind of a long week. It’s been a focus of mine to try to find some ways to relax and release stress. On Sunday I went with a group of people to play ultimate Frisbee and that was an awesome way to release stress. It’s nice to meet different people and just change up my routine. I spent the night again with my friends who graduated from Bethel and are now teachers at one of the schools here. It’s so great to just be able to sit and talk with people and share about our lives her e and our experiences. Another way that I have been focusing on relaxing is making sure that I find time to be quite and ready my Bible each morning. My favorite place to do that is on our front porch at home, because I get to see the new morning sun and smell the fresh mountain air. It’s so still in the mornings and it’s been great to just have that time to be still and relax.  I’m learning a lot about what it means to really relax; I think that’s something that culturally, America is bad at. When we have time off we want to do something, to be with friends or go somewhere. But I think there’s so much value in just having a conversation with someone else, or reading a book in a quiet place to just calm your mind. Hopefully this philosophy will come home with me when I reenter college life J

On Tuesday night of this week, Daisy and Caroline started having weekly meetings for the couples in El Callejon who are interested in getting married this winter. They said that about 6 couples went, but that there are probably more who didn’t come because of the rain (there’s that excuse again). Last year they had about 10 couples who were interested, and three of them ended up getting married. I’m excited to see what this year’s weddings have in store for us, I don’t know exactly what to expect but I am so excited to be a part of something so beautiful.

This past week has been a great time for building stronger relationships with our site leaders, Daisy and Caroline. I’m learning more and more about what their hearts really are for El Callejon and the women living there. Daisy has this wonderful way of asking great questions that make me think so much more deeply about the women, about poverty, about change in general. This experience would be great without questions like that, but they cause me to form my own opinions about what’s going on in the community and what work the social work is actually doing there.

Another thing that has been a really great learning experience is leading Bible studies in Spanish and teaching English classes. We lead Bible study for two groups of young girls and two groups of teenage girls. It honestly wouldn’t be that bad except that I’ve never led a Bible study before and I’ve definitely never done so in Spanish. We have talked a lot about “heart languages” and the way that your first language is your heart language because it is what you know best. With that first language you can best express yourself and talk about your feelings and what is deepest within you. Trying to connect with people in this way while speaking a language that I am only just learning is a daunting task. It’s been interesting to try to express myself and share my heart with these girls while trying to do so in broken Spanish and incorrect words. It’s definitely been a stretching experience!

This week has been kind of a long, hard week, but I think it’s just part of this process. I never expected this to be easy, and I never expected to feel great all the time. I’m not saying that I hated this week; I just think that this was a week of growth where I was stretched in a number of ways that were uncomfortable. I am grateful for this struggle because I know that the hard times are when I grow the most, I am so looking forward to coming home as a changed person, hopefully all or most of that change will be for the better.

This is the waterfall that we went to last weekend, so gorgeous :)