Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Our Lives are a Bridge, Let’s Build Bridges to Each Other.

It’s so strange to know that I am writing this on my last day here. I can’t believe this semester flew by so fast. This was one of the best experiences of my life and it’s hard to take in the fact that it’s over. We spent two days this weekend at an all-inclusive resort on the north side of the island. The way that our leaders talked about it made me think that I was going to hate it and have a really bad attitude about  the other people staying there and the resort itself. I think because I was expecting to feel that way, I didn’t. I wouldn’t want to stay at a resort like that for a vacation, but I have a feeling that it will be the only down time I will have for a while, so I took it in anyways. People said we might struggle with things like the idea of wasted food, living in excess and general rudeness of people, but I think I expected that so it didn’t get to me when it actually happened. I hope that my attitude will be that good when I get back to the US.

Yesterday night we had some time where we were able to say goodbye to the other members of our team. Before we did it, I thought it was so weird to be saying goodbye to people that I would still be with for two days and people that I hope to see all the time at school next semester. After having that time though, I see the purpose. After having such an incredible experience with a group of people, I think it is important to be intentional about telling them the things you have enjoyed about them or the ways that they have impacted you. I am terrible at goodbyes and I hate them more than anything, but I think having that time will provide a good feeling of closure for me on this part of my experience. It was so great to have a space where I was able to tell people what I love about them and how they’ve affected me. I wasn’t sad about that yet, though I’m sure that time will absolutely come.

Yesterday night we had some time to say goodbye to the other people on our team. At first I thought it would be really weird to say goodbye to everyone two days before we actually left, but it ended up being so good. I think that I was intentional with people in a way that I wouldn’t have been had we not had specific time for it. One of the hardest parts for me about realizing that this experience is over is that I know that I will never be the same again. I will never return to this place and be with the same group of people again ever in my life. I feel so sad about that. I feel like there is going to be a avoid in me when I leave this place because I have been looking forward to this trip for so long, and I have been living it for the past four months. There will be such loss when this is all over.

One of my opinions that has changed dramatically since coming here is my view on poverty. I know I’ve blogged about this before, but I still feel that it has been so important in my experience here. I feel that since I’ve worked in an impoverished neighborhood, and by some standards, lived in poverty myself, that my opinion about poverty was bound to change. Instead of pitying people who live lives with less money, I’ve exchanged that for feelings of compassion. Pity requires an attitude of superiority or judgment and having lived and worked with people in that life has shown me that they are not lacking in so many ways. They still eat, sleep and work just like we do. They have incredible relationships and other things that they experience so much more richly than we do in American culture. The people that I’ve known here who live on much less seem so much happier than a lot of people I know who make significantly more money. There is something so profound in that.

The community of El Callejon has taught me so much about community as well. I’ve realized that we don’t have community in the states like they have here. People here would drop anything to help a friend out. If someone doesn’t get paid until Friday but needs dinner on Wednesday, people open their homes and kitchens to one another. Granted there are some negatives to this kind of community, like everyone knowing your dirt, I still think there is so much to be learned from this community style of living. I hope that when I come home I will incorporate some of these ideas into my friendships and the community that I have at school.

One last thing that I have been thinking a lot about lately especially in light of the fact that I’m going home right before Christmas, is the difference between need and want. I’ve learned a lot about what I actually need to live on while being here, and it is so much less than what we would call “comfortable” in the US. I only actually need two pairs of jeans, or a few pairs of shoes. We are so accustomed to living in excess in the US, even with things like food, electricity and water. Just something to think about..

It’s hard to finish up a blog about an experience as large and influential in my life as this one. I think this will be my last blog on here, at least until I take my next grand adventure. This experience has been one of the best that I have ever experienced in my life. I have learned so much about myself, my family, poverty, community and God. I hope that when I look back, I can see that this was a turning point in my life, that I was forever changed by this experience.

Peace and love from the Dominican Republic for the last time.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Catalyst in this Stagnant Generation.

There have been so many changes in the weddings in El Callejon in the past week. As of right now, none of the three couples are legally married and a new date for the wedding celebrations is yet to be determined. I probably won’t be able to be at the weddings, and I am so disappointed about that. For any of you who want to read the next few paragraphs, I’ll let you know about the messed up governmental system here and the reasons why each of these three couples are having so much trouble getting married. A little bit of information, each couple needs a valid birth certificate and their “cedula” which is an identification card. When they go to sign their marriage license, they need two witnesses to be present to sign with them.

Tona and Cencio are a couple who have been living together as a couple for 18 years. They have four kids and have lived in El Callejon for a long time. To marry them, we needed to get valid birth certificates for each of them, because they can expire. We got Tona’s last week in Santiago, it only cost 6 dollars. Cencio’s birth certificate does not exist, his parents apparently did not register him with the government when he was an infant. We have visited at least 6 different government centers looking for a way to get his birth certificate and we finally found out on Friday that the only way to get a birth certificate for him would be to go to Santo Domingo and have them make him one for the first time. That’s where it stands with them right now.

Kathy and her boyfriend are a young couple who recently moved in together. Kathy is the daughter of Tona and Cencio and she is only seventeen years old. Because she is only 17, she doesn’t yet have her identification card, and she sent away to get one. However, doing this will take 2 months unless she goes to Santo Domingo to get her ID number before they send it to her. Another thing that she will have to do when she has her ID is that she will have to go with Cencio, her father, to Santiago to have him sign a document, approving her marriage as a minor. Kathy is waiting right now and that is where it stands with her and her boyfriend.

The third couple is an older couple named Sila and Jose. They have two grown sons together and have been living as a married couple for over 30 years. They are the couple that is the closest to actually being married. They have all of their paperwork and have done their interview with the lawyer. They went to sign their marriage license on Thursday but their witnesses couldn’t make it so they had others come and the lawyer would not let them sign for the marriage.

This whole experience with these weddings has been so exciting from the start, but there have also been so many let downs and disappointments in the midst of it. I am so excited that there are three couples from the community of El Callejon that desire to follow God’s will and be legally married. Daisy told me recently that two more couples have come to her recently and told her that they are interested in getting married as well. The work that we are doing with these weddings matters and it is making an impact on many people’s lives. We had a talk with one of the leaders at the base today and he encouraged Daisy and Caroline in the work that they are doing in El Callejon and the work with these weddings. It would be so easy for them to get so discouraged because nothing seems to be working out correctly. I think that it is important to remember that we are trying to change a cultural custom, and change that big does not come easily. These couples are living together without being married because that’s what their paretns did before them and it’s also what all of the other couples in the community are doing as well. Many of Dominicans do not understand why it is important to be legally married, and I also understand so well now that many of them don’t want to go through the hassle of getting married. The government here is obviously not interested in helping people be married. It costs 2,500 pesos to get married and only 300 to be divorced. I feel like I have learned so much from this wedding experience, about patience, about perseverance, and about disappointment.

Last night we celebrated my sister Katherine’s wedding. One wedding I was planning on having actually worked out! It was so incredible. It was white and a dark red, the decorations were all so gorgeous. Some of the ladies made fresh wildflower arrangements for each of the tables outside, and they made walls out of palm fronds. It was actually really tropical. While Katherine was walking down the aisle in the church at the ceremony, she had a microphone and seven or eight girls in front of her. As she was talking, she sent each girl to Julio, her husband, with a gift for their marriage. She sent things like love, happiness and her purity to Julio through the girls that walked down the aisle. It was such a beautiful visual of their hopes for marriage. I have so many beautiful pictures of the couple and the decorations, but no time to post them, so ask me if you want to see them J

It was so weird to say goodbye to my family and my friend Amy’s family while at the wedding. There were so many people there and not enough space. It was chaos. We missed out on having dinner and cake, but we were able to visit with a lot of people too. I was kind of glad that our last day was spent doing something, because it would have been awful to have just sat around the house all day waiting to say goodbye. It was difficult saying goodbye knowing that there is a good chance that I will never see those people again, but I also know that I have learned so much from them and have had such an incredible experience with them.

Our last week here will be full of team exercises and debriefing. We are going to stay at an all-inclusive resort on the north side of the island. Going to somewhere really nice where they treat us as tourists is part of letting go of our time here and to help us start thinking about American culture again. I am so excited for our excursion today, we are going to a place called 27 waterfalls, where we will hike and do a number of cliff jumps during the morning. I am looking forward to spending a lot of time with the group this week and just thinking about finishing up this experience well.

It is so difficult coming to the realization that this trip is 4 days from being over. I have been looking forward to it for so long, planning for it, saving for it and now experiencing it. There will be a huge hole in my heart after finishing out this experience. It has been incredible and I have learned so much. I have been so blessed by my time here, I’ve loved every minute of it, well almost every minute. I wouldn’t trade my time here for anything and I would do it again if I had another chance. Being here makes me think about my future. Who knows, maybe I’ll end up doing something like this long term..

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I am Seen, I am Known

Last Saturday, after our Thanksgiving weekend together I went with some friends to Santiago (a big city about an hour away) to just get away and hang out. It was so nice to be with some different people, because even though I love my group so much, I have been with the same 20 or so people for the past three months, so it was nice to have a change. We went to a mall, and it was so strange to be inside a place that felt so American. It wasn’t bad or uncomfortable; it just felt weird to be in a place where everything cost so much money. We went and saw a movie and went bowling, we did so much! It was fun to experience the Dominican with a different, smaller group of people and just be able to do what we wanted, not to follow a schedule or to get home by a certain time. Freedom, I miss that J

Last night, our group had a Christmas party together. Some of my family members will be glad to hear that I watched Holiday Inn and Elf and am planning on watching White Christmas this afternoon at a friend’s hose. I have successfully watched three of my favorite Christmas movies; I just have a couple to go when I get home. We made and decorated sugar cookies, listened to Christmas music, and had Pica Pollo for dinner (which isn’t Christmas-y at all, but it was delicious). I am getting so excited to come home and celebrate Christmas with my family. I can’t wait to get home and smell a Christmas tree, or see the snow (I’ll probably regret that comment really quickly). There is a “Christmas feeling” and I’m starting to have it. I’m also so excited that Christmas will provide a great way for me to see a lot of my family all at once. I’m praying that it won’t be difficult to have to make decisions about which families I have time to see, that’s the hardest thing about the holidays for me. I hope that it works out that everything is spread out enough that I can do it all. We’ll see I guess.

All of last week we worked on getting things ready for the weddings next week. There have been some difficulties that have come up with getting everything together with the marriage licenses. Each individual needs two things to get a marriage license: a birth certificate and their ID card. Some of the couples don’t possess both of these items, because they really have no use for them. We had to go to Santiago one day last week to get two people’s birth certificates because they didn’t have them for themselves. For another couple, the woman is under 18 so she needed to get special permission to get married, and it also cost more money. There have been a lot of legal complications with the couples, and I now have a better understanding of why people don’t get legally married here. It is difficult and expensive. They don’t believe that it is necessary anyways, so I understand why many people don’t bother. By Friday though, many of the problems started fixing themselves, with much work done by Daisy, and it looks like we should be able to have the weddings on schedule next week on Wednesday. I hope that they’re beautiful and that the couples have a wonderful time.

I have been making so much progress on the policy book that I am putting together for the social work center. I don’t remember how much I’ve written about it before, but  Caroline and I are working on a resource book that topically gives some ideas and Bible verses about common problems in El Callejon. Some of our topics are adultery, gossip and parenting. The book isn’t meant to be something that a person can hand out to another as “self-help”, but it’s meant to be a resource to start a conversation and build a relationship. The book itself is almost 85 pages long and it should be an incredible tool for people working at the social work site to have. I will format it before I leave, but in the future, Caroline will also translate all of our work into Spanish so that Daisy and other Spanish speakers can use the resource as well.

I think that one of my biggest fears about leaving here is that I will look back and it will feel like it was all a dream. I want to look back on this experience with clarity, remembering lots of the small details and the little things that made me fall in love with this place. I hope that writing blogs every week and keeping a journal will help me to this end, but I know that it will be different. Because Dominican culture is so far removed from American culture, it’s so different that it will be hard to remember what it feels like to live here. I don’t know what kinds of things that I can do to remember with clarity my time here, but I’m hoping and praying that I will be able to. I don’t want this to be a trip I took once, but an experience that changes me forever, a turning point. I hope that it is.

The next time I write, I will have said goodbye to my family for the last time. I am kind of terrified of this, because it will probably be goodbye forever. I hate goodbyes more than anything, and it will be so much harder knowing that it’s so final. There’s a lot of anxiety for me about leaving too because my family has started to put the pressure on about staying in contact. Katherine and Denise have started asking me about how much I’m going to call them on the phone when I get back, and this week I am going to have to sit down with them and be realistic about the fact that it will not be very often, if at all. The hard thing is that my family had a student live with them last year, and they still talk to that student probably once a month. First of all, I don’t know if I will remember any Spanish by then, and I also can’t afford to call down here. It’s ridiculously expensive to call here. It’s not that I don’t want to stay in touch with my family; I just don’t know if it’s possible. There aren’t really good alternatives to calling either, there is no mail system and they can only get internet at an internet cafĂ© or something like that. This is just a frustrating thing that I will have to deal with as it comes up, but I am not looking forward to having that conversation.

At this point, with one real week left here, I feel at peace about coming home. I feel like I’m ready and I’ve accomplished all that I felt that I needed to here. We have about 5 days of team time and debriefing here after we move out of our host homes and it will be so hard to say goodbye to everyone in our group. 7 of the 15 people from our group are from other schools, so I know that I won’t be able to see them very much, which is so hard. It’s so strange to think about something like this coming to an end, because it will never be the same again. There will never be the same group of people in the same place ever again in this life, that’s so sad to think about. I’m starting to mourn the fact that this trip is almost over, because I know that I can never truly revisit this experience.

However, I am so excited to come home for other reasons. I finally have all of my Christmas presents ready to bring back to the states. Graham, you were the tricky one, as always. Talking with friends and family and being able to start making plans for when I get home is so exciting. I think that being away for this long and on this type of trip has really strengthened some of my relationships, or at least made me value them so much more. One of the things I have really missed being here is just being able to be with friends who know me well; who I am completely comfortable with. I am looking forward to just being comfortable with the people around me, that and having carpeting under my feet J

This week ahead will be a lot of “last times” for me, but I am looking forward to coming home and reconnecting with everyone. Less than two weeks everyone, prepare yourselves!