As we made our descent into Santo Domingo, what was moments earlier just a patchwork quilt of greens and browns nestled up to a cerulean sea gradually came into focus. Fields of sugar cane stretch out as far as the eye can see, and interspersed along the landscape are groups of tiny concrete structures, huts, and even temporary housing. Every so often we see large plantation-style homes, often accompanied by smaller guest houses and pools. These inviting spaces are woefully outnumbered by the bare, unassuming structures that house the common laborers of the villages, and I can’t help but be consumed by the arbitrary nature of it all. I imagine what would happen were we all allowed to drop a die from the plane, some 2,000 feet above the Earth. Would mine land on the lush greens of one of the larger estates, splash gently into one of the pools, or would I not be so lucky?
The following morning we had the chance to visit the Fundacion Pasitos De Jesus orphanage. Here, young Dominican women, abandoned by their families at a very early age, are afforded the opportunity to live out their formative years with some semblance of love and caring. In a place absent of any personal possessions, I was moved to see their response as we handed out the simplest of items- play-dough, coloring books, and modest dolls- all procured from dollar stores back home that I don’t frequent and probably internally sneer at as I drive by. None of them cared what our last names were, where we had gone to school, what clubs we belonged to, or inquired as to the strength of our personal portfolios. In this wholly transparent place, the very idea of conducting oneself as if every human interaction is just another chance to project our favorite ideas on how we’d like to be perceived became laughable. And the hugs! It reminds you what it feels like to be hugged by someone who really means it, not out of obligation or ceremony but rather a deep desire to be loved and remembered.
Within the orphanage, the great communicational paradox of this island became clear: Even for those in our group possessing only the most remedial knowledge of Spanish, conversation flowed with a purity of thought and voice rarely found in our day-to-day lives. Here, interactions were completely void of the selfish nuances we so often bring to the table. There were no social bonus points awarded for “winning” the conversation or peppering the crowd with witty comments. These girls loved us before we arrived, hoped we would enjoy our short time with them, shared the good news of the Gospel with us while we were there, and only asked that we remembered them as we left. We dropped off thirty dollars’ worth of toys on their doorstep. I couldn’t help but wonder who was ministering to whom.
As all of our games were played in small arenas within the Santo Domingo city limits, we spent ample time touring the city center to and from contests. Like most fundamental pieces of knowledge I’m sure at one time I knew Christopher Columbus made port here in 1492, thus establishing the first European settlement of any significance- knew it, and then discarded it. Ironically enough, this place is a microcosm of modern urban living in our Western society: A collection of contrasting images and ideals, indescribable beauties masking inconvenient truths. The poorest areas remind one of some futuristic dystopian setting found in required reading from high school. A general filth permeates the streets. Garbage and human waste pile up to the point where they resemble the strata of the earth. You’ll find an affinity for American goods and fashions in the markets, though even these are faded and several years old. It is clear that they want what we have, but, truth be told, we’re no different. The cleanliness of our society gives us an illusion of control. Honestly, how often do we think about our senseless waste? We take it to the curb twice a week and it’s gone—to a place we never see and rarely think about. Their warts are on display for all to see, leaving no room for airs of pride or superiority.
By the third day most of us had become acclimated to the bizarre sights and sounds, and a journey into the country to visit a sugar cane village seemed somehow less foreign that it would have only days prior. As we gathered our group on a rudimentary court to distribute rubber basketballs, I found myself feeling somewhat detached, like this was a scene I had casually observed in a movie or documentary. It’s hard to relate to this level of poverty and destitution sans any direct experience with it, and as I drifted off into my thoughts I went back to the idea of the die-drop from 2,000 feet. Finally, it occurred to me- another thought I had once known to be absolute truth but had since forgotten: My lot had never been determined by a mythical game of chance where some token landed in the lap of luxury. Surely, the grace of God alone saves me from a life where I rise daily from a dirt floor to toil in endless fields for the profit of others. I had come to this island thinking I had already won the NBA finals when, in reality, my Maker had graciously allowed me to enter this Earth on the bench of the Miami Heat in the 4th quarter of a deciding game where the ball is in Lebron’s hands. I deserve nothing. I am owed nothing.
Moving forward, it is our obligation to do everything in our power to ease the suffering of the less fortunate; those who God, in His infinite wisdom, knew could handle a less favorable lot in life. I am reminded that for many of us, the things we hold dearest, the items we feel like we are owed and have earned through some measure of effort on our part, really were never ours to begin with. God has given all of us a level of means, and more importantly, He has bestowed on all of us certain talents. It is our job to couple these together for the betterment of those who want nothing more than to be loved and remembered.