Denominational Relations Task Force Report

Rusty, Steve and David Camp recently attended the National Gathering for the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO) at First Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina. As David has reported, ECO is one of the denominations we are exploring in detail as a potential future denominational affiliation for our congregation. 

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Continued Progress

By Thomas Gregory

On Wednesday, I was part of a small delegation from our group who travelled with Rivers of the World’s Jack Wehmiller to visit the two sites where our church worked during our 2013 mission trip to the DR. The group consisted of myself, Steve Fortenberry, Larry Crawford, and Bill Crump, and our mission was to take note of the progress that had been made over the past three years.

During that trip three years ago, our group worked to build water purification systems in the mountain village of Hata de Mana and in the urban neighborhood of Barrio Juan P. Duarte, outside of La Romana. Since that time, the Dominican government has passed regulations that made our filtration systems obsolete, and efforts are underway to expand the buildings that house the systems in order to replace them with reverse osmosis systems that take excess salt out of the water, which enables the water to be sold to the villagers, creating economic opportunity for local residents.

We were told that the system our church paid for and installed in Hata de Mana would be moved to another site on the other side of the island, where water salination is not as big of a problem as it is on the southern side.

Although our team admittedly began the day a bit skeptical of the level of progress we expected to see, I believe we were all generally encouraged by what we saw up in the mountains and in the barrio. It was great to travel back up the beautiful mountain road that became so familiar to me on our trip three years ago. When we arrived at the site on the mountain, a construction crew was hard at work putting the finishing touches on the expanded water filtration building.

After inspecting the construction site, our team walked up the hill to the rear of the project site, to see a new temporary building that housed the town’s school while a new school building was being constructed on the other side of the baseball field adjacent to the school.

Before we left, I walked across the street from the construction site to visit a family our team had befriended in 2013 and to ask about Elenita, the young girl who had taken such a liking to Shannon Melton and her group of then-high school students who travelled to the mountain each day to work with the local children. To my surprise, Elenita’s grandmother remembered me and gave me a big hug when she saw me at her back door. When I asked her about Elenita, she informed me that she and her mom had recently moved to Higuey, a nearby city. It was great to visit with this old friend of ours and to hear of Elenita’s general wellbeing.

After leaving Hata de Mana, we stopped by Batey 106 to check in on our work crew, who was hard at work on the house and conducting Bible School with the local children.

The next stop on our fact-finding mission was the Joe Hartman School in Barrio Juan P. Duarte, which was built on the site of an old landfill. Driving into the barrio, the only thing one can see is trash. There is literally not a square yard in the barrio that is not littered in some way. That is, except for the Joe Hartman School, which is like an oasis in the desert. The Joe Hartman School is where our team conducted Vacation Bible School in 2013 and was the location of the second of our two construction teams on that trip.

When our team left in 2013, the barrio construction team was the one with the most disappointment, because they were not able to see the tangible results of their week’s worth of hard work. However, our return trip demonstrated how important it is to remember that mission trips aren’t always about what one group can accomplish, but about what multiple groups can accomplish over a longer period of time. The construction project that was in its infancy when our team was there in 2013 had been carried through all the way to completion and the result was a perfectly manicured courtyard playground for the children of the Joe Hartman School.

Adjacent to the playground site, a huge new cafeteria was under construction, a testament to the continued success of the school, as well as those, like our church, who continue to support the school’s efforts to educate the children of Barrio Juan P. Duarte.

We then left that barrio and accompanied Jack to Barrio La La Chosa, the site of another Rivers of the World project, which includes the construction of a Baptist church and a new school, a promising project that will provide much needed education in that particular barrio.

After lunch in La Romana, our small team of folks arrived back at Casa Pastoral very encouraged about the continuation of the projects that we worked on in 2013, as well as the work we were doing in Batey 106. 

Ready to Work

By Thomas Gregory

Photos by Anne Marie and Thomas Gregory

On Monday morning, six members of our group led by Dr. Todd Fincher left Casa Pastoral to meet a group of dentists and dental students from Buffalo, New York to perform dental work in the bateys surrounding La Romana.

The rest of group returned to Batey 106, not to worship, but ready to work. With full bellies from the morning’s breakfast of oatmeal, sausage, bacon, and fruit, the construction crew began painting the metal panels that would become the roof of the house. Beth Tackett and her team of Vacation Bible School leaders arrived at the community church, unloaded their school supplies, and did their best to get the word out in the community about the day’s program, which consisted of games, songs, and arts and crafts.

On the construction site, the local construction workers were hesitant to trust our team of volunteers, which made for slow progress in the morning, but once the locals caught wind that our ranks included a professional contractor and a civil engineer, they warmed to us and our abilities, and things began to move a lot more quickly on the duplex we are constructing in Batey 106. By the end of the day, Patrick Johnson (the engineer), was on the roof with a local man installing roof trusses and the metal panels, a real sign of the progress we had made, both in the construction of the duplex and in building relationships with the locals.

By the end of the day, our construction team had installed the roof trusses, painted the roof panels green and installed them, and painted the exterior and interior walls bright yellow.

At 4 p.m., our group loaded the big yellow bus and headed back to La Romana through the sugarcane countryside. Back at Casa Pastoral, we enjoyed a dinner of beef, rutabagas, carrots, rice and beans, and chocolate cake. Before ending the day, our group gathered to discuss experiences that were “life giving” as well as those that were “life depleting,” providing everyone with an opportunity to share their day’s experience with the group.

On Tuesday morning, we enjoyed scrambled eggs, croissants, sausage, bacon, and fruit for breakfast. We then loaded up and headed back to Batey 106, accompanied this time by a missionary who spoke fluent Spanish, Creole, and English. The addition of Ketley to our team proved to be a Godsend for our Vacation Bible School team, who had difficulty communicating with the local children the previous day. With Ketley’s assistance, the VBS team was able to conduct their program in the school, which provided much needed structure for the kids and yielded much better results for the leaders.

The construction team continued working on the duplex house by installing a concrete floor. At our team’s request, we had a gas-powered concrete mixer delivered to the construction site, which sped up the mixing process ten-fold. Normally done painstakingly by hand with buckets of water, bags of cement, a pile of sand, and shovels, the mixer took most of the manual labor out of the mixing part, which allowed us to channel that energy into transporting the concrete from the front yard to the inside of the house by wheelbarrow.

A late morning rain shower provided a much-needed break for the concrete hauling crew, comprised primarily of high school boys. After a lunch of pork, rice, and ham sandwiches, the boys were back at it, loading wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of concrete into the house. Even in the rain, the boys didn’t let up, working hard all the way up to quittin’ time. Their mamas would’ve been so proud!

While the VBS team finished their day’s lesson, a small group of artists led by Angie Crick Cole began to sketch a mural of Jesus with little children on the side of the church. Although the rain put a damper on their plans for a while, they made some progress, and given dry weather, should finish their work by the end of the week.

Our group was pleased to welcome Jack Wehmiller, our contact with Rivers of the World, to the job site in the afternoon. Jack and his wife CJ were instrumental in helping us prepare and make plans for the trip, and Rivers of the World is the organization building the houses in Batey 106. It was good to see Jack again and have the opportunity to get to know the Dominican Republic a little better through his experience working in the country.

Back at Casa Pastoral at the end of a long, wet, muddy, hard day’s work, the team showered up and met for dinner, which consisted of chicken, pasta, veggies, break, and cake. The group socialized in the courtyard before our nightly meeting, where we discussed things we were thankful for, ways we were stretched beyond our normal routines, and people through whom we saw God at work in the DR.

Return to La Romana

By Thomas Gregory

It's been three yearsalmost to the daythat a group from Greenwood's First Presbyterian Church was in La Romana, Dominican Republic. In some ways, a lot has changed compared to the previous trip. The majority of the participants are here for the first time, and even those of us who were fortunate enough to come here in 2013 have returned to La Romana with a different perspective. In other ways, though, much is the same as it was three years ago. We are staying at Casa Pastoral, the same place as before, and I've recognized a few familiar faces among the staff here. We will also be working to combat the same circumstances of extreme poverty, substandard housing, and limited access to education that the people who live in the bateys outside of La Romana face on a daily basis.

We left Greenwood at 10:45 p.m. on Friday night, fifteen minutes ahead of schedule (which was the first miracle of the trip). We arrived at Atlanta International Airport at 5:45 a.m. on Saturday morning and worked our way through security to catch our non-stop flight to Punta Cana Airport. Once on the ground in the Dominican Republic, a familiar yellow school bus arrived and took us off in the direction of La Romana, an hour away. Once at Casa Pastoral, our group was served a delicious dinner of chicken and rice, and we all took our time to get settled into our bunks, working through a few expected kinks along the way.

This morning, our group woke up and enjoyed a breakfast of pancakes, bacon, sausage, and fresh fruit. Shortly after, we put on our Sunday best and headed to Batey 106, about thirty minutes outside of town, to worship with the people we will be serving over the coming week. When we unloaded the bus in Batey 106, the neighborhood children were there to greet us with hugs and smiles and the locals welcomed us into their church for an hour-long service. Much to Rev. Steve Fortenberry's surprise, the pastor of the church called him forward to preach the sermon, which he did while being translated into Spanish for the locals. Following the sermon, Lisa Melton led the congregation in singing "Jesus Loves Me" in English. After worship, our group visited with the locals and played with the kids before heading back to Casa Pastoral. The worship service was a great start to our week and the perfect introduction to the kind community of Batey 106.

Back at Casa Pastoral, we enjoyed chili and crackers for lunch, and I even cobbled together the ingredients needed to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. After lunch, we were driven to the coast for an afternoon on the beach at Bayahibe. We returned just in time for dinner, which consisted of pork, potatoes, broccoli and carrots. To close the night, Steve led us all in a discussion which gave us a lot to consider as we prepare to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ in a way that both honors our common faith and respects their different culture.


Day 7: Adios Amigos

By Thomas Gregory

Saying goodbye is the hardest thing to do. Today, we loaded the yellow school bus and drove up into the mountains of La Altagracia province (adjacent to La Romana province) for the last time. We were finished with the construction work in Hata de Mana, but we had one more round to make to deliver supplies to the area schools. 

With Shannon Melton leading our pack, we stopped at the first school and delivered note pads, markers, crayons, and other craft items. We stayed for a few minutes to play with them during their morning recess, tossing the tennis ball, jumping rope, and playing Frisbee with the kids. It was the perfect start to a beautiful morning in the mountains.

Before visiting the next two schools, we stopped at the house of our friends Yosi and Elenita to say goodbye. After a fifteen-minute visit, we left the small house, with Elenita crying and saying she wanted to come with us. If any of us had had our way, we would have taken her with us back to Greenwood. It was heartbreaking to say goodbye, but it was something we knew we would have to do from the moment we met them less than a week ago.

We returned to Casa Pastoral for lunch and then the entire group loaded up on the big yellow school bus for the beach, which was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip. At sunset, our group gathered in a circle on the beach and had worship, where I had the high privilege of serving communion to my Christian brothers and sisters.

As a deacon at First Presbyterian, the opportunity to participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is one that I do not take lightly. Tonight’s communion service was one for the record books. The scenery was magnificently beautiful, I was serving to friends new and old, and it was at the tail end of a week of hands-on service to our Lord and to the people of the Dominican Republic. It was a magic moment, a Dominican moment.

Tonight, as I sit here in the dining room of Casa Pastoral, writing the last blog post for our trip, I can honestly say that this trip has been nothing short of transformative. I feel that our group has truly made a difference in this place. One can see the evidence of our work in Batey Hata de Mana, in Barrio Juan P. Duarte, in the various bateys visited by the dental and medical workers, and in the schools where God’s word was read and celebrated with the kids of the Dominican Republic.

Day 6: Be Still

By Thomas Gregory

Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.’ – Psalm 46:8-10

At the end of each day this week, our group has gathered to share with each other where we saw God that day. It has been our way of sharing a personal moment from our day with the group while praising our good Lord for his gifts to us. As a result of this daily exercise, I have been going through each day looking for God. It’s funny how easy it is to see God when you are looking.

Yesterday, as I was standing on the roof of our water filtration house raking wet concrete into the forms for the concrete roof, I experienced what I can only describe as a “Dominican moment.” As I took a break from raking, I looked down from the roof, where a man and his child were riding down the street on a mule. In that instant, a stray dog ran across the road and a rooster crowed off in the distance. I looked up at the mountains in the distance and saw some smoke coming from one of them. In that moment, a flood of typical Dominican occurrences happened simultaneously.

As I began to look for God in that Dominican moment, I found him in the plume of smoke billowing from the mountain. For whatever reason, it made me think of when God appeared to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Horeb. When God commanded Moses to go to Egypt to set God’s people free from slavery. In that Dominican moment, I felt that God was with me as I worked 15 feet above ground to free the people of Batey Hata de Mana from the perils of unclean water.

As we raked the last bit of concrete into place, we climbed down from the roof to the ground below. I had met a man named Rafael de la Cruz Solano, who is the president of the Rotary Club in the city of Higuey, a few miles from Hata de Mana. A group of Rotarians had met our team on Wednesday to welcome them and give them treats, but Rafael, an architect, came back on Thursday to help work on the site.

Being a Rotarian myself, Rafael and I got to know each other and he asked if we would follow him to Higuey at the end of our day to exchange Rotary Club flags, a tradition when Rotarians meet up in international locations. We happily obliged and loaded up on the yellow school bus and headed to Higuey at the end of our work day to meet up with Rafael.

The route through Higuey was different from the route we had been taking each day. Higuey is a big city, and our route had been on dirt roads through rural areas the entire way. After taking a photo with Rafael presenting me with his Rotary Club’s flag, we loaded the bus and headed for La Romana. At the edge of town, our bus ran out of gas and our driver managed to restart the engine with just enough gas left to allow us to coast into the Shell station on fumes. We literally ran out of gas as we rolled into the service station.

After filling back up, we headed for home, only to realize that if we had not met Rafael, who insisted we come to Higuey, we would have likely been in the middle of nowhere, Dominican Republic when we broke down. Had we made it another 10 miles out of town, we would have been in the same predicament. It was again in that moment where I recognized God’s providence at work in our day and in the lives of everyone on our bus. It was almost as if God had reached out to us in this moment with a simple reminder to be still.

Dental Clinic: Day 3

By Todd Fincher

Our final day with our Dental health care friends from New York and Michigan began today and it was bittersweet, their kindness allowing our team to blend with them to be stronger than we would have been alone has been such a blessing. We said goodbye, looking forward to meeting them again to do God's work.

Today took us deep into the countryside to Batey Campo Nuevo, a relatively small area physically, but densely populated-extremely poor. Today's dental team consisted of Mary Holly Lott, Kaity Box, Airston Small, Lauren MacLean, and myself. We worked in a one room, open air, elementary school classroom with another view of the mountains that was breathtaking. Again, it was transformed into a twelve chair dental clinic that was elbow to elbow in working space—a spectacle to behold!

All of the team members contributed so much today, no one more than Lauren. Not only does she speak Spanish creole, the rural dialect, she was the first to strike in dental extractions. I had barely numbed the first patient and she was extracting front teeth with one of the doctors. Lauren was also priceless as an interpreter and worked tirelessly throughout the day. As I look back on God's providence, I can easily see Him placing Lauren in Greenwood in preparation for this mission trip.

Kaity and Airston began in sterilization, cleaning hundreds of instruments, in a dim, two-windowed, hot room, saying only, "We'll do whatever you need." After lunch, they both assisted a student and myself in multiple procedures. Both performed third molar dental extractions, gave local anesthesia, and sewed extraction sites.

Mary Holly began her day in dental hygiene, teaching countless of children how to brush properly  giving them toothbrushes and toothpaste. She was also a warrior in sterilization, working in the "hotbox" to turn over countless instruments. After lunch, she gave local anesthesia and extracted teeth with me. She saved the best for last, "schooling" the locals in soccer! What I learned about all four of these women is the same thing, they are fearless and serve the living God with a passion that is inspiring.

So we end the dental portion of the mission trip today with the knowledge that God has protected us in our travels to the bateys, that we have been able to serve some of His children and our brothers and sisters, and that we have received much more than we have given.

"For he who waits on the Lord shall gain new strength, he shall mount up like wings on eagles, he shall run and not tire, he shall walk and not be weary." To God be the Glory.

Day 5: The Barrio

By Thomas Gregory

“Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’” – Matthew 19:13-14

Today, I took a break from my usual group in Batey Hata de Mana and traveled to the barrio with the self described “Team Awesome.” Whereas the bateys are located in rural areas, the barrios are small neighborhoods in the urban areas. The locals describe them as ghettoes, where the urban poor live, work, and raise their families. For the past three days, Team Awesome has been working in Barrio Juan P. Duarte.

When we drove into the barrio in the yellow school bus, I joked that there was enough trash on the ground for it to be a landfill. As a city planner, I was disheartened to find out that Barrio Duarte was actually built on an old landfill, thus explaining the ever-present trash. All I could think about was that if Greenwood’s Mayor Carolyn McAdams were with us, she would have organized a cleanup campaign so fast it would have made the residents’ heads spin.

The first half of the day, I helped with Vacation Bible School at the school located next to the work site. We went to each classroom and read the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to the kids, in Spanish, from the children’s Bible. In two of the classrooms, I got to read to the kids. It was an awesome experience reading a Bible story in a foreign language to kids who completely understood what I was saying, even though I didn’t know what the words I was reading meant. The Lord moves in mysterious ways.

After reading the story to the kids, we helped them with an arts and crafts activity, making paper serpents with stickers and crayons. The kids loved every minute of it. At the end of each lesson, the kids sang a song to us in Spanish, and we returned the favor by singing a song to them in English. The cultural exchange between old and young, American and Dominican, was absolutely remarkable.

After VBS, we joined the construction crew and helped them make progress on their water filtration system. We moved piles of rock, sifted sand from gravel, carried buckets of mortar, and dug footings for concrete walls. And all the while, we had a great time in the Caribbean sun, enjoying each other’s company, and helping make the lives of the people who live in the barrio a little bit better.

One of my favorite moments from the day was when we were moving concrete blocks from one side of the wall to the other, a group of local kids came up to talk to us. Earlier in the day, we had been talking about the lack of OSHA work site standards with the exposed rebar protruding from the cinder block walls. As the kids approached us, I reached down and picked up a plastic bottle, showed it to the kids, placed it upside-down on top of one of the pieces of rebar, and then pointed to the adjacent field.

The kids looked at each other with a look of excitement, and ran out into the field to retrieve plastic bottles. They returned within five minutes, each with an armload of bottles, and then proceeded to make our work site OSHA approved by placing the bottles on the rebar. They were so happy to be helpful to our crew!

At the end of the day, we had accomplished a lot and the team was satisfied with the progress that was made. Although I will be re-joining my team in Batey Hata de Mana tomorrow, I will always remember the kids of Barrio Duarte and the love they had for our group of VBS teachers. Little ones to him belong, indeed.

Day 4: Just in Time

By Thomas Gregory

Today, my group returned to Batey Hata de Mana, this time with no blowout on the way. When we arrived at the work site, our Dominican co-workers were nowhere to be found. Instead of wait around, our team sprung into action, backfilling the footings and moving cinder blocks into the work area. Once the masons arrived, they went to work laying block while we mixed mortar and concrete by hand.

By lunchtime, we had added several more courses of blocks to the wall and we were all tired. After a lunch of chicken and rice, meat pies, peanut butter sandwiches, and cookies, we went back to it, working in the hot sun for another hour or so. At about 2:30 p.m., one of our Dominican guides invited us to play baseball with a group of local kids who were gathering on the field behind the worksite.

It was great to interact with the batey locals, to attempt to speak Spanish, and to take a break from work to enjoy the day. The kids from the batey provided all the equipment we needed, handing over their gloves each time we took to the field. Although they beat us in all three games that we played, we laughed and otherwise had a really great afternoon.

When we returned to the worksite, the walls had been finished by team members Larry Crawford and Bill Crump, along with the Dominican masons. As we said goodbye to our friends Elena, Yosi, and Elenita, we promised to return tomorrow. The bus ride back was enjoyable as we took in the beautiful scenery, told stories from our day, and enjoyed the fresh air blowing in through the school bus windows.

Back at Casa Pastoral, we showered and enjoyed a meal of barbequed chicken, rigatoni pasta, plantains, mixed vegetables, and bread. For dessert, we enjoyed tres leches cake, which would rival anything you could order from the Crystal Grill. At Bible study, we heard from Jonathan, one of the missionaries at Maranatha Mission. He told us about their projects and the work they do to spread God’s love in and around La Romana.

The night ended with a trip to the Jumbo for helados (ice cream) and other necessities. Shannon Melton bought a new pair of shoes for her friend Yosi from Hata de Mana. Tish Goodman purchased candy and toys for the children in the batey she has been working in. We returned at the end of a full day, tired but ready for tomorrow’s journey.

Early in the day, as I was filling up Larry’s bucket with mortar to take to the masons, I remarked that we were mixing mortar “Just In Time.” As a production strategy, Just In Time (JIT) management maximizes profit by reducing inventory. Throughout the day, I returned to that phrase, thinking about alternative meanings it could have.

Perhaps our group arrived in Hata de Mana to install a water filtration system just in time to keep someone from getting sick. Perhaps our group arrived at the classrooms in the bateys just in time to provide the encouragement some kid needed to stay in school. And then again, perhaps we came on this trip just in time for God to make a difference in our own lives, and by doing so, in the lives of those we’ve met along the way.

Day 4: I Have a Dream

By Travis Allen

"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

For the past two days our team has been working in Barrio Beraca. Our days have consisted of Vacation Bible School and construction. Our site is made up of a church and a school for Haitian children, who otherwise would not be able to go to school. These children cannot attend the public schools because they are not citizens of the Dominican Republic. The school currently has grades kindergarden through third grade. The current enrollment is 148. In the morning VBS is held for thirty in each of the 6 classes.

Construction for the most part has consisted of digging footings for the wall/fence that will go around the water filtration systems. Part of the team has been helping construct the building that will house the filtration system itself, while the rest of the team has been preparing the ground for the cement foundation for the perimeter wall. Today we finished the trenches and began pouring the cement footing for the wall. We have also almost finished the outside work of the purification building and will soon begin the flooring on the inside.

Today I got to have a conversation with the Pastor named Elise. She is quite the visionary and has been working for many years in the La Romana area to assure health care, education, and the Gospel is shared with all of God's people in this area, no matter if they are Haitian or Dominican. She has many goals and great expectations for the church and its mission. The dream in particular that she shared with me is her hope to build and provide an elderly care facility. The La Romana area only has two, to serve a community with a population over 200,000. Her desire, compassion, and determination showed me how faithful and hopeful she is that this will happen. She reminded me, as a pastor, how important it is to have dreams and hopes as we serve God in our own communities.

Dental Clinic: Day 2

By Todd Fincher

Day two with the dental team was another outstanding success. Our friends picked us up at our hotel promptly at 8 a.m. to begin the day. We ventured through the city and into the countryside to a batey about one hour away. We passed miles and miles of sugarcane fields as literally as far as you could see. In them were the workers with machetes cutting and stacking the sugarcane on oxen drawn wagons, towards rail cars to be loaded to ship. The poorest of the poor and labor I really cannot envision.

We pulled into the small batey with Dr. Steve and Dr. Kevin's group transforming another church into a dental clinic with the same precision as yesterday. Today, Laura came with me and it was great sharing the day with her. She worked tirelessly doing everything from assisting me, to sterilization, to cleaning children's teeth and applying fluoride varnish. Eddie, Henry, Mary Steele, and Katharine Douglas were their usual amazing selves, doing everything that needed to be done to help the process run smoothly. Dr. Flautt and Katharine splinted a man's arm, which had been broken for four weeks with no care!

This is, as our group shares each night, where we saw God today. I saw him many places today, but none more than the view from our church into the countryside. As you looked up from the bloody mouth you had just gotten through extracting numerous teeth in, you viewed the beautiful, green, endless, sugarcane fields—purple mountains in the distance—and the shadows of clouds floating over them. As you looked back at your patient, you saw the face of thankfulness and appreciation. God is good, all the time.

Dental Clinic: Day 1

By Todd Fincher

Our day began meeting a great group of dentists, dental students, dental assistants, and volunteers from Buffalo, New York and Michigan. They immediately took us in as family and allowed us to assist them in the day's work. Members of FPC this day were Dr. Henry Flautt, Eddie Amelung, Mary Steele Flautt, Katharine Douglas, and myself.

The dental group we joined had the most amazing setup I have ever seen on a mission trip. We pulled into the batey and to the local church to set up for the day. In 21 minutes these guys had moved the pews back and set up an eight chair dental clinic, yes EIGHT chairs, including two units to perform fillings! Not to mention a complete sterilization area which Eddie, Henry, and Mary Steele helped run with complete efficiency. They brought a compressor, air driven handpieces, electric handpieces for surgical dental extractions, and enough energy for an army. Katharine aided all the staff with medical evaluations and taught Mary Steele how to take blood pressure. Henry delivered dental anesthesia and did dental extractions, and I did my usual.

The setting was inspirational as the church faced west and the sun shone through an outline of the cross on all of us working throughout the day. I was continually reminded why we are here. These people are some of the poorest I have ever seen in some of the poorest conditions I have ever been in. Yet they are happy and praise the living God with a fervor that inspires me and the team. We ended the day seeing 176 patients, most having 3-5 dental extractions each, too many pediatric prophys to count, and endless fillings. What a great start!

I have included a list of the generous friends who allowed us to work with them below. Remember all of us in your prayers as we seek to make a small difference in God's kingdom.

  • Dr. Bill, Theresa, Christian and Cody Shortt
  • Dr. Kevin and Beth D'Angelo
  • Dr. Bill andElizabeth D'Angelo
  • Krista, Lianne, and Maggie VanWagner
  • Mary Wilson
  • Chelsea Eppolito
  • Katherine Marshall
  • Shalia Ramandev
  • Rachel Nozzi
  • Ashley Mears
  • Matthew Valerio

Day 3: To The Hills

By Thomas Gregory

“I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

“The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” – Psalm 121

Today was our first “working” day, and our group divided into three teams. The medical crew, led by Todd Fincher and Henry Flautt, headed to a batey to join the “Flying Dentists,” a group of dentists from the upper peninsula of Michigan and Buffalo, New York, who have been working in the Dominican Republic since 1999.

The other two teams consisted of a vacation bible school group and a construction crew and each headed in different directions to work with their hands and their hearts in bateys outside of La Romana. I worked on the construction crew in Batey Hata de Mana, up in the hills of La Romana province.

After a breakfast of cinnamon oatmeal, bacon, bread, and fresh pineapple and papaya, we loaded the yellow school bus for Hata de Mana. About twenty minutes into our trip, one of the back right tires on the school bus blew out, making a series of extremely loud machine gun-style noises as the flap of rubber repeatedly banged against the floor of the bus.

Kaity Box and Haynes Camp, both of whom were seated directly above the busted tire, screamed so loud it scared the rest of us. Haynes took things one step further and seemingly levitated off of his seat as he jumped to the other side of the bus. As the rubber continued to beat against the bus floor, our guides jumped into the aisle of the bus and began dancing to the rhythm. Bill Crump soon followed suit, leading the day’s first cultural exchange between our American group of missionaries and the Dominican guides.

We stopped in Guaymate, the next village, to change the tire. As soon as we got off the bus, the kids of Guaymate ran to meet us and invited us to play baseball with them. After an hour of walking the streets, meeting the kids and adults, playing Frisbee, and taking photos, the tire was changed and we were ready to depart for Hata de Mana, another hour’s drive.

At our destination, the construction crew unloaded the bus and met a team of masons who showed us how to mix concrete by hand. All of the ingredients had to be brought to the site in wheelbarrows. We spread a layer of sand, then a layer of gravel, and then we added cement and water, resulting in concrete. By lunch, we had made enough concrete by hand to fill the footings of the water filtration house to the proper level.

Around 1 p.m., we were joined by the ladies, who led arts and crafts at a local school, for lunch. We dined on ham and cheese poboys, chicken, rice, beans, and cookies.

After lunch, the crew began to lay block on top of the footings. A few of us went to meet a local family, who invited us into their modest home. We met Elena, the mother, Yosi, the 14-year-old daughter, and Elenita, the three-year-old child. We also met their pig and chickens. Yosi then took us down to el puenta rio (the river bridge) for a nice view.

Back at the construction site, we finished laying the second course of blocks, and then loaded the bus for La Romana. An hour and a half later, we were back at Casa Pastoral, where we enjoyed some of the most refreshing cold showers in a while. Dinner consisted of chicken, rice and beans, chocolate cake for dessert, and homemade lemonade.

At the end of the day, our group spent the better part of two hours sharing what we learned on our first day at work in the Dominican Republic. We told stories, laughed, cried, and prayed for strength and courage to do God’s work in our respective bateys. For my team, riding up into the beautiful hills outside of La Romana reminded us that we are not alone in our work here. We have help, which comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Day 2: Amazing Grace

By Thomas Gregory

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.” – from the hymn Amazing Grace

Today began like a lot of American mornings begin—with pancakes and bacon. The friendly kitchen staff made us feel right at home with some of our favorite breakfast foods. After dressing in our Sunday best, we loaded the yellow school bus for a 20-minute ride down a bumpy gravel road to the bateys, which are small working villages in the sugar plantations outside the city limits of La Romana.

We split into two groups, with the first group getting off at Batey Al Anon. I was with this first group, so many of today’s photos were taken in this batey. The village was small, with very few first world comforts. There was no indoor plumbing, electricity was scarce, raw sewage trickled through the dirt streets in ditches and canals, housing was substandard, and garbage was everywhere. Stray dogs and chickens roamed the streets.

The people who live in the bateys work in the sugar cane fields from the time they are strong enough to work, usually around the age of fifteen, until their bodies give out. Their world is simple, and there is little chance for children brought up in the bateys to escape a life of poverty and hard work. The shacks in the bateys are owned by the sugar companies and are provided to the workers as part of their payment. There is no such thing as homeownership in the bateys. By American standards, everyone in the bateys lives below the poverty line.

But when we got off the bus in Batey Al Anon, you wouldn’t know that the residents lived a hard life. The kids ran up to hug us and immediately reached for our hands. They took us around their community and showed us how they lived. The church was the most prominent building in the village. We walked through rows of ramshackle tenements, past their commissary, to the edge of the batey where the sugar cane disappeared into the horizon.

The kids played with us all the while, taking photos with our iPhones, sporting our sunglasses, joining hands for simple games like Ring Around the Rosie and the Hokey Pokey, and playing a pick-up game of stickball using a plastic bottle for a ball. One kid showed off the toy car he had made out of an empty oil bottle, four bottle caps, and some string. He dragged the car behind him everywhere he went the entire time we were there. It was his pride and joy.

After about an hour spent visiting with the locals, we entered the church for worship. The service was short—about thirty minutes—but there was plenty of time for prayer, the reading of Psalm 121 by our own Todd Fincher and Lauren MacLean, a few songs, and a sermon. Our group was invited to sing a song and we chose two verses from Amazing Grace.

It was indeed amazing to see the people of Batey Al Anon join us in celebrating the grace granted to us by our common denominator—our amazing God.

After worship, the other half of our group who had continued on to Batey Cacata, another fifteen minutes from Al Anon, returned in the yellow school bus to take us back to Casa Pastoral in La Romana. After an outdoor lunch of chili and crackers, a small group walked to the local Jumbo (think Walmart, but cleaner) to make a few purchases. Being a potato chip connoisseur, I bought a bag of Lay’s limon and queso blanco chips in an effort to taste the local flavor. At least that was my excuse.

At two o’clock, the yellow school bus took us to the beach for a fun afternoon in the sun. We enjoyed the beautiful day and the crystal clear water among the locals and tourists who shared the beach with us. Back at Casa Pastoral, we dined on pork chops, steamed broccoli and carrots, and potatoes, with pear and strawberry tarts for dessert.

After dinner, we walked down the street to Iglesia Bautista Misionera Haitiana, where we participated in a two-hour worship service unlike anything we had ever experienced before. First of all, the service was entirely in Spanish, except for the one song that four ladies sang in French. Travis spoke to the congregation on our behalf, assisted by our new friend Jonathan, who translated his words into English.

After thanking the members of the church for their hospitality and sharing a few words with them, our entire group joined Travis at the front of the church, where we once again sang the words of Amazing Grace as a reminder that God’s gift of grace is given to all. It doesn’t matter if you speak English or Spanish, are rich or poor, hail from America or the Dominican Republic, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. Amazing, isn’t it?

Day 1: 31 Passports

By Thomas Gregory

“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.” Psalm 146:6-7

31 passports were stamped at Las Americas International Airport in Santo Domingo today. 31 weary travelers loaded a yellow school bus and travelled an hour and a half to La Romana today. And tonight, 31 Christian missionaries gathered after a hot meal to thank God for the opportunity to serve others in the foreign land of the Dominican Republic.

Our trip began at midnight on Friday on a charter bus at First Presbyterian Church in Greenwood, Mississippi. Although almost everyone in our group would confess to not having enough sleep over the past 24 hours, we are all filled with excitement about what is in store for us tomorrow and for the rest of the week.

Our bus ride from Santo Domingo to La Romana was an eye-opener. As we rode through the countryside, along the beaches, past sugarcane fields, and through various towns, the smell of burning trash and burning fields permeated our open-air bus. Poverty was on display as we passed through the outskirts of La Romana.

But once we arrived at the mission house, our home base for the next seven days, all of our concerns were put to rest. The accommodations are simple, but more than adequate. The bunk rooms are clean and the compound is secure. We are sharing our quarters with two other mission groups from Boston, Massachusetts, and Waco, Texas. Everyone we have met has been so nice!

Our meal tonight consisted of fried chicken and a rice-vegetable medley. It proved to be quite delicious and very filling. After dinner, we drank coffee and gathered in the courtyard for a Bible study that gave each participant an opportunity to share their highs and lows from the day, as well as a moment where they saw God at work.

For me, God’s presence has been apparent from the moment we left Greenwood. I saw God on the smiling faces of the people who work at our mission house. I heard God in the prayer of Jack, our Rivers of the World coordinator, as we loaded the bus for La Romana. And I felt God’s spirit during the experiences our group shared with each other tonight.

To our friends and family back at home, thank you for your prayers as we prepare to share God’s love in this place. Above all, rest assured that everyone here is doing well and is excited about the week ahead.