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?