It was a first for me. I’ve led many trips to the Dominican Republic, but they’ve always been HOPE International trips. We’ve exposed our guests to the Dominican culture and introduced them to the hard-working clients we serve. But for this trip, I linked arms with friends at Edify and Plant With Purpose. We invited friends of each of our organizations to meet Dominicans served by all three of our organizations.
Compassion, Healing Waters and the Local Church
We landed in Santo Domingo just after noon. Our guests packed light and we were able to bypass baggage claim and head straight for our first ministry visit. As a bonus, we arranged a visit to a church near our hotel. This Pentecostal church modeled partnership perhaps better than I’ve ever visited. Their church building was a hub for ministry in the community. In the basement, children sponsored through Compassion International met in classrooms to study God’s word, learn to read and to play with one another. A sewing and literacy training center was located on the second floor. And at the ground level, a clean water outlet disbursed safe water to the community. Healing Waters International designed the water solution. Using creative technologies will provide clean water to this community for at least ten years.
Church-based water filtration technology
Highlight: The pastor, Domingo, reflected on how his church has changed over the years. Early on, he and his church condemned their neighborhood, quick to note the sin they saw in their community. Today, however, the community knows them by the way they serve. And the church is growing. This church serves with the help of partners, all of whom work with and through their church. “We see all these organizations as links in the same chain.”
Plant With Purpose
On day two, we were on the road early and started our day with Plant With Purpose (PWP). We visited a community they serve and met the farmers they work with. We toured the farm of Eladio Cabrera. He showed us the compost pile and organic fertilizer he created with the help of PWP and pointed out the diverse crops growing on his beautiful land. Avocados, coffee, pineapples, yucca, and citrus trees colored the fertile countryside. We finished our morning with a lunch at his home, feasting on the produce from his farm.
Highlight: As we stood by the lemon trees overlooking the rolling Dominican hills, Mr. Cabrera commented, “Even if someone offers a great price, I will not sell this farm. I raised my family on this land.”
Plant With Purpose farm
In the afternoon, we visited the first of three Edify schools we saw during the trip. Edify serves over 500 “edupreneurs” in the DR. On average, these private Christian school proprietors outperform government schools by a margin of 3:1 and do so affordably. The first school–Mi Casita (“my little house”)–served close to 300 students, all paying $20/month for a top-notch education. There are some children unable to afford that rate so this edupreneur actually has 35 students on full scholarship. My wife, Alli, teaches first grade in a Title 1 school in the Denver Public Schools system. And so meeting these students and seeing them thrive brought great joy to me, personally.
First grade students in an Edify school
Highlight: We prayed for the proprietor before leaving her school. And she blessed us by returning the favor, praying for the members of our group. The spirit of mutuality we experienced throughout the trip sharply countered the paternalism so common on many short-term missions trips.
We visited two additional Edify schools on Friday. Our partner, Esperanza, partners with Edify as their lender. When these school owners are ready to expand or improve their buildings or add computer labs, Esperanza and Edify together provide the loan. Esperanza serves over 8,000 Dominican entrepreneurs. Brunilda was the “missionary banker” to the three Edify edupreneurs we visited and a separate group of eleven entrepreneurs we also met. We participated in an Esperanza community bank meeting, where Brunilda artfully modeled the three services HOPE provides its clients: biblically-based business training, savings accounts, and business loans.
Brunilda, a missionary banker in her community
Highlight: We finished our day by visiting Ingrid. Ingrid took her first business loan out in 2010. At that time, she had just one sewing machine and two employees. Today, she has five sewing machines and seven employees. Her business continues to flourish. I was struck, however, not by her business success, but by the way she conducted her business. The Bible on her desk was not a paper weight. It was her source of encouragement and guidance in her business. “My faith impacts everything that I do,” she shared. “I came to Esperanza for the business loan, but experiencing God was the real value of working with them.”
Ingrid, seamstress extraordinaire
Summary: The 13 guests I traveled with were all emerging young leaders. As a group, we read the story of William Wilberforce, a man who at the age of 26 determined to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. And he did. But he didn’t do it alone. In his summary of Wilberforce’s life, biographer John Pollock summarized, “Wilberforce proved that a man can change his times, but that he cannot do it alone.” Amen.
Sitcoms rarely address the effectiveness of charity and international aid. However, Michael Scott and Andy Bernard exposited these deep issues on a recent episode of The Office. Aiming to impress their friends and colleagues, the winsome duo joined a busload of aspiring youngsters bound for Mexico on a three month mission trip.
Michael Scott and Andy Bernard discuss charity
The scene unfolds:
Andy: Save me an aisle seat, Michael, I’m coming. I will not stand idly by while these Mexican villagers are sick.
Trip Leader: We are actually building a school.
Andy: Whatever. I won’t stand for it.
Michael: How long till we get to Mexico?
Andy: Well, two days minus how long we’ve been on the road. 45 minutes? So, like two days basically. Maybe more.
Michael: What are we building down there again? Like a hospital? A school for Mexicans? What?
Andy: I don’t know. I thought it was like a gymnasium.
Michael: Why aren’t they building it for themselves?
Andy: They don’t know how.
Michael: Do we know how? I don’t know how.
The episode closes with the comedic tandem abandoning their charitable foray, convicted that their talents would be better served selling paper to small business owners in Scranton. Channeling their inner Robert Lupton (and my other favorites, Brian Fikkert, Dambisa Moyo and Bill Easterly), Scott and Bernard touch on some deep issues in their short monologue:
Is our charity needed? Are we displacing someone locally who could do the job? Do we actually have the skills and capacity to serve well? Is our helping really helping? …an unlikely source prompts big questions.
“You are the first American group to ever visit our community.” Simon’s words sent chills through the missions team that had ventured to his remote Kenyan village. It was a risk to come to such an isolated place, but its undiscovered magnetism was also its allure. Their arrival was a momentous step in a long journey.
Several years earlier, Simon* met these Colorado church leaders at a John Piper conference. They had an immediate kinship. It was hard not to love Simon: He was eminently likeable, oozing charisma with each handshake and smile. Now in Kenya, after months of careful planning, they had finally arrived. As their bus labored up the dusty driveway, the orphanage they knew only by pictures came to life.
The orphanage looked like many like it in Africa: A fenced-in compound with simply-constructed dormitories and classrooms. The zenith of the complex wasn’t its buildings, however. It was the 200 smiling children which greeted the visitors with hoots of delight when their bus arrived. The trip unfolded in typical fashion. The Coloradans spent their days playing with orphans, seizing photo opps, and dreaming with Simon about ways their church could help the orphanage flourish.
"The Vanishing Orphanage"
The trip rattled stereotypes and collided cultures. Simon orchestrated the trip with clockwork precision, his robust leadership skills firing on all cylinders throughout the week. As the trip came to a close, the bus drove the team away. The children chased their bus, wrenching the emotions of even the group’s most stoic members. Hearts full, the team flew home, now well-equipped to share their stories of helping orphaned children and exploring uncharted places.
Despite the many positive moments throughout the week, there were unnerving whisperings among the group. It was strange the teachers didn’t know many of the orphans’ names. It seemed overly-controlling when Simon prohibited them from visiting the neighboring village unaccompanied. Also odd, the orphanage lacked a garden, which is like an Alaskan lacking a snow shovel: The fertile soil can give anyone a green thumb. These quiet whisperings slowly unfolded into loud gasps, and then into protests, and then into many tears, when the group returned to visit Simon’s orphanage just one year later.
On their return trip—one which almost mirrored their previous trip—a team member, Dan, stayed around after the team departed for the States. On his own, Dan journeyed from the Nairobi airport back to the orphanage on a scout mission to investigate the team’s concerns. As he arrived in the village and walked toward the orphanage, a woman approached him, grabbed his arm, and amplified the whisperings.
“Just so you know,” she shared solemnly, “the orphanage is not real.”
Dan, panged with a haunting feeling of betrayal, trekked from the village to the orphanage, hoping to disprove her. He arrived at the place where he played with smiling children just one day earlier. His eyes confirmed the woman’s words: The place was deserted. The yard where the children used to run and play? Nothing remained apart from the lonely debris which bounced with the wind across the red clay earth. The sleeping quarters? Empty. The cafeteria? Vacant. No workers, no orphans, no supplies, no anything. The orphanage had vanished. It was all a mirage.
In truth, the Colorado church was not the first American group to visit Simon’s community. In fact, many churches from across the US and Canada were privy to Simon’s deceitful wooing over the years. His highly-sophisticated web of lies featured faux staff, rented children (he pitched it to their parents as a day camp), and staged arrests (always resulting in generous bail outs by the visitors). All told, this Madoffesque charity scheme collectively defrauded these churches of tens of thousands of dollars. More disappointing, it tainted many wonderful memories and fertilized the unhealthy seeds of cynicism and close-heartedness.
My first response to Simon’s elaborate scam was eye-rolling distrust. This type of story can cultivate skepticism, prompting us to pull back. But it doesn’t have to. It does not mandate that we retreat. In the face of even unbearable trials, Jesus prods us to advance, but to do so with eyes wide open:
Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. – Matthew 10: 16
Jesus’ instructions to his disciples preceded their harrowing journey to bring the good news to the world. He knew their path would be lined with hardship. Still, he sent them out, charging them to be as shrewd as they were innocent. Abounding in compassion, but not the undiscerning kind. Go to Kenya, but send back a scout if you sense something is amiss. Pour out generosity, but do so discriminately, taking Jesus’ instructions as your marching orders. Love abundantly, but always ask hard questions. Jesus sends us out. No retreat. No close fists. No bitterness. Go boldly, shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.
*Names changed to protect confidentiality.