I’m Father Harry Walton, the priest-in-charge at Trinity Episcopal Church on Sumner Street in Stoughton. I’m thrilled to be here with you this morning and for the opportunity to offer some words and thoughts on the upcoming medical mission trip this May, which Rev. Rebecca and Arielle Tomlinson will be participating in.
I’ve been part of this mission team now for a little of seven years, and despite the sameness that exists, the basic functioning of the team and the clinic we run, I’ve experienced seven unique experiences, seven instances of standing on holy ground. Witnessing and experiencing encounters that have forever shaped my understanding of what it means to truly reach out to the other. I’ve come away from these experiences truly living into Christ’s great Maundy, his great commandment; to “love God, with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind; and to love my neighbor as myself.”
The trip we soon embark on is an eight-day medical mission trip in the Dominican Republic, a trip sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese in South Carolina, but one, which reaches out around the United States. Our team is comprised of members not only from South Carolina, but also here in Massachusetts, Tennessee and Florida. We gather, strangers and friends to spend a week living in relationship with people who are in desperate need of medical care, people living without clean water to drink, often in homes that would stun most people living here. And we will staff and run a medical clinic in a barrio, a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, the largest city in the Dominican Republic, located in the southern portion of the country.
When I first began these trips, I had never really thought about taking part in mission work far from here, there always seems to be so much need in our own area. But when God calls you into something and you open your heart, before you know it, your off and running. There is suddenly a lot to do, in a very short time. As Rebecca and Arielle can attest, there are more shots and pills more than you really want to know about and an endless stream of emails. It takes quite a bit of planning to put one of these mission trips together, yet in all the conversations and to-do lists, there is an ongoing reminder that; “this is mission first, and medical second, always remember that. Go and share Christ’s love with others first and the work comes after.”
When we arrive in the Dominican Republic we’ll be part of a team of thirteen, very biblical when you think of Jesus and his twelve apostles. We’ll squeeze a dozen plus medical trunks, an equal number pieces of luggage and almost as many people and personal items into a small trailer and bus, and head off to our destination, the small church of San Pedro y San Pablo in a poor neighborhood called la barquita, “Little Boat” in English, it’s name because of the persistent flooding which occurs, often flooding out the homes. There we are met by its priest and a group of parishioners who through the course of the week became our guardians, our helpers and more importantly our extended family. They are there before we get there in the morning and they are there after we leave in the afternoon; at all times welcoming us and watching over us. These people become part of our team and our liaisons to the community we work in.
After unpacking and setting the clinic up, we split up into groups to walk the barrio, to see the place we were working in and the places the people lived and we tried to meet some of the people. This is not only for our experience, but also for the neighborhood to know that we are there, and that a clinic will be operating. It’s tough to describe it to you. Houses packed side by side, some without windows or doors. Many of them made of scraps of wood and rusted corrugated steel. Some of these homes places we wouldn’t even think of leaving a lawnmower in here in the US. The roads, where they are paved have deep grooves carved into the sides of them, not just for rain, but for sewerage and dirty water to run down the road. It becomes quickly obvious to us that many had limited or no running water or electricity. Its hot, its muggy, it smells; its depressing and sad in ones first look. Yet as we walk we quickly discover that this trip will be all about relationships. People make it a point to smile, to wave, to say hi and talk to us. When we stop to take a picture, children instantly appeared, all wanting their picture taken. We occasionally will be invited into small homes, their owners proud of their accomplishment and wanting to share it. The interpreters as Rebecca will quickly find out are instantly put to work not only during the clinic, but in every moment of this trip, translating non stop.
Those of us who were not interpreters do pick up words or phrases. I sadly admit this morning that even after seven years, I know very little Spanish. I know enough to tell you to sit here please, follow me or stand here. But my all time favorite is “lo siento; mi espanol no es mui grande” – “I’m sorry, my Spanish is not very good”. I get a lot of laughs from my friends there, along with soft chastising for it not improving. And in the city, where you were accosted every 5 feet by a street vendor selling something, we become adept at using the phrase, “No tengo deneiro, missionary”. Sometimes the look on their faces tells you they either understood we aren’t going to buy anything or they were afraid you are going to baptize them … they usually leave quickly.
We never know how many people we’ll see on these trips. When our clinic begins, due to the number of people seeking assistance, numbers usually have to be given out. People line up outside the church early in the morning for these numbers, many being told to try again the next day. Those who are lucky and get a number gather and wait in the church. I was overwhelmed when I walked into the sanctuary the first time. Being the first face they saw in the clinic because I was part of the registration process, it was unnerving when their eyes all focused on me. But as I looked over the crowd while the first few began registering, I saw that there were smiles, quiet conversations and laughter. No one was stressed, no one agitated. God was at work here – you could feel it.
And as the people began coming to me to, I felt a steady stream of love come to me, in a pat on the cheek from an elderly person, a smile, a pat on the arm, some holding my hand while speaking to me. While I didn’t understand the words they spoke I understood the meaning. God was there in every face, in every interaction, and it was wonderful. They were living their faith on their sleeves, out in the open to share with everyone, Joyful living. This essence of being travels throughout the clinic, from registration to the nursing stations, where they are triaged. To the doctors, where they are examined. And finally to the pharmacy, where they are given medication and dosage advise. In each and every interaction, no matter how tired any of us are, there is a deep abiding love for one another as time is taken to acknowledge each other and share a bit of our stories with one another.
From the first day of the clinic to the last, from the waiting area and registration in the church, to where patient are brought upstairs to the clinic, all you see are busy yet smiling people. No worries, no fears; the conversations flow between the nurses, the interpreters and the patients and back because they are all speaking thru Christ’s love. The Holy Spirit is there, radiating everywhere. It was a complete immersion into a world of Gods love. Despite language differences there was communication, compassion, laughter and the never ending smiles. There are reunions of old patients and the people who have done this clinic for years. Elderly people hugging the new workers to say thank you because they couldn’t express it in English something Rebecca and Arielle will experience. And the kids; they’re the same everywhere. The babies steal our hearts and are readily handed over for us to play with, to coddle and to take pictures with. Each person young or old leaves their mark on us. And each one of us will find a connection with one particular person, one that will stay with us for a lifetime.
Over the past few years, a tag line of sorts has evolved for our team: Ubi Caritas, Deus ibi est. “I bring what I have and find that God himself is there”.
We experience this phrase it in real life in mission work; God is indeed already there, in each and every patient we touch. We go expecting no thank you, no praise. We each go searching to find a missing piece of the puzzle of our own lives, the piece that always is the hardest to find. We go to share our love and our life’s experiences with others and our love of Christ. And then offer whatever physical assistance we could in the way of service and medicine. “Mission First, Medical second”. We receive back far more than we bring down. And I think, in the opposite, the people of the barrio of la barquita feel the same; that they receive more than they ever expect to. New friendships, new love, and new familia. Weeks later Rebecca, Arielle and I will still be working through the emotional impact this upcoming trip will have on us. As the leaders of the trip told us, “you’ve experienced mission and an immersion in another culture. You already knew about the needs in your local community and now you have seen first hand the needs of a different culture. Take time to process what you’ve experienced, talk about it, and share the experience and its impact on you with others”
If I had to pick one word to describe our work in the DR it would be JOY. Joy in our group, in the people of the barrio in Santo Domingo and in the priest who serves the little church of San Pedro y San Pablo. In a place where a bottle of pills, available to so many people is so unaffordable that they have to wait for a clinic to arrive. In a place many of us would never consider going, yet where we found family and God’s presence front and center. A place sadly where drinking water is contaminated yet is drunk by necessity. Something many in the developed world take for granted; clean drinkable water every time they turn on a tap, or even flush the toilet.
In the short span of a week, the people of la barquita will see a changed group of people leave them. A week earlier these people see us get off the bus, a mix of some familiar faces from years past but many new faces, looking a little shocked by the surroundings, unsure of what to do. And on the last day they will see us as family and part of their community; and they know of our families like we theirs. We will have bonded and shared in Gods love together. As our psalm says this morning, we will discover that we “have been anointed and our cups truly runneth over” by this experience.
“I bring what I have and find God himself is there”.
He IS there, in every face. In the barrio we serve, in the city where we stay. Where life is loud and at times claustrophobic. But it is life being lived and shared by people who know that if they take a moment to stop, listen, and reach out to others they find God is truly there and it is so good and joyful.
What we’re asked to do through mission work is to reach out where we can to those in need and share God’s inclusive love as much as we can. No more, no less. What we can do is to touch others lives, to let them know they are loved and are Gods children and are not forgotten. And then like a vine that love will spread, from one person to the next, and so on…unceasing. Christ’s great command to us is probably the simplest request we could get in our lives, yet one of the most hard to accomplish; that we love God, and we love one another. We are called to spread his message to others and simply do what we can; not everything. A simple pat on the back, a call, or some kind words to another human being; simple actions that lead others to do the same to another person, with their hoping that it will change their lives the way you changed theirs.
We have opportunities all around us here in Stoughton. Home visitations, the Stoughton food pantry, your Tuesday morning coffee hour. We have Evelyn House, a sanctuary for women and children escaping homelessness and domestic violence. All ministries that give us an opportunity to truly make a difference in someone’s life: from something simple to something potentially life changing. I leave you with a challenge this morning; take the chance, seize the opportunity. Become involved in service to others. Step out of the safe zone we all create for ourselves in our daily lives and our “busy-ness”. Step out of this holy place to do the work of holy people and become engaged in the lives of others. Don’t miss out on the reward that comes back to you ten-fold when you focus on others instead of yourself for a moment, the Joy.
An in this work, may the peace and love of our lord Jesus Christ be with each and everyone of you this morning, and with our extended faith family in the Dominican Republic, Amen!