By: Ashley Barnett
A couple weeks ago I had the joy of serving as part of the missions team to the Dominican Republic. This was my first missions trip and only my second time out of the country. It all seemed surreal that the trip was happening until we landed in Santiago and were blasted with hot, humid air the second we got off the plane. On the drive from the airport to the hotel, I let my surroundings sink in. There were banana tree fields and tropical land right alongside dilapidated buildings and homes (and an excessively large number of used car dealerships!).
When we got out of the bus outside our hotel, the reality of the week ahead hit me. Our hotel was no Hilton, let alone Motel 6 status, and groups of men outside the café didn’t hide the fact that they were staring at us Americanos. My stomach turned over as I kept a smile on my face. I was sleep deprived already and it seemed like we had been gone for much more than 20 hours at this point, but we had an afternoon and evening full of events at our hosts’ home (who are the most awesome missionaries ever, hands down). That night we were told what to expect in the week to come: we had to drink 5-6 liter sized water bottles a day to avoid dehydration, we couldn’t drink water out of the tap or even brush our teeth with it unless we had a death wish, and women were required to wear shoulder to knee skin coverage. This dress code requirement was necessary to avoid excessive attention as I would come to realize, but I really started to feel out of my comfort zone and a bit vulnerable in this new culture.
The next day, Sunday, we had church on the beach followed by play time. Between sunbathing and snacking, the Existence Crew took a trip on the banana boat and had the time of our LIVES. We were whipped around and tossed into the salty Carribean Sea. As we all bonded over conversation and laughs, I started to feel much more at ease knowing I had an awesome group to share all of these experiences with.
The following five work days all became a blur that stretched me more than I had anticipated. We got to help paint the local basketball court and baseball dugout. Some of my favorite moments were when the locals would take a brush and help out. It is such a reminder that we don’t go on these trips to do simply do things for people, but we come to make relationship and partner with them and give the resources to make things possible that wouldn’t be otherwise. Seeing the kids play on the courts and field made me hope that somehow, our small effort of beautification with paint would give them pride in their community that might lead to other improvements of their own in the years to come.
But this painting was hard work. Even being physically fit, the wear and tear of the humidity and beating sun made me pray hard each morning shift around 11 am that I wouldn’t faint, puke or get sick in the days ahead. Monday through Wednesday we followed these painting shifts with VBS at a church about 20 minutes away. I had been in charge of prepping a VBS program and the crafts associated with it. But on day one, it was apparent that the program I had wasn’t going rehearsed enough and also wasn’t going to suffice for this energetic group of (100!) kids. Thankfully, we were then paired with another group that had talents in the performing arts and took it away the next two days with worship and drama. It was such a reminder of how we each have unique gifts and need to allow each part of the body of Christ to do its job for things to work together for our own good. I wanted to do it all but was reminded that I was never intended to be all and do all.
The last day of VBS on Wednesday was the worst. At the end, we gave away a pack of crayons to each child and it turned into a fight club. Kids fought with each other and were yelling at me and pulling at the suitcase of crayons and other supplies that I sat on top of to protect. We had this great vision of blessing each child with something. If we were trying to do something nice, why did it seem we were being punished? I felt complete failure along with feeling overwhelmed with the culture, new routines, climate and exhaustion and I broke down on the bus ride home. I knew I would experience culture shock and uncomfortable living conditions and was ready to ride those storms, but disappointment was not on my mental checklist of “what to expect when you’re serving.”
What happened to my vision of cute little kids sitting on my lap as we would clap our hands and laugh and sing together as we took a picture that would be my new cover photo on facebook? I realized that day how much my “servant heart” was actually pretty selfish. I wanted to feel validated that I was a good and nice person. I wanted to feel the rewards of a job well done. But it became so clear that in many situations of life, a call to serve will not mean a feel good return. Serving is about giving your heart to Jesus and saying “use me and my gifts where you can.” It may not look how we expect, but it’s worth it to go and serve anyway. At home, I think it’s easy to use our social circles and comfortable jobs, homes, cars and hobbies to distract us from serving. It’s easy to check off boxes of “feed the homeless” or “give an elderly person rides to the doctor” but it’s much more difficult to look at where our heart really is in this. We try something, feel discouraged, and fall back into the safe lives we have. I know this because I have always been this person. The moment my feelings are hurt or I decide that situation wasn’t all I signed up for, I say “I’ll try later, Jesus! Didn’t really work out!” The funny thing about a missions trip is that you can’t run in fear because you’re stuck thousands of miles from the friends, foods, stores and shows that you like to go to.
In the midst of painting, doing VBS and helping build and stain new tables and pulpits for local churches, I was being served and I couldn’t see it very well until I got back home. I didn’t have a crazy spiritual awakening of any kind, but my complacency and selfishly-servant heart was thrown out on the table. Our host, Rick Romano, emphasized that it is crucial for us to take what we learned in the DR and go home to see where we can serve, and I think it’s so awesome we happen to be focusing on local missions work as we speak with the shoe and jacket drive. I’ve got so much to learn with how to serve with a heart like Jesus, but I think it starts by practicing; practicing daily in simply ways and regularly even when it’s not convenient or comfortable. I’m now aware of places I can grow instead of thinking, “yeah, I serve in Kid’s Life and am pretty nice to my friends and co-workers and I’m happy with my heart!” So thank you, DR, for a week that gave me many laughs, new friendships, heat rash, beautiful scenery and a dose of reality. I hope we’ll meet again.