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Mission Trip: The Children of The Hole

What does a church pastor, a garbage dump and a drug lord have in common?

At the end of July, a team of eight from Lifeline Church headed down to Santiago, Dominican Republic, for a week-long mission trip with G.O. Ministries. Over the next several posts, I’ll be sharing some thoughts from my journal.

I awoke early, listening to the roosters for a while before realizing I had the strangest of prayers on my mind to see the face of Satan. Christians believe in Satan. I do not. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. To me, Satan exists inside all of us and manifests itself whenever we lose sight of our moral compass. As an external force, Satan exists when we hand that compass over to others. But Satan, in the traditional sense of serpents and apples and fallen angels and Hell…I just don’t buy it. When we blame our poor decisions, actions, and indiscretions on some external force; to me, that is the truest sin. If God could show me this biblical Satan, I’d have one less doubt.

We were headed to The Hole that afternoon, where a community had sprouted up on top of a garbage dump. Prostitution and drugs were the norm. It is still run by a drug lord. If you go into The Hole, typically, you’re not there to do good.

Twelve years ago, Pastor Felix arrived. He grew up in Santiago and never knew the place existed. Adults kept their eyes on him, and the children kept their distance. The kids were being abused, used as drug runners and what-not. Dads typically weren’t around, moms had a new guy in the house every night and were passed out during the day. They had no reason to trust adults.

Felix set up a small church at the bottom of The Hole, where the river ran by, washing in more trash from the city, and washing away homes and buildings during storms. People laughed at Felix, but he kept to his mission. He set up a feeding center for the children, and slowly the children started to trust him.

Assuming Felix was an undercover policeman, the drug lord had Felix kidnapped at gunpoint. He wanted to know what he was up to. Felix explained he was establishing a church. “People do many things in The Hole,” the drug lord laughed. “Church isn’t one of them.”

But a curious thing happened. The drug lord sent Felix on his way to continue his work. The only thing he wanted was for Felix to come to him if anyone gave him difficulty. If anyone stole from him or harassed him, instead of calling the police, he was to go to the drug lord for help. Over the years, missionaries hand-carried all supplies down into The Hole to build a permanent church, and nothing was ever stolen. No missionaries were ever threatened. In some weird way, a balance of good and evil exists here…the good depends on the evil, and the evil does good.

This is God at work, they say, and I still shrug…allowing myself to ask “Why not God?”

As we arrived at The Hole and Kyle parked the van, two young girls showed up on the sidewalk, excited. They pointed, picking out which of us “they wanted.” One of them jumped at Jennie, wanting a piggy-back ride…but Jennie said no and instead offered her hand so they could walk together. The second girl hopped into Megan’s arms. We walked down into and through the winding narrow alleys between houses, so narrow in some places that my shoulders brushed the buildings on both sides. As word got out that the Americans were here, our pathway flooded with children.

A boy about seven years old pushed other kids out of his way to get to me, tapping his shoulders as he grabbed my arm. “No, no,” I said. I had just spent a day and a half digging and my back was so sore. When I reached for his hand, he climbed up my arm like a monkey onto my back and we continued on down to the bottom, to the river. The river wound about us, around the naked foundations where buildings used to stand. A man navigated across a makeshift bridge, a ladder on its side perhaps. A large black pig walked about freely on the other side.

At least forty or fifty kids surrounded us by then. I put the boy onto my shoulders and played with him in the view finder of my camera. At one point, another boy tried climbing up me and the boy on my shoulders shouted at him, trying to hit him off with his shoes. I made a game out of it, spinning around until the three of us were dizzy. The boys weren’t fighting over me…it had nothing to do with me. They were fighting for what might just be the only affection they would get that day. The boy at my feet settled for a hug, and I held him for as long as he wanted.

I looked about at all the kids, the houses, all the trash, and my first “God moment” of the trip happened. I was so overwhelmed with emotion…not happy or sad, just that raw emotion that swirls for my attention as the world about me slows. I was looking at the face of Satan, I thought, and yes, I was also looking at the face of God. Even here, the idea of Satan can do good—even if it is for self-serving reasons.

A few minutes later we headed on up to the new church. The boy on my shoulders hummed happily to himself, touching things normally out of reach. I had to keep warning him to watch his “cabeza” for the low hanging wires and rooftops. He made me stop at one point so he could feel a strand of barbed wire, and his fascination for it fascinated me.

At the church, I lifted him off my shoulders to go inside for the lunchtime feeding, but it wasn’t his turn to eat and he wasn’t allowed inside. He gripped my hand, shouting, “Soy Americano!” He cried as a missionary pulled him away from me and told me to go inside. “I am an American!” he shouted after my breaking heart.

Once we finished serving lunch, we headed upstairs to listen to Felix’s story. The children’s behavior was so unlike anything I had ever seen. When the Americans come, Felix said, the children know that we’re there for good; that we want nothing from the kids, but for them to be healthy and happy.

The strangest feeling of gratitude overcame me. Gratitude for what, I didn’t know…I had nothing at stake here in The Hole, and yet I was genuinely grateful for all Felix does. I shook his hand and thanked him, and in a notably not-me moment, I hugged him. I’ve often struggled with the idea of “giving your life to Christ.” It’s one of the reasons I’ve never taken up Dave on the call for baptism. What exactly does that mean? Here in Santiago, I’m seeing exactly what it means in action. I’m not exactly sure what it means for me, though, but if it means advancing Jesus’ mission of sharing hope and adding value…well, heck, I can get on board with that.

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