By José Lopez | Dajabon, Dominican Republic
Thanks to Novice Director Fr. Drew Kirschman, who was always creative about my discernment process, I was able to explore the experience of being a Jesuit in a Latin American context. My incredible long experiment in Dajabon, Dominican Republic, was one of the most formative experiences of my life.
Dajabon is a remote town in the northern part of the Dominican Republic, on the border with Haiti. I was sent to work closely with Fr. Regino Martinez, SJ. I was going to work with the local parish and the local radio station, and I would be available to assist Jesuits when they had to make trips to the interior of the country.
At the parish, I assisted in the office and with some pastoral activities. One of my main responsibilities was to assist the pastor with funerals. On the weekends I went out on assigned routes to the countryside to assist the community in celebrating the Liturgy of the Word and the distribution of Holy Communion.
At the radio station, I helped to develop a podcast geared toward Millennials and Generation Z about contemporary issues and Ignatian spirituality.
My time in the Dominican Republic was filled with many graced-filled adventures, too many to list here. So, I have decided to focus on just two.
A Trip to Guayubin
One day, Fr. Regino invited me to go with him to the interior of the country to help him distribute some humanitarian aid he had secured. So, we took off in his little pickup truck loaded with supplies to travel from Dajabon to the town of Guayubin. As we drove over a bumpy dirt road, the truck kicked up a cloud of red dust behind us.
When we arrived at Guayubin, we found an improvised shanty town built mainly by Haitian farm laborers. The houses were made from scrap wood, had metal corrugated roofs, and there was a makeshift electric grid held together by the sort of household extension cords that you would find at your local hardware store. The homes had no indoor plumbing.
I followed Fr. Regino into a home with a dirt floor where several men of all ages were gathered. When Fr. Regino entered the room, they stood on their feet and shook his hand as he walked among them. Father Regino addressed the room with some sort of Creole greeting, and everyone shouted and laughed with joy. I did not realize it beforehand, but I was about to take part in an underground worker’s rally.
The workers took turns offering complaints about injustices they had endured. After each worker had finished giving his complaint, he was received by cheers and applause. Then Fr. Regino told the workers of his support and solidarity for their movement. He urged the workers to continue the recruitment of other workers for their cause.
When the rally finished, we distributed the goods we had brought. At first there were not many people, and the distribution went smoothly. However, after word spread in the neighborhood, the scene erupted with a multitude of people. Within minutes, there were literally hundreds of people teeming in the area around the pickup truck. We tried desperately to make sure that the distribution was just. In less than five minutes, all the supplies were gone. I had never experienced that level of need and poverty.
I remembered that day as one of the most enlightening days of my long experiment in the Dominican Republic. I was shaken to my core about the poverty I witnessed.
Good Friday with Campesinos in the Dominican Countryside
The parish I worked in had a beautiful tradition for Holy Week. They had the custom of inviting Jesuits in formation from all over the island to come to the region to help with the Holy Week liturgies. However, this required that a family or someone in each one of the communities would host the Jesuits throughout the week. It was like a mini-pilgrimage experience for the one being missioned to a community.
I was sent to a village called Cayuco. It was a cattle-ranching community out in the countryside. In the mornings, the Campesinos would prepare a hearty breakfast of fresh milk, newly laid eggs and mashed plantains.
My days were spent walking through the countryside going from house to house, where I would encourage the people to attend the Holy Week services. People would invite me in for a cup of coffee and a chat. In my short time there, I was able to get well acquainted with the members of the village.
Elders of the village recalled for me their memories of the Jesuit missionaries who first came to the village by horseback. They told me how one iconic Jesuit rode his donkey through town and sounded a trumpet to let the people know that it was time to go to Mass.
Their community chapel was beautiful. Because it lacked glass windows, the floor would often fill with leaves blown in by the evening breeze, requiring someone to sweep before the chapel could be used. The women of the village were amused that I would grab a broom and sweep alongside them.
I played dominos with the men, and within our banter, while they complained about my terrible gameplay, we were able to discuss the themes of God and religion. In the afternoons, I gathered with the neighborhood kids and played stickball and other games.
That Good Friday celebration, there in the countryside, was one of the most memorable days of my life. We had chosen to do the veneration of the cross in front of a Calvary statue at the local cemetery. We did a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) and processed through the village to the Calvary statue. Part of what made the celebration so special was the devotion of the multi-generational community members who attended the service. There were kids, teenagers, their parents and grandparents. It was a small service, but everyone contributed, and it was the most profound veneration of the cross that I ever participated in. The experience confirmed my vocation and showed me that the Gospel was alive, even in the most remote of parts.
All my experiences in the Dominican Republic helped me to see my vocation in a new light, and they helped me to realize the need for Jesuits to fill those spaces of encounter. I am grateful for the creative ways in which our novice director helped us to discern experiments. We never did things for the sake of routine, but rather we discerned placements according to the movements of the Spirit.
The experiences I had in the novitiate really helped me to understand my call to service. I now have formative experiences that I can draw from in my ministries to come.