Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about
language, ideas, even the phrase ‘each other’
doesn’t make any sense.
– Rumi, Islamic poet
I see it from a distance. I am thousands of miles in the air as I peer down through the small window. I look at the small island of lush vegetation and the sea that crashes into rich mountain landscapes. It seems so harmless from up above. Yet, my heart leaps and my belly churns because I know I will hurt when I leave again in five fleeting days. The Dominican Republic was my saving grace for six impressionable years of my life. I asked of it and it gave, ever willing, to my cause.
I am undeserving, to say the least.
And now I am back. After a summer of finding a balance between American me and Dominican me, I am here to spread more of this newly understood love that has ballooned, stretching its way through my chest. The catch is that I am here with thirteen other people who know next to nothing about this part of me. My mission this week is to be a cultural and language translator for these English speaking Americans who are searching for something beyond themselves on an island in the Caribbean.
I know these people. I am one of these people. We travel with a purpose in the hopes to stumble upon a part of ourselves we haven’t yet discovered. We search for our noble character and try to avoid our vices. But it’s as if these parts of us are hiding in little pockets of the world, waiting for us to get there so they can reveal themselves. Surprise. Here is a part of you that you didn’t know about. You were probably searching for your compassion but all you found here was your inability to cope with nonexistent water pressure. But it’s okay, because you’re still here. You’re still giving your time to people you don’t know. Ever the altruistic being. You’re doing good things.
I lay on a cot, sticky from the heat, and overhear my friends practicing the Spanish flash cards I made and laminated prior to the trip. One girl keeps popping her head into the room full of makeshift beds, asking me the Spanish word for a slew of different ideas. I try my best to explain the ones that get lost in translation, stuttering and sighing as I come up with subpar expressions. She turns out of the door, satisfied, her bare feet squeaking on the cool white tile. No further questions.
In preparation for this trip, my teammates seemed earnest in their search to understand things unclear to the naked, social security number-holding eye. Past the notion of economic desolation and political tension between my country and Haiti. Past questions about my parents’ successful immigration to a small town in the South before I was born. Past the confusion of my color, because the only Dominicans they’ve ever seen were baseball players drafted from small farm towns, with skin like rich coffee beans. But through my frustration, I was compassionate. Two parts of my world colliding into an euphoric blur of cultural similarities were all it took to hook me in. Love was my bait. I ran around in circles explaining the differences between me and the people they were going to meet on their journey. I gave them analogies of downtown Nashville compared to rural Kentucky coal mine towns. They gave me blank stares.
One night, a few days before our flight left, we sat around a large white table, dissecting details we anticipated for the week ahead of us. Hopeful that the words I spoke to them weeks before our excursion were allowed time to resonate, I brought up the topic of material gifts and my philosophy on the matter. In the realm of Third World Missions, material gifts are somewhat taboo. The line between relief materials and obsequious materials is a fine one. If crossed, it has the potential to place an imbalance in the societal dynamic that existed long before we missionaries came to bring our elaborate, American things to these people. I think to myself how these people have less and more than what we could even accept as feasible.
These people have less. Less money. Less responsibility. Less distractions.
These people have more. More time. More relationships. More freedom.
A younger teammate defiantly challenges my position on the matter. He asks who he should leave his clothes with once he’s done using them. I glare at him, trying to express my pain in his negligence to the matter. I tell him to consider if leaving his dirty clothes for some poor doña to wash will really make a difference to whoever gets to wear them. I ask him, “wouldn’t you rather impact these boys with your character rather than what you can give them?” I beg him to believe that it means so little to these people the ordinary tangible things we leave behind, to be used and discarded. These people are poor, but they seem to be mostly content in their material possessions. They occupy their ample free time with each other. They are satisfied in their ability to provide for their families what is necessary to survive. They are whole, without and separate from us.
The boy tunes me out and mindlessly scrolls through a social media app on his smartphone, arms crossed. He is whole, separate from and without my input.
A hostess to our team prepares us for what is to come on our second day. She paints an image – a stampede of mulatto babies is heading our way. My teammates are buzzing with anticipation as we descend the steep cement stairs from the mission house to the recreational center where we will meet the children. They share a discomfort in not being able to talk to the kids despite their basic language preparations. I sympathize and admire their dismissal of this as they boldly approach the kids, waving and embracing them. There are almost one hundred smiles in the room.
That morning we had meandered outside in the warm sun, and across the street from the mission house, I spot Luz, an older woman who took us in on our first night and fed us in ways we didn’t know we needed to be fed.
We are getting ready for our morning volunteer activity, but Luz peeks through the bars surrounding her porch, smiling timidly. She asks me if I’ve had coffee yet today, and I say no. The next half hour is calm. A teammate and I sit in the main room of her small house, brushing our dusty feet on the bare cement floor, sipping the sugary, hot liquid from tiny cups with broken handles. My teammate happily sighs and nods in appreciation. Luz and I talk about her family. She gives me her phone number on a post-it note and tells me about her travels to Philadelphia and why she chooses to stay on the island. She says she doesn’t feel completely herself when she’s in the U.S.
I tell her I could not have said it better myself.
Throughout multiple conversations with Luz, I reveal that my parents are natives of the capital, Santo Domingo. Born into well-to-do families that spent ample amounts of time in the U.S. and after having two of three children on the island, they decided to move to Rome, Georgia, the small town where my paternal grandparents were living for the time being. I was born there, and spent ten small years discovering both cultures. My father was eager to immerse himself in American culture. My mother was reluctant and emotional about the move, but decided it was what was best for her family. A few months shy of my eleventh birthday, my parents decided to separate. My mother took this as an opportunity to move back to where she felt completely herself. And I, in turn, found myself amidst the noise of the city and the brightness of the people I met. I saw God there, unashamedly.
When I moved back to the U.S. for college I hadn’t fully created a space to mourn my own leaving. At first I was relieved to do away with the inconvenient inconsistencies of a developing nation. I felt above the corrupt politics and unreliable basic necessities that interrupted what I was trying to make a normal, Americanized life. So, I left. But my new relationships suffered and I resented America for not prioritizing what truly mattered to me the way my island did. Four-hour meals and long, leisurely afternoons on warm porches when the power was out. This was where my heart lay. I searched for a way to come back and ultimately see my island from a new set of eyes. I saw it as a place of refuge and of balance. I gravitated towards the perpetual lateness and loud, hearty affection that my parents, as hard as they tried, were unable to distance themselves from.
I watch my teammates like an overbearing mother duck, constantly counting to thirteen and ushering them through small markets without the harm of eager street dwellers looking to find their foreign savior. I am in a constant transition among English, Spanish and currency calculations. The surprised looks on the faces of locals when I do not skip a beat in response to their side comments about the gringos gives me an unexpected jolt of energy. I have confused them. I have caught them off guard. I am in control of their perception of me as of that moment. I quickly explain myself to them before counting to thirteen again.
I am between them, not fully one without the other.
My senses are heightened as I refrain from telling my teammates a thirtieth time to not speak to strangers unless it is an emergency. We are lost, walking through the slums of the city at night. I am scared for them, for what they might see without my cultural filter shielding them. I am scared for myself as I feel the knowledge slip from me, off my skin and into the sewer. From afar, I am one of them. Unless I open my mouth in time, I cannot protect them. I cannot shield them from what I do not know. Violent and terrorizing images transfix my mind as we shuffle along in a conspicuous pack through dimly lit and pitch black areas. I lie to myself as I tell them we will be fine as long as we stay together. I don’t really know if that’s true. Perhaps my fears are irrational and my reservations in letting these people experience something new is unfair to them. I am trying to protect them. I am trying to protect myself.
On the night we arrive back on American soil, I sleep hard in the plush hotel bed, humbly relishing in comfort and privilege. And in the still of the morning, I think of the breezy dawn that is coming to the island 1,473 miles away. I try not to think of the soccer balls we left at the ministry center. I think of Luz. I think of my teammates stoically holding back tears as they realize they are holding small caramel hands for the last time.
I think of future me, planning my emigration back to that place. I think of the in-between time and the anticipation and learning that will happen then. I selfishly think of the people I’ve left behind who will continue on without me until my return. I think of meeting them when I get there. I think of what I’ll miss and what will be supplemented. I think of parts of my noble character and vices, and how I see them in the cracks between my American self and my Dominican self.
I, fully whole, where these two meet.