May 26, 2019

Here is the third in our series of columns reflecting on our trip to the Dominican Republic. Today’s reflections come from Caroline Mentele, a parishioner at St. Joseph and a former teacher at St. Joseph School and Pacific Crest Academy.

There is no need for an alarm clock in Franco Bido. A symphony of roosters begins its warmup somewhere between four and six a.m. each morning. If this happened in my neighborhood, complaints would arise quickly, but it is simply a way of life for this small community located in the central mountain range of the Dominican Republic. Until this past year, I had never heard of Franco Bido; in fact, I had only thought of the Dominican Republic when I’d seen its beach resorts advertised in the Costco travel brochures. After retiring from a teaching career, I was looking for new ways to serve. When I saw the Service-Learning Immersion trip to the Dominican Republic advertised in the church bulletin, I knew I had found one.  

Our group of travelers was interesting, to say the least.  There were eight of us, including a priest, a seminarian, and my nephews - a teenager, and a recent college graduate. Our plane landed in the city of Santiago on March 29th. We spent two nights at a retreat center there before heading to Franco Bido, where we would be staying with families in the community for three nights. 

I have always considered myself to be an adventurous woman. My husband served in the U.S. Navy, and we moved numerous times during his career. I was open to new experiences, but nothing had prepared me for Franco Bido. While my nephews were assigned to a home where there was a party on the first evening with a visitor who had moved to America and spoke English, my host family was more reserved and spoke no English. I chastised myself for not nurturing the Spanish I had learned when we were stationed in Spain and did my best to communicate with them. Being a guest in their home, I felt nervous to ask about using the shower, so I went to bed that first night, covered in sweat and mosquito repellant. When I went into the bedroom where I was to sleep, on the wall near my suitcase was the largest spider I’d ever seen.  I tried to kill it with my shoe, but it ran under the bed. I later found out that my nephews had a similar experience at their house, but, unlike me, they screamed. The mother of the house, with much effort, killed their spider. I lay in bed that night, feeling like a kid away from home on my first day of camp, and reminded myself that this was normal, everyday life for my host family. I tried to make friends with that spider, asking him to please stay under the bed. He must have listened because I never saw him again.

While my homestay in Franco Bido may sound like a negative experience, it was exactly the opposite. God opened my heart to the family I lived with, and I was able to appreciate the gifts they had to offer. Every evening, their door would be open as friends would stop by for food and conversation. Neighborhood children, who were being raised by grandparents while their parents worked in the city, were welcomed and offered meals. I was amazed by these children, who live true “free-range” lives. They play happily and then sit for long periods among the adults, quiet and attentive, because they know nothing of video games or structured sports and activities. I left my family in Franco Bido, grateful for the kindness they had shown me and determined to visit them again someday. 

The traffic in the Dominican Republic takes some getting used to. On many roads, there are no lanes marked, and it isn’t even always clear how many lanes there are. I had been warned that I would just need to trust our driver, and that is exactly what I did. The amazing thing was that I never saw one incident of “road rage.” Cars and motorcycles pass within inches of each other, but no one seems upset or angry. It is as if the Dominicans have a secret that Americans are not privy to. They realize that, in the big scheme of things, getting somewhere quickly is not that important! 

An experience that I had not expected to appreciate so much in the Dominican Republic was the evening reflections that our group had when we were at the retreat center in Santiago. I came to understand how blessed our parish is to have people like David Lester and his wife, Genesee, who have dedicated their lives to helping the rest of us understand that social justice should be one of the most important missions of the Catholic Church. I found myself feeling grateful that we have a pastor who truly is an example of what Jesus wants us to be. The reflections we shared in our group, whether they were about Fella in Franco Bido who, with God’s help, miraculously saved a man who had cut off part of his foot with a machete while working in the fields, or about our own fears and shortcomings, helped us to grow and change to become closer to God. It was also during this time that I realized how much my nephews had grown up.  Their positive attitudes and the love and compassion they demonstrated for the people we met, especially the children, made me very proud to be their aunt. 

One of my priorities was that I not let this experience be something that would be forgotten after I returned home to my comfortable life. It’s common for us to believe that we are the privileged who have much to offer to the poor. The most valuable lesson I learned from my experience in the Dominican Republic is that the poor have much to teach me. The words of Richard Rohr, a priest and author of one of the readings that David provided to our group, explains this so perfectly: “All things considered, poverty has a better chance of getting at the truth. The poor woman, the poor man, has nothing to protect. The richer we are, the more we have to protect and the less free we are to hear anything new or really to understand the old.” Back at home, I realized that it is not important if my grandsons leave dirty handprints on my walls or if another driver cuts me off in traffic. The people of the Dominican Republic taught me to worry less about things that will seem insignificant when I look back on my life someday. It has become easier for me to remember one of the key principles of Catholic Social Teaching: a basic moral test of society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.  This is not only referring to Americans, but to all of our brothers and sisters around the world. 

The most difficult thing for me in the Dominican Republic was the long, up-hill walks on some roads in Franco Bido. Aside from Father Gary, who is in amazing shape, I was the oldest member of our group. I have some new goals for myself. I am working out and learning Spanish because I have no doubt that I’ll be going back to the Dominican Republic. I am also purchasing my family’s coffee from Better World Beans, a company that gets the beans directly from the farmers in Franco Bido. 

As our plane landed back in New York, I wanted to clap and cheer along with the Dominicans, who congratulate the pilot for every safe landing. I was anxious to get home to my husband and my comfortable home, but I knew that around 4 a.m. the next morning, I would be missing those roosters.