(Father Guillermo M. García-Tuñón, S.J. wrote the following on July 4th while leading the 2019 Belen Youth Missions to the village of Vaca Gorda in the Dominican Republic.)
Today is the 4th of July and back home in the U.S. millions of Americans are celebrating our day of independence with a day off, barbecues, and fireworks. Some are at the beach, some at the Biltmore or Bayside, and some simply in their backyards. But for 65 young men from Belen, the holiday was spent on the border with Haiti.
Every year on BYM, we organize the work detail so we can have the afternoon off. An appropriate measure considering that we are celebrating our nation’s birthday. This year, because we are only a 20-minute drive from Haiti, we decided to take a field trip.
While for most of these kids, the Dominican campo is foreign territory, the chaos of the border between the DR and Haiti is like being on another planet. A narrow and shallow river called the Rio Masacre divides these two countries in these parts. Some history books say the river gets its name from the killing of French pirates by Spanish settlers in the 17th century, but locals claim its name is a reminder of the more than 20,000 Haitians the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo massacred there in the 1930s.
Either way, the story is not pretty and neither is the area. The water is polluted, the abuses and bribes are in abundance, and the street children, who offer to shine your shoes for a few pesos, are a dime a dozen. When I lived in Dajabón years ago I got to know the area well. It’s safe enough, but you have to be careful.
So, after giving clear instructions to the boys after lunch, we hopped on buses provided by the local Jesuit school and made our way to the massacre... I mean the Massacre River.
I wish I had a picture of their eyes as they stood on the bridge and looked into Haiti. Children bathing naked in the river while their mothers pounded dirty laundry against rocks on the shore. As they looked down into the water, the Haitian boys would raise their arms with open palms asking for coins. They screamed in Creole, but you don’t have to speak the language to know what they were asking for.
After an hour and some onsite explanations, we made our way to my old school, Instituto Tecnológico San Ignacio Loyola. There we went into the chapel and celebrated mass. I asked the kids, “Why do you think you are here?” “Why do you think God has called you to this place?”
The homily was their responses and there were many. “My parents wanted me to come,” was an honest reply made by one. “You realize how many people love you and are there for you,” said another. “The Dominican campesino is happy and full of faith even though they are poor and struggle every day,” was a common one.
You could see the wheels turning in their teenage brains. You can sense their hearts beating with sincere self-examination. And then, from the back of the chapel, came this difficult question: “Why are we so privileged to live where we live, study where we study, and play where we play and so many others aren’t?”
There is no real answer to that. It was the question, at least this afternoon and in that chapel, left unanswered. The only thing that was clear was the understanding that because of our privileged state, we are called to do more.
As we drove back to Vaca Gorda the mood was different. The guys spoke very little and the trip seemed to take a little longer. But in the midst of that rare silence, I couldn’t help but think that they had learned to be a little more appreciative and that in their hearts they were quietly singing God Bless America.
Fr. Willie ‘87