To the Band of Brothers: July 5, 2024

Fr. Willie ‘87 | President
Happy belated 4th of July! It’s a different feeling celebrating Independence Day in a foreign country. Removed from the hamburgers and hotdogs, fireworks, and 4th of July store sales, the focus tends to be more on the reality and not the hoopla. The 58 Wolverines who were on the Belen Youth Missions trip made their way back home yesterday. I had to stay behind for a meeting in Santiago. Not traveling back gave me an opportunity to really appreciate living in the greatest country in the world; the country that gave my grandparents and parents an amazing opportunity.

That’s the key word: opportunity. If there was ever a title that best describes the U.S., it’s that one. Not a hand out, not a free ride, but an opportunity to make something of oneself. It doesn’t come without adversity. The challenges are real and continue to be, but they are simply opportunities to overcome and earn your keep. There is great dignity and honor in that. It’s like the scene in the movie “Cast Away” with Tom Hanks. Stranded on a deserted island, he’s provided by a few FedEx packages with resources to survive. When he eventually starts a fire, he is elated and dances around the flames screaming “Look what I have created… I have made fire.”

This year’s mission trip had moments like that as well. With picks, shovels, and PVC pipes, our young men seized the opportunity and built an aqueduct. That opportunity opened the door for the construction of an aqueduct that supplied water for over 250 families. Without access to tractors, backhoes, cement mixers, surveys, or drills, they worked through forests and cliffs to dig five miles worth of trenches to lay down enough pipe to get liquid gold from the mountain source to the village. At the end of the line, when the project was done, they stood at the valve in anticipation for water to emerge. From the top of the mountain, you could hear as it made its way down. As the pipe began to tremor, it burst out like a gusher. They cheered, danced, and bathed fully clothed in the liquid expressing with their joy great satisfaction at what they had created… they had made water. 

But what I hope these young men also realize is the opportunity they helped provide for the villagers of the DR. Their presence and resources helped provide the people of La Colonia an opportunity to better their lives. It provided them an opportunity to take their own picks and shovels and stand side by side with them to build the aqueduct. Every day a brigade of over 60 villagers worked with the Wolverines to complete a task that was literally a matter of life or death. Water is life and two groups of men, one from the DR, the other from the US, worked to create that life.

St. Ignatius of Loyola reminds us that in any task one decides to take on, the person should always look for confirmation from God that they are moving in the right direction. These God-incidences were in plentiful supply throughout our whole experience. In all the years I have come on this mission trip, we never had such high participation of the villagers in the day-to-day work. What usually happens is that the villagers stay home and let the boys work. They figure that’s what they are there for. That wasn’t what happened this year.

I kept wondering why this year was different. Then came the hurricane. With Beryl barreling through the south Caribbean, we realized our days in the mountains were numbered. For safety reasons, we had to make the difficult decision to close shop two days early, pack up the camp, and move down to the city. Then I understood why the great participation of the villagers. Unlike ever before, the five-mile aqueduct was completed in record time. We saw it coming and started thinking of ways to keep the boys busy after completing the project. Little did we know God, in His infinite wisdom, gave us those two days so we could get to a safer place.

At the expense of prolonging this reflection, allow me to give you one more example of a great opportunity.

With two days in Santiago, we had to come up with ideas to keep the boys engaged. We didn’t want them to lose their focus on the mission. About an hour’s drive from the retreat house, we were shacked up in, is a batey. These are small and poor shanty towns where the sugarcane cutters of the Caribbean islands live. In the Dominican Republic, sugarcane cutters are illegal Haitians and they live in utter squalor. We decided to take the boys to visit the batey and expose them to a poverty much worse than any village of the mountains of the DR. 

They were shocked. The poverty of campesinos in the villages of the mountains is real, but there is a level of dignity to be had. Here there is none. Various families cramped together in dirt-floor shacks, walls made of old cooking-oil tin cans, streams of human waste running through the center of the town, massive garbage dumps of the surrounding cities burning constantly, and public bathrooms in the center because the shacks have no interior plumbing. Our boys walked through the squalor and realized how much better they had it not only at home, but up in the mountain.

That day happened to be, God-incidentally, the solemnity of St. Thomas the Apostle. In the evening, when we gathered for Mass, I read to them from the gospel of St. John (20:24-29). It tells the story when Thomas was not present the moment the resurrected Christ appeared to the apostles. On his return, he was informed they had seen the Lord. Doubting Thomas exclaims, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (v.25). The following day Jesus appears and orders Thomas to put his finger in the nail mark and his hand in his side. Thomas then replies, “My Lord and my God” (v.28)!

I knew our boys were disturbed by what they saw that day. I knew they were upset they had endured such an ugly sight. Some even questioned why they were there and felt they were being forced through a zoo and asked to see the animals in such an unnatural setting. I understood their pain, but it doesn’t even come close to the pain of the Haitian families. In the homily I told them they can learn in school, read articles, and watch documentaries about poverty in the world, but, like Thomas, they were now given an opportunity to put their finger in the wound of despair, they put their hand in the side of squalor. It was a lesson no documentary could provide.

My final words to them were if after this experience they chose to do nothing, then yes, they would have reduced their visit to simply being spectators at a zoo. The greatness of St. Thomas was not simply his profession of astonishment when he touched the risen Christ, but that after touching him, he went out throughout the whole world and preached the Good News. That experience in the batey, completely unplanned and unexpected on this trip, helped them realize how blessed they are to have been born in the United States. A blessing not simply for their own sake, but for the sake of the opportunity it presents to help eradicate poverty in every batey in the world.

On behalf of all the chaperones, students, and villagers of La Colonia, thank you for your support and prayers during our mission trip. It was a huge success in no small part to every Hail Mary and Mass offered. While this year’s BYM trip is in the books, we pray the impact remains a living page in the lives of our students.

Auspice Maria.

(Click here to view the photo album from this year's Belen Youth Missions Trip.)
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Belen Jesuit Preparatory School was founded in 1854 in Havana, Cuba by Queen Isabel II of Spain.  The task of educating students was assigned to the priests and brothers of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), whose teaching tradition is synonymous with academic excellence and spiritual discipline.  In 1961, the new political regime of Cuba confiscated the School property and expelled the Jesuit faculty.  The School was re-established in Miami the same year, and over the next decade, continued to grow.  Today, Belen Jesuit sits on a 30-acre site in western Dade County, only minutes away from downtown Miami.