Belen Youth Missions continues tradition of service in the Domincan Republic.
It has been four years since the last time I was on the Belen Youth Mission experience. Even though it was not with Belen, nor can I be classified as a “youth,” those four years were my own mission. Down in the Dominican outback on the border with Haiti, there was no chance to be a part of the summer excursion that has been a mainstay in our school’s curriculum for over 35 years. Having participated twice as a student and then several other times as an alumnus, I understood well the significance of this trip. I think I learned more about the reality of life in those days of hard labor and exposure to poverty than I did in all my days of math, science, and social studies.
That is why, as an educator, I thought it important to take over the reins when its founder, Fr. Eddy Alvarez, S.J., was missioned to the Gesu Church in downtown Miami and began a new stage of his fruitful priestly life. It wasn’t easy stepping into those shoes. A lot of what it takes to organize such an expedition is learned by trial and error. You would think that it is a fairly common method of learning, but when the physical and spiritual welfare of hundreds of young men whose parents place their sons’ lives in your hands depends on the success of your outcome, the errors must be kept to an insignificant minimum.
This year’s missionaries were a group of juniors, 65 to be exact, along with several alumni, faculty, and doctors. The group totaled 77 in all. A significant number considering that our Scriptures understand the number seven to be a holy number. It is why the Lord rested on the seventh day (although there was little rest on this trip), why Jesus insisted that we must forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times (the kids asked for a lot of forgiveness when their less than perfect language needed to be corrected), and why the angels blew the seven trumpets of the apocalypse (trumpets were blaring when our PAWA flight landed safely in Miami).
Our work consisted of building a bridge that would span a river that during the rainy season grows to such an extreme that it completely leaves over 500 families isolated with no access to food, schools, or hospitals. After several attempts at appealing to the local and national governments for help, it was Belen Jesuit that answered the villagers’ prayers with a small army of young men that descended on their mountain to mix concrete, carry rocks, and fashion rebar. Shoulder to shoulder with the locals, our boys toiled from early in the morning to just before sundown to make sure that before the nine days of our trip were over, we could walk with dry feet over the river that was the source of their distress. You cannot imagine the feeling of joy and accomplishment when on the last day, just before heading out to the airport, we gathered with the farmers and their families on top of the bridge and celebrated a mass of thanksgiving. It was clear to us that before any truck, or mule, or human being made its way across that bridge, it was Jesus who would walk across. And he did.
This year’s mission also saw the resurrection of a timely BYM tradition. Because of the hard work of alumni Jorge Trilles ’10, Anthony Martin ’10, and Sergio Segrera ‘10, and BYM alumnae Sara Marie Selem, we established a makeshift clinic that saw over 500 patients that attended to the villagers’ medical needs. In addition to the clinic, these doctors and medical students jumped into the pickup trucks every day and trekked the mountainside to visit homebound patients who had no access to doctors or hospitals.
Our mission was not without its difficult moments. Bouts with fever, scrapes and bruises, an ingrown toenail worsened by a dropped boulder, a fall off the bridge, overflowing latrines, and thousands of terrifying spiders made the mission at times a greater challenge that was met with grace and resolve. After a week of being there, the great-grandmother of three of our young men passed away in Miami. When news arrived, the group was saddened. At the evening mass that was held every night at the end of the day, the Holy Spirit descended with particular force on one of the great-grandchildren who at the moment of the homily stood in front of his peers and insisted that we work even harder to accomplish our mission. She had died on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the two columns of our Church. He expressed to us that his great-grandmother’s death on this particular day was no coincidence (a God-incidence) because she had been the column of their family. The group responded with enthusiasm, the bridge was completed. Amazing how even in moments of disgrace, grace abounds.
A special thanks to Mirna Menéndez for her hard work in organizing the logistics of our mission, to the Office of Advancement for helping raise the money, to faculty member Gehovanny Perez for organizing the work detail together with alumni Michael Murgado ’10 and Victor de Zarraga ’11, to teachers Carlos Beaton, Julian Rodríguez, and Raul Castro for chaperoning along with Carlos Lastres, alumni Julio Minsal-Ruiz ’05 and Sebastian Wermuth ’13, and Agrupado Jay Velasco. They say it takes a village and in this case, it took a village to help a village.
While our Belen Youth Mission for 2017 is accomplished, the real work now begins. How to live the graces of this experience in the comfortable and accommodating reality of Miami? The boys are aware of this challenge and they are up to it. For nine days, they lived and breathed what it is to be a true man for others. Now they are called to live it and breathe it for the rest of their lives.
Fr. Willie ‘87