I’m sitting in a pickup truck on the side of a dirt road watching 71 Belen students and alumni mixing cement, carrying rocks, and fashioning rebar for the construction of a small bridge that spans the length of a mountain river that currently is as deep as their ankles. They are probably wondering why the need for a bridge when you can easily cross this shallow body of water on foot or while sitting in the comfort of a car. They will never see the answer, because in April and May, when the heavy rains beat down on this tropical island, they are sitting in air conditioned classrooms or jet setting the world for Easter break.
The boys are frustrated. They are frustrated at the heat and humidity as they lay in bed at night, while pesky mosquitoes fly around their heads. They are frustrated at the dirt roads riddled with potholes so deep they seem to require hiking boots just to get out of them. They are frustrated at latrines so small and ragged they seem to convince your mind that you don’t really need to go to the bathroom.
Then they realize, this is the frustration these Dominican villagers and most of the people in the world live with every day. Clean, running water, electricity, and paved roads are all so common to our boys, that they don’t realize they are a luxury for most. Our boys are the exception to the norm, not the norm.
"So why aren’t the villagers frustrated?", one student asked. "Why do they seem so happy and content?" This is the great question that always gets asked on the Belen Youth Mission trip; the question that leads them to ask, “What is the secret to really being happy?”
I’ve been coming on these mission trips for over 25 years and I still don’t seem to have the perfect answer. But I do know their perception of the situation is right. Our boys are not dumb. They begin to understand that cell phones, video games, movie theaters, cruises, and ski slopes are not the key to being happy. It can’t be; these campesinos don’t have that.
No, happiness must come from somewhere else. Maybe it’s perspective, maybe it’s relative, or maybe the key is living your life simply and living it for others. Actually, that’s what blows these Belen boys away the most. How can people who have so little, give so much? Here, in the heat and dust, you will not find anything more generous than a Dominican campesino.
We’re only on our second day of work in this rural town, and yet the boys are pondering quietly some of life’s most basic issues. And that’s why we are here. Not simply to build a bridge, but to build men. Where the pavement ends and the dirt road begins is where one truly understands what it is to be a man for others.