Whenever I travel abroad, there’s a part of me that secretly hopes for a grand adventure, the kind of story that, when people ask, “so how was your trip?” you can just bust out and impress. In reality, of course, those experiences tend to be few and far between, cropping up mischievously when you least expect them.
It was to my immense surprise – and profound delight – that my first visit to my assigned parish, Santísima Trinidad in Santo Domingo Este, resulted in an adventure beyond my wildest expectations. I had been warned beforehand by our English teacher, who is a parishioner there, that after the service we were all going on a “caminata,” which my dictionary translated as “a walk.” I imagined the caminata would be a leasurely stroll to a park, a lovely afternoon excursion perhaps, but nothing too exciting. Was I ever wrong.
The Sunday morning service itself was wonderful. The congregation was exceptionally warm and welcoming, pardoning my liturgical blunders and absurd linguistic errors. But afterwards, following a shared meal, imagine my surprise when a bus (affectionately known as a “guagua” by the locals) pulled up and everyone started piling in. Mind you, the Dominican version of piling in a bus surpasses all American conceptions of how many people you can cram in a vehicle. Our 30 passenger bus was stuffed with no fewer than 50 Episcopalians – all of whom somehow still found room to dance with unbridled enthusiasm when Gangnam Style came on the radio.
The guagua took us on an hour-long journey along the coastline and finally stopped in the seaside town of San Pedro de Macoris. I still had no idea what was going on. We stopped at the Episcopal Church there and started to eat again. Someone asked me for “ayuda con la camioneta” (roughly, “help with the truck”). It turned out that the camioneta in question was nothing less than a parade float, which people were festooning with streamers, speakers, and potted palm trees. And suddenly I realized that I was in for much, much more than I had envisioned. When the float was properly decked out, we all piled into the guagua again and drove to the town square – where we were awaited by hundreds (maybe as many as 500) Episcopalians, ready for a parade (despite my best efforts to find out, I’m still not entirely positive what the purpose of the parade was. Oh well).
Without my really knowing why or how, I somehow found myself atop the float. And off we went, several hundred Episcopales Dominicanos dancing through the streets of San Pedro, blasting praise music at deafening volume and yelling along at the top of our lungs. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Thus far, we have been relatively sheltered from truly devastating poverty in Santo Domingo. In San Pedro, by contrast, the economic devastation was excruciatingly clear. We drove along endless streets of corrugated metal shacks, dilapidated buildings in which families were squatting, throngs of barely clothed, rail thin children, and hordes of mangy, wild dogs. The truly amazing thing though, was that seemingly the entire population of San Pedro came streaming out of their homes to watch the parade as though it were the entertainment of the century. They greeted us with such evident, transparent joy, waving, singing, beaming, and, at times, running in our wake. I couldn’t help but thinking that here, amidst crushing poverty and inescapable need, the hope of the Gospel is not abstract or optional (as I, an economically stable Westerner am so often tempted to think) but urgently needed and abundantly present. I stood on the float, periodically ducking to avoid low hanging branches and (terrifyingly) power lines, alternating between laughter and tears.
I left for church at 8:45 in the morning and got back at 10:00 at night. I was bone-tired and coated from head to toe in a fine layer of dust, and yet I don’t know when I’ve been happier. What an unimaginable surprise. What an outpouring of grace. What incredible joy.