Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic. The place where I spent my spring break and the place that will forever hold a special place in my heart. I spent a week there on a missions trip serving with Intervarsity, a Christian campus ministry, and through Students International, which is a missions organization. I was assigned to a team in the Microfinance site, which was the exact site I hoped to get!
There are a few reasons why it’s taken me so long to write this post: 1) We weren’t allowed phones/technology in the DR, which I’m very grateful for, but it has made me want to ignore social media since I’ve been back… 2) I’ve spent most of my free time post-break with the amazing people I got to spend it with, and 3) I’m still processing everything that happened.
How I Ended Up on the Trip
Here’s the thing. I nearly missed out on this opportunity because I was terrified of how my body would handle it. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, check out my first post here and feel free to read up on the backstory.) 6:00 am wake-ups every day? Yeah, right. Long days and late nights? I often need naps and try to be in pj’s before 9:00. Little to no control over the food I’m eating? Not when I’ve worked so hard to maintain a diet that helps control symptoms. All of these factors and more came so, so close to convincing me that the missions trip was not meant to be. Yet despite myself, my thoughts kept returning to the Dominican Republic. I made a last minute decision to attend the interest meeting and before I knew it, an application was submitted and it had my name on it. Even after I was offered a spot, I still didn’t know whether or not I would accept. What if I fundraised enough money only to end up miserable and missing out on activities the entire week?
It was a conversation with a coworker that encouraged me to throw caution to the winds and go for it (and if you’re reading this, you know who you are. Thank you.). We were closing shop together and when I mentioned the offer I had received to join the DR team, she got really excited and told me she had gone the previous year! After briefly explaining the situation surrounding my health, she told me something along these lines: “I understand that you’re nervous, but if you’re feeling called to go, you shouldn’t let it stop you.”
The Fundraising Journey
And that settled it. I committed to the trip and began crafting fundraising letters soon thereafter, sending out more than 30 personalized letters over the course of a couple of weeks. But the reality was that while my mind and body were busy preparing for the journey down to the DR, my heart was not. Fear was the predominant emotion in the weeks leading up to break; fear that God was not big enough to give me the strength I needed in order to do what it is I was being called to do: serve Him and through that serve others. I spent way more time thinking about foods I needed to buy, medications I needed to bring and the extra money I had to spend on those things than I did in prayer. Self-centered is the best way to describe it, and I’m not proud of it.
But God provides. He knew I needed encouragement and with weeks to spare, I was more than fully funded. That’s right – over $1,600 raised from generous family members and friends. It blew me away. God was right there beside me, whether I recognized it or not, encouraging me and preparing me for the DR. Not only did I have enough money to cover the cost of the trip weeks in advance, but I also received a last minute, personal donation just days before the trip to cover the extra food and medications I had to bring with me. Finally, right before leaving, I was feeling ready to go and excited for what was to come.
The Actual Journey
And then crazy winds came on Saturday and flights all over the East Coast were canceled or rescheduled. Our team’s first flight was delayed and we missed our connection, further delaying our second flight by eight hours. Instead of arriving at Santiago airport around 7:40 pm as planned, we arrived at nearly 4:00 am. Afterward, it was an hour drive to our base and by the time we were crawling into our beds, the sun was beginning to rise. All I could think was, “how the heck am I going to function on Sunday?” Our itinerary for the first day was as follows: church, lunch, hike to a waterfall, dinner and culture night. We did not end up going to church due to the late (early?) bedtime, but everything else stayed the same. And to my surprise, I got through the majority of it just fine, even the insanely steep hike down to and back up from the waterfall that puts Maine mountains to shame (for reference). I did choose to miss culture night in favor of getting to sleep before 8:00 pm in what I thought would be a sore attempt at catching up on sleep, but I woke up at 6:15 the next morning relatively refreshed and ready to go.
Here comes the hard part in retelling the story: figuring out what I should and shouldn’t include. Because the unfortunate reality is that if I tell you every little detail about my experience, I’ll be writing for days. And you’ll subsequently be reading for days, which I’m sure you don’t want to do… So, I’m going to tell you about the most significant day: Thursday.
The Day that Changed Everything
It started out similarly to the other days – driving to a community with my team’s two site leaders and translator (so thankful for her) to make a home visit to a business owner. Today, we got to try fresh, delicious food and bring it to another home to share. We spent the morning there socializing before heading over to our next destination, a preschool that was actually an Education site, meaning there was another team of JMU students there. It was at the school that we ate our lunch, played with kids and napped in the sun (or maybe that was just me… hey, siestas are a thing!) until our daily afternoon bank meeting. These bank meetings are biweekly for each community and consist of various women and men (mostly women) gathering at one location to both discuss and pay loans. At the beginning of each meeting, the Dominicans introduce themselves and one member of the JMU team shares their testimony. And today, it was my turn.
Something you have to understand about me is that crying is my body’s immediate physiological reaction to any sort of emotion. Frustrated? Tears. Happy? Tears. Sad? More tears. It just happens, and I can’t do anything about it. I felt okay as I recounted significant events in my life beginning when I was little, but as I began talking about the more recent health struggles, I couldn’t maintain my composure. The grief I had held onto for my past life, the one where I was perfectly healthy and active, spilled over for almost twenty people to see, and there was nothing I could do except let it happen. I felt confused because there I was telling women about the wonderful things God was doing in my life, meaning every word of it, but there was also still hurt. God knew this and decided it was time for a change.
After I finished telling my story, one of the women requested that everyone in the room pray for me. As soon as she started praying, several other women joined in. I couldn’t understand what they were saying because it was in Spanish, but it didn’t matter. When the prayer finished, the woman who initiated the prayer came over to me, gave me a hug, and told me she would continue to pray for me. Several other women said the same and thanked me for sharing. The responses of these women who belonged to the poorest, most destitute community in Jarabacoa absolutely blew me away. There I was, ready to share the gospel and love them as best I could despite the fact that I come from a level of wealth and opportunity they will never know; and there they were, ready to love me and humbly welcome me into their lives. It’s something I will never forget.
Later that night, as I sat outside talking and being silly with the two lovely ladies featured above, the three of us began to hear music coming from the chapel. It was the other team on a base, a group of high schoolers, who had begun to worship. Alli, ever the energetic friend, suggested we all go join them. I grudgingly agreed (as did Olivia): it was late, I was tired, and I wasn’t up for staying very long. I told myself I would leave after two or three songs, but something kept me there. An hour later, there we stood, and joined by more JMU students as well!
This is when things start to get a little weird. (You’ve been warned.) After we sang my favorite worship song, How He Loves, the pastor from the other group came forward. He spoke to everyone there and told us that throughout the week he had felt nudges to speak to a few of us specifically. And because some of us were in the room, he wanted to share what had been laid on his heart.
The Woman at the Well
Well, you probably guessed it – the first person Pastor Don pointed out was me. He asked for my name and, after struggling to find my voice for a few seconds, I told him. He said that when he saw me sitting at the top of our base camp in the mornings, studying my devotional, he also saw the woman at the well. (For those of you who don’t know the Bible story or need a refresher, here it is). He said it wasn’t that I had the same lifestyle as the woman, but that I was holding back. That Jesus is right there beside me and that he has been there all along, holding the drink of life, but I haven’t been ready to take it. That God is ready for me to take a leap and wants me to know I’m loved. That I can let go of whatever it is that’s holding me back from living life fully, whether it be fear or something else entirely.
And let me tell you, that hit me hard. The things he said struck the very core of the insecurities surrounding me. It was as if all of this weight, all of this pressure I had felt building up inside of me, was released. I knew in the months leading up to the trip that I was missing something important, but I didn’t know what. I thought my faith was doing just fine, but the reality is that I never truly trusted that God could take care of me. Through all the frustration and the bad days and moments of unbearable hopelessness, I’m not sure if I once truly believed that God could or would get me through this. I thought I did. But it was a lie I had told myself.
Fear. That’s what it all came down to.
Fear is what almost stopped me from going on the trip and fear is what has controlled me for months. Fear that I’ll wake up exhausted, fear that I won’t be able to go to class because I’m tired, fear that I’ll gain more weight because I can’t exercise, fear that people don’t really believe I’m ill when I cancel plans because it happens so often, fear that I will never again know what it’s like to NOT be tired all. the. time.
Well, I’m here to tell you that I am done being ruled by fear. We studied 2 Timothy over the course of the week, and a verse I read the first day kept repeating itself over and over in my head.
“for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” – 2 Timothy 1:7
My plan going into this trip was to learn about missions, share the word of God and befriend women in the Jarabacoa while attempting (and most likely failing) to manage my symptoms. I instead left feeling incredibly loved by the community and feeling a sense of peace I had not felt in a long time. When I woke up on Friday, the last full day there, I realized that for the first time since I started feeling unwell, I wasn’t anxious about the day. And although I only got about six hours of sleep (something that would have crippled me during the fall semester), I thrived on that final day. I even let myself enjoy a heavy meal at our farewell dinner that contained more carbs than I’d eaten in the week leading up to the trip. And you know what? I felt just fine (whereas before, I would have needed to sleep within the hour). I only got about five hours of sleep the following night, and I woke up feeling normal the next morning. It was truly a miracle.
Maybe that sounds dramatic, but this is coming from the person who called my mom in tears multiple times during the fall semester because I couldn’t handle how tired I was. It’s coming from the person who is used to waking up tired, despite sleeping for 8-10 hours a night. Are all of my symptoms now magically gone, forever? No, they’re not. I crashed the Thursday after returning and had to nap instead of attend class. Am I going to have moments where I’m frustrated and hopeless all over again? Probably. But that’s okay.
God did something over the break I didn’t think was possible: He gave me the strength to live that week in Jarabacoa to the fullest. I didn’t just come away feeling more at the peace with myself, but I also feel more encouraged than ever to live out a life that serves others. The dedication and passion so apparent in the missionaries and in the community showed me what it’s like to truly live out God’s word: they showed me, and they showed my team, how to truly love others.
I want to leave you all with a verse to let you know that, regardless of what phase of life you’re in and how happy or hopeless you may feel in this moment, it will work out for good. For the first time, I have hope, and I want you to have that, too.
“And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.”
– Matthew 7:25