Posted by: Kara Luker | September 20, 2011

Welcome to the island

A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken. Ecclesiastes 4:12

This very long post is for you, Ken. Hope it was worth the wait.

There were motorcycles everywhere, zipping down the streets; dodging vehicles, potholes, and animals with daring precision. Most riders shocked or delighted. A mom with a toddler between her legs.  A boy with a long leash and a horse running behind. A woman in an ivory suit riding sidesaddle behind a male driver. Three teenage boys lined up like the Three Amigos. Two uniformed officers, one behind another on the seat of a single motorbike. I tried to picture Ponch and John patrolling the California highways in such an intimate space.

I’d never been to the Dominican Republic before, but it reminded me of other places I’ve been… and loved. Hot, humid, earthy, green. The people lacked a certain pretense I find in my daily life in Orange County. They were laid back, warm, and colorful like the turquoise paint on their houses. Many kids I encountered were hardly clothed and obviously poor, but radiant. One girl – my favorite – whose name sounded like Lady, finally gave up trying to converse with me and engaged me in a creative version of rock, paper, scissors. We clapped our hands together, threw down our choice, and pinched each other’s cheeks. I wanted to take her with me and love her forever.

We took a redeye to get there; it was still Wednesday when we left. I was torn between jealousy and encouragement as the people around me dropped off to sleep. It was tempting to lie down in the aisle, wrap up my body in the blue airplane blanket, and lull myself to sleep with the bible app on my iphone. I eventually drifted off into a light slumber, nearly upright in my economy seat, just in time for the layover – in Newark, I think.

My boss and I stumbled off the plane, as did the Orange County donors and their kids who were accompanying us. The sun was coming up and shining through the airport windows. It felt hopeful. I decided to throw off my self-pity over the lack of sleep and thank God for his ability to give me rest or strength, whichever he decided. We ate a greasy breakfast and boarded the next plane where I collapsed onto my tray, and spent the whole flight in deep sleep. I woke up in time to let the poor trapped woman next to me use the restroom, and to take in the green trees and blue sea lining the runway. It was good to be there on the last of my trips this eventful year.

The airport was small and wonderful. The photos and text on the walls enchanted me more than most art in museums. A Dominican girl from the plane, who had asked for help with her suitcase, offered to take my picture in front of a wall I was admiring. It said: “Welcome to this island, where the sea is always near, and the mountains are never far…” I felt welcomed.

Our group eventually found each other and saw the sign for HOPE International, which Obed was holding. I met him in May at our work retreat and liked him a lot. He was raised in Rhode Island by Haitian parents, just married a gorgeous woman from the Dominican Republic, and has eyelashes that seem unfair on a man. He took us to a large passenger van, which held the folks who had already arrived from Texas and South Carolina. We drank cold water, chatted happily, and took in the blurred landscape.

A man walking down the street carried something that looked like a refrigerator on his head. Another was walking behind a few emaciated animals – cows, I think. I had never seen skinny cows before. Not in my country, anyway. But here they littered the countryside; not one looking like it would provide rich milk or a tasty meal. Kids stood or played in front of houses or buildings, each dressed in one article of clothing or maybe two. Whether their attire was due to a lack of resources or the persistent heat, I don’t know.

We pulled up in front of a bright green building that said, “Pica Pollo el Sazon de Mama.” Two small children stood in front, one with a piece of chicken gripped in his chubby hand. The yellow walls inside the polished restaurant displayed Spanish Bible verses and the price of chicken meals. Tiled floor and fans cooled guests; heat lamps kept mounds of meat warm. We gathered around plates of fried chicken, plantains, and a tasty root vegetable that was eaten with pickled onions. The owner, a microfinance client of the organization I work for, told the difficult story of her life, but glowed as she talked about her loans. She had done well. Her business was thriving, her family fed, her heart full.

We finally made our way to the retreat center in San Pedro de Macoris for dinner, which we no longer needed after Mama had stuffed us full of chicken. After time in conversation and prayer, the Pennsylvania contingent walked through the doorway, travel-weary after cancelled flights and pleas with ticket agents, but joyful to be there. We applauded their arrival.

A handful of us wandered a couple blocks to the beach. It was dark. There were few streetlights and no signs to alert us to potential hazards, like gaping holes in the sidewalk that would have eaten us whole. As we got to the boardwalk, I couldn’t help but smile. Music blared through the speakers of the restaurants, bars, and liquor kiosks. Sometimes the music overlapped, like the way some cultures talk over each other. People were outside sitting, drinking, cooling off after a hot day. Most didn’t take much notice of us as we walked by in the sea air. A few smiled and offered a greeting. I felt at home somehow.

With an early morning waiting, we meandered back to our clean, humble rooms, where my roommate and I flopped onto our beds. Aislinn has the southern accent and charm of her small Mississippi hometown paired with the spunk and smarts of a city girl. She also happens to be the wonderful intern I worked with all summer, albeit from opposite coasts. I felt lucky to have this time with her before she left us (sigh) and headed back to college. Wrapped up in the darkness of our foreign room, we indulged in girl talk until our eyelids sank and our words dropped off.

My sleep there was sweet. I wanted to savor it. In the morning, long after Aislinn was showered and ready, I was still grumbling at my alarm to stop waking me up. But opening my eyes – at last – was worth it. The sun came in gently through the soft, colorful curtains on the window. The hum of the air conditioning soothed my mind. I felt rested and so happy to be in this country.

Conversation came easily over breakfast in the dining room. The coffee was strong and the food filling. We stepped out into the morning warmth and piled into the van, which immediately cranked out a cold stream of air. We had a mobile devotion, learned more about the country and the clients we would meet, and enjoyed our newfound community of 19. We were friends now, and laughter filled each space we inhabited.

As we drove along, I silently questioned how people weren’t constantly getting hurt on the unruly roads. Before we had even reached the first bank meeting, we received word that a client’s niece had crashed on a motorcycle when a child had wandered into the street; both were injured. The very same day that we were asked to pray for another person – a loan officer, I think – who had been hurt in a motorcycle accident. Then Amber, our bright young interpreter, shared about a horrific accident two years prior when broke her spine and almost died. Silent question answered.

The neighborhood of our first stop was obviously poor, but beautiful in its own way. Dirt roads were surrounded by perfectly unkempt palms and other lush plants. A child bathed outside in a plastic container. A rooster wander around some tall grass. Well-worn laundry hung from lines in front of broken down houses. An abandoned basketball hoop stood before a fence. A man rode a bicycle down the street.

Our group conspicuously tumbled out of the van and lined the edges of a bank meeting made up of about a dozen clients. The covered dirt patio provided shade from the increasing warmth of the sun. I stood beneath it and watched. I felt rude to be there with my camera and questions, but they didn’t seem to mind. The clients we serve don’t have physical collateral, so they give what they have – social collateral; each one vouching to make up for any lack in the group. The result is a repayment rate that any US bank would covet. But, honestly, those aren’t the kinds of details that interest me. It is how people need each other; how community is formed; how undeniable strength is forged out weakness. All these things that matter to me were so present in that place.

The next bank meeting was nearby, this one smaller and made up only of women. They met inside a small house with bars on the windows. It was a lively group. The loan officer prayed and led the clients in a Christian version of the hokey pokey that spanked any version I’d ever sung. The meeting continued but I have no idea what took place. I was too enraptured by the kids who lived in the pink house next door; the one without windows that looked like a forgotten playhouse. Oh, how I wanted to speak their language. We smiled, sat next to each other, and at last played a few games. They won my heart without more than two words in common and yet left me with a vague sort of ache.

Obed had reserved lunch for us at a beautiful restaurant with an intricately thatched roof. It reminded me of a beachside restaurant in Costa Rica where you might drink a margarita and watch the waves. We were revived with the fans above, some sweet nectar to drink, and a delicious plate of food that I gobbled greedily. A group of loan officers joined us, some of whom we’d shared the morning with. I had heard and read about these people, and even prayed for them. It never sounded like an easy job… tirelessly tromping out to poor rural areas to hold bank meetings, collect loan payments, train clients, and show each one of them the kindness of a loving God. But I wasn’t prepared for their joyful devotion. It humbled me deeply.

Our next stop had fewer trees and no shade to speak of. The heat was nearly unbearable. Egad. I just wanted to get back in the van and let our angelic driver, Max, hand me an ice-cold water bottle. This was when it struck me that there is nothing romantic about building a business here. The opportunity is an unmistakably good thing, but it is work. Hard, hot, long work.

We visited a handful of businesses on the dusty street, each of which was attached to the home of its owner. One sold random items like snacks, drinks, and shoes that were strung from the ceiling. One sold used clothing. One sold eggs and cleaning products. It was Anadelia, the owner of this last store, who delighted us by taking us into her home to show the purses she knit from strips of garbage bags. They were beautiful. She proudly demonstrated the art and mentioned that she had taught her neighbors so they could have a livelihood. Say what? I felt protective of her own livelihood and was offended by the way she gave it away freely. But these people who know need seem to give generously. They adopt orphans, support pastors, feed the hungry. I am so far from an understanding of this. My heart can’t begin to touch it. Maybe someday.

Our last stop this very long, intriguing day was at a cool, castle-like church. Walking through those doors was a respite from the oppressive air and the churning of my mind. The ceilings were sky-high and the space wide open, giving room for the soul to breathe. The soft breeze through the arched windows tickled my skin. Everything seemed right with the world inside those concrete walls. As church leaders filtered in, I knew we were welcomed, appreciated, loved. It was uncanny that in such a short time with significant language barriers our two groups could meld so seamlessly and encourage each other so heartily. It was a quenching drop of heaven.

The trip continued through the following morning. We talked, shared, laughed, and prayed. We debriefed over iced cream and slept. We ate breakfast and left for the airport. There was such a sweet flavor in my mouth over the goodness of God that I hardly noticed the 20 hours it took to get to my doorstep in Costa Mesa. The trip changed me. I still don’t know exactly the extent, but I imagined each of our lives being woven together like the strips in one of Anadelia’s purses. Maintaining our own identities, yet becoming one. Friendships being woven into communities, communities being woven together with other communities, the body of Christ uniting across the whole world like one big net that no one can fall through – not one widow, orphan, addict; not the lonely, hurting, or poor. Because that is the width and breadth and strength of love.


  1. You seem to be more alive when you write about serving these places and people than being or doing anything else. You feel at home. I wonder if it is home in more than just a yearly visit.

    • Hmmm. An interesting observation. For now I’m happy to spend time exploring but who knows what the future holds…

  2. What a beautiful read, Kara. I’m amazed at your attention to detail. I either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t remember 90% of the things you can describe from memory! Except the part about the microloans – I’m interested by that which holds no intrigue for you. 🙂

    Thank you for taking so much time to write about your trip. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    Hope you’re well!

    • Makes perfect sense – you’re a loan guy! Sorry I left out those details. We’ll cover ’em in conversation or I’ll bring you to our next event. Anyway, thx for the encouragement to write the post. I think you’re swell.

  3. Your heart belongs to God’s people sweet girl…………it will be interesting to see where the Lord will take you. Beautifully written and so sweet to read, thank you dear one. It took me away and made me smile………..

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