By: Mark Herrmann, Staff Spotlight
It’s hard to put into words. But I wish that everyone in the Diocese of Arlington could go where I’ve just been, and experience what I briefly experienced.
Since 1991, our diocese has staffed and supported two mission parishes in the Dominican Republic – San Francisco de Asis in Bánica and San José in Pedro Santana. These two small towns lie along the Rio Artibonito, a shallow, muddy river that forms the border with neighboring Haiti. Two of our diocesan priests – Father Christopher Murphy and Father Keith O’Hare – oversee the spiritual care of the people, with help from local parish staff and volunteers from the U.S. This past week, I had an opportunity to visit for an all-too-short amount of time.
By U.S. standards, life in the two towns is difficult. Homes are rudimentary; many have outhouses. Electric service goes out for a portion of most days; the water is impure. Mosquitoes carry dengue fever; the area’s first cases of cholera have crossed the border from Haiti. The hospital lacks basic supplies; diagnostic equipment doesn’t work. Weeds grow over partially-completed government projects – a half-built park, an abandoned factory.
But that’s only part of the story of our mission parishes – they include not only the towns of Bánica and Pedro Santana, but also the campos – dozens of tiny villages in the surrounding hill country, some as much as five hours away by motorbike or mule. The life of the people of the campos is a world apart.
In Cercadillo – one of the closer campos, about an hour by four-wheel drive from Pedro Santana – families live in dirt-floored huts constructed from bits of sheet metal, scraps of wood, and mud. The kitchen is a shed made from woven branches; food is cooked over an open fire. Running water is available only because of an “aqueduct” constructed a number of years ago by the Catholic Church and the Peace Corps. I put “aqueduct” in quotations because it seems a grandiose designation for a thin PVC pipe trailing for miles across the countryside, buried a few inches deep in the stony ground and fed by gravity from a mountaintop spring – a spring which is now beginning to run dry. Meals consist largely of rice and beans, although Sister Gracia, a Franciscan sister from Brazil, has helped the residents create a community vegetable garden that is tended with the greatest of care.
The impoverished surroundings grab your attention, but it’s the people that grab your heart in a way that doesn’t let go. They may have very little materially, but they are proud to show you their homes and their families, and to introduce you to their culture. They radiate a joy that transcends their surroundings. Upon our arrival, the families in Cercadillo flocked to their tiny chapel, where religious songs were sung with vigorous enthusiasm. Smiles were everywhere.
Upon my return home, by coincidence or design, my daily prayer book the next day pointed me to Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?… Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” (Mt. 5-6). In our world filled with distractions and “stuff,” the poorest of the poor can teach us the importance of simplicity. And the petty day-to-day frustrations of Northern Virginia life fade into insignificance when we recall those for whom it is a daily challenge to obtain the barest necessities.
We have been given so much – probably too much – and much is therefore demanded of us. The people of our diocese are supporting a wonderful work in the Dominican Republic. The sacraments are celebrated and the faith is taught with fervor. And in the absence of basic infrastructure, the Catholic Church works alongside the local residents to build roads, supply water, distribute drugs and medical supplies, provide the only ambulance service, operate a K-8 school … the list goes on and on.
In the past few days, so many people have asked me, “How was your trip?” For them, and for you, I don’t have the right words to describe it. I wish you could go where I’ve just been. I wish we could do even more.
Staff Spotlight is — in an ongoing effort to get a range of content on Encourage & Teach — content from staff members within the Diocese of Arlington from contributors who do not write as a part of their day-to-day job.
Mark Herrmann is the Chancellor and General Counsel of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington.