The Franciscan Spirit of College Students in the Dominican Republic
Well, I’m back and in one piece, if also sunburned, tired and sore. There is so much to say and share, so many experiences, observations and reflections about the last week that I will post here in time. There is also a great deal that I need to catch up on that has happened in the world since I entered radio silence more than a week ago. News outside the Barrio did not reach us with ease, for even Spanish newspapers were hard to come by where we were staying.
Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by the continued suffering and danger in Japan now going into its second week, while also captivated by the US and its allies’ military strikes in Libya. My prayers are with all those affected by these events. I’m sure that I will have more to say on these subjects in upcoming days.
I was blessed to have the opportunity to spend the week with ten outstanding students from Siena College and a wonderful colleague as the twelve of us traveled to the Dominican Republic during the school’s Spring Recess to work with Las Hermanas Franciscanas Bernadinas. In addition to months of preparation for the trip in the US doing things such as collecting donations, organizing lesson plans for educational and health programs in the school and detailing the sort of things necessary to take a dozen people abroad, the students worked with dedication, discipline and maturity throughout the week.
Every night the students would stay up late and plan, always as a group, the various dimensions of the next day’s work. These meetings were super organized and flowed well. Immediately after the lesson plan meeting (which followed dinner and our faith reflection sessions) the group would break up into the working groups for the next day to further develop the various projects that each team would tackle. I must say that I’ve never seen a group of college students work so well, so dedicatedly and in such an organized manner. Even the Sisters, teachers and long-term volunteer made comments highlighting this aspect of the week.
The days were long, beginning at 7:00am and concluding somewhere late into the night, around 11:00-11:30pm. I don’t think I’ve ever sweated so much in my life, a result of playing football (soccer) and basketball with the kids of the barrio (and there is also a photo out there somewhere of me jump-roping with some of the girls). The weather was at times uncomfortably warm and the conditions very rough, but the group rarely — if ever — complained. Instead, the students from Siena embraced their mission to give of themselves as completely as possible to this community that they had come to love so much.
On the plane ride down to the Dominican Republic a flight attendant announced over the PA system that a group from Manhattan College (a sports rival of Siena College, no less) was on board and going to the DR to do some service and then applause was solicited (both at takeoff and upon arrival). Meanwhile, the ten students from Siena, doing the same thing, if not actually doing more difficult work, sat humbly, quietly and unnoticed in the same airplane cabin applauding this other group, while seeking no affirmation from others, committed to do their work and open to the experience of community without external accolades.
This little contrast in experience — one college group seeking public approval and recognition, while the other group does good work anonymously — is one of the many little moments of grace that was reflected in the experience of this week. This juxstaposition was not overlooked by some members of the group who, later in the week of hard work, recalled that experience on the plane in a lighthearted way. Yet, that recollection became an opportunity for us to reflect on how this is precisely what St. Francis would have wanted a group of students to go and do a week’s worth of hard work for others. Not seeking attention and accolades, but quietly going to be among the Dominican community with humility and simplicity.
I was very proud of our students and remain proud of them for this and a whole host of other reasons. I look forward to sharing more about the trip soon. Thanks again for all of your prayers and support while we were away.