What Matters on the Mountain is all that Matters
At the request of Father Bob, I’m going to recount the events of a mission trip I went on. I don’t like to share too many personal anecdotes with the couple thousand people that may read this – but in these circumstances – I really think this story needs to be shared. I accompanied 50 volunteers to the Dominican Republic with an organization named Somos Amigos (translation: We are all friends), with the purpose of producing a documentary on the spirit and operations of the organization. This was the second time I’d been into the mountains with Somos, and so I knew what I was walking into. What I wasn’t ready for, was the contrast. I think maybe the first time I went, it was all so new and just the sights and smells were enough to distract me from what was really going in those mountains. What really happens up there, is the superficiality of life as we know it falls away, and we’re left with the only thing that matters: people.DOWNLOAD THE BULLETIN
The group flies into Santiago on a half dozen or so different flights and people are greeted at the airport by a man named Frank Brightwell. Frank is the director and sole employee of Somos Amigos. He’s in his early 50’s, sports a shaven head, and is typically donning his boyish smile, a reflection of the outlook he holds on the world. Frank is easily one of the most humble, and genuinely caring people I’ve ever met. He speaks – from what I’m told – a broken, Dominican style of Spanish that he picked up during his 17 years of trips back and forth from the Campo.
“The Campo” is a word they use for the remote region in which Somos Amigo operates, formally called El Naranjito, or The Little Orange. I think it means “The Camp”, and those who reside there are referred to as Campesinos. Most are subsistence farmers, but there are definitely tradesmen in the community… more on that later.
Roughly 17 years ago, Frank was working at an all-boys academy in Washington DC as a college admissions counselor, and part time teacher. Suffice it to say that this academy’s tuition priced it out of the market for all but the top 4% of income earners, and many of the school’s students hadn’t ever experienced, or would ever experience, real poverty. Frank wanted to show these young men how most of the world lived, so he organized a trip to the DR.
They traveled past the paved roads. They traveled past the good dirt roads. They even traveled past the not-so-good dirt roads into the hills of El Naranjito.
“What’s different about Somos Amigos,” Frank shares, “is that from the very beginning, we never came to this community and told them what we were going to do to help them. So many organizations come to teach English, or come to build Churches. We came and asked ‘what do you need?’ We would try to meet that need, and then we would ask again.”
Their first task in the mountains was to bring running water to the homes. So they located a natural aquifer and dug ditches for pipes. They installed a plumbing system and brought fresh water from the ground to the Campesinos’ homes. Then they needed dental care. So they brought dentists. Then they needed general medical care. So they brought doctors. Eventually, they asked for a Church, and so they built a Church.
Over the years, the needs grew and word spread. As word spread, the needs grew even more. As the operation expanded, it became clear that this “thing” was taking on a life of its own. Fundraising took place. Construction took place. And before anyone knew it, they had over 15,000 square feet among three clinics – a dental clinic, a general health clinic, and a women’s health clinic. And their numbers are impressive. In a typical week, they’ll see between 500-600 patients. The volunteers work long days – as in 12 hours with no breaks – and by the end of the week, everyone is exhausted.. and yet somehow, we are all filled with something like energy, but better.
The logistics of running three clinics 70 kilometers outside of a city, in a 3rd world country is impressive, but that’s only half of it. What happens in the mountains is magic. Don’t be mistaken. The Campesinos live very hard lives of manual labor, exposure to the elements, untreated medical conditions, and the like. They don’t have iPods. They don’t have Netflix. They don’t have Cadillacs. They have people… and relationships. And after you live with them for a week, and you watch them live, you realize that we are not living The Good Life. They are. In fact, the race isn’t even close.
Here’s an example. I met a man named Percio (he was one of few that spoke English so I really clung to him). Percio moved to New York City when he was 20 years old. He came from El Naranjito, but he spent most of his time in the city – Santiago – before he made his way to the states. At 41, he’s back – to stay.
“When I lived in New York, I lived in a big apartment building… I didn’t know the people living next door to me. Even if we saw each other in the halls, nothing,” he recalls, dismayed. “I worked for a big company that got bought out. The new owners ended up laying a ton of a people off and started selling off the assets of the company just to turn a profit on the sale. I couldn’t understand that.” Percio is visibly upset when he tells me this story.
“Back home, here, in the Campo, I go 5 miles over those mountains and I know every single person that lives there. When someone is sick, we go visit them and spend the day with them. We bring them food. If someone’s family is struggling, we give them work or whatever they need. If someone has a child, we visit them and meet the baby. We all know each other up here. We don’t have a lot, but we enjoy life,” Percio explains.
It’s a cliché we hear repeated in a hundred different ways by a thousand different mediums. We go to a job we hate, work with people we can’t stand, to pay for a house and a lifestyle we can’t afford, so we can drive our brand new car to the job we hate. And repeat. Okay, not all of us feel this way, but you get the idea.
If all our “things” were taken from us – if we were to suddenly find ourselves without – what would really matter? And of course, the answer is people. What matters are the relationships we have with other people.
What happens when the Somos Amigos volunteers venture into the mountains is something like magic. You’re not only stripped of your iPhone and air conditioning when you get on the rickety old bus to the top of the hill. You leave your ego. You leave your self-centered fears. You leave the traffic jams and the PTA meetings and all the little things that grind on your nerves. And when you’re totally focused on helping other people for a week – you know, the thing that God wants most from us – you end up leaving a lot of your character flaws at the bottom of the mountain too.
As a volunteer named Patrick articulated, “Up here, I’m the version of myself that I think most closely resembles what God wants me to be.” And that really is the magic of the mountains. The crazy part is – we all know this stuff!
We know what happens when we get outside of ourselves and do something for another person. We know that feeling when we’re being altruistic. When we put a smile on someone’s face – when we take away another’s pain – and when we’re there to listen to a friend in a time of grave need – we reap the spiritual benefits of these action, and yet… And yet the world gets in our way.
We have to get the kids to soccer practice on time, so, of course we cut that guy off. And that guy looked like my sister’s ex-boyfriend and he was a dirtbag, and so that guy’s probably one too. And there’s no time to eat so we’re going through the drive-thr… and now who’s calling me? What does she want??!!! Oh, it’s my neighbor telling me that the guy from down the street got picked up by the cops yesterday and we were right to suspect him of whatever absurd personality disorder that Oprah was hocking this week…
If your inner monologue sounds anything like this, you know that getting caught up in the thick of thin things is the most passive and justified way we cut ourselves off from God’s love. If spending time in the mountains taught me anything, it was that relationships are all that matter in the physical world. Because it’s not a matter of ‘if’…. One day, everything worldly will be taken from us, and we go to meet our Judge, we better all be friends.