I was overwhelmed as I walked through row after narrow row of shack after tin shack. Most of them no bigger than a jail cell. And for all I knew, that’s exactly what the inhabitants of the shacks felt like–prisoners in their own homes, in this abjectly empoverished part of the Dominican Republic. I was walking through the community of tin and sticks after having spent the week with them. Now, the only question in my mind as I walked with the local pastor there was a simple question and yet one that put my heart into such a vise of anguish; anguish I have not felt since.
The question: Which one?
It was my responsibility as the leader of our group to choose one family from a sea of people. That one family would receive a new home, just across the river bed. A home that our group had sponsored and had built. A home with block walls, a solid roof, and even a concrete floor. A home in a community called “Villa de Ascencion”, just a short distance away and yet lightyears away from where they were now.
My heart pounded as the pastor gave me a description of each family we walked past, how many children, their ages, what the parents did for money to feed them, and other details. I walked through several shacks as children moved from one shack to another, and adult would pull children who weren’t theirs close to them so as to appear to be a larger family, and perhaps garnish the favor of the foreigner who’s task it was to choose one family to receive a new home. I don’t think my heart could have taken any more weight than what I felt on that day.
After meandering through the entire village, I returned to the home of Marcelles. Marcelles was a single father with 4 children. His wife had left him soon after the twins were born. He was doing the best he could do raising those 4 children, while trying to scrape out a living doing clothes repair. His antique looking sewing machine set neatly on a wobbly wooden table in a corner of his home; a home of mostly thick straight branches framing the house and sheets of tin attached to them. A thin fabric curtain was his front door. The pastor pulled the curtain back and I ducked my head as we went inside. The darkness of the interior in midday give me a glimpse of the sense of darkness that contrasted what Marcelles and his kids were about to receive.
I greeted Marcelles with a handshake while his kids were standing in the doorway of their shack, looking on. Through the pastor’s interpretation, I told Marcelles that our group was choosing him and his children to receive the new home we had built for them. Before the news could get all the way past the interpreter’s lips, Marcelles lunged at me, buried his head in my chest and sobbed. His arms wrapped around my ribs, his hands clasped tightly on my back. I’ll never forget the feeling of handing someone a new home, a new hope, and a new life. After letting go of me, Marcelles gathered his children all around himself and somehow seemed to be hugging all 4 at once.
The celebration was interrupted by our urgent request: Please put on your best clothes and meet us at your new house 40 minutes from now. We’ll welcome you to your home, give you a few gifts, and dedicate your house to the Lord. The entire family immediately burst into activity, speaking feverishly with each other instructions on who would do what. After all, not only were they moving, but all they possessed must come with them. No doubt what would happen as soon as they left their shack is that another family would move right in and anything left there would become the property of whoever took their place.
We left them their joyous work and walked across the riverbed to Villa de Ascencion, a community being built by God through CrossRoads Ministry, our partners on that trip. The difference between the two villages was more than what can be described.
So 40 minutes later, sure enough Marcelles and his 4 children were dressed in their best clothes, smiles beaming as we stood at the front door of their new home. With tears in his eyes, Marcelles listened as we prayed a prayer of dedication over the house and blessing over his family. I simply will never forget the powerful privilege of giving to this family a new beginning, nor will I ever forget the heartfelt, sincere, and incredible gratitude with which they accepted our gift.
I think of that day often and whenever I do I cannot help but place that story alongside of God’s grace, love, and compassion which He lavishes upon us. There we were in our spiritual darkness, our soul empoverished, without hope for an escape. And then He came along, pulled back the curtain, stepped inside and said “I have a new life for you, if you’ll take it.” And when I think of that gift of God’s grace shown through Jesus death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave that makes my new home a living reality, I can’t help but respond as Marcelles did, to throw my head into his chest, my arms wrapped around his scarred ribcage, and my hands clasping his once-scourged back. In gratitude I’ve accepted a new home, a new hope, and a new life.
I hope to return to the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2012, but I doubt I will ever know again the overwhelming power of what happened just “40 minutes from now.”