Blog From the April 2015 Exploration Trip
By The Rev. Dr. Lisa Tucker-Gray
Rector, St. John’s Episcopal Church
Plymouth, Michigan
Posted May 7, 2015

The Rev. Dr. Lisa Tucker-Gray was one of four missioners from the Diocese of Michigan who took part in the DDG-sponsored exploration trip from April 23-29, 2015. During that trip, she sent a blog update every day to be posted on the Facebook page of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Plymouth, Michigan. Those blog posts have been collected below and are presented in chronological order with minimal editing for continuity and clarity of place names.

An album of photographs from this trip is available on the St. John’s Facebook page here.

From left: The Rev. Dr. Lisa Tucker-Gray, Sue Skaggs, and Jeri Johnson from St. John's Episcopal Church, Plymouth, Michigan. For more photographs from this trip posted on the St. John's Facebook page, click this image.

Day One: Thursday, April 23nd

Sue Skaggs, Jeri Johnson, and I flew first to Miami and then to Santo Domingo (the capital) to begin our 6-day adventure.

We were met by our DDG guides and taken to the Hostel San Francisco in downtown Santo Domingo. We had time to settle in and go for a short walk down to the water. The capitol is a complex, beautiful, densely populated (and polluted) metropolitan city with over 2 million residents. It has a rich history, distinct culture and a beautiful mix of sounds, smells and sites that quickly jettisoned us into remembering how profound this invitation is, inviting us to step out of the center of our worlds and take in all that this experience has to offer.

Tonight we were dinner guests at the lovely residence of Bishop Holguín and his wife, Milagros. We had a wonderful evening of conversation and a dinner of local fare including pastelon (a Dominican version of lasagne with eggplant and plantains) made by the Bishop himself!

Friday morning we set out west for our first stops visiting 4 churches, 3 schools, and the future site of a shelter and a retreat center under construction. We will end our day in Jimani.

May you never forget that you are loved.

Priest Lisa in the Episcopal church in El Carretón. For more photographs from this trip posted on the St. John's Facebook page, click this image.

Day Two: Friday, April 24rd

Today we hit the road and logged 285 kilometers (177 miles) starting in Santo Domingo at the Diocesan Center and Seminary and ending in Jimani (right at the Haitian border).

Our stops throughout the day included:

-Meeting the full cadre of diocesan clergy gathered for a special convention to pass the second reading of their diocesan canons.

-A stop at San Antonio de Padua church and school in El Carretón. We saw a beautiful church and a new Episcopal school where we were greeted by the high school students currently in class. Dressed in perfectly pressed uniforms, rising to stand at their desks when we entered, we were all impressed at the amazing work done at the school and the future plans for expansion and new programs.

-Lunch in Baní included a stop at Pollo Rey; the DR’s version of KFC.

-A brief stop in Azua gave us the chance to tour La Reconciliación Church. We met Matilde, the Senior Warden, a wonderfully animated and energetic woman who showed us around and shared their dream of starting a preschool so that the many women with young children in the community could go back to work.

-3 hours in the van afforded us a beautiful panorama of the lush green countryside passing through little villages that seemed to pop up out of nowhere, populated with roadside stands of fruit and handmade crafts including beautiful wooden and wicker furniture.

-Arriving late afternoon in Jimani that hosts one of the two authorized border crossings into Haiti. Along our drive earlier in the afternoon we passed a number of military checkpoints for passengers heading east. It was explained to us that there is great awareness and effort placed on securing the legitimate passing of Haitians into the Dominican Republic and the active deportation of any undocumented Haitians trying to enter. Upon arrival at San Pablo Apóstol church and school we checked out the brand new playground structure and basketball court recently completed by earlier work teams. It is a government requirement that every school has a functioning basketball court which then has multi-purpose uses. The day ended with a beautiful home cooked meal of local fare and then sleeping in a dormitory at the church. We were reminded of the luxuries from home not afforded here as we experienced government controlled electricity, no hot water, and concerns about mosquito transmitted diseases – all things that are daily norms here in this region.

More reflections to follow, but suffice to say the day was full of amazing moments of wonder, heartbreak at seeing the excruciating poverty and the ineffable reality that these people are some of the most welcoming, hospitable and generous people you could ever meet.

May you never forget that you are loved.

Fruit stands alongside the highway. For more photographs from this trip posted on the St. John's Facebook page, click this image.

Day Three: Saturday, April 25th

Today we logged fewer kilometers/miles in our van, and yet traveled to and visited a wide range of Episcopal churches and schools. The Diocese of the Dominican Republic has 28 schools with 6,000 students enrolled and opportunities for augmenting, expanding and enhancing efforts already begun seem endless. Government policies dictate mandatory education through the 8th grade and while there are public schools that offer high school level classes, violence in these public schools is rampant and offering safe and secure secondary education [in Episcopal schools] has met a palpable need in many communities. Another new development for schools is a current movement towards full-day school schedules. Currently public and private schools offer 2 half-days in order to accommodate various age groups, but the government is advocating a shift to full days for each matriculated student. I mentioned yesterday that a basketball court is a requirement for each school; now, with the shift to full-day schools, each institution will also be required to have a commercial-grade kitchen and supplies to serve breakfast and lunch to each enrolled student. So with each stop today we saw plans being made for where, when and how the current Episcopal schools will be retro-fitted with new kitchens.

Since today was Saturday, we did not get to see kids in the schools, but you can still get a wonderful feeling for the life-changing impact these places are making in each community.

Here are some highlights of our stops en route today:

We left Jimani and made an unscheduled trip heading north to the very small village of Tierra Nuevo. Our host priest in Jimani, Padre Nephtely, took us to meet a couple currently holding church in their home. This is how many churches begin here (not to mention how 1st century followers began their faith communities!) with a faithful group coming together for fellowship, prayers and breaking bread. Bishop Holguín has a desire for a church to be built in this area, but for now there is no building, just people gathering in Christ’s name. The village is hard to travel through as you see extreme poverty and lack of even the most basic resources. There is no running water, only outhouses and very precarious structures for houses. And yet, once again, even during our brief stay we were warmly welcomed and greeted like friends.

From there we got back on track and headed east to Boca de Cachón and another fascinating story. Flooding was a chronic problem in this village, so about 3 years ago the government decided to bulldoze the original village and relocate the whole village about 10 kilometers east. First we drove through the old city and the remnant piles of rubble and then made our way to the new location of the same village. The new houses are beautiful – cinder block stuccoed homes brightly painted and with significant upgrades – running water, electricity, plumbing, etc.

The Episcopal Church had a partially built church in the old location so the government bulldozed it as well and has given land in the new town to build a new church which has yet to be built. There is a great lot just waiting for time, talent and treasure, and the DDG is actively and eagerly ready for that project to get started. The members are currently meeting in homes as well and the senior warden we met seems excited and confident that this building is God’s plan and will happen.

Our next stop after Boca da Cachón was Barahona. Another more metropolitan feeling city on the southwest coast, we arrived early afternoon to check into the Costa Larimar Hotel and have lunch before our other 2 church visits for the day.

This afternoon we split our time between 2 churches in Barahona – La Redención Church and School, and Jesús Perigrino Church and School.

Both locations had very simple and beautiful worship spaces. There is nothing extravagant or ornate in any of the churches we have seen so far. Simple wooden pews, minimal art in most, hymnals and Prayer Books stacked on neat shelves by the front door, simple and beautiful wooden baptismal fonts, wooden chairs by the altar, ceramic vessels for communion sets and no instruments other than a few tambourines and small drums.

The two churches were similar in many ways – similar worship space size, both with schools, but very different in context. The first located in a more affluent part of town, relatively speaking, and the other in one of the poorest barrios. I was struck at both by the clarity of purpose and full engagement of the lay leaders that greeted us at both locations. The priests were still away in Santo Domingo at the diocesan meeting so church leaders stepped up to greet us and share their visions and dreams; it was quite lovely and perhaps a gift that it worked out that way for us.

Tomorrow is Sunday so we’ll get to experience worship with the beautiful people here in this part of God’s creation – and I can’t wait! I look forward to sharing some thoughts tomorrow and bringing back more stories in just a few short days.

May you never forget that you are loved.

Iglesia Episcopal San Jorge (St. George's Episcopal Church) in Azua. For more photographs from this trip posted on the St. John's Facebook page, click this image.

Day 4 – Sunday, April 26th :

Stops along the way: Azua (Eucharist at Iglesia San Jorge), Las Carreras (Espíritu Santo Church – under construction), Doña Ana (Iglesia San Miguel), Santo Domingo (Epiphany Cathedral)

Sunday was an amazing day full of many wonderful stops along the way. I’m short of time and access with Wi-fi so following is a high level summary of our incredible day with some pictures to fill in the gaps.

– Worship at Iglesia San Jorge. I was invited to vest, serve communion and sing a closing song.

– Visits to 5 more “churches”; some fully functioning, some partially built, one in a shack on a piece of land waiting for a UTO grant.

– Returned to Santo Domingo for Evening Prayer at the Cathedral and a wonderful dinner and dancing at a local restaurant.

The day was also peppered with conversations at meal time and in the van about doing mission work. Our hosts took time helping us work through why being here in this country, contributing to these amazing projects, changes us more than those we are working with. I am thinking about the word “evangelism” – often defined as “spreading the Good News” and that for the last four days I am experiencing and accepting the Good News far more than offering it myself.

My heart breaks each time I see the excruciating level of poverty we are traveling through, and yet I am also reenergized, realizing that we are here on this planet for such a short time and are so privileged to recognize that we have much to learn and unlearn as well as to give and receive.

I don’t know where all this will lead for St. John’s as a community, but I do know that we will have many moments of falling deeper in love with the God who loved us first if we can stay open, humble and hungry for finding and claiming our truest God-centered selves.

May you never forget that you are loved.

Priest Lisa with schoolchildren at Santísima Trinidad. For more photographs from this trip posted on the St. John's Facebook page, click this image.

Day 5, Monday, April 27th

La Romana, Santo Domingo (local historic sites and shopping), Andrés (future site of the Mount Zion Church and school), Boca Chica (San José Church, school, and Bishop Isaac Hogar, and Cabanas), Gautier(Santo Tomás Church and Children’s Shelter), Consuelo – (San Gabriel Church, Elementary and Vocational School)

15 years ago this summer, Kim and I (and mother-in-law, Lu), traveled halfway around the world to meet Taylor, and in a moment became a forever family. We then spent two weeks in China with the rest of the adoption group working through the necessary paperwork and governmental processes. During that very surreal time of being instant parents we were also visitors in an incredible country and were invited to explore, shop, eat and experience the richness of that place at the very same time our hearts were breaking open with each look into this little baby girl’s eyes, knowing that she was now ours and we hers forever; it was a lot to process. Even now, all these years later, I look at pictures from that trip and still can’t believe everything that happened in such a short, condensed, highly scheduled, life-changing time.

And what a perfect parallel to remember tonight, as we finish our fifth day here in the Dominican Republic. There are differences of course, but some striking similarities. The emotional response to having your heart break open with possibilities for learning something about yourself and your capacity to give and receive love is similar. The deep knowing, because of a willingness to travel somewhere new and unknown, something has shifted inside of you making room for something new to be born is similar. And finally, even amidst the uncertainty of what will happen next, the joy of releasing the need to, or illusion of, control and instead letting go in order to simply be fully present and open to what is next is similar.

So from that place of familiar newness, excitement, exhaustion and anticipation, here are some highlights from today:

We began this morning with a previously unscheduled stop at a church and school in Santo Domingo. Apparently, Bishop Holguín had asked our guides to add Iglesia Episcopal Santísima Trinidad to our itinerary just recently in order to share some of the needs and opportunities they are engaging. The church is in a renovated house and the school (pre-K to 4th grade) is connected to the church. School was in session so we not only got a wonderful tour of the property by the priest, but also had some very sweet time with the very youngest children.

Before leaving Santo Domingo to head to stops along the southeastern coast we went shopping! Stopping first at a very special cigar shop for those of us that wanted to buy as well as take a trip to the back rooms to see the cigars being rolled and meet the owner. From there we took a wonderful walk through the Colonial District stopping at various shops for gifts and then to a few historical sites to learn a little more about this beautiful country and its complicated history especially with Haiti.

Following our amazingly successful efforts to help the local economy, we were back on the road and visited 3 more churches before dinner; San José Church and School in Boca Chica, San Tomás Church and Children’s Feeding Program in Gautier, and San Gabriel Church, School and Vocational Beauty School Program in Consuelo. Visiting these three particular locations provided an interesting contrast to each other. While there is need for support and partnerships consistently throughout all these ministries, today we saw some extremes on either ends of the same spectrum.

We have ended our day in La Romana and begin tomorrow with visits to 2 churches with schools close by before heading on to Higüey, Santa Fe and San Pedro de Marcoris.

So I will end tonight drawing that comparison of our trip to China again – there is something surreal about being here half a world away from all of you but because of you and somehow still with you. It is also a lot to process and will take time to sink in. I have been taking many pictures hoping to both capture what we are seeing to share with you and also to catalogue our experiences so that once home we can talk and pray and dream together.

Again, I give thanks for all of you on this night; for who God is calling us to be in this world together, and for the gift of this trip- breaking my heart open once again, in this familiar and strange, exciting and disquieting way.

May you never forget that you are loved.

Missioners in the exploration team and members from the congregation of San José in Boca Chica, enjoying lunch in the Bishop Skilton Conference Center. For more photographs from this trip posted on the St. John's Facebook page, click this image.

Day 6: Tuesday, April 28th (Final Post)

In many ways it is hard to believe that I have just re-packed my bags for the last time and that tomorrow Jeri, Sue and I will say goodbye to our wonderful guides and hosts and leave the Dominican Republic to head home. On the other hand, as I review my notes we have had a very full visit. I count that in 6 days we visited over 20 churches; nearly as many schools; saw historic sites; shopped; ate many wonderful meals of local food; met with Bishop Holguín and all the priests of the diocese; saw the seminary, diocesan center and Cathedral; and traveled the entire length of the southern part of the DR from east to west in a van logging probably close to 900 miles.

At our final dinner tonight each of us was asked to write a statement about our experience that could be used by the Dominican Development Group (DDG). So I am going to end this last post with that statement from me. I hope it conveys my deep appreciation for the work and commitment being done here by so many in Christ’s name. I look forward to seeing you all Sunday; I have missed you and it will be good to be home.

May you never forget that you are loved.

A hearty 'Thumbs Up!' from a village resident during the exploration trip. For more photographs from this trip posted on the St. John's Facebook page, click this image.

Statement for the DDG 2015 Spring Exploratory Trip

This past week visiting the Dominican Republic for the first time as a participant in the DDG Spring Exploratory Trip has planted a seed of hope and possibility deep within my soul. God is indeed doing a new thing here among the people and it is palpable. I came here primarily as an Episcopal priest wanting to explore mission opportunities for my congregation. And while that need was met and we will take the next step together to discern our call, I am also leaving as a child of God reignited in purpose and passion for living out the Gospel. Every aspect of our time here was an opportunity to see God at work – in each priest, church member, school teacher, administrator and staff. With visits to over 20 churches and nearly as many schools, we heard again and again about dreams for doing more, giving more, reaching more, and we saw the amazing work and witness of each and every faith-filled person who so generously welcomed and made time for us.

Of all the many wonderful experiences we shared this week, what touched me most were the small, unexpected, spontaneous ways God showered me with pure joy and love. I will remember sitting on the floor at Iglesia Santísima with the preschoolers helping them open their little packets of crayons; throwing the tennis ball so high and far on the playground for the boys during recess at Todos los Santos that they cheered and then later that morning jumping in to play kickball at Encarnación; and never will I forget Romani – the little 7 year old girl who came up to me on the playground, hugged me and then handed me her half eaten candy bar and said she wanted me to have it. Perhaps Jesus knew what that felt like for me in that moment, and maybe that is why he calls us to be like children – open and free, always ready to welcome someone new into the circle. I have felt welcome here in this place that I cannot wait to come back to soon.

Thank you Bishop Holguin, the DDG, and especially Bill, Karen, Julius, Emily and Charlie- you are amazing angels in our midst and I am so very grateful that God called each of you here and that through that love you are extending that call to us and so many more everyday.

A deep bow of gratitude,

The Rev. Dr. Lisa Anne Tucker-Gray
Rector, St. John’s Episcopal Church
Plymouth, Michigan