Matt and Starr Stevens- Fathom Cruise

Day 1- Off we go…leaving behind a dad in rehab after a fall and a broken back and a mom that will move to Assisted Living this week. My sister insisted (as did my mom) that this is where we needed to be. She wanted to handle the move herself and then I will go and give her a break. So God has led us here- His plan must be much greater for us.

Day 2- Today’s message is “stay strong” He has this. We can see why Sarah is such a positive and effective leader- her presentations and warmth touch our hearts and you can feel her passion and dedication to her mission and projects. We know good things await us.

Day 3- What a beautiful island as we watch it become a reality and cruise closer and closer. From afar- you don’t “see” the needs of the people ahead- you only see a paradise that appears to be a treasure island.
We are bonding with the small group that has chosen this faith journey-each one so diverse themselves- forming a quilt of friendship and love. We marvel at the number of supplies and items that are gathered- small tokens- but know their value.
It is exciting to be in port and begin the journey of discovery!
I think some thought we would travel with locals and chickens and not in the luxury bus equipped with a wonderful driver Johnny and a caring experienced guide Pedro.
As we traveled through the street- the reality of life in the Dominican Republic becomes so much more than just National Geographic magazine photos. If one has been to other islands throughout the Caribbean- then 15 minutes into our bus ride there is no comparison- this is not a country that has turned into a tourist destination to lavish guests with the royal treatment. This is a country that has real people, deals with real economic issues, and live to survive.
We pass men pushing banana carts, selling goat meat by the road, stands filled with buckets of mangos, limes, pineapples, and other tropical fruits, mothers holding the hands of their children walking along the side of the highway, people gathered on chairs outside on porches and watching our bus go by. We pass the entrance to some well known resorts- but thats is not our destination.
We arrive at a church. Unpretensious- not some cathedral or fancy structure- but immediately you feel the humble Grace of God. Within seconds of arriving we are greeted by huge smiles and welcoming arms. Pastors have come from close by and far away- because we are here. We are not celebrities- but we are made to feel like we are one big family- reunited again.
The church is beautiful and you can feel the pride they have for this house of worship.
We met the pastor, took a tour, of the church grounds and facilities, met the pastors sweet children (who posed for many photos), heard about a typical church service, and learned there were about 105 members.
The church was HOT- fans were blowing – but we could all feel now a “taste” of life in the heat here in the DR.
We got to ask questions and listen as each pastor had their answers interpreted back into English by Sarah or Kim. Our stay was not long- but our group left with a sense of what God provides and what spirit He brings to His people.
Our trip back to the port allows us more time to marvel at the country-side, hear Pedro explain about the rich culture, and see more of life in the DR.

Day 4- We gathered again-dressed in work clothes, carrying backpacks filled with supplies, and prepared to do the jobs that will be most needed. Our trip into Santiago brings us to “the big city.”
Poverty, tons (and I mean tons) of trash everywhere, more carts, bicycles, trucks, and stands filled with fruit, mattresses, building materials, supplies, and whatever “wares” are everywhere. We pass homes that have neat and tidy gardens- tiny oasis among cement and wrought iron bars. Scooters and motorcycles mom by, cars honk, the bus driver honks (constantly) and why there are not more accidents is amazing.
We pass tobacco fields, homes that look not completed with rebar sticking up on the roof, and yes, even a McDonalds! Maneuvering our huge bus on the side streets proves our driver is a pro!
We arrive at a very orange/yellow church- walled in with a cement wall, commas, gates, and wrought iron. It becomes apparent that protecting ones property and assets is a priority and a necessity.
Sarah warns us- do not wander off anywhere! Stay on the grounds of the church. We now have two “tourist police” that have decided to join us- and protect us. Oh My!
Our group unloads supplies and spreads them out- a plethora of backpacks, school supplies, vitamins, toy maker wooden cars and trucks, toiletries, and books.
We are once again welcomed by open arms and hugs- like we are family returning home after a long trip.
We have a list- assignments for three groups- Group one- pick up trash. Gloves and bags are provided as is 95 degrees of heat and humidity. There has been rain and trash has clogged the drains around the church. There are piles of garbage on each corner. A beautiful mural adorns a wall- it is Jesus with the children and asks that trash not be placed there. Obviously ignored.
Group one had a nasty job indeed- but without any hesitation went to work and attended to this “dirty job.” What was impressive was that our tour guide Pedro joined right in and was pulling disgusting trash from the drains.
Group two was getting a lesson on how to replace tile and grout. Many tiles around the outside were broken and under the leadership of dedicated locals- the group worked to make the walkway whole and complete.
Group three- (our group) was to paint the cement wall and columns around the perimeter of the church. There were limited rollers, brushes and pans, but it stopped no one. Styrofoam cups filled with paint, paint pans, and buckets provided everyone with something.
As the fresh coat of paint changed the entire look of the exterior- everyone worked even more than completed as much as possible in the sun and heat.
Lunch break time brought containers of wonderful local favorites provided and cooked by the pastor’s mother. Red beans and rice, pasta with carne (beef strips with vegetables in a lovely stew), a coleslaw cabbage salad, and tres leech cake, and lots of love in each bite.
When the chores were done we joined together in prayer and songs. Music is a universal language and after a day’s mission and hearing the dreams of the pastor for the future of their church, the community, and her people- we were one family together an shared in the vision.
There is so much more to be done- so we will send out our vibes to others to join Sarah in the mission ahead.

Day 5- Really “the day” I think we have been waiting for- Cuesta Arena and Renewed Hope Missions! We have seen the photos. We have heard the stories through Sarah, Jim, and Pam. But to be able to be there hands-on will be so much more.
The country side is beautiful! Sarah has asked to look beyond the poverty, look for the ways that God has brought beauty and love to this community, and to open our hearts.
As our bus pulled down the stone and rumble path and came to a stop- the community waved and their expressions were one of royalty arriving. You would have thought Sarah was Princess Di and we, the British Royals.
We had already met their teacher, Kendys, and she was their ready to welcome us to the pride and joy of the community- their church. The children all with eyes filled with happiness and arms open ready to hug and love- swarmed like bees to the Queen-their Sarah was home again- and every child wanted her hugs, tickles, and attention of love. She did not disappoint- her true devotion shone like a halo of an anointed one. She “loved” on each child like she had birthed them herself. We knew this was a special place at that very moment.
When the many, many suitcases filled with supplies, along with backpacks, tote bags, and pretty much whatever could be filled had been unloaded- the look on the teacher’s face was like God had sent angels.
Her labeling, sorting and organizing all of the items would be a labor of love- but her glee that the school had so many new wonderful things-would make it an easy chore.
The group took no time in engaging themselves in something. Baseball, frisbee (Matt’s favorite activity), puzzles, science games, reading, and cutting colored paper into shapes to string onto a garland (my activity) brought this school house filled with eager children together- there were no language barriers.
There was “no child left behind.” It is attention (given by both sides), smiles, and open hearts that meld a group of white foreign church members to beautiful children, dressed in fresh uniforms and ready to play and enjoy the day.
Our “tour” of the school showed the progress that Sarah and her dreams had brought to a community that truly lives in the bowels of poverty.
These children are not sad, these children are not dirty, these children are not shy, these children embrace life and you can tell are happy, healthy, glowing, eager learners that will provide their parents the joy that they will have far more opportunities than any of them had in their lifetime. Every parent wants their child to be successful- and now there is hope and happiness in the hearts of their community.
The time is too short- we want another day or two= we have just had a “taste.” These children are amazing, their teacher and her helpers are amazing and Sarah is amazing!

For many years I have lived in a school community where you hear teachers complain it is a “thankless job.” It is all how you look at it.
Again, Sarah is a strong teacher, a vital leader, a dedicated volunteer, and she presents her mission in an honest way. She has opened a window into the world that we knew very little about0 the result is we are thankful. that she has chosen to make a difference- one dollar, one person, one trip, one presentation, one need at a time.
Our hearts will now hold the memories of meeting a community of children that are a special puzzle piece of this huge puzzle of the world. We will pray that each trip brings more to discover this special place.

Day 6- Thank you for a wonderful “wrap up” session. The suggestions, reflections, celebrations were great to be able to share. We feel that each individual on this trip was “called” to be a part of this mission. I know the work ahead will be supported and funded- Faith in Action.

Matthew and Starr Stevens
East Lake UMC, Tarpon Springs, Fl

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