What a beautiful feeling, this exhaustion. Today was so good, and my God is so good. 

I slept comfortably enough last night and woke up feeling expectant. Breakfast was at the usual spot, De Moya. It was so wonderful to be welcomed back by the restaurant owners. Nothing has changed. My favorite waitress was still there, just like every year, and we exchanged knowing smiles. She doesn’t speak a word of English, and I speak all of 7 words of Spanish. Yet, she is my friend. 

A group meeting and introductions followed breakfast. Mark, my incredible youth pastor who has been leading trips to the Dominican Republic for over 10 years, gave us some opening words of exhortation. He reminded us that what matters more than anything else this week is building relationships, whether with the children in Cotui, with someone on our team, or with one of our translators. Yes, we come here to host a Vacation Bible School, to teach dance classes, and to continue construction on our school, but if we don’t connect with people, those efforts are fruitless. We are ambassadors of Christ, here to share grace and love. We are not here to impart our American lifestyle, ideology, or way of doing church on an “unknowing” people. Instead, we return year after year to build relationships, earn trust and confidence, and speak truth. That’s when our presence makes an impact. That’s when a community is transformed. We show respect, 

This year, our church is joined by two other churches, one from Michigan and one from Oklahoma, the pastors of which are good friends with Mark. The dynamic is definitely different with new friends, but the energy is fresh! I am thankful for that. 

After some necessary reminders to drink water constantly and be mindful of the sewage systems, we were finally on our way out to Cotui! Our team crammed into our trusty pink bus and off we went – through the city, out into the gorgeous countryside, past the usual landmarks, and an hour later we had arrived. I don’t know how to describe the way I felt when we finally got there. It was like Christmas, eating chocolate for the first time after abstaining for any length of time, and a surprise birthday party with all your favorite people, all at once, multiplied by 100. I was so happy to see my friends.

First, we went out to see how the construction site was coming along! My first trip, 5 years ago, we had just cleared the large plot of land and were building the surrounding wall. I laid bricks, mixed cement, and built the supporting columns. Today, there are fully functioning classrooms, 2 bathrooms with multiple toilets and sinks, a fully stocked and tiled kitchen, and what will soon be a roof. I could not help but crying when I saw it. 

After a quick lunch of sandwiches, we broke up into groups to walk through the village and invite families to our church service! This is probably my favorite part of the entire trip. By the time we are done, each of us has a child in each hand and one riding piggy back. I love it. 

And then I saw my sweet Ashley! I met Ashley 5 years ago, my first time here, when she was only 7 years old. I instantly took a liking to her (mostly because I could pronounce her name more easily than the other Dominican names), and I have been sponsoring her ever since. Her pictures, drawings, and letters cover my walls back at home. She is always on my mind. I look forward to seeing her all year long. Now, she is 12 years old and practically a young woman. She ran towards me today, then became shy and hesitated until I saw her, and we hugged for at least 3 entire minutes! She has grown up so much this year. Ashley is currently finishing 8th grade and preparing for the entrance exams into high school. She has top grades and will finish high school at age 16. She wants to become a pediatrician when she grows up. She is so special to me.

Church was lovely. We sang both Dominican and American worship songs and praised God together as one. God used that time to prepare our hearts for the exciting week ahead. Now, it’s time to go to bed so my body can be just as prepared!

More tomorrow.