What is Beautiful?

I found an island of joy on a sea of dispair


I was sitting in the back of a pick-up truck driving along a bumpy dirt road. The wind was at my back, blowing my hair into my face. Although the breeze felt good against my sunburnt skin, the heat seemed to be more overwhelming as droplets of sweat began to form on my arm. As I looked up, I saw the endless horizon of the ocean. The sun made the water sparkle and reflect off the fishing boats. The sight seemed too perfect, like those pictures you see in travel agency booklets of the Caribbean.

My mind drifted off as the Spanish radio from the front seat brought me to a place of comfort and relaxation. I thought to myself how amazing the Lord is for designing such a masterful plan. Everything was perfect because God made it that way. He was involved in every little detail, and His Name was shouted back to Him as praise from nature as I glanced once more across the ocean.

My thoughts were broken as a smell of filth crept up my nose. I thought that the Vaseline® in my nostrils was supposed to block the smells. I turned my head from the ocean; a vast area of land covered with piles and piles of trash was set before my eyes. People were bent over, treading through never-ending garbage heaps. The contrast was overpowering. Lord, how could something on my left be so beautiful and yet on my right have something so disgraceful, so ugly? My thoughts continued on a cycle of confusion as we continued to drive. I was in the Dominican Republic. I was in a dump.

Been There, Done That

Last summer, my youth group and I went to the Dominican Republic for a 14-day missions trip. My excitement to go to the Caribbean was evident to everyone before I left New York; it was all I could talk about. When we landed at the Santo Domingo airport, I knew that my friends in my youth group were about to have a life-changing experience; many of them had never left the United States before.

I thought my experience was going to be a lot different. Growing up in Africa, I felt that I had already experienced a “life change.” I knew what it was like living in another culture, having to eat unfamiliar food and being uncomfortable at times. I knew that bringing high heels and sticky candy to the Dominican weren’t necessary but that flip-flops and bug spray would be. I had experience. I was ready to go, feeling confident that everything in the Dominican would be similar to what I had experienced in Africa. Yet, I decided to leave my heart open to God so that He would fill it in the way He desired.

How Hard Could It Be?

Two days before we were to return to the United States, God showed me what I was to take out of my experience in the Dominican Republic. On Friday morning, we had just finished our breakfast, and the itinerary for the day was to minister at a dump about 30 minutes from where we were staying.

No one was really sure what to expect; we all had our different ideas. I thought that we were going to probably pull off onto a side road and drive to an actual dumpster where, just maybe, there would be a few kids nearby looking for lost treasures. I put my thoughts aside as our leader explained what we would be doing. She mentioned that we would be handing out cups of milk and some food, playing a game or two and fellowshipping with people there.

I couldn’t imagine exactly how many people were going to be there, but I felt completely capable of doing the above things for them. I mean, how hard is it to hand out a plate of food? The leader continued about there being a distinct smell at the dump, but that if we put some Vaseline® in our nostrils before entering the area, it would block most of the odor. Come on, a smell is bearable. I’ve walked through so many fish markets in Africa, I can deal with a little stench, I thought. The leader finished her instruction by telling us to avoid making any faces of disgust while there and that this ministry was to be taken seriously. We piled into a pick-up truck and were on our way.

A Heap of Sorrow

When we arrived, the smell was unbearable—a mix of rotten garbage and stale air. We drove a ways into the dump before coming to a stop and being instructed to get out of the truck. I remember looking at the land; there were heaps of garbage in every direction. There were a few trees, but their beauty was disguised with large bags of bottles underneath them. I later learned that the bagged bottles were sold back to the Dominican government for less than a penny profit.

I saw what looked like white rawhide hanging over a clothesline. It turns out that this “rawhide” was actually animal fat that was food for over 50 people that lived in the dump. Where do these people sleep? I looked over my shoulder and saw four little “houses” that reminded me of the forts I used to make with my brothers when I was younger. These houses were made of draped cloth over bags of garbage; this is what people called home. My stomach dropped. This was all they had. People began walking toward us from the hills of trash, the beautiful ocean as their backdrop.

Food for the Soul

The ministry at the dump was called the “Milk Ministry.” When people reached the truck, we lined them up to get food and milk. We gave plates of rice, beans and chicken to the kids first. Their malnutrition was terrible. Their tiny, skinny frames were made up entirely of protruding fragile bones. We quickly handed them cups of milk to get calcium and other vitamins into their bodies. Next, we fed the women and then, finally, the men. Watching the families and individuals eat was so gratifying. I, the girl from America, was giving food to people who normally wouldn’t have been fed.

Once the people had finished eating, we collected all the plates and utensils; we made it a point not to leave our mess in their homes. We then started a game of bingo. We handed out boards to each person; everyone wanted to be involved because they knew, if they won, they would get a prize. The game went on for a while. I have never seen smiles so big. Little boys were playing baseball with a bat and ball they had just won, women were clutching onto the blankets they had won and the men wore the new hats and T-shirts they had won. A sight instilled in my memory. Their joy and laughter quickly made me forget about their living conditions. They were all so happy that my youth group would take time out of our schedules to be with them.

A Joyful Noise

All of a sudden, we heard loud bangs and whistling noises; the men and children all grabbed pieces of trash from the garbage to make music. They wanted to perform for us. It was better than the production of the Broadway musical Stomp. The women were dancing, the kids were laughing and my youth group and I were being moved to tears by their act of gratitude. After all, we had only done something so very small, not worthy of anything but a thank you.

I can still hear the drums in my mind. I can still remember calling out bingo numbers. I can still see the ocean. God showed me, on that day, what the world is all about. The world will always be full of wonders and happiness but also have just as much suffering and pain. We wouldn’t be able to appreciate the wonderful things if we didn’t go through difficult times. The Lord showed me the juxtaposition between the ocean and the dump, just as he showed me the fine line between what’s good in creation and what’s broken.

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