by Marni Daugaard
“When you say you’re going on a mission trip, usually the first thing that comes to mind is preaching and singing songs. I really can’t do that because I don’t know their language,” said Bruce Gruenhagen.
Gruenhagen, with his wife Sarah and 11 others recently went on a mission trip Feb. 12-19 to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The group was comprised of members from four churches: St. Paul’s Evangelical Reformed Church in Hamburg, and Hope Summit Christian, West Concord Christian and Calvary Evangelical Free, all of Rochester.
The group is called “Oasis” and its motto is “Offering a Savior and a service.” Members complete service projects at churches and church-run schools, working side-by-side with the natives.
“There’s been a lot of different service projects, from building pews to building the church itself … this year we didn’t do a lot, we built five pews and three tables … that’s not a lot compared to what we’ve done in previous years,” said Gruenhagen.
This year they worked with a church in Monte Cristi, Haiti, as well as a church in Puerta Plata, Dominican Republic.
The Gruenhagens have been going on the mission trip every year since 2006 and have many stories to tell of the people and the destitute places in which they live. One place of notable poverty is an area in Santiago, Dominican Republic. The Santa Lucia Church is located here and came to be known within the group as “The Church in the Dump,” because it was separated from the city dump by a ravine. Always burning, the dump emits an orange smog. Nearby stand make-shift homes built by squatters because most people are too poor to own property.
“We saw a guy who was taking branches to make the frame of his house. And he was using a stone as his hammer,” said Gruenhagen.
The houses are primitive, have dirt floors and are made with whatever materials are on hand. This year, Gruenhagen brought the group to witness the plight of the little community.
“There was a 3 or 4-year-old boy, naked as a jaybird, and he’s pulling a new cardboard box. He’s picking up plastic. Some of the people, they looked at it and they had to turn away. It shows you how their lifestyle is so different. You get a great appreciation for what we have,” said Gruenhagen.
Getting across the bridge to Haiti was another memorable experience. The crossing on Thursday took long enough, but on Friday the group was delayed two and a half hours as passports were checked and they were told to proceed from one military checkpoint to another. The bridge was packed, with people pushing wheelbarrows and carrying baskets full of fresh produce and poultry. A man on a motorcycle with a six-foot stick across the handlebars transported live chickens that were tied on upside down. Soon they discovered the reason for the pandemonium: it was market day in the city.
Sarah noted that, as they waited, they made friends with some of the children who were trying to sell things.
“They were playing a game like jacks but with pop bottle caps,” she said.
One of their companions on the trip over to Haiti was a Dominican Republic native named Ramon. Through missionary David Savage, who is fluent in Spanish, the group was able to converse with Ramon. He stated that he felt rich when he saw how the Haitians lived. Unemployment in Haiti is now more than 40 percent, while the Dominican Republic is around 20 percent.
“[They’re] not starving … starving by our standards, but not by theirs,” said Bruce. “They’re getting food somehow.”
Fruit trees are abundant and there’s always the locally grown produce sold at market, if one can afford to pay for it. If not, maybe there’s a church with a hot meal program or the flour and rice handed out by the U.N.
In addition to constructing church buildings, pews and tables, the group often hands out candy and trinkets to the children and donates hand tools and clothing to the churches. Collections are taken for these items as well as for large scale purchases needed by the churches. This year the group gave $600 to the pastor in Trou du Nord, Haiti, to buy himself a good used motorcycle.
“Two years ago when we first visited the church the pastor had to ride through town, out to the church which was probably two miles out of town. But the road is just horrible. We saw how mangled his bicycle got … there wasn’t a straight spoke,” said Bruce.
Last fall, Oasis also sent money to help purchase the property the church building is on. The group was reluctant to continue building and improving upon structures that sat on land not even owned by the church. Because they hope to someday build a home for the pastor next to the church, they took up a collection to help with the purchase.
“That’s a huge thing. To own the property huge,” said Sarah.
Two years ago, the group also provided the project money when the church needed a cement floor. Oasis gave them the money on a Friday afternoon and by early Saturday morning, the people were already hard at work when the mission group arrived.
“Usually in a poor country like that you kind of think that maybe the people aren’t ambitious and that’s why they’re poor,” said Bruce. “You can really admire them for the things they do with so little. We would cry, ‘Woe is me,’and they just say, ‘Let’s do it!’”
Next year, the Gruenhagens plan to go again and are always looking for more people to go along. Their zeal for mission trips may be hard for some people to understand and is sometimes even harder to explain.
“[How can you] describe this to friends and family? How do you describe the sounds, the smells? You can’t,” said Sarah.
“We as a group get more out of it,” said Bruce. “They have taught us many things. As Americans, in a way we’re pretty spoiled. We complain about things we shouldn’t. When you go to a place like the Dominican Republic and especially Haiti, you get to see people that have so very little compared to us. But they are as happy and content as we wish we were.”