Monday, June 26, 2023

Going on a Mission Trip? Biblical Tips for Cross Cultural Travel, Destination: Dominican Republic, Latin America

A picture of a successful bargaining. We bought the bamboo drum for our son at a fair price and they received the money and an orange and a couple of chocolates! In Belize 2023

Some of you may have the privilege to take a short trip to a Caribbean country, maybe as a short-term missionary. I have been a “missioner” (missionary in the United States) in the past and a frequent traveler to the Dominican Republic (DR). I was born and reared there. In addition, my parents retired there, so Bill and I used to travel two to three times a year to visit them. Now we stay in our condo in Santo Domingo, where we visit once a year for three to four weeks.

Here are a few biblical tips for the first-time traveler, especially to the DR. How may you reach out and further God’s kingdom while traveling there or to a similar third world country?

1.“To everyone asking you, give” (Luke 6:30).

a. Jesus’s command in the New Testament addresses our treatment of enemies. Sometimes people who beg on the street do not appear to be our friends. They may appear threatening. And, those who beg from us may misuse our monetary gifts, such as for drugs. What to do? Bill and I go to the supermarket when we arrive and buy either a bag of oranges or small juice cartons. They are very reasonable. When people beg, then we give them an orange or a juice carton. If they claim to have no teeth, they still can enjoy them! If indeed they are needy, they are often overjoyed and wish us “Que Dios te bendiga!” (May God bless you!). Ninety percent of the time this works. If instead they persist in asking us for money, then most of the time they do not have a worthwhile purpose in mind. We ask for our orange back and that will usually shut them up! (Usually most of the begging occurs around tourist areas, by the way.)

b. The poor in the US are much better off than the poor and the blue-collar worker in the DR and similar countries. Therefore, I try to enroll in a free credit card before I travel that offers a free suitcase. In that way, I can bring two suitcases. I put all my clothes in the small overhead suitcase and in the large one I place give-away items. Find someone reliable and honest to give these things away for you. All clothing is summer wear. All should be fixed ahead of time and not have any holes or rips.

Dominicans love presents but these do not have to be expensive. Dominicans are willing to receive and to give. Hospitality is important. For example, when on a plane, if we ask someone if they want some gum to chew to relieve the air pressure, if they are Dominican, they are likely to say “yes.” But if they are North American, they will almost always say “no.”

 At times, it is better to pay someone to do a task rather than doing it yourself. For example, if Bill is wearing shoes and not sneakers, he always pauses to have shoe shiners to shine his shoes (after agreeing on a price!). This way you can share your wealth, even if it is meager, as the apostle Paul enjoins: “At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality” (2 Cor. 8:14).

2. Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom wherever he went. His proclamation was verbal and action-oriented (Luke 4:43; 5:12-13, 27-39).

Always bring a few full Spanish Bibles to give away to someone. Pray for the right person, who is eager to read God’s word. Bring a whole Bible. Many visitors bring just a New Testament but few bring a whole Bible. Everyone I have offered a Bible has been delighted. The Dominican Republic in name is a Christian nation. It is the only country in the world with an open Bible on its flag. But because the people may be religiously inclined does not mean they are Christian in action. Generally the DR is like the US Bible belt. Most Dominicans are nominal Christians (mainly Roman Catholics mixed with some superstition and veneration of Mary). But, in reality, individuals will all be quite different. For example, our lawyer is agnostic but appreciates it if we say “May God bless you.” Yet the Evangelical faith is increasing. When Paul spoke to the Athenians, he used their religious nature as a way to approach them: “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god’” (Acts 17:22-23a NRSV). Thus, an appreciation of Christianity may offer opportunities for proclaiming the good news.

3. “God is “not far from each one of us…for in him we are living and we are moving and we are existing” (Acts 17:27b-28a), Paul told the Athenians.

I remember one time Bill and I traveled to Europe. I had had a full teaching schedule and was eager to step away for a while from public life and be incognito. As I breathed a deep breath of relief on the plane, I accidentally dropped something in the aisle. I was reaching over to pick it up. But a hand shot out ahead of me and a smiling woman said, “Here you are Dr. Spencer.” I was shocked. How on earth could a Gordon-Conwell seminarian be on this plane with us?

Sadly, some visitors go on short-term missionary trips not to promote God’s kingdom, but to plan a clandestine sin away from those they know well. Yes, this has happened several times to my knowledge in the case of affairs (either with a fellow traveler or a chance resident of the country). Somehow they felt that the “Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24) dwells only in their home town in the US and no one in their visited country will figure out what is happening. No, God is always near us wherever we go and our sin will be found out. Instead of promoting Jesus, such people instead will be dragging his name in the mud. Rather than being a bad news messenger, wouldn’t it be better to receive God’s commendation as a faithful servant?

4. Other suggestions from the wise:

a. In the book Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships, Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers tell us of differences about time in different cultures. This book is worthwhile reading for all travelers. For example, they note that the concept of lateness differs. In North America, five minutes late is excused. But after half an hour there is hostile tension. For Latin Americans, a half hour late is excused, but there is hostility after two hours. But for the Yapese, two hours late is excused, but there is hostility after four hours (p. 39). One thing different about the US and the DR is certainly the understanding of time. Paul teaches the Ephesians to be wise, “making the most of the time” (Eph. 5:16). For many of us in the US, to make the most of the time means to be on time, but for Paul it is to use your time well doing the Lord’s will (Eph. 5:17). 

Expect everything to take a while in the DR. For a visiting North American entering the DR is like entering the Bermuda triangle of time, where time gets sucked up into a vortex of dismay. If you get one errand a day done, you are blessed by God. You are in a new gestalt. In addition, in order to get anything done, you need to have a local person to be your mediator. For Yankees especially it is all about “self-reliance,” “Yankee know how,” and “pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” but for most Dominicans, time is all about relationships. So, you may as well enjoy the culture and lower your goals of items to be accomplished versus relationships to be made.

I learned the hard way, when I traveled in the interior to greet people first before asking for directions. They considered that respectful and courteous. Yet, in the US, I do not want to bother strangers by not getting quickly to the point—the directions! Latin American countries are different in their view of time. At the same time, Puerto Rico is so Americanized, they do not have such a flexible view of time as does the DR, which is more traditional. So the rules are more nuanced than “one size fits all.”

b. Many Dominicans will expect you to bargain for everything (except in large department stores). I find that normally (since I look more North American than Dominican) I am charged at least twice the price. So, I then offer less than I want to pay or half the price and we settle in the middle. The best is of course to find out the real price ahead from a trusted local, then offer below and settle at the right price in the middle. Or, just offer the real price at the start! In the DR bargaining is generally simple, but is much more intense among Haitians, even Haitian Christians. You do not want to overdo bargaining either, since Dominicans will mostly probably need the money more than you. But, when you feel guilty  about bargaining, remember Proverbs 20:14 “’Bad, bad,’ says the buyer, then goes away and boasts” (NRSV). Bargaining is fun for some natives. The same is true in Turkey. On one of our trips to Ephesus, coming by boat, we needed a ride to get to the ancient site. I offered to bargain for the taxi for a group of us. A young man was sent to settle the price. We both had lots of fun, as I lowered the price and he raised it. The price went down and down and I was ready for one final try, but the other American travelers finally cracked from embarrassment because the price was getting so low they would not let me bargain for a lower price and stopped all our fun bargaining. 

Tips are also parts of people’s salary. Usually we pay one half of a US tip in the DR. But if you want to get something done quickly, consider an incentive tip. As Proverbs 17:8 says, “a bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of those who give it; wherever they turn, they prosper” or Proverbs 18:16, “a gift opens doors; it gives access to the great.” Your goal should be a just one, not like Proverbs 17:23, “The wicked accept a concealed bribe to pervert the ways of justice” (NRSV). Once Bill and I left on a smaller plane from the Dominican Republic. The plane door started to close and then suddenly opened and a man slipped inside. His friends asked him how on earth he got in since he was so late and he did not even speak Spanish. He answered, while rubbing his thumb and forefinger together, “I used the universal language.” A good tip got him on the plane!

c. In the US we are taught that the police are our friends, and this is true most of the time. If we have trouble, we can go to a police station and expect help. But in the DR the police are not necessarily your friend. The US may have random dishonesty, but the DR has (or had) systemic dishonesty. The police used to be the force behind dictator Trujillo. Lately the nation has been blessed with honest presidents, but years ago, the president was questionable and some of the crimes were committed by off-duty policeman. When I was young at every corner stood a policeman. Once I was in a hurry and did not stop when the Dominican flag was being lowered (as we were mandated by the country) and a policeman yelled at me. Later, I was curious to see the dictator when he took his nightly walk on the George Washington boulevard next to the Caribbean Sea. When I was only 5 blocks away, a policeman stopped me, treating this little elementary girl as a potential assassin! If you are ever stopped by a policeman, always speak to him as a friend. They are underpaid, but yet beware. If they wave you down while you are driving within the speed limit, try simply waving back with a big smile and see if you can bypass the stop altogether.

d. When traveling around the country, drive defensively, embedded in prayer. Spanish people are communal and in the DR their driving is communal as well. Traffic lines are made, not necessarily followed. When I was young and I played “bumper cars,” I tried not to hit anyone or to be hit. This was good preparation for driving in the DR. Also, don’t assume the pedestrian has the right of way when you are walking. Never eat food cooked on the street. But of course fresh foods such as bananas or mangoes or avocados are fine. Enjoy the bananas not ripened by gas. They are sweeter. The mangoes are tangy and the avocados are huge. Fresh food with a cover can be eaten right away, but fresh food without a skin has to be purified. Bottled water is safe to drink. Always check to make sure the water and the ice are from bottled water. If you go to a Dominican home, and you may be offered something to drink that your health does not allow, be ready to ask for a replacement that you can drink, such as a “refresco” or soda. In that way, you do not insult their hospitality.

5. Some of you are much more experienced than I when doing short term missionary trips. May I ask you to add a comment to this blog so that others can learn from you too? If you agree with any suggestion that I have made, let others know, but feel free to add your own suggestions.

For more information, I have a comparison of the Dominican and the ancient Greco-Roman hospitality in “Hospitality as a Means to Further God’s Reign in the New Testament and Dominican Context,” in Scripture, Cultures, and Criticism: Interpretive Steps and Critical Issues Raised by Robert Jewett, edited by K.K. Yeo.

And if you ever want to rent our condominium in Santo Domingo, email me. We will be delighted to rent it to you at a reasonable charge. This condo is the legacy from my parents. It has 3 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms. Short term missionaries have rented it from us in the past to our mutual satisfaction.