When Deacons Danced


When Deacons Danced

The 60 or so people gathered at the edge of a small plantain grove spontaneously broke into song, keeping time with rhythmic clapping.  They were obviously happy as Father Mike Seis set his traveling Mass kit down on the decorated table that would serve as the altar and joined in the song.  One of the lines of the song, “Cuando un Christano vaila – vaila, vaila, vaila” which Father Mike, or Padre Miguel as he is known here, later explained means, “When a Christian dances, he dances, dances, dances”.  That seemed so appropriate given the joyous excitement in the early evening air as these people gathered in this place because Padre Miguel was about to celebrate Mass in their barrio.  Scattered through the crowd were 10 Norte Americanos trying their best to at least clap along even though they did not understand the words.  I was one of them – probably the one struggling the most to match the rhythm.

I have had a couple of opportunities to visit the Dominican Republic on mission.  Our home base was modest accommodations above a little bakery owned and operated by St Theresa Parish of Elias Pina, a town right on the border with Haiti.  The Diocese of Green Bay, my home diocese, has had a mission presence in this area of the Dominican Republic for over 50 years. 

Father Seis, the latest priest “on loan” to the Bishop of San Juan has been the Pastor there for over 20  years.  He has a big territory to cover with over 30,000 parishioners scattered throughout his parish.  The people in the countryside are not very mobile.  Many are without any mode of transportation other than walking.  Since they can’t get to Mass in one of the very few larger churches in the area, Father Seis brings the Eucharist to them.    Our mission group’s primary task was to build a chapel in those more remote areas, so there is a proper place for the celebration of the Mass and other sacraments when a priest does get to the area.

Each day we gathered in the pre-dawn darkness to pray morning prayer, share breakfast and then climb up into the back of a flatbed truck for a 45-minute ride to the worksite up in the mountains.  The chapels are simple concrete block structures.  We were responsible for putting up the walls and the roof trusses; a work crew from Haiti would later add the sheet metal roof, the doors and the window shutters.

The early starts gave us a couple hours of comfortable temperatures before the heat rose with the climbing sun.  It took nearly ten days of hard work to finish our part of a new chapel.  Twice, I had the privilege of gathering with locals to celebrate the first Mass in a new chapel before leaving for home.  But with any mission work, the task at hand, while important, isn’t always the most important accomplishment.

Baseball is THE game in the Dominican Republic; soccer is second.  We always brought baseballs and soccer balls to give away to the curious children that gathered each day to watch the walls go up on their new chapel.  It never mattered how many children were present when a ball and bat were given away; they always just divided themselves into two teams.  It is tough to get a single through an infield with a dozen eager kids playing defense.

But I remember one day in particular on my first mission trip, when we did perhaps our most important work.  On a Saturday we joined Father Mike for a very rough truck ride up some precarious mountain roads.  It took us 1 ½ hours to travel roughly 16 miles to the remote area known as Macasias, where a high hill juts out into the Haiti border.  People had gathered from all over the area to celebrate Mass under a blue tarp and to have a festival that included goat meat, music and dancing. 

An ancient trio of musicians all with simple instruments that looked even older than them, played what this group of Wisconsinites described as Dominican polkas.  The crowd danced in the heat of the day for a couple of hours.  Several of the matrons of the community coaxed us out into the midst of the dancing.  We were no longer observers, but participants.  We were no longer guests, but part of the community.  We weren’t here to “do” anything, to build anything, to donate anything.  We were there to simply join in relationship.

I am proud of the two chapels that I helped build.  I still cherish the delight I saw in the faces of the children with new sports equipment to play with.  But, I think I most experienced mission at its heart the day when deacons danced.   

His Peace <><

Deacon Dan