"So you are like a missionary group, too?" Carol asked with the most delightful Southern drawl, after the man to her other side had closed his eyes.
I began to explain that what motivates most of us to join AJWS on a journey like this one are our Jewish values and teachings. We are guided to recognize the dignity of everyone and a desire for justice for all human beings--but the particularity of our faith rarely extends beyond ourselves except when we are with each other. As Jews, we do not proselytize.
"But what is most interesting to me about this journey is that it might have been more like yours building and serving the community directly. But in the last few years, AJWS has taken a different approach, a human rights approach. Because of this different perspective, we work with Non-Governmental Organizations so that they can advance agendas that will give them tools for long-term systemic change. Much of the work that they do falls in one of three areas: Civil and Political Right, Sexual Health and Rights and Natural Resources Rights."
She seems to be excited about this and confessed that after 10 years of visits she has learned so much. I look over and on her tray table are handwritten lists of people, mostly children's names with their ages and a series of checkmarks and Xs along with other notation that I could only make out with committing the visual equivalent of eavesdropping.
We speak in hushed tones perhaps not to wake or upset the man next to us. I explain to her the two categories of people that the laws have created: one is someone who by law had been a citizen but has been "denationalized" and the other are folks who were never properly registered or were not given the correct birth certificates ---and yet there seems to be a third categories, those who are migrant. Thus, if we can support the people advocating for their human and civil rights it leads to more choices and options. It supports a dignity and self-determination in ways that sometimes direct service does not and even some cases diminishes.
What I will come to learn that there may be 2 groups according to law, yet it is confusing, intentionally so. Here only a few days, I begin to hear how each individual story is a group onto its own. Real lives rarely fit into the neat boxes that bureaucracy demands.
Her experience in the batey confirms what I have shared, so much so, that she is surprised that I have never walked in the country. Afraid that I have disparaged her work, I commend her commitment and resolution but it seems as if not only have I avoided offending her, but there is also some kernel of truth that appeals to her.
Her confession continues as she responds to me how much she had fallen in love with the Dominican Republic and with the people of the batey, which is made up with many resident in the groups I described. She admits as if its a huge betrayal that being in the Dominican Republic has shed new light and understanding on the Mexican migrant workers and the children born in our country. I register that this is why labels like Democrat and Republican always gloss over the human underneath them.
Reflecting on her time there, she has learned a great deal about life, materialism, compassion and unintended consequences or perhaps the damnation of good intentions. She laughs about the money she raised with her church community to put in a water filtration system because when all was finished no one was happy. They did not like the taste of the water. Or the time when she built a home for a young woman that she and her husband "adopted" who does not live in the home but rents it out to others. Or the dozens of necklaces that a woman at her church made for her to give to the women in the Batey, but because of the crosses on them, she was told it was voo-doo and not an appropriate gift.
She said these things with laughter and such humility. Her heart so loving in its persistence that all of the ways life separated us, I deeply appreciated the awakening in her. It was inspiring. Any resentment or expected gratitude had worn away. Even when she said things like "many people of the batey are Catholic but it's not Catholic at all, it is really voo-doo." it was expressed with the surprise of a human learner. These obstacles had not hardened her and her care was real enough for her to question some of her mission work's choices and her own. It is what intrigued her about a human rights approach; she was aware that after 10 years that some of what her church provided was a mere band-aid for a wound that would not heal.
When she asked me if I traveled a great deal, I told her about the trips I take with Jews, Christians and Muslims from Atlanta to different parts of the world. I told her about Spain and Morocco curious if I had crossed a line. Understanding that she was a member of a conservative congregation in the PCA, (the conservative branch of the Presbytery), I misjudged her thoughts on Muslims. She said, "How interesting to travel with people with all kinds of beliefs." At one point she brought over her mother and a member of her congregation to meet a rabbi.
And though she put herself down a number of times, as Southern women often do, saying she was not very smart, I looked at her lists, the pictures of children and understood that she had a created a complex system that took great intellect. And while this may have seemed like some act of poverty-porn, she was in reverence of not only the people, but of her own journey. She was sitting with some of the same challenging questions that I sit with even with our different approaches and different contexts. She was not telling me the story of the people as much as she was telling me the discovery of her own becoming human.
I did commit one act of visual eavesdropping at the end when I intentionally spied her customs form to see her full name. It made me smile ironically to see that "God" was the first half of her last name--and all the more so when we exited the plane and she turned to me with the sincerest Southern smile and pure warm-heartedness and said to me, "I will pray for you."
And indeed, I know she will--and I her.