Five Days that Changed My World


[A NOTE FROM PHIL: I'm so thankful for the integrity of Compassion, a Christ-centered ministry. My wife and I have seen what takes place when a child is fed, clothed, given medical help, trained for a career and, best of all, loved by a local church. We endorse Compassion wholeheartedly. Last year 83% of donor dollars went directly to benefit sponsored children. Charity Navigator, a leading financial accountability organization, gave Compassion "Top Financial Rating" for the 4th Straight Year. Unlike so many other organizations, Compassion exists to "release children from poverty in Jesus' name," ministering to the whole child, physically, socially, economically, and spiritually. I invite you to read the story below, written during a recent trip, and consider what God would have you do for a child in need...]


The water changes color as you leave Miami and fly southward. Fingers of emerald thrust upwards, searching for sand, enticing tourists and resurrecting ghosts of pirate ships that sailed these seas a hundred years ago. Last night my wife and I tickled, kissed, and prayed with three excited children, leaving them in the care of gracious friends. “I hope they’ll still be our friends five days from now,” I whisper, as Ramona and I munch an airline breakfast.


The stewardess closes the First Class Curtain on us peasants in Economy and I pick up one of a dozen books I’ve devoured preparing for this trip, a tale of intense poverty in war-torn Ireland. Behind us sit our hosts, friends from the child development agency, Compassion. “We want you to catch a vision of another world,” they told me some months ago. “It just may change your life…and your writing.” The world they’ve chosen is the Dominican Republic (D.R.), the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola. A world you don’t prepare for in books.


From the window of a Boeing 777, the D.R. rises lush and green, a visible contrast to neighboring Haiti, where Voodoo has stripped the nation of its forests and its people of hope. We touch down in Santa Domingo, amid heat that poach an egg and jostle with tourists who spend $55 a night being pampered by servants and eating from buffets the size of a jumbo jet.


They say successful missionaries pack a good sense of humor and no sense of smell. An hour later I understand why. Everything works on our truck except the horn, which is the weapon of choice for driving here. Noise abounds in this city of two million. As do potholes and pickup trucks that seat a dozen. Construction knows only two speeds: slow and stop. North Americans have money. Dominicans have time. Guards ride shotgun outside grocery stores and small children poke coconuts and mangos toward those who obey stoplights.


This is a land of contrasts. The rich breathe easy behind walls of concrete, while their neighbors sift through garbage and drink from murky streams.


Scrawny dogs prowl the ally behind the Jaguar dealership. Dogs no one stoops to pet. In our hotel lobby, the Vice President of the country fields questions from the media. Upstairs Bugs Bunny speaks Spanish on channel 11. I click the remote control effortlessly, causing my wife’s head to spin. Seventy-four channels and nothing on. “What a world,” I tell her. “We tune things out so easily.” Tomorrow we won’t be able to. Tomorrow we will begin visiting Compassion’s projects. As a tropical sun sinks from a neon sky, Ramona and I kneel together and pray: “Dear Lord, keep our kids in Your care. Bless their babysitters. And help us hear Your voice tomorrow.”  


* * *


The tropical heat hits you first thing in the morning, pasting your clothes to your body by noon. It’s an hour’s drive to Sammy Sosa’s old neighborhood, still devastated by Hurricane George. Sammy is hitting homeruns in Chicago this week, amid trade rumors. In a tiny church, children smile broadly when I mention his name. “Hola,” I say, almost exhausting my Spanish vocabulary. “We’re from Canada.”


Our interpreter’s name is Victor Hugo, a towering Dominican graced with a quick smile and an easy laugh. Thankfully he takes over: “It’s cold in Canada eleven months of the year,” I say. Victor smiles. “Snow. Ice. Hail…have you heard of hail?” They shake their heads. I show them pictures of my children and tell them that Jesus loves white children too. We dispense suckers and a bag full of hats, 160 of them. The blue ones are gone first. “Sammy Sosa,” the kids are saying. Now they want to sing for us. And they do, with rhythm and life: “Jesus me ama…the Bible tells me so.”


“We’ll speak Spanish in heaven,” Victor tells me as we leave the church. “You’d better learn it here.” I am searching for my favorite hat. The green one with the cross. “One of those kids stole my hat,” I tell him. “Hang onto your wallet,” says Victor.


In a neglected shack the size of my garden shed, a weary mother holds suckling twins and offers us the only chairs she has. “Six people live here,” says Victor.“Where’s the father?” I ask. 

“She doesn’t know. He left a few months ago.”

Ten minutes away in another world the tourists lounge and laugh and sip Pina Coladas. Outside the shack, we sidestep an open sewer. Shoeless children grin and try to figure out the gifts we bring. “Open them…like this,” I tell them, peeling an egg. “Chocolate on the outside, and inside…aha…a surprise, amigos!” The children squeal with delight, their lips covered with sweets.  


A mother hands me the cutest little black baby I’ve ever seen. His big brown eyes poke holes in my emotions. I hold him, noticing his makeshift diaper and breathing through my mouth. The mother stands shyly to one side as my friends take pictures. “He’s the youngest of eight,” says Victor. As I hand him back, his mother takes me by surprise. “You take heem, Senor. I no help…you take heem.” My eyes mist over and I cannot speak. She chatters in broken English about giving him a better life. About Canada. I gently hand him to her and walk away. How could she? And then I realize that I can scarcely understand loving a child this much.


As we climb back into the air-conditioned truck, my mind is awhirl. And my green hat is in my back pocket.  

* * *  

An hour away Carlos is worried. Orphaned at five, his face seems older than his seven years. His head is bandaged from a stray rock, his forehead creased. Carlos’ neighborhood is infected with typhoid and chicken pox and mumps. Boys sit in the rain, bagging water from a crude hose. Water they will sell at the market, dispensing poison for a peso. A Christian neighbor took Carlos in a few months ago, but the money’s running out. He won’t be able to attend school anymore, she tells us. Or get a job. Or learn the computer. I’m wondering what my place is in all this. So many needs. So many hurts.


My wife interrupts my thoughts: “You tell him we’re going to help,” she tells the interpreter. “We’re going to sponsor him.” Starting tomorrow Compassion will care for his family’s medical needs, get them into a church, and train him for a career. It will cost us a cup of coffee a day. Small price to pay for the grin on Carlos’ face.


The grin keeps coming as we present him with a leather baseball glove and a ball signed by our children. He tries on the backpack full of gum and toothpaste and stuffed animals. It’s icing on his cake.


The warm rain falls fast as we attempt to navigate the muddy street. Three inches of red mud on our shoes and we’re laughing and slipping and falling. An old man emerges from a bright pink shack. “Come,” he motions. We follow. Behind the shack he pours water into a basin and scrubs our shoes and washes our feet. We slip him some pesos. But he shakes his head. From the pink shack Andrae Crouch sings on a tinny radio: “I don’t know why Jesus loved me. I don’t know why He cared. I don’t know why He sacrificed His life…oh but I’m glad, I’m glad He did.” The rain on our faces mingles with tears. We came to serve but the tables were turned.  

* * *  

Somehow it seems quieter on the flight home. Five days in another world and things seem different. For one thing I just told my wife that I’ll never complain again. Or say things like, “I’m starving,” or “is there anything to eat around here?” I just vowed to quit clutching my blessings and spread them around. To dispense hope wherever I can. With my words. With my smile. With my wallet. I’m reminded of A.W. Tozer’s words, “You have the right to keep what you have all to yourself—but it will rust and decay, and ultimately ruin you.”


In the Minneapolis airport we walk past the Bow Wow Shop where you can buy t-shirts for your dog and jewelry any cat would be proud to wear. Nearby is a bookstore where people purchase Testamints—candy with a cross, and five dollar golf balls emblazoned with “I once was lost but now I’m found.” This year Christians will spend seven times as much on pet food as missions. We’d rather buy posters about changing the world than change our spending habits.


Five days in another world and the Apostle James’ words make more sense: “Pure and lasting religion in the sight of God our Father means that we must care for orphans and widows in their troubles, and refuse to let the world corrupt us” 1:27, NLT). They have also shown me that I probably won’t change the world. But with God’s help, I can change it for a child or two.


Somewhere tonight a seven-year-old boy drifts off to sleep, a green hat with a cross on it beside his bed. He may not remember my name and his head still sports a Band-Aid. But he has a full tummy and maybe even a smile on his face. A smile that comes from knowing that God loves him. And someone out there loves him, too. Someone he can’t see. Someone he may meet again one day soon.


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