Seventh-day Adventists in a community 40 minutes north of Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, now have a 100-seat church that attracts visitors and not the derision of neighbors.
The Portadores de Luz Seventh-day Adventist Church in Villa Mella had a chapel pieced together from scrap metal, until a squadron of Maranatha Volunteers International participants descended on the location and, in ten days, constructed a new church with a galvanized steel frame and block walls.
The construction effort was part of Maranatha's Christmas Family Project, an annual mission trip designed to offer families a holiday spent in service. This year, the program drew 72 volunteers to the Dominican Republic. Participants came from the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Bermuda and ranged in age from 5 to 75 years old.
The project has been uplifting for the Portadores de Luz congregation; their old structure attracted ridicule and derision from the community, making it difficult to draw visitors to worship. All this has now changed.
"This trip helped us to reconnect as a family, with each other and with our God."
“We can now invite even wealthy people because they have a comfortable place to sit—a decent building to worship God,” says Zacarías Franco, head elder of Portadores de Luz. Though the building still needs to be painted, the congregation has been worshipping in the spacious sanctuary since the project ended a month ago. “We are now even more motivated because we can show the community that our God is real and willing to not only save but meet all our needs!”
Volunteers also re-painted the La Colina Adventist Church, a building that Maranatha constructed in 2002; ran a children’s ministries program with members of Portadores de Luz; and organized a medical clinic, which saw hundreds of patients.
The volunteer team included many young participants. Those under the age of 13 were invited to a Day Camp, organized by Maranatha volunteers. The program invited children to work a few hours in the morning at various worksites, then transition to outreach or cultural activities in the afternoon. Kids had the opportunity to lay block, paint a church and neighborhood homes, assemble and distribute food packages, and learn how to make Dominican food.
On Christmas morning, the volunteers welcomed a group of orphans from a Santo Domingo children’s home for a special celebration. The adults organized games, and the children presented the story of Jesus’ birth in Spanish, complete with costumes and music. The day ended with a special dinner along with gifts and school supplies for each of the orphans.
For the Ratteray family, from Bermuda, the interaction with the orphans was especially meaningful. Loida and her husband decided to go on the mission trip to offer an alternative Christmas experience for their two daughters, ages 8 and 12.
“I noticed that the holidays were becoming very materialistic and expensive. I realized that we were losing the real meaning of Christmas. When I found out that there was a family mission project during Christmas, I was impressed by the Holy Spirit that this was what God wanted us to do this year,” says Ratteray..
But giving up Christmas wasn’t easy. The Ratterays were used to big gatherings with extended family and plenty of gifts, games, parties, and food.
“When we announced to the family that we would not the be participating in all the festivities, they were shocked,” says Ratteray.
She also told their daughters that there would be no presents this year. Instead, the girls would be taking gifts for the orphans. It was a dramatic shift in tradition, and the girls had a hard time with it. But all that changed on the mission trip.
"I realized that we were losing the real meaning of Christmas."
“After interacting with the local kids and seeing how some of them live, the girls became more giving and appreciative of what they have,” says Ratteray. “Especially my youngest Daniela. She came back wanting to break her piggy bank to buy things for the kids we visited in the Dominican Republic. She even encouraged her sister to give her birthday money. Their perspective has changed for sure!”
For Bobby Peña, from California, experiencing a service-focused holiday was only one benefit of participating on the Christmas Family Project. He, his wife, and two teenage sons decided to go on the mission trip to spend quality time together before their oldest boy goes to college.
“We are a very busy family, crazy schedules, working, volunteering, church and school life—all good things, but we wanted a chance to disconnect a bit and focus on service,” says Peña.
In the Dominican Republic, the Peñas worked as a team, implementing the Children’s Day Camp program, and leading out in worship. For ten days, the family slept, ate, worked, and worshipped together with rarely a moment apart. The result?
“I've realized that when our family is asked about our trip, the response usually includes the word – amazing,” says Peña. “This trip helped us to reconnect as a family, with each other and with our God. It also gave us the added benefit of making new friends. Getting out of our comfort zone, listening to stories from volunteers and locals had a tremendous impact on us. And I'd like to say we see people in a new light—the value that every person brings to service, how we can help each other, and the work the Lord has for each of us.”
“It was truly an amazing experience for our family and the best thing we’ve done in some time.”
Since 1969, Maranatha Volunteers International has provided service opportunities for volunteers through the construction of churches, schools, and water wells. Maranatha started the Christmas Family Project in 2003 as an alternative activity for the holidays and as a way for families to experience service together. Maranatha also offers family projects in the summer. In 2017, there will be Family Projects in Guyana and Kenya. Go to www.maranatha.org for a full list of volunteer opportunities.