Yearly Archives: 2011

Plantains for the Poor (November Newsletter)



   Aaron Roth – HOPE International – November 2011

Fifteen minutes prior, a downpour filled up the roads in the area, and it was still raining when we crossed through the final puddle to get to the school where we’ve made a loan to fund new classrooms and computer labs. The water came to halfway up the tire on the motorcycle taxi I was riding. I picked up my feet just to pretend I was being wise, knowing that my shoes were already wet. I walked in at 10 minutes after Nov-News-01two o’clock. The director greeted me. Two hundred students were missing from school that afternoon. “Maybe it’s the rain?” I asked. The director responded, “Maybe, but there’d at least be a few.” “Well maybe there’s an event going on that we don’t know about?” That was just a wild guess, I don’t know the local community news.

I arrived here to work on a project in our micro-lending program that helps improve the quality of education for schools in the rural area. As we were sitting down chatting, a young man walks in the door holding a huge sign about a march against violence and crime in the sector where we are currently located. He tells us that every student from just about every school is probably at the afternoon event which is to start in about 30 min. They won’t be coming in this afternoon.

“So the violence is pretty bad in this area huh?” I ask.

“Yeah, especially when the really poor people try to steal from other people. You know, it gets really bad when people don’t have much.”

Generally, it gets a lot more dangerous in this country around Christmas time. It may sound odd that a time when Christmas cheer should prevail throughout the land, it’s actually quite the opposite. I’ve heard of at least two reasons for the increased danger in the holiday season:

1)      By Dominican law, all employees public or private should receive a double salary in December. So, there’s generally more money moving around in the economy, and therefore more targets for theft and robbery.
2)      Everyone wants to provide gifts for their family and make purchases during holiday discounts, or at least to have something to give their children. (Christmas time here is the only time most people make non-essential purchases.) Lack of economic resources encourages some people to rob, steal, or prostitute themselves to get more income for Christmas.

Nov-News-03The director, Aleyda Torres, follows up with a comment that while the students are missing this afternoon that some students haven’t been coming to school for the past two months. “Why?” Their parents don’t have the money for tuition. They are waiting until they get paid double in December and the students will come back to school.”

I wanted to launch into a discussion about the economic realities faced by the inhabitants of this local area, but Aleyda interrupts me. She looks at my shoes. She sees that they’re wet. I told her it doesn’t bother me. It does, but given this current situation, it feels trite to mention it. She’s looking me over and something strikes her, she says, “Wait, have you eaten lunch?” I respond no. She asks one of the teachers to make me some food, ASAP. Her change of focus tells me that a woman like this, living in such a difficult area, focuses on the immediate practical responses she can take and less on moping about the rain or lack of students. How many of us would focus on whether one person had eaten when they are missing over 200 students?

Nov-News-04Aleyda begins to tell me about her great journey walking with the Lord and how he’s provided for her in the most difficult of times. To her, this downpour isn’t a big deal. In fact, her school has survived a hurricane in its history. The Lord brought tarps and teams of people to rebuild. She moves onto talking about what it’s like to be in charge of 440 students. She talks about wanting to exchange the tendencies to violence for more productive activities like music, sports, and studies. “Only the Lord can really change the heart of these students, you know?” She relies on the wisdom of the Lord and imparts this verse to her students frequently. “I like to keep Proverbs 3: 5-6 in mind when I talk to our students about making decisions:”

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

Nov-News-05Aleyda has built her foundation on a solid rock in such a shaky place like this. With the violence and unrest in a poor neighborhood, the tremendous downpours, the lack of government assistance in the schools, and not to mention trying to keep order in a school of 440 kids, she’s got a lot on her mind. But somehow she is at peace. She’s more concerned with the immediate, she checks again to see where we are with the food.

The fried plantains and ham come out. It’s been six hours since I’ve eaten and this hot food warms me up. I realize my feet are still wet because of that “river” we rode through to get here. I make a practical decision. I’ll change into my sandals when I get to the bus. (Yes, I still wear sandals here in November.) I feel better mentally.

Aleyda gets up to help someone use the computer lab. Oh, I forgot to mention this, she used part of her loan to create a computer lab for her high school and when it’s not in use it becomes an internet center in the community. People can come use the computers here for about 50 cents an hour. The money she makes from the lab pays her monthly loan Nov-News-06amount. She is, by all sense of the words, an entrepreneur and a dynamo.

I finish the meal and we chat for a bit longer. The rain stops. It’s time for me to go.

“Vaya con Dios,” she tells me. “Go with God” is a common phrase to say goodbye in Spanish, but I believe that in her case, she speaks from experience; a personal history, a relationship with the Lord that has walked with her through 16 years and a daily journey with 440 students, hurricanes and rainy afternoons, in the second-poorest community in her city. He’s straightened even the most windy, rocky, muddy roads in her life and left her with enough peace and energy to make sure a tired, soaked, traveler gets a meal at 2:30 in the afternoon.

I hope you are enjoying the Christmas season and that your roads are getting easier to travel as we get closer to Christmas.

Blessings to you and your family,
Skype: aprothwm05


*Update: I have been writing “thank you” letters to you all from the Dominican Republic for this past year. I hope you get yours in time for Christmas.

I’ll be sending an email about coming back to the Dominican Republic in January in a few weeks. Do pray for the work of HOPE and if you feel led to support me financially, you can find that information here.

Beauty in the Extremes: A Dominican Photo Book

Hey blog friends, I wanted to share with you a new project that I’ve been thinking about for the past few months. I’m going to give it a shot in 2012. Here’s what I’ve written on a site called Kickstarter to promote it:

I have been traveling for about 16 months through Central America and the Caribbean, most recently in the Dominican Republic, where I’ve visited a good part of the country working for an NGO called HOPE International. We provide microloans and small business training to the communities shown in the pictures I’ve taken. Everyday, I’m consistently amazed at the vibrancy and style of this Latin American culture of a tiny Caribbean island that boasts one of the most staggering poverty rates in the developing world. Nearly 42% of the population lives below the poverty line, and its neighbor, Haiti, is considered the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Beauty in the Extremes

My aim is to capture the beauty found in the extremes of the stunning natural beauty and in the crushing poverty to show that there is beauty in all areas of life here. The theme of my photo book will be “Beauty in the Extremes” and I’m hoping to portray the resilience and hope found in the people in the midst of their economic struggles of living on just $2-3 dollars day in one of the most beautiful places in the Caribbean.

You’ll also see pictures of lush tropical vegetation, crystal blue waters, brilliant white sands, and majestic towering mountains covering the natural landscape. But also, Haitian communities where men and boys, cut sugar cane 10-12 hours a day for a few dollars, tiny concrete houses with iron bars stacked upon each other in city ghettos, smiling moms with missing teeth and tattered clothing, with well-dressed, well-fed children, and kids playing baseball with discarded water jug caps.

Travel Plans

Since I’m volunteering full time with a Christian microlending organization I’ll be able to capture more remote rural areas where photographers don’t usually go. I also speak Spanish fluently which will help me connect face to face with the people I meet.

I’m planning an in depth tour through the colonial area of the 500 year old Santo Domingo with its cobblestone colonial streets, Spanish style haciendas, early conquistador architecture and early American colonization. I’ll hitch rides on public transportation to capture the destruction derby-like highways of rush hour, half-demolished overcrowded buses with teenage boys hanging out of the side where the sliding door used to go, and the food/wares/imports markets of pure insanity.

Follow the Photo Blog:

You can follow my progress on the photo blog called: “Beauty in the Extremes.” throughout the year. I’ll continue to be working in the communities helping with our microlending program and small-business training as I travel.  I’ll be updating the titled galleries shown in this post and compiling the photos for my upcoming photo book printing in 2012.

I’m using the money from my kickstarter page to help cover the expanded equipment I’ll need to buy, travel costs of getting to certain areas, and the expenses of printing a full color photo book. Please join me in producing the “Beauty in the Extremes” photo book and I’ll send you a copy when it ships in 2012 🙂

Muchisimas gracias, Dios te bendiga,


Here is the link to the Kickstarter fundraising page.

The Seat You Sit In (October Newsletter)



   Aaron Roth – HOPE International – October 2011

“Doctor, everything I eat makes me sick. What am I supposed to eat if I can’t eat rice and beans?” He wasn’t complaining. It was a sincere question. He hadn’t been able to eat well for days and he doesn’t have the financial ability to switch his diet. The look of earnest hope on his face makes me want to help him. So I turned to the real doctor, Doctor Scott VanLue from Florida, and said, “What can we do for him doc?” He responded, “Don’t worry; he just has a parasite, let me get the medicine.”

As part of the ministry of microfinance here in the Dominican Republic, we provide health and health education services for our clients. This particular situation was a 2-day clinic where I was brought on as a translator to work in the rural communities of El Seybo. Since I was the one speaking Spanish to the clients, they naturally thought I was the doctor. Doctor VanLue got a kick out of them calling me doctor, and told me, “Hey, it took me about seven years of schooling before they called me doctor; it only took you scooting your chair a bit closer to the patient. I say run with it.”

Oct-News-02This particular case with the man mentioned above was like many of the 115 patients we saw that day and the 110 the day prior. Most of the patients had significant pain in their stomach and were unable to eat well, or if at all. It was the hardest thing to look into the eyes of a child when he says to you “My tummy hurts.” And he rubs his stomach trying to make it better. Doctor VanLue’s reassurance was comforting, and we were able to give every family that walked through the door the medicine to kill the parasites, and spent time talking with them about proper food preparation and the importance of clean water.

This is a side of microfinance I’m not used to seeing. I spend most of my time working in the communities working with optimistic clients or up and coming entrepreneurs talking with them about their plans for the future, their families, and the Biblical lesson we do during the day. With medical clinics like this, I get to learn more about the families of the people we serve. In another visit, I had to interrupt the woman to say,

“Ma’am I’m going to have to pause you for a second, I need to make sure I remember what you told me to tell the doctor.”

“Oh honey, don’t worry. All seven of them are my children, and I know what’s wrong with them, I’m their mother. If you don’t remember, I will.”She smiles in response to my concern.

Oct-News-03She’s been a microfinance client for six years. She and her husband run a successful business selling fruit to the local community. He’s currently working the double-shift so she can take children to the clinic that we brought into the mountains. I guess I’m taken aback at this situation. Normally, if I would have seen this woman during a microfinance meeting it’s all business, smiles, and a few prayer requests, much like a weekly small group Bible Study meeting. But its different now, she’s let me in to her life because I’m the doctor for the day. She tells me that two of her daughters may have Sickle Cell Anemia, a red blood cell deficiency that can be deadly later on in life. Doctor VanLue tells me that this is difficult to treat in the States, hopefully they just have Anemia, which is a much less dangerous illness caused by poor nutrition.

My assistant, (the real Doctor VanLue,) is up fetching medicine from our pharmacy. Our driver walks up to me and says that the roads are so muddy here in the mountains that if the rain continues for another 15 minutes we are going to have to leave or we’ll be stuck here. I look at him, then at this woman with seven children, and then the 40 people in our waiting room, a small school converted into a clinic. I want the rain to stop. I want to make sure we can see everyone.

Oct-News-04The mom of seven looks at me and knows that my countenance has changed, she asks me what’s wrong. I tell her that it’s raining and I want it to stop so that we can see everyone who came here. I don’t want our team to be in danger trying to leave the mountains. She reassures me, “Doctor, it’s the Lord that brought the clinic to us today, and it’s the Lord that’ll take you back home.”

Doctor VanLue returns with the medicine for the seven children, the mom and the dad. I carefully go over the instructions for the nine prescriptions, reaffirm health instructions for preventing parasites, and how to use the shampoo for lice. I ask her if I need to repeat it. She responds, “I’m the mother, remember?” I laugh and we pray a small prayer for the family. The real Doctor VanLue thanks her for her visit.

Oct-News-05It all strikes me at the same time. The two daughters with Anemia. The pounding rain on the roof. The women with their children waiting to see us. The muddy roads getting muddier. The smiles on the Doctor’s face and the rest of the family we just visited. The real doctor is thanking the patient for her visit. Wow. I’m amazed and inspired. It’s people like Doctor Scott VanLue, and women like the one we just visited that renew my  vision for what this world can be, a world where the living God still moves and works where we think it’s hopeless.

The rain begins to calm down. I’m smile when I think about what she told me.

The Doctor is right. Sometimes it’s just the seat you sit in that brings you closer to the work of God. Your location can help you become a doctor, a microfinance practitioner, or just a messenger bringing the good news of God’s work abroad.

I pray for the seat you sit in, and that God would scoot you a bit closer to His work where you are right now.

Blessings to you and your family,
Skype: aprothwm05

Grip Tightly with an Open Hand

I hate goodbyes. I really do. Maybe I’ve gotten better at them because in over a year of traveling I’ve had to make a lot of them. But it still hurts, each time. Maybe not at the moment, but certainly after I board the bus or plane comes the silence between the seat-belt and the start of the engine, I feel the emptiness of loss.

“That’s just life” they say. The hellos and the goodbyes. To have fully, and then to have nothing. Fullness and emptiness, the waves of course. I believe we instinctively try to avoid the things that bring us pain. We assemble our toolkits to protect ourselves from the pangs of goodbyes. I know, in my life, I’ve assembled and used three such tools, with the final, being a more recent discovery.

Hold Nothing and Keep an Open Hand

The first was called, “hold nothing” or “keep an open hand.” It was a strategy aimed at never letting anything in so it hurt less when I encountered pain or eventually had to say goodbye. I lived like that for awhile. It didn’t work. I spent the first part of my 10 months in England living with all of the experiences at an arm’s length. I thought that if I could just keep everything at a distance, then it’d be easier to take in and let go. But the problem is, you never really take it in, do you? It hurts, being disconnected. You never really let relationships become a part of you, you never really let the music move you, and you never really let the exotic flavors of culture seep into your soul.

That’s not really living at all.

Hold Tightly and Maintain a Closed Grip

After that first life experiment, I went back to the drawing board. Determined to grab life by the horns, and to seize the day, the second tool was called, “hold tightly” or “maintain a closed grip.” I started accumulating a lot of great things in my life in Richmond, VA. Great job, great friends, great church in a great city. It’s great when it’s great, but when it changes, it’s terribly hard.

When things start slipping through your hands, you try to hold on tighter. You try to hold onto what inevitably will be taken from you without your permission. The truth is, it does not matter how hard you hold onto things, they will change. I could sense that as friends started to move, or got married, and even as I was contemplating my own move overseas, it was incredibly hard to emotionally stay connected to something that was leaving or already left.

Sometimes life takes most everything whether you don’t hold on at all or try to hold onto everything. In other words, it doesn’t matter how you hold it, it stays or it leaves. Such uncertainly can drive you mad or it can bring you to a place of greater understanding. Now don’t get me wrong, I haven’t reached a state of enlightenment and self-reliance, on the contrary, I think I’m beginning to see the importance of confusion and dependence. In other words:

“A surrender to the reality and a full admission to the enjoyment and sadness that comes and stays awhile and goes.”

After all, I’m not a god with power to speak things into or out of being. I’m just human.

For this, I’ve learned to rely on the Lord more and more. Through my dependence I feel an assurance that when the goodness comes and goes, there will be more goodness to come. From the same side, when the sadness comes, it will go, and there will be renewal and restoration from the provider of everything that I’ve ever had. God is in charge of the supply, and by shared and personal history, He has been good.

Grip Tightly with an Open Hand

So now, I call this most recent tool, “grip tightly with an open hand.” I’m trying to invest as much as I can and enjoy it for what it is. And when it’s gone, I will mourn and I will be sad, but certainly, the Lord will provide. It’s an example of living the famous quote by the American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne,

“Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

We must open our hands and enjoy these experiences, but not try to crush them with remorse if they seek to fly away.

Tuesdays with Ramona (September Newsletter)


Aaron Roth – HOPE International – September 2011


It was a Tuesday morning when I arrived at the gas station in Guaricanos, an urban community in North Santo Domingo, and Ramona, the loan officer, wasn’t waiting for me on the corner like usual. I looked at my phone. It read “7:33 – missed call from Ramona.” Normally, this meant that she was calling to tell me to wait for her, or, that I should find a ride to the morning bank meeting. Just then, a motorcycle taxi pulls up to the corner. He tells me that Ramona called him to pick me up, he’d take me to the meeting. I hopped on the back.

Normally, I don’t just board motorcycle taxis when they pull up to the curb, but I know him. His name is Christian and he’s the husband of one of our microfinance clients and a good family friend to Ramona. His wife has been with Esperanza (HOPE’s local microfinance partner) for over three years, and he’s the president of the local motorcycle taxi group which includes about 50 motorcycle taxistas. When you’re the president, it means you’re in charge to Sept-News-02make sure all taxis arrive at their appointed stations according to the schedule, all the equipment is repaired, and all disputes about money, territory, and preferred clients are handled with integrity and peace.

It’s work he came by honestly after five years of working as a regular motorcycle taxi driver. With the micro-loan his wife received to start her small store selling fruits and vegetables, their family of three children has had dual-income parents, a rarity in a poor urban community like this. Ramona told me early on in the year that if she was not able to meet me in the morning, Christian would give me a ride. “I trust him, and you can trust him as well. I know his family and he knows mine. He will take care of you and charge a fair rate.”

She’s a Real Hero

I trust Ramona, and I trust the people that Ramona trusts. When I first started my fellowship down here, she took me under her wing to teach me about Microfinance and the day to day operations for how Esperanza works in urban communities like North Santo Domingo. She was more than just a financial advisor, she taught me how to navigate the public transit system, where to buy food, and how to know who to trust. Ramona has been an Esperanza loan officer for over three years and serves over 400 clients which she visits bi-weekly. She’s a single-mom raising four kids and spends her weekends at the university finishing her business administration degree. To me she exemplifies the most necessary qualities of a Christian microfinaSept-News-03nce loan officer:

  • Leads, but as a servant first and foremost.
  • Firm, but is kind in all her dealings.
  • Caring, but practices tough love.
  • Trusts, but verifies with the good records she keeps.

She is what I call one of the real heroes of Christian Microfinance development. I know that you know me personally, and it’s me who tells you the story of Ramona. Very often, I fear that in the monthly newsletters I write to you all, you may think that I single-handedly walk through the rural and ghetto communities of the Dominican Republic providing financial access to the poorest of the poor, read from the Bible, lead songs of worship, preach about the Hope and the love of our Heavenly Father, and manage hundreds of “friendships” who have outstanding loans with Esperanza. Actually, it’s people like Ramona who do all of this on a daily basis, and fortunately, I get to participate.

Devoted to Loving this Community

I show up to the meeting with Christian and he drops me off telling me that I can pay later. He trusts me and he knows that after the second meeting he will give me a lift to the office. He knows the schedule of all of Ramona’s 23 bank meetings. I walk into the patio of a small house where about 35 women are congregated. Ramona looks up from her bookkeeping and smiles saying, “Mi hijo! Cuanto tiempo sin verte! Bienvenido a tu casa” (My son! It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. Welcome back home!) She then introduces me Sept-News-04to the group, but they laugh. They all know me. I’ve been here before, a few times actually. They meet on Tuesdays. Ramona jokes with me that it’s only on Tuesdays that I come to visit her. In fact, my very first day of working in the field almost 10 months ago was a Tuesday, with Ramona. I think to myself. “We’re Tuesday People.”

I had just finished reading “Tuesdays with Morrie” for the second time recently, and I thought of how much Ramona resembled Morrie, a retired ivy-league professor known for his wisdom made popular in a publication of his life lessons. Of course, there are many things a single Dominican woman working in one of the poorest neighborhoods in one of the poorest countries doesn’t have in common with Morrie, but you know what, she is a pure example of what Morrie describes in his book:

“The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”

I mention some of this to Ramona, about being Tuesday People, about how real meaning is found in devotion to a community. She nods with affirmation that my words are all very good and true, but to her, “purpose” and “meaning” are found in a small token, a reminder of an ultimate truth: “God is Love.”

She places it in my hand. I realize she is always giving me small tokens of wisdom every time I come. I make the small observation to myself that for someone like her who doesn’t have much money or possessions, she’s really into the habit of giving. Hmm, that’s another token of wisdom I think. How sometimes people who seem to have a lot give the least, and people who can’t seem to afford to give, give the most. She smiles and returns back to business. She asks one of the women to read from the Bible, a Psalm:

“He covers the sky with clouds;
He supplies the earth with rain
and makes grass grow on the hills.
He provides food for the cattle
and for the young ravens when they call.

His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his delight in the legs of the warrior;
the LORD delights in those who fear him,
who put their hope in his unfailing love. (Psalm 147: 8-11)

May God bless you this Tuesday, and may you share it with a Morrie or a Ramona near you.

Dios les bendiga,
Skype: aprothwm05


While I’m volunteering down here in the Dominican Republic, I am still finishing the final part of my fundraising through the remainder of the year. Do pray for the work of HOPE and if you feel led to support me financially, you can find that information here:

As a Doctor for Two Days – Part 1

On Friday, we drove an hour away from a very rural “city” to a sugar cane batey community. Within our micro-lending program we provide our associates the ability to receive medical treatment free of charge. Unfortunately, these services are few and far between, as they largely depend on the willingness and the resources of doctors or dentists from various organizations and churches.

We had the pleasure of working with two doctors and two nurses from Grace Community Church in Orlando, Florida. I was the translator for Scott, a doctor with an extensive career in primary care, ER, and sports medicine. In addition to various assignments, he was the Orlando Magic doctor for quite some time. He and his wife Cissy, have a heart to serve, and for the past couple years have been doing more Christian mission work. They’ve got two grown kids, and three adopted kids. One child is from China and the other two are adopted locally in Orlando.

After a long day, we were in the late afternoon still seeing patients when Cissy came up to me with a few tears in her eyes, and said,

“Just to let you know, they next family has a son that is Autistic. They are probably unfamiliar with what that means, because the grandmother said that ‘the boy is missing half of his brain.’ When they sit down, let me know, because we’d like to talk with them a little more. One of our adopted daughters has Asperbergs syndrome.”

A tired and frustrated grandmother sits down with the 5 year old in her lap. The mother of the boy is resting at home. The grandmother says to me, “He’s missing ‘half of his brain’ and he doesn’t want to eat, walk, talk, or learn. What can you do?” We’d been rushing through the patients all day trying to see the 115 listed on the schedule as kindly and efficiently as we could manage. Here though, the change in environment was immediate. Scott and Cissy both sat down and leaned in toward the family. Scott took off his stethoscope and said to me, “Aaron, I’m not really sure we are going to be able to prescribe anything for the young man, but what we need to do is to teach them how to love and live with a son with special needs. We went through this process six years ago with our girl.”

For the next 20 minutes, Scott worked with the young boy to see what mental faculties were present. To our surprise, the boy could walk, talk, dance, play, and was intrigued by Scott snapping his fingers and mimicked the action with his own hand. We tried to talk with the family that the boy needs a lot of dynamic involvement in his life. He needs to be played with, he needs to be sung to, he needs to be danced with, and most importantly, he needs to be loved. It was difficult; very, very difficult. The grandmother spoke mostly Creole, so her friend spoke Spanish to me, I translated to Scott, and Scott spoke English to me, back to Spanish, and then to Creole.

It wasn’t really a language barrier. It was more a barrier of education in a community that lacked any sort of medical resources, let alone the ability to know and how to work with special needs. In a community of 800 people of sugar cane workers, I’m not sure how many people had any formal education or medical knowledge. Scott says sometimes people can think that children are “just being difficult” or worse, “possessed.” The family was still frustrated, but I believe that their countenance changed when I told them that Scott and Cissy had a child with similar issues, and six years later, the child was much more active and involved in family life.

They always say that you have “God moments” on trips like these. This was certainly one of them. And if I could point specifically to the most touching moment it would be when Cissy picked up the child in her arms and sang “Jesus loves me.” You can see from the picture here that he is completed enraptured in her eyes, and during the song he lifted up his arm to softly touch her face. I’m not sure if you can tell, but Cissy is weeping while she is singing.

By the end of our meeting with the family, the boy eased up and the family began to smile. Scott wanted one last hug with the child, and unlike the first time that he had the boy in his arms where the child was smacking his face, now, he was softly touching the side of his cheek. Scott too, was in tears. Both he and Cissy wanted to pray with the family. So I translated their prayer:

“God we know that you love each person as you created them. We know that you never make a mistake. We pray that you help us love him and nurture him. Give us the strength, the knowledge, and the patience to help him grow into what you have created him to be. May he know the love of his family, may he feel it deeply through song, through play, and through dance. And Lord, when we arrive in Heaven, we know that we will all be complete, and that we will all be able to celebrate and sing and dance and laugh as you intended us to be.”

We hugged the family, we smiled, we said our blessings, and they walked out of our clinic without any medications. We sat there kind of stunned. Cissy was still crying. Someone asked her what was wrong. She said, “Nothing’s wrong, I just want him to know that he is loved. I want him to know that he’s not sick, nor that he’s missing half of his brain. But that simply, his Heavenly father loves him and his family does too. Sometimes, we can get so frustrated and sidetracked by the condition that we forget to just love him. That’s all he needs.”

You can imagine what it must have felt like to be on holy ground there at our makeshift clinic. It was amazing how a little boy can reach out and touch us all.

Break the Rules (August Newsletter)


Aaron Roth – HOPE International – July 2011


I was sitting in a broken chair, sweating as usual, in the office of a school director, Colasa Baez de Leon, whose school is in our micro-lending program and I asked her about the community where this school resides. I had to travel outside the city of La Romana to a tough neighborhood via motorcycle taxi to get here. She pauses for a moment and begins the story this way, “Sometimes the students come up to me around 4:00pm and say, ‘Director, may I leave school? I haven’t eaten and I need to go home so that my mom can prepare me some food.’” She looks at me with the honesty of a mother caring for her own children and says, “How can you not feed a hungry child?”

August-News-02In another meeting, I commented to Ysabel Garcia Hernandez, the director of a much smaller school, “It seems to me that you really love these students.” She warmly responded, “Oh yes, of course. They are my children. If they weren’t in school, they’d be on the street.” I looked out across the dusty, rocky, unpaved road and I know she’s waiting for me to say something, but all I can do is just smile and nod in affirmation.

The Line that Separates Two Worlds

I have never thought that I would ever see such clear distinctions of the consequences of poverty as I have seen here. I am shocked to think that these are the kind of distinctions that walk the fine line of either having money to buy food or going hungry, of being able to afford school, or spending your childhood on the street. Maybe sometimes in the States we treat our financial options as shades of gray, “If I make the decision of not eating out at a restaurant just once less per week, I can save a greater percentage of money toward my vacation fund.” Or, “If I lived closer to work I wouldn’t have to spend 40 minutes commuting and I’d probably save at least $100 on gas. ” Never do we face questions of black and white such as, “Will I still be able to eat if I buy this?” or “With my monthly expenses, will I be able to send my children to school? ”

August-News-04The kind of distinction I have seen here is the difference between night and day. I have realized that in communities like this, often there is not electricity, so when it’s nighttime it’s actually really dark. (Even though that observation sounds trite, think about what it felt like the last time a storm knocked your power out. It was really, really dark right?) When I had come back from this trip to the schools, I talked to a Dominican colleague in the office and tried to use a translation of the phrase “difference between night and day,” and she explained to me that normally here they’d say “The difference between Heaven and Earth. ” Hmmm, that’s interesting, I said to myself while considering these two statements:

Colasa feeds the children at her school from her own kitchen if they haven’t eaten by 4:00.
Ysabel provides scholarships to 10 students that cannot afford the $7 monthly tuition.

Truly, this is a difference between Heaven and Earth.

To better illuminate this distinction, you need to know that most of the Dominican economy runs on the “informal economy” which best can be described as the “daily hustle.” Daily hustle is the sound of market vendors yelling out daily offers where the loudest vAugust-News-03oice gets the most customers.
It’s also the tangible fear you feel when you step off of a street curb as bus drivers swerve through the lanes to reach a destination before the other buses or public cars because the fastest driver gets the most passengers. It’s the early wake up call when walking salesmen pitch household goods to neighborhood dwellers at 6:30am. True, they’re waking you up early, but at least you were just sleeping, most of them got up more than an hour ago, because the successful ones are the strongest that get up the earlies0,t and can walk through the most neighborhoods.

If you’re not loud, if you’re not fast, if you’re not strong, you get left behind. That’s just how it is. These are the laws of the world, the laws of the hustle. It’s not, “get rich or die trying” it’s “stay alive hustling, or die hustling.” There is no other option for the poor.

Love in the Hustle Economy

So then why in the hustle economy have people like Colasa and Ysabel chosen to serve the most needy, the most weakened and the most vulnerable? As anyone will tell you here, in the hustle economy, anybody who slows you down puts you at risk for your own demise. You’ve got to run with the strong and fast or your own survival is in jeopardy. August-News-05But for these women, they have a rebellious nature. They don’t believe in the hustle economy. These seemingly innocent women are clearly, and unashamedly, rule breakers. So when I asked them why they bend “the rules”, they responded:

“Because Jesus has walked with me my whole life. He is my rock.” – Ysabel
“Jesus came to Earth, to save us, and to serve us. He gives me the strength to serve.” – Colasa

In the harsh rules of the hustle economy these women have recognized that we all lose if we live by the rules of the world. We all die if we leave others behind, but we all win when we love. Love is the trump card that ensures prosperity. In a counterintuitive sense, this new law has proven for them, time and again, that when we break the rules with love, our security is guaranteed. These are women that truly understand this truth:

“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”  – Matthew 6:33

I pray that you and I will seek a kingdom that is greater than the ruling laws of the modern economy or the hustle economy.

Dios les bendiga,
Skype: aprothwm05

Foreshadowing of a Carribean Challenge

In movies or books, foreshadowing is a plot device used to introduce or hint at  something early in the story that will become much more important later on. It hit me recently, this was exactly what happened to me 13 years ago. I was on a Carribean just East of here, but under  much different circumstances.

I had just finished my freshman year of high school and Spanish 101 (for beginners). At that time, I was not really equipped to speak Spanish, nor at the speed of the Puerto Ricans (currently, this is still a pending question). A group of youth from my church, Linville Creek, went to Castaner, Puerto Rico to do a two week workcamp with the local Church of the Brethren congregation. That trip was the longest and I had ever been gone from home, and certainly it was the farthest.

I remember a lot of things from that two week adventure. Puerto Rico was a beautiful island, with lush jungles, windy mountain roads, and breathtaking views. Too much of that viewing got me car-sick on a 5 hour trip to the city of Arecibo. Luckily, we made a stop on the side of the road to purchase fresh mangoes. Someone had just picked them from the tree. Before that, I had never liked the taste of mango, now I’m slightly in love with it. This was much like my experience a few days prior to the mango when a guy showed us how to open a coconut, because before that, I had never liked coconut. Continuing on in the gastrointestinal journey, I ate too many delicious desserts from a local panaderia and got incredibly sick later on that evening. There’s nothing quite like being 15 and feel like you’re knocking on death’s door a few thousand miles from home. Of course, It probably wasn’t grave, and true to common traveler’s wisdom, I didn’t buy anything else from that panaderia.

As a teenager, I remember that every young woman I met was probably the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I was pretty shy though, so I’m pretty sure had I been able to speak Spanish, I wouldn’t have talked too much. However, if you were the girl that wanted to talk to me by translating through your semi-bilingual friend from the Castaner Church Youth Group, buscame en facebook, por favor. Ya, sabemos que ha sido demasiado tiempo sin vernos y me encantaria tomar un cafecito contigo.

Besides the random musings of a teenager on his first trip outside the states, one experience did stand out to me during that time, and I can still remember it vividly. Our last few days in country we spent in and around the capital, San Juan. We spent some time in a Brethren Volunteer Service community located in a rough neighborhood called Caimito. I distinctly remember feeling uneasy walking around the community, where they said unemployment was just above 50%. Yet the 20-somethings had no problem walking around feeling at ease, and clearly had made friends with the locals. These young adults seemed to wield a rugged and versatile maturity in a new culture and weren’t jarred or shocked by the dangerous ghetto that they lived in.

I was desperately home sick and had just taken a nap from a long day. I awoke to the sounds of a nearby corner store playing a song, “She’s All I Ever Had,”  which was popular in the States at the same time. Nostalgia flooded my mind. I just wanted safety, clean water, country roads, and to look out of window that didn’t have iron bars. I remember feeling incredibly alone, and being the farthest from home I’d ever been; the solitude was crushing.

Just then, I heard a knock on the door, one of the 20-somethings invited all the young guys along with them to dinner at a local restaurant. Instantly, the solitude vanished, and I was connected again to people I knew. I felt like I’d been released from that emotional prison. But, the question still remained for me, “How can you live in such a strange, unfamiliar place, where you don’t speak the language, it’s dangerous, and you have constant reminders from home trying to pull you back.”

So I asked one of the older volunteers how they did it, “. . . Believe me man, once you get some time on the ground and know a little more Spanish, you get used to it, and you start to like it. That’s just how it works.”

And here I am, 13 years later, I’ve got some time on the ground, I know a little (a lot) more Spanish, I’ve got friends, I’ve got a community, and I’m used to it. I guess that’s just how it works.

The Reality of Something to Write Home About

It’s late in the afternoon on a hot and humid Saturday, and we are hanging out in the patio on the second floor of a tough neighborhood in East Santo Domingo called Villa Duarte. As always, it’s great to see the family I lived with and to wrestle with my Dominican brothers, Josias now five, and Railyn who just turned eight. I can tell the boys are growing up even in the year that I’ve known them. I tell the boys that we should go up to the roof to enjoy the breeze that is making its way through the barrio and as I lean on the iron fence that surrounds the roof and I see a young woman transporting buckets and large bottles of water up to her third floor home, and I know that this is something to write home about.

I suppose that when you recognize something that doesn’t normally appear in your day to day life, this is a pretty good signal that some people back home would be equally interested in what you’re experiencing. However, something was different this time, being in this neighborhood and seeing people labor to carry water up three flights of stairs wasn’t all that unusual anymore, so why exactly was I compelled to describe a situation that had become commonplace to me?

Since I moved back to the DR in early February, I’ve tried to go see this family every couple of weeks and one thing that always sticks out to me when I go back to visit them is that when I pass through the main street entrance sometimes there are small rivers running through the gutters in the neighborhood. I say sometimes, because it’s not always that there are rivers that run when it’s sunny and hot outside.

River gutters mean that the neighborhood has water again, that the government temporarily fixed the problem of water supply, and that the neighborhood can enjoy running water for a few days, or sometimes, just for a day. People are out in the streets filling up buckets, or operating the water pumps to send water up to the roof where they keep large storage tanks filled with water. You can sense the excitement that the water has returned, and well, you can see it as the kids dance in the water in the street. I’ve written about this a bit in a previous post (The four-year-old Gene Kelly), and water in the barrio has been something wild and strange to me, certainly fitting for a blog post to write home about, but now it wasn’t exactly from the angle of a someone who just got off the plane.

Something has changed, the DR feels like home, and every time I sit down to write I feel like I’m writing about something less unusual to the people back home. My day to day reality has certainly shifted, and many of the strange quirky elements of the foreign culture have become real and normal to me. It’s not unusual to see young woman labor up three flights of stairs, it’s not strange, no, this is the reality of life here.

I’m struck by this point in my realization that my processing of information, of sights and sounds and experiences has changed. It’s not as new, and it’s certainly not as jarring and shaking to the senses as the arrival and accustomization period when you move somewhere new.

So as I’m standing there looking out into the barrio, I’ve realized that the “newness” has faded when I see her struggle to get the last bottle of water up the stairs. I lived in this barrio, I know what it’s like, I’ve been without water for a few days, and I’ve lived like the locals lived. I think I’ve recognized that when I chose to write home about things in the past year and a half, it has been with a sense of a badge of achievement, an accomplishment, a wild and new thing conquered and realized in the pursuit of adventure. But now, the novelty has worn off, and a question lingers, was their compassion in my initial observation? Or just something interesting to write home about?

Now, the reality sinks in. I’m starting to see the reality for what it is. The terrible infrastructure that prevents thousands of families from receiving the most basic necessity on a daily basis is a daily struggle, a daily, exhausting labor, a painful reality for this neighborhood and hundreds of thousands throughout the island. No one here writes home about this with the perspective of a traveler or “seeing how the indigenous people live.” It’s not strange for them, no, it’s just a harsh reality; it’s simply a consistent frustration that only occasionally water runs through the gutters signaling the arrival of the opportunity to bring water home to the family. And when it finally arrives, you have to carry it up three flights of stairs for your family, because that’s just what you have to do. It’s nothing special, it just is.

I started carrying my 5 gallon water bottle up the stairs to my apartment to see what it felt like. Three flights is hard, but certainly not something to write home about.

Happiness is a Lack of Interruptions

I noticed something disturbing going on in my head after my second month of being in Guatemala. It wasn’t the presence of something, but rather the absence of many things. Simply put, I wasn’t so interrupted as I used to be. Instead, I had clarity and continuity in my thoughts. Strange, how clarity can be so alarming, but it certainly was to me then, and after 14 months of being outside a normal American lifestyle, it is still pleasantly unsettling now. Clarity of thought is kind of like its cousin, “peace of mind” but you’ll be able to hold better conversations with clarity of thought at the dinner table.

I think what I discovered was that when I was able to focus on something, I could get a lot more done and certainly, I enjoyed a lot more what I was doing. When there weren’t a few hundred things racing around in my mind constantly interrupting me, I guess I could really pay attention to what was in front of me. I remember back to when I was in the States playing in a soccer league, in the middle of a game, I’d think about what I was going to be doing later that night, or how I still needed to change the oil in my car, or how I needed to send out a few email reminders, or respond to some text messages. You know it’s a terrible way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon with your friends isn’t it? Focused on everything but the game itself.

It’s a simple principle really, but it’s incredibly hard to keep up with. I think one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard in relation to this is:

“Making a ‘to do’ list is good, and probably more important, is making a ‘To Not Do’ list.”

The key ingredient in my new life and in the overall composition of my mind was the deliberate prohibition of interruptions. I’ve heard more and more productivity experts say that multi-tasking is a myth. We can only process things in a serial manner, just one thing at a time. If we limit the interruptions, we can be more effective in our work, and have more fun in our free time. I believe that. I really do now. Most of my experiences traveling and living in another culture have been some of the most inspiring and fulfilling in my life.


It could be that it’s because I get don’t interrupted much now, and I still have a pretty full schedule. I don’t have a smart phone. I don’t check face book regularly. I don’t check twitter regularly. My TV holds a few clothes that I plan to put away, and I’m pretty sure the last time I used the remote, it needed batteries. I purposely go do things for hours and try not to interrupt the time I have with my friends or my roommates. What is most important is the here and the now, the tasks and obligations have their time, but all of that is later, all that is important, is now.

A life without interruptions is a simpler, easier, more fulfilled life.

Now, get back to what you were doing!