Uncovering the Treasure

One of the greatest gifts we receive in building relationships with kids is watching them take the next step in their faith journey with Jesus. In Young Life circles, these kids are often called “Campaigners.” The next step for many is a work project, an opportunity to model their relationship with Christ in service. A group of 20 Campaigners from Minnesota Valley Young Life, outside of Minneapolis, and students from Scottsdale Bible Church in Arizona uncovered spiritual treasures during 10 life-changing days in the Dominican Republic.

Every good treasure hunt requires a map, and our map pointed first toward the lush Pico Escondido, a Young Life camp that relies on crews of volunteers for new construction. Pico Escondido means “hidden peak,” and as we planned and prayed for the trip, we wondered what hidden things we would discover. We knew to expect sweaty work, the inability to communicate and a rice-and-beans diet that was out of our ordinary. In addition to five work days at the camp, our map pointed to Santiago and Jarabacoa, home to established Young Life programs.

We were greeted by April Soberg’s smiling face as we stepped into the muggy airport of Santo Domingo. From the first few steps on foreign soil to our teary last moments nine days later, the host team of Shelby Noxon, Eva Babcock and Soberg did more than host. They were the English-speaking hands and voices of our new Dominican friends. They helped to translate the hidden and unrecognizable.

Our expectations were far exceeded throughout five days of work at camp. Jeremiah and Kellan helped to build the plumbing system in the newly constructed dorm. Derek, Anna and Jaclyn stripped the bark from logs to be used for an entrance. Joe and Grant built rock walls around the dorm. Melissa used a machete — a dream come true — to help clear brush from hillsides. Elisa stained timbers. Brandon, Brian and Scott were dirt movers. Chris and Andrew made cement — lots of cement. Our muscles were pushed to exhaustion. We felt what it meant to empty ourselves for Christ’s sake.

American teenagers mixed cement alongside Dominican teenagers. We pointed and stuttered a lot. Those of us less proficient in Spanish played a lot of charades in our communication. Belly laughs and contorted faces of confusion were not uncommon on the hillsides during this merging of two cultures. Smiles abounded.

A highlight for many kids and leaders was the two days spent in neighborhoods of established Young Life ministries in Santiago and Jarabacoa. Kids’ experience with hands-on community was a stark contrast to their cyber-intensive American culture. Eyes watched lips intently; kids shared dreams as though asked for the first time; voices cracked on the brink of joyful tears. They held our hands, and we held theirs. 
I will never forget Nicole and her loss for words as she stood talking with her host family. She kept repeating, “This is so awesome. I can’t believe this!” I have not seen a teenager’s eyes as wide or bright as Nicole’s while talking to her new Dominican friends.

Manuel had the quiet countenance of a confident baseball player. Jimmy was an enthusiastic guitar player and led music in club. Jaoquin took us by the hand and introduced kids and leaders to his family and friends. Relative to our material wealth, the Dominicans we spent time with had little, but they gave everything — and with more joy than we had ever seen.
We painted the Young Life house in Nibaje (near Santiago) and mixed and poured cement for a sidewalk. That same evening, after parading around the neighborhood, inviting one and all to “Vida Joven alas ocho” (“Young Life at eight o’clock”), kids experienced the familiar club that is one of the program hallmarks of the Young Life ministry. An evening of humor, music and a message unified the group much like kids experience club in the United States.

Our kids were drawn to the richness of another culture and to the gift of seeing “all God’s children.” There is no doubt: teenagers are still wired for relationships. Hunter Lambeth, work trip coordinator for Latin America, summed up our homestay experience: “It gives kids a unique chance to live like the early church in the way believers took care of each other.”

Kids are longing to give themselves to something and to stand for truth. Young Life leaders observe this in the beauty of God unveiling His truth to them on a daily basis. As we have returned from the Dominican Republic, our experience continues to shape us. Nouwen’s insight was prophetic for our group. Our map pointed to treasures the Lord had hidden for a group of teens eager to grow closer to Him.