Daily Reporter staff writer

ORTVILLE — They traveled to the Dominican Republic with soccer balls, fingernail polish, stickers and markers tucked into their suitcases.

They returned to Fortville with photos, tears and a new perspective on what makes a meaningful life.

Nineteen members of Fortville Christian Church traveled to the Dominican Republic recently with tasks in mind: benches to build, vacation Bible school to lead and walls to paint at both a church and several houses.

“Different trips have had different work projects,” said Tim Flick, an elder at the church and coordinator of this year’s trip. “Our main purpose, though, was to go down and love the pastor and his family and the kids in the community.”

They did this work in a setting of eye-opening poverty.

Dorinda Arnold said she thought she had seen enough news reports and documentaries to make her aware of poverty.

“I thought I knew what poverty was, but I didn’t,” she said. “The first night, all I could see was poverty; the second day and on, I saw the people.”

Beyond the jobs they performed and the great needs they saw, she and her teammates forged relationships with people who showed them moving examples of great love, deep gratitude and exuberant faith.

There was the boy who brought a mango to a team member each day after he saw the man searching for one early in the trip. There was the hospitality offered by homeowners inviting the group in.

There was the whole-hearted singing by people in the local church, a sight remarkable enough to bring residents of surrounding homes “out on their porches watching the Christians worship,” said Dain Anderson in a video.

(He and other team members shared thoughts on the trip in Fortville Christian Church’s June 28 service, which was posted online.)

“They were there to praise the Lord and to worship God,” he told the local congregation. “They weren’t there to check a box.”

In her words to the congregation on the video, Nikki Privett voices a similar observation.

“They celebrate Jesus in a way that churches in America just have no idea,” she said. “They celebrate with their whole mind, their whole heart, their whole body — just everything. They are dancing and shouting praise to the Lord.

“It is the most beautiful, most authentic, most joyful worship experience I have ever seen or been a part of in my entire life, and it makes me sad that we don’t celebrate Jesus, the way they do, in America,” she continued, her voice breaking with emotion. “He is their everything.”

The church the group visited in the Dominican Republic is led by Pastor Gregorio Thomas of Pata de Gallina. He and his wife, Josefa, and their three children feed about 75 children six days a week. The meals were cooked over an open flame until a couple of years ago, when an earlier mission team helped build a kitchen.

The meal — often chicken, rice and beans — is “either the only meal they get, or it’s the best meal of the day,” Flick said.

The mission team helped with feeding the children each day, and after the meal, they held Vacation Bible School classes for a couple of hours. Team members shared lessons with the children, and the children worked on crafts such as banners with dowel rods that they could decorate or tambourines made with paper plates, beans and streamers.

One evening, the women of the group organized Ladies’ Night at the church for women of the community. They painted fingernails, served fancy cookies with punch, made scarves out of T-shirts and enjoyed each other’s company.

“We humble ourselves and serve them, and we get so much more back,” said team member Margie Whitaker.

She was on her second trip to the Dominican Republic. The people there “witnessed to me as much as I blessed them. It’s a mutual blessing.”

While the women gathered, the men played dominoes. They gathered around three or four tables, with teams from the Dominican taking on teams from Fortville.

“Apparently, they love dominoes and are very good at it,” Flick said.

He laughs.

“They crushed us, really.”

Still, he said, it was good to be together and continue building relationships. He said when the church was choosing an additional mission site to support several years ago, it wanted one close enough to travel to, one church teams could return to, building deeper relationships over time.

“You get to know the people,” said Brenda Ayers, who has made three trips to the country. “They become like family.”

The church partners with Go Ministries, whose staff members raise their own support. That means all the money donated by Fortville Christian goes to the actual work of the feeding center for the children.

“To see these kids so happy and joyful, … it’s a gut check,” Flick said. “It makes you really evaluate yourself and what’s important in life.”