A life-changing experience

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CKNJ reporter and columnist Zac Oakes reflects on a recent mission trip to the Dominican Republic

By Zac Oakes


Despite how it often seems, I’ve long believed that the world is still full of wonderful people doing amazing things on a daily basis. 

It’s hard to see that some days, but that was reaffirmed to me recently as I spent seven days in the Dominican Republic in the city of Santiago, alongside my wife and 19 Lindsey Wilson College students and alumni, working with GO Ministries. 

A religion professor at Lindsey Wilson, David Calhoun, has been taking a group of LWC students to the D.R. each year for the past several years. My wife went for the first time during our freshman year of college, and for the past few years, I’ve opted not to join her on the trip. Going on this trip changed her life, and this year, I decided to go along for the first time. 

It was the first time I had been on an international mission trip, or traveled internationally period. It was my first time flying. I guess you could say I decided to dive right in all at once this year. 

I’m glad I decided to go this year. To say that the trip was amazing is an understatement. 

GO Ministries is headquartered in Louisville, and if you’re not familiar with them, I highly recommend checking them out. The ministry they have on the island of Hispaniola, including the Dominican Republic and Haiti, is nothing short of spectacular. 

From GO Sports, where they provide opportunities for children to get involved with baseball, soccer, etc. to the prison and recovery ministries and everything in between, GO Ministries is doing a ton on the island. 

Two particular days from the trip really stood out to me. 

The first was the day we visited Hoya de Bartola, or “The Hole.” It’s a community that is located in a retired landfill. The local government used to operate a landfill in the area, but decided to cease using it and instead opened it up for people to move into. 

Today, it is a maze of shacks located in that former garbage dump with a population of approximately 5,000 people and a high percentage of them are children. 

Years ago, after the land was declared public land, GO opened a nutritional center in the community, which is probably the most poverty-stricken in Santiago. Later, they planted a church in the same building. 

My wife, Lynnsey, told me about this community the first time she went. It’s one of her favorite places to go, but nothing could prepare me for seeing it for myself. 

At first, it broke my heart seeing the landfill itself, the river that runs through the middle of the community that is filled with garbage and children playing in that same river. 

But those same children were also the ones that made that day the most memorable and really made an impact on me. The amount of love they have is surreal. These kids had never seen me before in their lives, but they immediately loved all of us like we were best friends. We played, ran, sang, laughed and enjoyed every second of it. 

It goes to show a couple things in my mind. First, God is present in that community and is making himself known, loud and clear. Secondly, despite not having much in the way of material possessions, these children have a lot. They have an insane amount of love and an evident sense of community. 

The visit to that community was very powerful, and despite my best attempts, I can’t place the words together to do it justice. 

The second day that really sticks out was the day we visited a local prison in the city of Moca. We met with the prison warden (the equivalent of a jailer) who talked about the various educational, vocational and recovery opportunities available inside the prison. It was absolutely fascinating. 

But the highlight was witnessing 30 inmates at the prison make a public declaration of faith and be baptized. If you want a visual image of what God’s Kingdom on earth looks like, that was it. 

The work that Moises Jimenez and Pablo Peralta, the local Celebrate Recovery leaders in the D.R., are doing is absolutely astounding and it is paying dividends in the lives being changed in the prisons and in Hogar Crea, a local addiction recovery center. 

It was a bit of a culture shock being in a different country for a week, but it has also been an adjustment readjusting to life back in the United States. 

My experience in the Dominican Republic was one that words cannot fully do justice, but I’ll still do my best to explain it to anyone who wants to hear.