Fr. O’Hare's time in Bánica 'an incredible blessing'

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Fr. Keith M. O’Hare is pastor of San José Church in Pedro Santana. He has served at the diocesan mission, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, since June 2008.

A lasting impact

After six years at the mission, Father O’Hare had an epiphany that began with food and ended with a new method of evangelization.

Chatting with a native of Zambia who was volunteering in Bánica, he learned that “chen chen,” a corn-based dish common in the Dominican Republic, was part of some African cuisines.

“I thought I was going to a Hispanic country, but I eventually realized that in many ways the Dominican Republic is a West African culture,” said Father O’Hare, noting that countless Africans were brought to the Caribbean nation as slaves starting in the 16th century.

Father O’Hare went on to identify numerous ways the region’s African roots are interwoven into Dominicans’ everyday life — perhaps most notably in their love of dance.

“Dancing is like breathing here,” said Father O’Hare, who channeled that love in a Christian direction.

The dance groups have become one of the most effective youth activities at the mission, he said. Youths spend hours each week rehearsing and perform after Mass on special occasions.

Because the songs have Christian lyrics, “it serves as a wonderful evangelization tool,” said Father O’Hare.

Highlights from service

Graveside burials in the Dominican Republic are an unforgettable experience, he said. “They are chaotic and humbling.”

Unlike in the United States, where burials can be formal or sterile, in the diocesan mission “everything is poor and raw,” said Father O’Hare.

Mourners dig the dirt and pour the cement, which gives them the opportunity to connect with death and their own mortality, he said. “Who can be proud or vain when you are part of that moment?

“Graveside ceremonies,” he added, “bring everything into clarity and take away pretentions about life.”

Gifts of the mission

“It’s been an incredible blessing to spend extended time in someone else’s culture,” said Father O’Hare, because it helps you “evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your own.”

The United States, for example, is characterized in many ways by individualism and materialism, while in the Dominican Republic there is “communitarianism and the instinctive desire to share,” he said.

Father O’Hare pointed out that in the apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis writes that every culture needs to be purified by the Gospel. “Every culture has its strengths and weaknesses, its virtues and vices,” said Father O’Hare.

“I have tried to let this experience purify me of the unvirtuous elements in American culture and assist me in acquiring the virtuous elements in Dominican culture.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016