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Bánica mission at 25: A ‘grace that flows’ in two directions

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Father Keith M. O'Hare was en route to celebrate Mass in a remote mountain campos, or village, in the Dominican Republic when he stopped his motorcycle along the dirt road to say hello to a 6-year-old girl.

She looked up at him, her eyes wide, and said, "Father, I'd really like to have a doll."

"She was as skinny as a stick but didn't ask for food," Father O'Hare recalled. "She lived in a mud and stick house but didn't ask for money. She had an old dress but didn't ask for clothes.

"Instead, she asked for a doll, and a doll is for practicing loving," said Father O'Hare, a pastor for the Bánica mission for eight years. "Her heart was fixed not on material things but on love."

This fall, the Arlington diocesan mission in the Caribbean country will mark 25 years serving the spiritual needs of Catholics in the region, and much-needed material improvements will be among the many accomplishments celebrated. Yet the anniversary also is a chance to reflect on the "grace that flows in both directions" - captured in moments such as the roadside interaction - said Father O'Hare during a brief visit to the United States this summer.

"All the people who have come down to the mission are touched and purified by an encounter with the poor Christ," he said. "You come to do good for the poor, but the poor do good for your soul."

Since the mission was established in 1991, nine priests and countless volunteers from the Arlington Diocese have served there. Currently, Father O'Hare is pastor of San José Church in Pedro Santana, which encompasses around 40 communities, and Father Jason Weber is pastor of San Francisco de Asís Church in Bánica, serving around 20 communities.

Father O'Hare said there are three tiers of poverty in the Dominican Republic, with the poverty level tied to location. People who live in town are better off than those who live an hour or more away. Those in mountain campos are the poorest, he said.

For the past quarter-century, the mission has created "steady improvements on the physical side and spiritual side" of life in all three tiers, he said.

Most people now have access to water, "a big change from 25 years ago," said Father O'Hare, as well as increased access to electricity and schools.

The parish school in Bánica opened its doors in 2004 as a half-day program; it now runs a full school day and includes a computer lab. A bus donated by Medical Missionaries of Manassas provides transportation for children from neighboring communities. And in collaboration with the Peace Corps, the mission instituted a tutoring program that has been adopted for use nationwide by Peace Corps volunteers.

The first pastor of the mission, Father Gerry Creedon, established college scholarships for local students, and it has evolved under subsequent pastors.

Through Father O'Hare's scholarship program, students live in Bánica and commute to one of two nearby universities. Father O'Hare is seeing college graduates he knew as children return to the parish school as teachers or to their communities as role models. "It's inspiring," he said.

Along with education, the mission has partnered with the local diocese and the Dominican federal government to improve and expand roads.

"You don't always think of the church as a road-builder," said Father O'Hare, but in places of poverty roads permit crops grown in rural areas to be sold in town, provide timely access to medical care and enable people to travel to places of worship.

"When an older woman died in the country, a new road allowed people to bring her to town and have a proper funeral," said Father O'Hare.

From his first days in Bánica, Father O'Hare observed the many ways the mission makes a mark on the hearts of volunteers from the Arlington Diocese. He recalled a young missionary he met who'd spent the day digging outhouses - a ditch with a simple structure on top. During lunch, Father O'Hare asked how she was dong. "I've never been happier," she answered.

"She's been sweating digging ditches all day, and she's the happiest she's ever been," said Father O'Hare. Spending time at the mission "shocks your system" because it limits material distractions and allows you to internalize what matters most, he said.

The mission also is a lens through which to see poverty in all its forms. When you encounter material poverty, it helps you grasp "other things Christ wants us to see," said Father O'Hare. "We might be poor in friendship, poor in faith or poor in love."

He said he's personally looked through that lens and faced his "poverty within."

Expressing gratitude to the parishioners and bishops of the Arlington Diocese for their ongoing support of the mission, Father O'Hare said Bánica has been a "gift to the diocese."

"We are not called to serve every single poor person, and we can't solve all the world's problems," said Father O'Hare. "But we are called to love the poor person who is on our doorstep."

Providence gave us Bánica as that person, he said. "And we are called to show it our love."

Bánica mission anniversary issue

The Nov. 17 Catholic Herald will include reflections from former Bánica pastors and volunteers, photos from the archives, an interview with a Bánica documentary filmmaker and more.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016