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Lay volunteers recall their time at Bánica mission

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The Arlington Diocese is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its mission in Bánica, Dominican Republic. A partnership between Arlington and the Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana, the mission serves 13,500 people in the largely impoverished, rural area of the Dominican Republic on the Haitian border.


Michelle Ramirez was one of the first lay missionaries to serve in Bánica. She went twice on spring break mission trips while attending Christendom College in Front Royal, and shortly after graduation, she returned as a chaperone for a high school group from Our Lady of Angels Church in Woodbridge. After the third trip, encouraged by her priest Father Daniel Gee who was working at the mission, she decided to commit to a year there starting in the summer of 2007. While at the mission, she taught English in the parish school and traveled to villages to teach the local community the basics of the Catholic Mass.


Ramirez said she expected to make an impact on the people in Bánica, but she soon realized she would be impacted profoundly as well. She realized she was not the solution to their problems, “but if I can help lead them there, and if I give them the tools to then be able to take that and run with it, it’s inspiring.”


The Bánican way of life prompted Ramirez to reflect on U.S. culture — the immense value placed on material things and the resulting de-emphasis on community. She realized the importance of non-material blessings and the significance of human connection.


 “You know, for all we have in this country, (the people of Bánica) are so much happier,” she said. “Their lives are based around each other and community, and we don’t have that here. People trust people there, and even though they have power and running water now, people don’t spend time in their houses — they’re out and about talking to their neighbors.”


Mary Jo Dyer, the first lay volunteer at the mission, said the people of Bánica valued the opportunity to strengthen their faith just as much as, if not more than, the improvements to infrastructure and access to food and water.


 “While the other stuff was important, the opportunity to go to Mass, get married, baptize their children and get communion was the stuff that was most overwhelming for them,” Dyer said.


Her most vivid memories of the mission are how happy the people were living simple lives, and how much they craved an opportunity to participate in their religion.


 “The people (in Bánica) would put on their Sunday best and walk miles just to make Sunday Mass happen,” she said. “I can barely get out the door, and (my church) is literally three minutes from our house. I try to remember that when I think about how important faith is and passing it along to my children. It’s had a huge impact on my faith.”


As it rings in its 25th year, many structural improvements have been made, and countless lives have been impacted both in the Arlington Diocese and the villages near Bánica. However, Ramirez said the whole purpose of the mission is to reach a point where the presence of the diocese is no longer needed. The goal is to catechize the Bánican people enough to where they are self-sufficient in their faith and can begin catechizing each other.


 “Dominican people are deeply rooted in traditions,” Ramirez said. “If you can get them to that point where going to Sunday Mass or even daily Mass is engrained in them, they’ll be set forever. I think it’s just making it a part of their culture, because they’re already a Catholic people.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016