ast year, I had the privilege of travelling to the Dominican Republic with my husband, Bruno, and Patricia Echegoyen, CBM’s Program Officer for Latin America and Rwanda. In a small beach town of about 50,000 people, located on the northern coastline of the island, we met 14-year-old Diego*. He lives with his father, who works as a gardener, his stay-at-home mother and four siblings. What Diego likes the most about where he lives is going to the beach with his friends.
“There isn’t much to do because it is dangerous here,” he explained. “There are thieves, drug dealers and other dangerous people in our town. They don’t bother us too much because we don’t do anything to provoke them, but we have to be careful.”
In addition to living in an area affected by violence and corruption, many of Diego’s friends live in broken homes – with parents who don’t know how to care for their children well and lack consistent employment. Faced with limited resources, some are compelled to surrender their children to the lucrative tourist sex trade as a last resort.
In the Dominican Republic, the main economic drivers are tourism and agricultural exports, especially along the coastal areas. Most Canadians are familiar with vacation hotspots, such as Puerto Plata and Punta Cana. However, just minutes from beautiful resorts, communities are affected by drug trafficking, sexual exploitation and violence – most notably against women and immigrants of Haitian origin. Although Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the island of Hispaniola, the poverty level is significantly higher in Haiti, which is still recovering from the effects of natural disasters and political instability.
Sex traffickers can be seen walking along beaches advertising young people – especially female youth – on their mobile devices like a restaurant menu for mostly foreign tourists. Sadly, the people who should be protecting the most vulnerable are often complicit.
It is against this backdrop that CBM’s ministry partner, Iglesias Bautistas de Republica Dominicana (IBAREDO), is serving in and with the communities where its churches are planted. Founded in 2002, IBAREDO’s 20 member churches and their numerous missions are mostly small and located in poor, isolated neighbourhoods. Almost all IBAREDO pastors are bi-vocational and many lack formal theological training. Despite their limited resources, local congregations are actively engaged with their communities, often supporting vulnerable children and youth. Through mobilizing the hearts and talents of their members, these small churches are finding resourceful ways to meet the needs around them.
Iglesia Bautista de la Reconciliación is a 24-member congregation in Sosúa. Although small in number, they have clearly grasped the idea of being a church outside its walls – they want to be known by their service to the community. Pastor Enrique Meisson and a team of young people regularly teach music lessons to 40 children, aged 10 to 14. They also hold concerts, organize a softball team, run a hair salon and encourage young entrepreneurs to create their own work, giving them a viable alternative to drug trafficking or prostitution.
Diego is just one of the many young people who have been blessed by this ministry. “I found out about the church music program from my sister, and I have been going for about a year,” he says. “I play the guitar and now I play in a band at the church called the Children of the Rocks. I would like to be an architect one day … I can even teach music to other kids.”
Iglesia Bautista Bethel in La Romana, which is close to Punta Cana, is one of IBAREDO’s larger churches. Pastored by Miguel and Belkis Bonnet, this church has four extension missions in poor neighbourhoods in the countryside. They work among sugar cane cutters who live in bateyes – settlements for mostly Haitian migrant workers alongside sugar mills. Bateyes were originally built as temporary lodging for seasonal workers. But over time, as migrants remained in the country after the harvest season, bateyes developed into permanent communities with growing families. The conditions in these communities can vary – while some residents have access to running water and electricity, most lack basic public services and live in dilapidated dwellings.
By the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were living in bateyes in the Dominican Republic. Although many were second- and third-generation Haitians born in the Dominican Republic, they had no legal citizenship status and no connection to Haiti. They basically became a people without a country. Today, most remain deeply impoverished and suffer from discrimination. As a result, young people living in these circumstances are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and human trafficking.