On city streets in the Dominican Republic, horse carts and cars without doors or mufflers vie for road space with Mercedes Benzes. Music fills the air, and conversations are lively. This Caribbean country, which shares an island with Haiti, is small but vibrant.
The same can be said of the Christian Reformed Church there. In the Dominican Republic 178 Christian Reformed churches have joined together as their own denomination: La Iglesia Cristiana Reformada en la Republica Dominicana.
Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM) helped with the birth of this denomination and has actively supported and worked alongside it since the mid-1970s.
The partnership began when Christian Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic contacted World Missions staff. Cultural, racial, and socioeconomic differences between Haitians and Dominicans had left the immigrant believers isolated. They asked for help and, in 1981, the new denomination officially began.
The majority of Haitian immigrants live and work in bateys, or sugarcane plantations. Sugarcane is labor-intensive, as it must be cut with machetes and hauled out of the fields on oxcarts. Workers are paid $1.50 per ton. The housing in bateys, some of which are the size of small towns, is controlled by plantation owners.
Since many Haitians are not legal immigrants, their children can’t attend Dominican schools. In response, churches began offering Christian education. From this small beginning has grown a national organization of 21 elementary schools and five high schools. Colegios Cristianos Reformados, or COCREF, now serves more than 5,000 students.
COCREF schools support each other. Tuition at each school is based on the economic level of its neighborhood. Schools in wealthier neighborhoods help to fund the poorer schools.
Last November, a COCREF school in the northern town of Rafey was hit by Hurricane Olga. The mud lay two feet thick in the classrooms and was smeared all the way to the tops of the doors. Students throughout the country collected sheets, pillows, and blankets for the residents of Rafey. People from the neighborhood came to shovel out the mud and resurrect the school.
Though most students come from illiterate families, students at COCREF schools receive education superior to most public schools. The vast majority of graduates go on to university. Some return to their hometowns as teachers or community leaders.
Julio Vilches is one example. Julio’s mother worked as a housekeeper for a CRWM missionary. He attended a COCREF school, and by age 14 he was teaching third grade. He went on to become a school supervisor and a pastor and is currently studying for his doctorate.
The schools, which have an open enrollment policy, are places of evangelism as well as racial reconciliation, with Dominican and Haitian children studying together.
The denomination itself has undergone reconciliation. Dominicans initially resisted joining a denomination that was primarily Haitian. They formed their own committee and only connected with the denomination at the annual National Assembly.
In 2000, however, the Dominican committee joined the denomination as a classis. There is still work to be done, but Dominicans and Haitians are unifying in ways that are not often seen outside the church.
From the beginning, Christian Reformed missionaries have been committed to training local leaders. Because of this policy, churches have grown strong and independent. One aspect of training is the Reformed Bible Institute, which operates by extension. The 18-month course, taught by nationals, offers Bible and theological training to hundreds of laypeople and pastors throughout the country each year.
An important tenet of Reformed theology is that faith influences all of life. By living this out, Christian Reformed churches are transforming their communities.
Some churches have drilled wells, providing their communities with running water. Others have built public latrines and begun literacy programs and food banks. The blessing extends beyond the church walls and even beyond the walls of their Christian schools into entire communities.
This blessing also extends to CRC churches in North America, when service and learning teams travel to the Dominican Republic to help with building projects.
When Max Van Til visited the Dominican Republic on a service trip, he fell in love with the country and soon moved his family there. He was hired by CRWM and has been coordinating service trip groups for the past 14 years. In that time, he saw attitudes change. Churches that had been bickering were unified by the project and racial barriers collapsed as North Americans worked alongside Dominicans and Haitians.
The work teams fund the projects and local churches are asked to provide a matching number of workers. Forgoing a day’s salary is a serious sacrifice for Dominicans, and could mean their family won’t eat that day. Yet they commit to the project.
“When Dominicans pray for their daily bread, they mean it,” Van Til comments.
He and his wife, Kina, recently moved back to Canada, but he says he misses the exuberance and warmth of the Dominican people—and he misses the rice and beans.
While some work teams build houses and other structures, some help to build the church through evangelism.
Last winter, a group from Ontario went to minister in the capital city of Santo Domingo. The church there had been trained in Evangelism Explosion and each member of the work team had written out his or her testimony.
One evening, nationals and volunteers partnered up for neighborhood visits. A teenage boy brought his group to meet his parents, who were not part of a church. He led his mother in a prayer to receive Christ, and she has been faithful in the church ever since.
Another couple who were visited that night began attending church the next day. In January, they and their 8-year-old son were baptized in the local river.
Steve Brauning, a missionary with Christian Reformed World Missions, serves the Dominican Christian Reformed Church by providing training and support to its leaders and organizations. Brauning and his family have been in the Dominican Republic for 17 years and last year bought a house there.
The Braunings and other CRWM missionaries are investing themselves in the church and in the country itself. The results of their investment are beginning to show. As the life-giving gospel spreads in the Dominican Republic, through schools and churches and communities, this vibrant country continues to become a vibrant part of God’s kingdom.
Christian Day Schools: CRWM’s Special Project
A Christian teacher in Nigeria says her teaching was transformed by a recent experience in continuing education sponsored by Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM).
“I am praying that God will help me to see teaching not as a job I do for money but as a calling to serve students as we explore his creation together,” she writes.
CRWM continues to seek ways to strengthen the Christian day school movement around the world. As part of this strategy, it works with institutions of higher education that are located primarily in underserved areas.
The effort includes equipping Christian educators to teach as Christians in all areas of school life and to strengthen the capability of colleagues in other local schools. This enhances the church’s ability to deliver a Christ-centered Reformed perspective, enabling believers to equip their children and young people to love God through obedient service.
World Missions’ partner churches and organizations outside North America continue to request volunteer Christian educators to assist in making Christian schooling available to the underserved in their communities.
Leading the Churchin Mission
Following its vision to see local churches vigorously participating in Spirit-led mission, World Missions has recently dedicated two staff positions to helping congregations in North America do just that.
“We are seeing congregations desiring to be more focused and hands-on in their mission ministries, but they don’t always know where to start,” say Trish De Jong and Bill Thornburg, Missions Resource Consultants.
“Through coaching and resources, we walk the journey with church leaders so their congregation can be more strategic, intentional, and excited about their involvement in God’s plan for the world.”
At Faith CRC in Burlington, Ontario, missions coaching helped to launch a Global Outreach (GO) Team and jump-start a focused mission effort.
“After a two-year process, we can see the work of the Holy Spirit growing mission-mindedness in the members of our congregation,” says team member April Voorberg. “I am so blessed to be a part of this!”
What Makes a Missionary?
In many ways, Larry Spalink is the type of person you picture when you think about a missionary.
A graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Spalink grew up with the awareness that he wanted to use his faith to help people. He didn’t initially see himself as an overseas missionary, but a series of events and encounters led him in that direction.
The path that he and his wife, Ruth, have followed has led to serving on the front lines of mission work. For almost 30 years, they have planted and overseen the growth of Christian churches in Japan.
“We never committed to spending our whole life here,” says Spalink, who is field director for Christian Reformed World Missions in Japan. “In fact, we came first with the thought of staying maybe five or six years. But God has refreshed us and renewed his call to us repeatedly, so we’re still at it.”
While World Missions has many missionaries like the Spalinks, there are many more who are just as dedicated to the spread of the gospel but who serve in other capacities. They have taken a slightly different, and often unexpected, journey to the mission field.
For instance, Dorothy Wallinga was a stay-at-home mother for many years. Today, as administrative assistant to CRWM Director Gary Bekker, she makes travel arrangements, drafts letters and other correspondence, and is one of those behind-the-scenes people who makes things work.
Ray Bouma is another whose background didn’t seem to be leading toward mission work. Bouma never imagined that his love for gathering, sorting, and storing information would one day lead to an entirely new type of ministry.
Together with his wife, Barbara, the Chicago-area librarian is busy enlisting other librarians in “Strengthening Libraries International,” a World Missions-led effort to build and bolster Christian university and seminary libraries around the world.
“I never dreamed that I could use the work I did as a librarian to do this kind of work,” says Bouma, whose job title is theological library consultant. His wife has that title too. “There are a lot of struggling, inadequate libraries around the world. We want to help bring these libraries into the 21st century.”
Other missionaries with unconventional jobs include Kathy Vanderkloet, the business director for CRC agencies operating in Nigeria.
An employee of World Missions, Vanderkloet grew up in Toronto, attended Christian schools, and earned a degree in history from Trinity Christian College, Palos Heights, Ill. After growing restless in her job for a book publisher, she volunteered to fill in for the administrator of a CRWM program in Nigeria.
Twenty-one years later, she is still in Nigeria. “God works in mysterious ways,” she says. “There was no ‘Damascus road’ experience, no voice in the dark—only a coincidence of events, abilities, and encouragement that seemed to confirm for me that this was where I was supposed to be.”
Everdine Smith works in a village in Mali sharing the gospel through friendship evangelism and helping the poor through various projects. Her job is not typical evangelism.
“We use a low-barriers approach, living in housing similar to our neighbors and trying to identify with our friends and neighbors as much as we are able,” she says.
Patti Fisher, World Missions travel coordinator, has a master’s degree in environmental science. Today her job is to provide travel and logistics for missionaries and staff. “I am serving the Lord in a fashion that I enjoy and never expected,” she says.
Mike Van Der Dyke, a Chicago native, went to Nigeria in 1979 to fix planes. But in 1984 he started to work with the missions department, which today has various ministries: rural church planting, urban outreach, Muslim outreach, and sending Nigerian missionaries to other locations.
He recalls a professor at LeTourneau University in Texas who told him: “God gives each of us different gifts and abilities, but he wants each of us to use what he has put in our hands to serve God.”
—Chris Meehan is news and media relations
director for CRC Communications.
World Missions at a Glance
Christian Reformed World Missions is the agency that leads the Christian Reformed Church in evangelistic outreach and discipleship outside of North America. It does this by working in partnership with the 1,000-plus congregations that make up the CRC.
Through World Missions, also known as CRWM, congregations currently send about 250 missionaries to 20 countries. The CRC also has partnerships with churches and agencies in 13 other countries where it cannot place missionaries.
In addition to sending fulltime missionaries, congregations in Canada and the United States send short-term missions teams and create connections for missions around the world.
Through World Missions, churches receive support in developing strategic missions plans and assistance in engaging in the international ministries to which God has called them.
CRWM currently has ministries in
- Africa: Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone
- Asia: Bangladesh, Cambodia, China/Taiwan, Japan, Philippines
- Europe: France, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine
- Latin America: Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua
You can support the work of Christian Reformed World Missions through your offerings on Pentecost Sunday, as well as with your gifts and prayers throughout the year.
For more information or to find ways to serve at home or abroad, please visit our website at www.crwm.org or e-mail email@example.com in Canada or firstname.lastname@example.org in the United States.
Small Church, Big Heart
Some small congregations have a big heart for the work of global missions.
With a membership of fewer than 500 people, Twelfth Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Jenison, Mich., is one such church. Its members will give more than $75,000 to mission work this year.
Every year, people at this church make missions a priority, says John Zuidema, the clerk and a long-time member of the church. Some years his congregation has raised as much as $80,000.
Zuidema traces the congregation’s solid support for missions to Rev. H.N. Erffmeyer, who served Twelfth Avenue from 1968 to 1981. “He was very mission-minded,” says Zuidema.
On their list to support this year are Christian Reformed World Mission missionaries in Japan, Haiti, Mexico, Niger, Guinea, Mali, and the Dominican Republic. They also do local evangelism, support an inner-city criminal justice ministry and a Christian Reformed Home Missions church planter in Canada, and write letters to missionaries.
Church members are asked to pledge support every autumn when “we have a whole week of mission activities, including talks by missionaries, a dinner, and sermons. Missions are very important to our church,” says Zuidema. “We constantly mention and pray for them during services.”
Faith Community Church in Zilla, Wash., is another small church with a heart for missions. At the urging of Rev. Joe Kamphuis, their pastor and a former missionary in the Philippines, this church of about 225 members got involved in faith-promise giving, a stewardship program in which each member is asked to discern how much support he or she could give to different ministries.
In one year, the church more than doubled its giving to mission work.
About the Author
Kristin Niehof is a graduate student at Regent College, Vancouver.