The Returning Hearts Celebration Team -- July 9, 2016 at Najayo
Giving away toys from Cedarville to prisoners in Dominican Republic
As one of our teammates said in a prayer this morning, today's activity was the "centerpiece" of our time here in the Dominican Republic. Today was the Returning Hearts Celebration event--an all-day carnival type activity provided for inmates who have gone through the Malachi Dad's and the Authentic Man Bible study programs. These programs have been in place in eight different prisons here in the Dominican Republic--overseen by William Gomez from Project Manaña (a ministry founded here in the DR by Brian Bermen in 2010).
AWANA Lifeline uses Malachi Dads in prisons in the US and has been hosting Returning Hearts Celebrations several times a year for around 6 years now (I need to fact check that number). However, this celebration is the first to occur outside of the United States. Many of our team today have worked in previous state-side events as such, but in a different culture, in a foreign land, with a different language--none of the variables are likely to be familiar.
We had prayed for great weather--and we had a sunny, hot day--with an occasional cloud in the sky, but they were welcome. We had prayed for good health--and we had no injuries or other concerns at all. We had prayed for a time for the fathers to spend with their children on a fun, social level as well as later in the day with some spiritual emphasis. Without having listened in on the conversations, that last aspect is hard to measure, but perhaps we will get some information later.
Watching the children enter the walled-in baseball field and be announced over the loud speaker so that fathers could come forward--this was an emotional picture. I watched many kids look out toward the group of inmates and spot their father with a smile, or sometimes a huge grin. Often we watched kids run across the short grassy area as their father came forward with arms wide open to receive them. And then other times, the children hung back with expressionless faces and never a smile. Not every father-child relationship had been good . . . or recent . . . or even existed at all.
One father met his six-month old baby child for the first time. The mother had died in childbirth. Two small children--a little boy and girl, both under age three by appearances--never did have a father come forward. However, two of our team members took them under their wings, and later, an inmate whose children could not come "adopted" them for the day.
Throughout the baseball field were stationed one bouncy-house and two inflatable slides. Stations for liquid refreshment and food and medical care were also available for use. A stage stood strong over first base and was the location for live music, inmate performances, three clown performers who encouraged all with their games and antics, and at the end of the day, the stage hosted several speeches of gratitude, recognition, spiritual encouragement and brief invitation.
Kevin helped Pam Miller and others with the registration of the children when they arrived at the prison with their guardians. Mostly wives and mothers and grandmothers, the guardians were cared for by other members of our team who ran a time of crafts and testimony.
One of our team members shared her story of her ex-husband, the father of her children, and the importance of bringing Christ to prisoners who still have that role of father even though they may be locked away.
My role--as I mentioned in my previous post--was to assist the professional AWANA Lifeline photographer, John, with creating a historical record--"the story"--of the event. His hired assignment was to create a video so he had asked me to help with still shots. That was a joy. I wish I could have heard more of the conversations held between children and fathers, but the faces showed plenty. Another joy for both me and Kevin were the many opportunities to communicate with inmates and children in Spanish. We were also happy to help several times with translating.
Our team witnessed over and over the gratitude of the wardens, the head of security, the officials (even one from the Dominican Republic Attorney General's office), and the prisoners. Many prisoners--whose children were not there that day--helped with the activity as well.
Shortly after lunch, the guardians (mothers, grandmothers, etc.) were able to come into the ball field with the rest of us and spend time with their children and the prisoners. At the very end, those in charge of the event--including William Gomez, Brian Berman and Mike Broyles--shared words of encouragement and Biblical admonitions. Before departure, the inmates were instructed to spend ten minutes of prayer or spiritual leadership with their children. These are the conversations I really wish we could have been part of, but God will be the One who knows best how deeply planted these seeds of God's Word have embedded.
Words with son
I really appreciate Mike Broyles words (translated as they were) as he prompted the fathers to learn to lead and have the spiritual courage to do so. For this we have to continue to pray.
Even clowns can understand the heartache.