Participatory Training for Action

A Letter from Mark Hare and Jenny Bent, serving in Dominican Republic

February 2020

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Dear friends,

Jenny, Keila, Annika and I prepared for Christmas at the Missionary Furlough Home in Louisville, Kentucky. I am glad to take time to look back at a year that has been full of changes, but also full of learning and growth, for us as a family and as individuals, and also for our neighbors, friends, and colleagues in the Dominican Republic with whom we have partnered since we arrived there in February 2012 to serve with the Dominican Protestant Church, the Iglesia Evangelica Domincana (IED).

One strategy that the IED has been promoting with its pastors and local lay leaders is called Community Health Evangelism, or CHE. Jenny and I were initially trained by Dominicans and Haitians who have been applying CHE in communities throughout northern Haiti as well as in the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic. These trainers are supported by the non-profit Medical Ambassadors International. Jenny and I began organizing workshops for the IED ourselves in 2017, working with the guidance and support of the IED’s national CHE commission, and in particular with its coordinator, Rev. María Bock.

In February 2019, Jenny, Rev. María and I put together a CHE workshop entitled Participatory Learning and Action. We faced several challenges. One was to offer the participants training in techniques that would permit them to either initiate or reinforce the CHE process in their churches and their communities. We also knew that we had to focus on strategies for eliciting deep emotional responses in the participants. When individuals are presented with images, songs, poems, or role-plays that elicit deeply felt responses, they often open up and can be moved to think and talk in new ways about the things that matter greatly to them and are then able to enter into meaningful dialogue with others. This is one of the key principles of effective community transformation. Finally, Jenny, María and I knew that we would need to emphasize the process of moving a community group from “talking” into “planning and action.”

Clearly, we had our work cut out for us. You might think that this process would be utterly impossible, but over our seven years working with CHE we have seen examples of how good participatory work can create a space where the Holy Spirit blows in and begins to work in startling ways.

One example comes from 2018. In June 2018, CHE leaders organized what the CHE commission of the IED has named a “Jump Start Workshop” in Batey 7, a community of Dominicans of Haitian descent located in the middle of thousands of acres of sugar cane fields. Juan Batista and I were the main facilitators and were supported by the whole Batey 7 CHE team. Together we led a group of around forty local participants in a full day of participatory, interactive challenges. To initiate the workshop, the participants formed groups of six participants each and, on a sheet of newsprint, drew a “tree of life.” This “tree of life” reflected Batey 7’s history (roots), present (trunk), and the different groups’ visions for the future (leaves and fruits). One common theme of all of the trees was the desire for Batey 7 to be a beautiful place to live. Then, towards the end of the workshop, Juan asked the participants to brainstorm practical activities that could move Batey 7 towards the participants’ vision for it. Three days later, the community held its first of a series of clean up days, collecting all of the trash that had accumulated in the community since the local municipality had stopped sending a garbage truck.

In November, CHE leaders Altagracia and Yulisa worked with about 20 participants to look at the root causes of the trash found in Batey 7. They walked around the community, not to collect the trash, but to observe closely what kinds of trash were most common and where and why it seemed to collect in the biggest piles. They concluded their mini-workshop with a brainstorm of ideas about what the participants could do next. They even began imagining how they might recycle or reuse some types of trash. Many of Altagracia and Yulisa’s participants were from the youth club that Juan had helped form in July 2018, which was another outcome of the “Jump Start” workshop.

So in February 2019, as María, Jenny and I worked to put together the Participatory Learning and Actions workshop, we already had some concrete experiences with the power of workshop dynamics that can transform and energize participants, leading them to commit to practical steps to reach common goals. We also knew it would be critical to focus on creating space for the participants to try out each lesson, rehearsing it during our time together, so that when they returned home, they would be utterly confident that they could plan and implement the same lessons with their own community and church members. With less than three days to be together, we had to choose a maximum of five or six main themes to guarantee time for participants to learn a new skill, develop it, demonstrate it and receive positive critical feedback, from María, Jenny and me, as well as from the whole group.

I can tell you that the workshop was a complete success, but not because we were the perfect facilitators. Something special happened during our brief, but intense, two and a half days together. For example, one of the challenges we gave the fifteen participants was to create role-plays to demonstrate how they would use informal surveys to discover new information about their neighbors. The participants worked in teams of two or three. Each team represented a single community. One team, consisting of a pastor, her daughter, and a church member, role-played how they might use surveys as part of the congregation’s ongoing outreach to prostitutes. I cannot say for sure whether their technique will be successful in the real world, but I do know that they asked good open-ended questions, demonstrated humility and were willing to step out of their comfort zone. I was awestruck.

Trust, engagement, imagination, energy — these fifteen individuals demonstrated all of that, and in doing so, they transformed our relationship. We, the facilitators, became participants and the participants facilitated new, deeper understandings in us. When our whole team came to the final closing activity Saturday afternoon, we mutually blessed and sent each other back to our respective communities and onto the next stage of our transformational CHE process.

From September through November 2019, Rev. María Bock, Jenny and I had the opportunity to share this type of CHE training with many groups in the congregations we have visited here in the United States. For those of you who participated, your insights enriched our presentations in unexpected ways. In most cases, it seemed to us that you came to understand our ministry in ways we have not been able to express through our best PowerPoint presentations. Thank you for that.

Finally, many of you know that Jenny, Keila, Annika and I headed back to the Dominican Republic one last time at the end of December to finish packing before we moved to Costa Rica to begin a new assignment in January. You can find out more about that on our official website (https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/missionconnections/mark-hare-and-jenny-bent/). We ask for your prayerful support as we jump into this new life. We also ask that you continue your presence with us in this new ministry with the same dedication you have shown for our work in the DR and Haiti.

In Christ,

Mark


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