Latin America

The evangelization of welcome: What the church can learn from a youth center in a poor Dominican neighborhood


Liony Batista runs a foundation to help vulnerable communities in the Dominican Republic. The outreach includes a youth center in Bajos de Haina, an impoverished town outside the capital city, Santo Domingo. The town is known as “Quitasueños,” or “Dreambreaker,” because for years trains carrying sugarcane would pass through at night and wake up residents.

Mr. Batista’s foundation, Fundación Nueva Alegria, opened the youth center in 2015, offering teenagers classes that keep them busy but also offer future income opportunities. Instructors cover topics like sewing, barbering and hair styling, and how to make jewelry and accessories, apply cosmetics or repair appliances.

The children and teens of Quitasueños can also take recreational classes, like hip-hop, dance and drama; and the center organizes summer camps. Oh, and one more thing. The young people learn about God.

“It’s giving them a little extra money, so they can use it in their homes, help their parents buy food or whatever they want to buy,” Mr. Batista told America.

The children and teens of Quitasueños can also take recreational classes, like hip-hop, dance and drama; and the center organizes summer camps in the mountains.

Oh, and one more thing. The young people learn about God.

“You were once young and you’re not trying to knock them over the head [with religion],” said Mr. Batista, who is 63. Some aspects of the outreach, like fellowship and volunteerism, may not seem religious at first but are critical to building a community of faith with young people.

“You’re doing it as a process,” he said. “Now, we’ve gone a little deeper in the teachings of the Bible. But that’s not where we start. We go in stages.”

From MTV to Youth Ministry

Mr. Batista is the 11th child in a family of 15 children. His family moved from the Dominican Republic to the United States when he was 6. Now the father of four adult children, he worked a variety of jobs in his life before establishing Nueva Alegria, or “New Joy.”

Some aspects of the outreach, like fellowship and volunteerism, may not seem religious at first but are critical to building a community of faith with young people.

Those jobs included youth ministry positions in several U.S. churches and nine years with Food for the Poor, a Florida-based humanitarian agency. He also worked for the television network MTV Latino, learning lessons he still applies in his work today. He recalls how part of MTV’s demographic research included periodic assessments of what young people had in their bedrooms.

“I tell parents, ‘You may not be interested in what’s in your kid’s room. But MTV and some other companies are,’” he said. Those bedroom items can tell parents “where they’re at emotionally…and you can take it from there. Not in an intrusive way, but in a way that you see if your kids are freaking out or something.”

Mr. Batista described a poster MTV Europe used for promotion in Germany that featured a person with “a lot of earrings” and “their hair looking weird.” Along with the image came a simple phrase: “Welcome home.”

“The message was that it doesn’t matter what you look like, who you are, you are welcome at MTV,” Mr. Batista explained, adding that the Lutheran Church there asked for permission to use the same approach in one of their campaigns.

“I still follow that model,” he said. “You’re welcome here at the youth center. We don’t know yet what you believe and what you don’t. That’s not important right now. What’s important is that you’re young and we want to try to pour love into your life. We want to try to get you out of the street.”

Naturally, given his background at MTV, music is also a part of the program offerings, but the youth center actually started as a sewing group. After Mr. Batista’s foundation started receiving donated materials to make purses, 15 girls formed a group to assemble and sell them. From that initial group, some went on to start their own restaurant selling chicken wings, and others went on to college.

Many of the kids are being raised by single mothers who work as live-in nannies or maids in the city during the week. That means children are often being raised by their grandmother or by their eldest sibling.

Not long after it started, one of the girls asked Mr. Batista, “Hey, aren’t you going to have boys in here?” From there, the group grew to offer more classes and now has more than 100 students.

“It’s growing so fast,” said Mr. Batista, noting the group has now outgrown its second location. “We’re doing ministry that few churches know how to do with youth. We have the youth of everyone.”

That includes young people from other nearby churches, which he described as more rules-oriented.

“They’re telling them, ‘You can’t wear this or that, you can’t do this or that,’” he said. “The youth last four or five months in those churches before they wind up in my youth center. It’s too much pressure for them.”

Home Away From Home

The youth center is about much more than the classes themselves, of course. There is a lot of crime in the neighborhood, and having a safe place to go every day keeps the children and teens out of trouble.

Many of the kids are being raised by single mothers who work as live-in nannies or maids in the city during the week. That means children are often being raised by their grandmother or by their eldest sibling.

A typical meal in the neighborhood is often just rice with eggs, said Mr. Batista. Now and then families might splurge for chicken, but pork and beef are not part of their diet. Sometimes Mr. Batista will take a group of kids out for dinner and a movie in a nicer part of town, an experience that is often completely new to them.

“We’re totally involved in their lives. It’s not just come here and take a class. We know their parents. We know where they live.”

“There’s more to life than the barrio,” said Mr. Batista, who is like a father figure to many of the young people. “That doesn’t mean that barrio is bad. But in the future, you may want to go out into the university and meet people.” The barrio kids will need to “know how to talk to people,” he said.

Mr. Batista started a leadership formation program for students who wanted to do more at the center. That group includes Elvis Guzmán, who is 22 and has been involved with Nueva Alegria since he was 14.

“My godfather was involved with the youth center and he told me they were going to do a painting class. Since I really like drawing, I thought, ‘O.K., I’ll try it,’” Mr. Guzmán said. “When I went in, just [seeing] what was happening at the center, it called to my heart.”

Many of the kids in the neighborhood “don’t have anything to eat,” he said, and the foundation is there for them. Now Mr. Guzmán works at its warehouse.

“I want to give everything to support the foundation,” he said. “I feel like God is using me with the work I do here.”

Things can get ugly in the neighborhood, he said. Mr. Guzmán told the story of men who assaulted a woman in her own home one afternoon after she left her door open.

Brandel Fernández, 19, has learned how to be a barber, how to design T-shirts and how to fix telephones. “With God’s help, I’m going to start my own barbershop,” he said.

‘The reason why the crime is so bad is because there’s no work,” he said. “It’s really hard in this country right now.”

Brandel Fernández, who is 19, has been with the youth group for the last seven years. He said the foundation helped him “with food, studies at school, so many things.”

He has learned how to be a barber, how to design T-shirts and how to fix telephones. “With God’s help, I’m going to start my own barbershop,” he said. “The youth group taught me about fellowship and how God is everything in this world.”

Making purses is what first attracted 17-year-old Bennali Delgado to the group six years ago. She saw what some of her peers were doing at the foundation and became interested. She was soon attending beauty classes and gathering information about how to start her own business.

She lives with her mom and said lack of money is what hurts families the most. Right now, she is thinking about attending a local college. The foundation has helped pay for her to take classes elsewhere in the meantime.

“The kids who are here are here to learn about God and not waste their time on the streets,” she said. “We want to get ahead, to receive a good education and that’s directed by God. Without God, we’re nothing.”

Finding a Path Home

Mr. Batista was on the ground helping out in Haiti with other relief workers the day after the 2010 earthquake. A few months later, he felt God was calling him to do something else. “I can’t tell you it was like Moses and the burning bush or whatever,” he said. “I just felt in my heart that I had lost my direction.”

For two years, he went through what felt like a desert. He was working construction in the United States with his brother when it occurred to him, “God, did I get the wrong message?”

He started working as a consultant for Cross Catholic Outreach, an international development and relief ministry. In 2012, he went back to the Dominican Republic to spend time with his parents. His father, who was 92, passed away four months later.

Those months with his family convinced him to stay. His work with Cross Catholic and other humanitarian organizations inspired him to refocus his efforts in the Dominican Republic with Nueva Alegria, which he had started a few years before, and the youth center became a critical part of its outreach. Mr. Batista gets to know the entire neighborhood by serving the youth.

“We’re totally involved in their lives,” he said. “It’s not just come here and take a class. We know [their] parents. We know where [they] live.”

Some days, Mr. Batista will take a motorcycle through the narrow streets of the barrio, meeting parents. He sits with them to talk over coffee or a Coke. He will visit six or seven homes in a day. When his foundation receives metal roofing from Cross Catholic, for example, the connections he makes through the youth center help him know which family needs the material the most.

When a young person is absent from the center for a while, Mr. Batista will make a point of reaching out directly. “I tell them, ‘We do notice and we miss you. And I want you to come back. If there’s a problem in your house or something, let me know if there’s something I can do,’” he said.

Sometimes the absence can be attributed to a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or students feeling that peers were not paying enough attention to them. But often the one-to-one outreach brings them back.

Mr. Batista wants young people to see themselves through God’s eyes. “You’re not what people say about you,” he tells them. “If your mom tells you you’re not going to go anywhere, you can tell them that Liony Batista, the director of the youth center, says: ‘Mom, you are wrong. That is not what God says about us.’ And tell them to come talk to me because this is who you really are.”

J.D. Long-García traveled to the Dominican Republic with Cross Catholic Outreach.

Dominican Republic at a Glance

While the Dominican Republic has made significant economic gains in recent decades and is now categorized as a middle-income country, more than 40 percent of Dominicans still live in poverty. The share of the population living on less than $3.20 per day has declined from 14.3 percent in 2012 to 4.3 percent in 2021. The Dominican Republic has experienced rapid urbanization, with urban residency increasing 50 percent since 2007.

The U.N. World Food Program reports that food security has been affected by income inequality, poverty and lack of dietary diversity. Located in the Caribbean’s “hurricane belt,” the Dominican Republic suffers from recurrent natural shocks that disrupt food systems. Significant progress against poverty has been hindered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to a W.F.P. assessment, at the end of 2020 some 287,000 people in the Dominican Republic (3 percent of the population) endured severe food insecurity, while 4 million people (36 percent) faced moderate food insecurity. Seven percent of children under 5 suffered from chronic malnutrition.

Population: 10.8 million

40% of children under 14 are growing up in poverty

Life expectancy: 73

Urban population: 84% of total population

Per capita income (2022): $10,121; compared with $9,475 for Latin American and Caribbean nations

Remittances from outside the Dominican Republic (2022): $10.3 billion—9.2% of gross domestic product

Religion (2018): Roman Catholic 44%, evangelical Protestant 13%, other Protestant 8%, Adventist 1.4%, other 2%, atheist 0.2%, none 29%, unspecified 2%


Sources: C.I.A. World Factbook, World Bank, U.N. World Food Program



Source link

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *