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The words of the Gospel of Matthew became all too real during the seven short days that I spent in Bermejo, Dominican Republic, a small village in the southeast region of the country. I traveled to Bermejo to build a school. But it was not my actions that exemplified the apostle's calling; rather, it was the service of the local people to me, a service rooted in compassion and humble character.

In March, I was one of 12 college students in partnership with Worldwide Christian Schools and COCREF, Colegios Cristianos Reformados (Christian Reformed Schools) who spent their spring break helping in the expansion of Apocalipsis Christian, an elementary school with 255 children in grades K-4 and eight teachers. There is no public school in Bermejo. Many students who attend Apocalipsis Christian are the first of their families to receive formal schooling. Rarely do students in Bermejo, a village populated largely by sugar cane cutters of Haitian descent, make it beyond the sixth grade. As a result, this Christian school in Bermejo has the opportunity to dramatically expand education and spread the Gospel to all the children in the batey. (A batey is company housing, usually barrack-type sheds, for sugar cane cutters and their families. Some workers live in small individual houses made out of pine slats.)

Each day in Bermejo I set out, consciously trying to be the hands and feet of God – but each day I received more than I gave. The men, women, and children of Bermejo are accustomed to visiting work teams whose intentions are to aid the villagers. Although we volunteers feel that they deserve such aid, the residents have never accepted anything without giving in return. The Worldwide Christian Schools reflect this fact. After the school was established in 1993, the community was given responsibility for sustaining the operation and has successfully done so in joint venture with the missionaries based there.

Among the poor in the batey of Bermejo, I witnessed a sense of personal responsibility that drives survival and success. What I saw there recalled the truth of Dutch Reformed theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper’s essay “The Problem of Poverty” in which he said, “The continuing welfare of people and nation, including labor, lies only in powerful individual initiative.”

Unfortunately, in the United States, despite the projected image of self-reliance and independence, this personal responsibility is too often replaced with dependency. While mutual interdependence is an inescapable part of modern society (and reflects the social nature of human beings), some government programs and private handouts have promoted a welfare mentality that fosters an unhealthy kind of dependence. Many recipients of welfare develop an “attitude of entitlement” over time. Aid begins responding not to need but to expectancy. Welfare reform has begun to diminish this attitude and attempts to promote the kind of personal responsibility that creates confidence and vitality.

It is obvious that God calls each person to be compassionate to his brother, as illustrated in Matthew, but it is also clear, as in I Thessalonians 4:10-12, that no one is to receive a free ride. “But we urge you, brethren, that you increase more and more; that you also aspire to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and that you may lack nothing.” One of the lessons I learned in Bermejo is that these people whom we served by the construction of Apocalipsis Christian, were only too ready to serve us. Their poverty, in a material sense, was almost total, but they resisted becoming dependent on the free help offered to them. The older generation survived by hard labor and is now prompting the younger generation to seek education. They encourage the children to take the personal initiative to better their lives. Many will never make it outside the batey, but elders teach the children that possibility resides in their efforts.

With individual effort and God’s provision, lives will be transformed. On my last day of mixing cement and giving countless piggyback rides, the children of Bermejo presented each of us a bag of passion fruit that they had collected. My life was empowered by that selfless act of giving and inspired by the sincere compassion they showed me each day. Inasmuch as I wanted to serve them, they wanted to serve me. How might our society improve if that was the mentality of each of us?

Erin Riley, a student at Hope College in Holland MI, served as an intern in the communications department at the Acton Institute.