A Church for La Hoya:
Youth and a Missionary Start Dominican Congregation
by Elliott Wright
New York, NY, January 8, 2010--About two years ago, Missionary Connie DiLeo traded a used truck for two building lots in the town of La Hoya in the southwest Dominican Republic. The goal: a church site for a group of teenagers who had come together as a congregation meeting in a garage.
The first service was held in the partially-finished new buidling the Sunday before Christmas, 2009. Two weeks earlier, five young men were the first persons baptized by the church that DeLeo is not sure yet has a name. "I suppose that officially we are the Iglesia Evangelica Dominicana de La Hoya and that I am the unofficial pastor...for now."
Officially, Ms. DiLeo is director of Community Partners (COPA), which operates schools and clinics in an acutely poor section of the Dominican Republic. The ordained deacon from Florida and missionary of the General Board of Global Ministries is now also a church developer, for without her insight and organizing ability there would be no new church in La Hoya.
The origin of the unnamed congregation is rooted in the work of COPA, a ministry of churches in both the United States and Great Britain. COPA serves the towns of both Bombita and La Hoya. Bombita is made up almost entirely of immigrants from Haiti; La Hoya is mostly Dominican with some Haitian immigrants.
"For my first four-and-a-half years here, I lived in Bombita, and I loved it there," DiLeo says. "However, I felt God was asking me to move to La Hoya. Why? While La Hoya was so much better off financially, relatively speaking, it was very poor spiritually. The people in Bombita in their severe poverty were rich in their faith."
COPA's mission is to help communities in the region through education, health services, and spiritual development. It already operated in La Hoya before DiLeo moved there. There are currently some 850 students in COPA schools.
As a Christian facility, the school in La Hoya had weekly religious assemblies and daily prayer in classrooms. DiLeo organized a youth group made up primarily of seventh and eighth graders that meet weekly.
There was only one small church in La Hoya, so the missionary, still living in Bombita, began to invite young people from Bombita to come monthly for a service with the La Hoya youth group. Attendance was great. The young people had little else to do.
"Rocking the House"
DiLeo explained that she was not sure the teenagers were coming to worship God; maybe they came because the visitors from Bombita had a great band that "rocked the house." After a few months, some of the older youth in La Hoya asked if the service could take place every week. That is when she decided to move to La Hoya. Support for the idea also came from a local guidance counselor who said that the small local church was not very welcoming to young people.
The youth converted a garage that once housed a COPA ambulance into worship space, and began meeting there in October 2008.
"Soon the youth began asking for their own 'church,' " DiLeo recalls. "I tried to explain that we had a 'church,' that church is the people. They said, 'Yes, but we want our own church!' "
She took the idea to Pastor Pedro Kery Johnson of the Evangelical Church of the Dominican Republic in Barahona. That denomination is the mission partner of The United Methodist Church in the Dominican Republic. The proposal gained his blessing.
DiLeo went to work. She traded the truck for the building lots that were slated to become the location of a bar. Bars far outnumber churches in La Hoya.
So, there was a site, but what about a structure? DiLeo and the young people prayed. Pastor Johnson called to say that he had arranged for two work teams to dig the footers. Then, UMVIM (United-Methodist-Volunteers-In-Mission) teams came from Georgia to raise the walls. The Georgia United Methodists provided funds for the roof.
The local young people helped with the building, and were assisted by other youth from churches in Bombita and Barahona in laying floors and painting. Some of the helpers came from a church that Missionary DiLeo had helped to build 14 years earlier.
Developing new congregations--"creating new places for new people..."--is a current priority of The United Methodist Church. The church in La Hoya is a sterling example of this objective.
Youth Emphasis Will Continue
The youthful members of the congregation could not wait for final windows, or the second floor, or electricity, or plumbing to be installed. The unnamed church of La Hoya opened its doors to worshippers on December 20, 2009.
"Our main outreach will continue to be the youth," DiLeo says. "We had a youth camp for 90 young people last July. We are seeing youth, one by one, coming to Christ and learning that only through Him, not in bars, can one find real joy. We may not have electricity, but with the help of generators, rented chairs, and borrowed sound equipment we will keep 'rocking the house' and celebrating God's love among the youth of southwest Dominican Republic."
Connie DiLeo, who is originally from Tomahawk, Wisconsin, is trained in both education and theology. She earned a degree in Elementary Education and an master's in Administration and Supervision from the University of South Florida in Tampa. She completed religious foundation classes required for ordination as a deacon at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia. Prior to her assignment in the Dominican Republic, she worked in for nine years at the Aldersgate United Methodist Church, in Seminole, Florida.
DiLeo's work can be supported through The Advance, the designated mission giving channel of The United Methodist Church: Missionary Connie DiLeo, Advance #14169Z.
One hundred percent of each gift to reaches The Advance mission or ministry of your choice, givetomission.org.
*Elliott Wright is an author and consultant to the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Jan 07, 2010