In Seeds of Hope: Stories of Systemic Change, the community of San Jose de Ocoa is presented as an example of mission-oriented strategies. The chapter is titled “The Perfect Storm.” When Gene Smith presented this at Belleville, IL, he noted that it took the timely confluence of a visionary priest, a caring and compassionate member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul from Long Island NY and the local community to enable 100 villages to emerge from poverty in the Ocoa River community in the Dominican Republic. As Vincentians, we might call it “providence”. It is equally providential that in a hallway conversation at St. John’s University, Deacon Francis Mateo, a student in theology declared to Mary Ann Dantuono, a Lady of Charity participant at Belleville, “I am systemic change.”
“I Am an Eye Witness; I am Systemic Change”
By Francis Mateo
It is difficult to describe in a few words the tremendous effort needed for a group of individuals to accomplish a communal goal. I was an eye witness to and a participant in such an effort in which a small town became an important city of the Dominican Republic. This change did not happen overnight or from one day to another but it happened over a period of many years. It happened because of the tremendous effort of many, many people who wanted to end poverty and achieve social justice. It happened because people were not afraid of change. It happened because of faith. It happened because of a process that is called “Systemic Change.”
This story took place almost 30 years ago in the town where I grew up. The term “Systemic Change” was unknown to me. But the strategies of systemic change were familiar. I lived them. Now many years later after emigrating to the United States I had the chance to read “The Perfect Storm: Achieving Systemic Change in San Jose de Ocoa” (Seeds of Hope, pp 49-56) by Rev. Mr. Gene Smith, S.S.V.P. in Rev. Steve Biscko, C.M.’s theology class at St. John’s University. This story impacted me deeply, in part because I was part of its achievement.
About thirty years ago my family was part of a Catholic Church’s program which helped poor communities build affordable houses. These houses were built in a town called San Jose de Ocoa, a town of nearly 100 very small villages in the central mountainous area of the Dominican Republic. I offer my personal reflections on the three elements of this “Perfect Storm” as delineated by Gene Smith.
The Visionary Priest
Father Louis Quinn, a Scarborough Missionary from Canada was an individual who possessed all the qualities that St. Vincent wanted in an individual—a deep faith, hard work and an unqualified dedication to and love of the poor. He came to our village in 1965, the year I was born. As a native from San Jose de Ocoa, I can refer to him as my father because he was like a father for most of the people in town. This commitment did not come easy; Padre Luis was strong enough to stay in the town regardless the pressure from government which wanted him to go. He was committed to the locals, especially the “Campesinos” (farmers). Padre Luis dressed like any other man in the town. Because of his contribution to and hard work for the town, I called him the “Iron Man”; he was my Hero. He was not only looking for solutions and bringing changes to the small villages but putting himself in first line to help others in time of need.
Padre Luis was ready to tie a rope around his waist to rescue trapped people when the river over-flowed. He went to prison to demand the freedom of unjustly jailed citizens. He even went face to face with the chief of police to obtain what he thought was right. He was a voice for the voiceless. He dedicated his life to those in need and his love for God who protects the needy. Sometimes he was criticized by those who believe his place was only inside the walls of the temple. He was beyond a normal priest; he did not forget that God is outside the temple among the poor and the deprived of society. The locals (and eventually the government) declared Padre Luis the “protector of the poor.” He used to say that, “working with the needy I meet with God”. He did not preach the Gospel, he lived the Gospel. He did not want to die; he wanted to live because he said “he loves his people.” He wanted to be buried in the town of San Jose de Ocoa in a simple wood coffin. He has rested in peace in the Church of the Virgen de la Altagracia (Our Lady of the Highest Grace) in San Jose since 2007. He said that “Yo quiero que la vida sea buena, abundante y para siempre” (I want life to be good, plenty and forever).
He was one with us. He made God present to us. He organized the community to fight for justice and peace; he pushed for the arts and culture to flourish and involved the community in every aspect of San Jose de Ocoa’s successful development. The Ocoa River Community was willing to contribute to any plan of Padre Luis. He was like a good gardener– whatever he touched flourished.
The Resources: The Society of St. Vincent de Paul Twinning
Padre Luis was impressed by a visitor to our area, Jack Eshman. Jack was moved to action by our poverty, our destitution and the devastation brought by natural disasters and a lack of clean water. He too was a man of compassionate action. Jack was a follower of St. Vincent, a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul from Long Island, NY. Like Vincent, he used his access to resources to help the poor. He brought resources and much change to our area. The growth and change was incremental and always involving the people. He listened to us and he understood our needs even though he did not share our language. He did share our faith and maybe it was the Holy Spirit who translated. He invested and convinced others to invest technical assistance and money in our communities. With Padre Luis, he convinced the community to work with their own hands along side the specialists. My father was one of the people who was involved in building homes and who benefited from this cooperative venture. The villagers worked together to build homes–their own and those of their neighbors; houses that could survive the extremes of weather. Because I was a young boy, I do not remember Mr. Eshman. However, many years later after learning carpentry and other skills in the village, I left the village to study architecture in the Capital. Perhaps my choice of career was influenced by the many projects of development in our river community. When the waters were tamed and electricity came to our villages the community celebrated, and the words of the prophet rang out “Let justice roll down from the mountainside and God’s impartial love be an ever flowing stream.” (Amos 5:25)
Because of the tremendous poverty and fragile environment in which we lived, we needed hope and we needed each other. “Systemic Change” is an approach that should be implanted in any given society to bring hope to those who are oppressed by obsolete systems of selfishness and favoritism. We lived in a corrupt political society, but we had a good leader and we had access to resources. Ocoa’s community responded to Padre Luis’ testimony of dedication.
All cultural events, vigils, work, and festivals received massive support within the community. I recalled when Padre Luis organized an event to support the construction of a new hydroelectric dam, of “Jigüey and Aguacate” on Nizao river. This event aimed to encourage the community to know the area of the proposed hydroelectric project, to do volunteer work around the area and included a competition for the best dressed donkey. These memories come to me as fresh as the day they happened. It was the first time I saw a donkey with lipstick! It was amazing to see a wholehearted brotherhood among those who embarked on the journey. It is difficult to describe those moments, but the reality is that we were one flesh, one body, one big and convivial family, a “communion.” Today I realize how Padre Luis, like St. Vincent with St. Louise, managed to work with all social stratum of Ocoa’s society. It is a deep and penetrating memory etched in my heart as I remember how poor and rich, illiterate and intellectual, farmers and business men, laborers and artists, came together as brothers and sisters to fulfill this mission. The progress of San Jose de Ocoa is closely linked to Systemic Change. Padre Luis Quinn and Jack Eshman were catalysts for the progress of San Jose de Ocoa as was each and every member of the community—each one willing to make many sacrifices to face the challenges of systemic change.
“The Perfect Storm” sounds like a fantasy dream but it is a true story. It is a reality that moved our people from abject poverty to a people of hopes and dreams. It enabled me to seek a better life by emigrating to the United States. It still provides a safe and affordable home for my father in his final years. I am amazed to encounter my past life 20 years later and see it represented in such a positive way, a way to help other communities living in poverty and hopelessness. Thanks to the Vincentians and the generosity of many who were and are willing to contribute and make this world a better place for all: I feel proud to be part of that story. I consider myself to be a “privileged seed” as the result of the dedication and effort of many who gave us opportunity.
However, it is important to recognize that if there is no knowledge of the history and a continuation of such progress like the one in San Jose de Ocoa, then the efforts are wasted. I recently had the opportunity to visit my hometown. Although it was not a surprise to see the progress because of the hard work and dedication the citizens of the town, I was amazed anew at how “Systemic Change” can create such impact in a village. Our village, once on the edge of devastation because of the deforestation of watersheds, dominated by poverty, illnesses and illiteracy became one of the main provinces in the Dominican Republic. The history of the village of San Jose de Ocoa and the impact Systemic Change produced on it, must not be forgotten. Today due to emigration, the people of San Jose are being replaced by a new generation of villagers. If this new generation does not know the history that situated San Jose de Ocoa where it is now, then the sacrifice of brave men and women, who gave everything for the future of the town and put all their strength and hope in the progress, would be in vain.
Today more than ever “San Jose de Ocoa” needs to revive this foundation dream. We have to continue to build up the community as well as tell Ocoa’s story to her new people and to the world. In addition, we have to tell the world that Systemic Change works! There are many projects as the one in San Jose de Ocoa, which represent “seeds of hope” for those who feel marginalized and abandoned to lives of poverty; they need systemic change to allow them to envision la vida sea buena, abundante y para siempre (A life that is good, plenty and forever.)
- This is a wonderful example that such projects take time but bear much fruit.
- This story is also a reminder to “Pay it Forward.”
- Can you remember your reaction when you realized how your life was changed by the generosity of others?