I had the opportunity in April of this year to join a group of men and women from the Washington, D.C. area traveling to the Dominican Republic to minister to their "ultra-poor." My expectation was that we would be able to provide some needed food and supplies and help out with other needs. What I never expected, however, was to cross the path of a woman who towered above we visiting Americans in passion, heart and character. As I observed over the course of our stay, she was an authentic Christian woman, a child of the King, as some say. She is then, in that spiritual sense, the Princess of the Dominican Republic.
This woman is no dainty fairy-tale princess, however. As I was to discover, this Dominican version was a visionary, a leader, a businesswoman, able to influence professional baseball players, missionaries, and church leaders from other countries to support her efforts to assist the ultra-poor -- and she did all of that while pouring herself out in service to others. But in a sense like the Cinderella character, she experienced a dramatic personal and spiritual transformation, changing from a hard core trouble-maker to the remarkable servant-saint she was when I met her.
A group of 17 men and women from McLean Bible Church (Virginia) arrived in the Dominican in late April and linked up with our host, a local mission organization, SCORE International. Since most of us were choir members of the church, a part of our mission had been to go out into many of the poor areas of the countryside and perform concerts. These were joint concerts, however, as we paired with a fledgling children's choir from an educational facility located in Quisqueya. Our plan was to join our adult voices with the children's and then perform in several smaller villages. The founder and administrator of this facility, called Emanuel House, was a Dominican woman named Mirqueya Guzman.
Mirqueya Guzman, as she is typically seen: loving on a child
I could tell immediately from watching Mirqueya interact with the children that she had a genuine love for them, and it was equally obvious they returned it. Many of my companions told me they had heard that Mirqueya had some amazing story, but as it turned out, none of them actually knew the tale. Wanting to know what the buzz was about, I decided to go straight to the source and simply ask. That proved more difficult than I imagined. She was always busy helping this person or coordinating that action, and rarely slowed down long enough for me to have a conversation.
Further, since I don't speak Spanish and she doesn't speak English, I also had to find a time I could sit her down and find an interpreter who was available. Finally, one day when we were traveling on a bus from one location to another, I was able to corral her and the interpreter. I began by asking how a woman of limited means was able to charter an education facility. The more she told me, the more enthralled I became, and one question begat another. We arrived at our next destination but had not gotten halfway through the riveting story. So we continued as we left the bus and walked to the next event. Over the course of our conversation, it became clear the adjective "amazing" wasn't close to being adequate to describe Mirqueya Guzman.
One of 11 children born to a poor Quisqueya family, Mirqueya knew extreme poverty from the beginning. Unfortunately for her, it got profoundly worse when she was only six. It was then that her father simply abandoned the family and started a new one elsewhere. The loss and betrayal were stunning enough, but her mom, now a single mother in one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean, couldn't provide for so many children. "It wasn't just that my dad left us," she explained to me through the interpreter, "but my family would spend days without eating. We couldn't afford school supplies or uniforms to even attend school." It didn't take her mother long to realize she had to make one of the most excruciating decisions any woman could ever make: there were no jobs in Quisqueya, so she would have to leave the children on their own and go to the capital, Santo Domingo, to work so the children could survive.
Typical residential street in Quisqueya
As a result of these compounding hardships, Mirqueya became hardened, rebellious and disobedient to authority. Behind the bravado, however, when no one was watching she "used to cry a lot" because she felt "empty and alone. I believed no one loved me. I didn't love life either. Many times I asked the question, 'who am I? Why am I here? Who brought me here? Where am I going?' My questions never had answers. It was the lowest point of my life." The pain and pressures grew so great that she gave serious consideration to taking her own life. But her mother never lost hope "that God could change me," Mirqueya explained. "She would pray and fast for me often." The bitterness and rebellion, however, came to an abrupt and unexpected end with a head-spinning 180 degree turn.
As we walked down the sidewalk, Mirqueya told me that something radically changed her life one night when she was 17-years-old that she still can't fully explain. "Up until that moment my heart had been like, like..." as she searched for the right word, we came upon a manhole cover on the sidewalk. Mirqueya stamped her foot hard on the thick steel cover and said, "...like that." There was something about the dull, hard, thud that resounded when she stamped her foot on the impenetrable metal object that made me shudder. She said it with such conviction. Her face stern, as if remembering a painful time she would rather forget.
Mirqueya with another little friend
"During a time when I needed it most, Jesus came into my heart and saved me. I had no idea that He could change a life so dramatically," she continued. "Jesus turned my hard heart into a soft one." She said for the first time in her life she felt a conviction over her past behavior, and began asking a series of friends and relatives to forgive her. But in perhaps the most pointed confirmation of how changed her heart had become, she said she was able to forgive her father. Mirqueya now began to experience the joy of life like never before. But less than two years later, a new tragedy struck: she was afflicted with a terminal disease.
"The blood in my veins practically turned to water," she explained. "When my hemoglobin level dropped to 4g/dL (grams per deciliter of blood), the doctor told me there was nothing she could do; the level would continue to drop," meaning she would soon die. But for the second time in her life, she experienced a dramatic encounter with God. "It was September 10th," she told me, "I asked for a very simple prayer from my pastor asking for help. God then did a miracle and overnight my hemoglobin level shot up to 12g/dL." Having had a life-altering spiritual encounter with Jesus and then a life-saving miracle from God, Mirqueya was filled to overflowing with gratitude, and a confidence that truly "there is nothing God can't do!" she explained.
Over the next several years Mirqueya was able to get a college education and then became a public school teacher. Soon after beginning her career, however, she began to notice some of the children of the poorest families were not able to go to school because they couldn't afford shoes or proper clothes. She said God started breaking her heart for these children. In 2001, the industry upon which most of Quisqueya depended for employment, sugarcane plantations, suffered severe crop failure, and a considerable percentage of families lost their only source of income. Seeing the number of poor children skyrocket, Mirqueya said she felt compelled to help in some way.
Gathering several like-minded friends together, she started a ministry that met in a house she called Emanuel House (Emanuel means "God with us"). "We would identify the problems the people in our town were having, and tried to think of ways we could help," Mirqueya said. "One of the first things we did was host a Christmas dinner for these poor children. The first year we were able to get enough contributions and donations to feed 200 children. That opened our eyes to what was possible." Over time, she developed and refined an ability to marshal support from those with who were able in order to provide for those who were unable to help themselves.
Walking down a neighborhood near Quisqueya, looking for someone else to serve
Several years later, she was able to scrape enough resources to rent a house to serve kids from a dedicated facility. Mirqueya and her friends canvased one of the poorer sections of their town and selected 50 children in the greatest need. "God just put a restlessness in our hearts to help these kids," she explained. So she began providing the children food and school supplies, and most importantly, gave them hope. Still, the need remained great and she felt compelled to expand the number of little ones she could serve. But the leaders at Emanuel House didn't have enough resources to expand. Burdened with a desire to help more, Mirqueya and her colleagues met together to pray. "We knew that God listens to prayers and that He would move in the hearts of different people to make our dreams become a reality."
The House then grew to be able to support 60, then later to nearly 100. But the facility they had been using was too small to serve more, so Mirqueya and her partners leased a larger facility, enabling them to provide for more children. When they ran into difficulty making the larger rent payments, they again turned to prayer. "We prayed to God, trusting that He would provide. We specifically prayed that the rich would have a heart for helping the poor." Not long after this prayer, God answered when Major League Baseball player Alfonso Soriano (Quisqueya native, and former New York Yankee) was made aware of Emanuel House's need and provided the funds.
In 2008, Mirqueya first began working with SCORE International, a missionary group with a permanent presence in the Dominican. Working with leaders of churches in the United States, SCORE helped facilitate groups from these churches to visit and help provide support. When these groups arrived, they were amazed at what Mirqueya was doing with her meager resources, and their hearts were moved to begin actively helping. "We never imagined that the Lord was going to be responding to our prayers through them," she told me. Soon, churches in Chicago, Boston, and Washington, DC began hosting fundraisers to help expand Emanuel House's ability to serve.
Children have a natural affinity to Mirqueya (photo: idophoto.com)
SCORE International then partnered with Emanuel House to help provide more consistent revenue streams. Mirqueya, however, realized there was still so many children in need of help, and sought new ways to serve more children. In 2010, with support from a U.S. church, the House began serving deaf children. In early 2013 they started a pre-school, and that summer added special needs children to the rolls. Today Emanuel House provides educational services for children from 119 families. What Mirqueya has accomplished is remarkable, to be sure. But owing to my limited experience in the mission field, I wanted to ask a few others for some context. Is her story as amazing as I perceive, or is it more common than I realized?
"Mirqueya's commitment is definitely atypical of anyone I've ever met," said Adrienna Christian, a missionary working for SCORE in the Dominican. "The last 13 years she has given up her life to love, provide for, and help the community of Quisqueya. It's hard to walk down the street without being greeted by someone who knows her and loves her. She is very highly respected, and because of that she has helped kids get into school who've never been before, provided support for parents of the poorest kids." Director of Outreach at McLean Bible Church Dale Sutherland, who has many times travelled to the Dominican on short term mission trips, also says Mirqueya is special.
"I have traveled all over the world and have met wonderful people everywhere I have gone," he said in a recent email message. "But I haven't met anyone as loving, genuine, and giving as Mirqueya. There is always a flurry of activity around Mirqueya, and it always involves her caring for other people and their needs. She is everyone's mother, sister, teacher, and friend." Singer/Songwriter Michael W. Smith, who has served on mission trips all over the world, offered a different perspective on the significance of Mirqueya's accomplishments.
Michael W. Smith: "Long-lasting, meaningful change happens from within"
"I've seen first-hand the impact that can be made when a local person is given the resources and support to care for their own," Mr. Smith said. "Mission trips and Mission projects are great - but they are temporary. Long-lasting, meaningful change happens from within. I've worked with Compassion International for years and it's exciting to see, this many years in, kids that went through the program that are now elected officials in their communities and countries! They are creating change from within." Mirqueya's passion to serve ever more children and families in the future demonstrates the meaningful change to which Mr. Smith alluded.
She dreams of one day being able to purchase a parcel of land on which to build a new school with 24 classrooms, open a girl's home, conduct vocational training both for the children and their parents, build a medical clinic, and construct a small church. "My hope," Mirqueya explained, "is that many children will accept Jesus Christ as their savior, that they will go on to attend university, and that we can provide training and skills to allow children to be able to earn a living when they grow up, and be a benefit to their society."
For the sake of all those Dominican families still in need, I hope she accomplishes every goal. But after what I've seen, I would not imagine anything is beyond the reach of the Princess of the Dominican Republic.
If you would like to join Mirqueya helping the poor, the deaf, and the special needs children of Quisqueya, Dominican Republic, follow this link to the SCORE International web site and sponsor a child.