“How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” Psalm 137:4
Pastors Francis & Loly Montás shepherd a church of young people—Casa Joven—that meets on Saturday nights in a converted Santo Domingo nightclub. They have been members since the beginning of the partnership with the Urban Training Collaborative in the Dominican Republic that was started and is lead by Mario Matos. Their work with street kids, incarcerated juvenile delinquents, and “las chicas de Sarasota” serves as a prophetic wake-up call to many others in the Dominican church.
One Thursday night, Francis and Loly called a special prayer service because so many young people in their flock were having serious problems. They did not know what else to do in the face of such difficult circumstances. They met in a little house near one of Santo Domingo’s most infamous streets for prostitution—La Avenida Sarasota. Their prayers for one another seemed strained and “blocked” somehow in a way that they had not experienced before.
After reflecting on the implications of a training experience rooted in the story of Hagar in Genesis 16, their prayerful attention shifted to the young women working on the street they had passed on the way to their prayer meeting. They began talking about the young women and praying for them.
Eventually they left the building as if a magnet were pulling them toward the girls and they ended up spending the next several hours asking beautiful questions of the type the angel had asked Hagar while alone in the desert, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” (Genesis 16:8).
I had the chance to go out to the streets with Francis and Loly and their team a few months after they had begun their weekly Thursday evening visits to Sarasota Avenue. What awaited me was an earth-shattering picture of God’s scandalous grace in the strange world at night time on city streets.
Each young woman we talked with lit up as the young women from the church called them by name and embraced them with hugs. The women on the street updated us on their week, sharing stories about their children, and received prayer with eager anticipation—all the while completely ignoring potential clients who were passing by.
We had just finished sharing and praying with a group of three of the girls when one of them, whom I will call Gloria, asked if she could pray for us. Needless to say, that was an inversion of roles I had not anticipated. We all joined hands on the sidewalk of Avenida Sarasota at 2:30 a.m., and I heard one of the most beautiful prayers of my life.
When Gloria uttered her “amen,” a smile exploded onto her face. She sheepishly confessed that it was the first time she had ever prayed out loud. I pretended to cough while trying to wipe away tears, embarrassed that I was not upholding a strong male exterior. Gloria received more hugs from the ladies and an awkward handshake from me. She said that she planned to come to church that Saturday night when I was scheduled to preach.
I thought about her promise several times over the next several days, and on Saturday night, Gloria indeed came. When the service concluded, she received hug after hug from the young worshipers, including the guest preacher, whose awkward handshake on the street a few nights earlier would no longer suffice for Gloria. She approached me with arms opened wide and a smile erupting with joy.
How blessed the church in Casa Joven has become, and how their vision and mission for their city has been recalibrated through their interaction with these beautiful young women! Casa Joven is living out the missional implications of a sermon preached by Tim Keller on Luke 23.
Keller takes special note of the “outsiders” gathered around the cross. There is Simon of Cyrene—an ethnic, cultural outsider. Simon, an African, carries the cross of Jesus. A convicted criminal—a moral outsider—seeks a place in God’s kingdom as he hangs by Jesus’ side. The Roman centurion, a racial outsider and part of the hated Roman guard, comes to an authentic understanding of what is really happening on the cross.
Finally, there are the women, social outsiders, lingering when other followers have fled. Luke locates only one “religious insider” at the cross, Joseph of Arimathea, who seems to recognize the significance of Jesus’ death. Joseph asks for the opportunity to bury Jesus. Luke is trying to teach us something about the inverted roles of outsiders in the Gospel through the choice of characters he locates around the cross.
In reflecting on this inversion of roles, Keller notes that because of the way salvation is accomplished, those on the outside tend to understand and embrace the cross before those on the inside.
In other words, because of the unsavory way salvation is accomplished, outsiders tend to “get it” before insiders. Women tend to get it before men. Children tend to get it before adults. The poor tend to get it before the rich. It is all in the way salvation was accomplished. Outsiders are familiar with the rejection, shame, and scandal at the core of the gospel story. Not only do they tend to connect more quickly, they have the stomach for it.
The congregation of Casa Joven in Santo Domingo had an encounter with beautiful outsiders that re-calibrated their mission and allowed them to become front row witnesses to the scandalous nature of God’s amazing grace. Through leaning into their experience and sharing it with others, they have been able to encourage other “insiders” throughout Central America and the Caribbean to exchange hugs with those far too often rejected “outsiders” of their respective cities and neighborhoods. In so doing, they are learning to sing God’s song in the once “strange lands” of their own city with a growing number of voices adding to the harmony of grace.