Mother Teresa of Agua Negra
It was so hot we could feel sweat rolling down our spines. There was no breeze, no shade from the sun, no clean spot to escape the dirty road under our feet. All around us, eager children grabbed at our hands and chattered at us incessantly in Spanish. We politely nodded and laughed at their antics, secretly wondering how long this little diversion was going to take. As we looked over our shoulder behind us, local people smiled and waved as they called out, “Hola!”, and as we looked in front of us, we saw the woman who was leading the way on this little trek: Sandra. The Mother Teresa of Agua Negra.“Agua Negra” means “Black Water” in Spanish. It is a significant name if you consider the location of the community: sandwiched against the industrial harbour of Puerto Plata, tucked away out of sight, overcrowded and polluted, and built on top of an old garbage dump. In this place, poverty has raked open a gaping wound in the lives of those who are victimized by it. Narrow streets, filled with sludge and sewage become the passageways of all the inhabitants in the community and whenever it rains hard enough, the mud rises in the streets as the ground seeps out black water. Not exactly what you would consider prime real estate.Sandra dreamed of something better for herself, her children, and the people who are relegated to calling Agua Negra home. Since that day, she has rallied help from around the world to build a school, a computer learning centre, a boys and girls after school facility, and has inspired some people there to start to make clothes and jewellery for a cooperative income. LiveDifferent (formerly Absolute) chose to partner with Sandra’s organization to build two homes for families that have been devastated by AIDS and other irreversible consequences of desperate poverty. Here in Agua Negra, when you build a house, you are literally putting it down on a foundation of garbage, hoping it will hold and hoping you will stay safe. And though it may not seem like much to the outside world, to the thousands upon thousands of people who call this place home, it is all that they can lay claim to.In many ways, Sandra seems to be an enigma to me. I do not know how she decided to begin her work here or what led her to stay in this community, and I do not know how she continues to do so. She is a single mother of four children, but she is overflowing with faith and vision. As she walked among the community with us, I realized that she is no better off financially than the people whom she serves and works among in Agua Negra. Though she is one of them, she is one who chooses to point the way to a brighter future, one small step at a time – and she is loved in this place. Women confide in her, men respect her, children are drawn to her. All who meet her walk away being reminded of the power of compassion, one life at a time, and are struck with a deep conviction that you can never give up on people. Her life reminds me that love is never wasted. She knows each family by name, knows the ages of their children, knows their struggles and successes. And on that dirty, smelly road, Sandra taught us to love without saying a word.We sat in the homes of families, sixteen adults cramped into one room shacks and lean-tos. We held hands of children burned by gasoline explosions, kissed the cheeks of mothers losing their battles with cancer, shook hands with men and women who were fighting AIDS, a disease they did not understand and who had chosen them without their consent. And that day, in that place, we saw a little glimpse of heaven on earth. Later that day as we drove away (two hours behind schedule!), we each felt like life was a little more precious, health was a little more appreciated, and love seemed a little sweeter. All of that was because of a small woman, who in a big way, has helped to be the voice, the hands, and the feet of hope and compassion.Sandra, my friend, you are a beautiful woman, both inside and out. Your love for your community has both inspired me and challenged my boundaries of compassion and grace. Thank you. I never had the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa, but I have seen her spirit live on in women such as you.