On a remote and beautiful peninsula in the Dominican Republic, forested and mountainous, small wooden cabins are being built as part of a quiet retreat.
There is no easy way to get to the mostly virgin land of the Samana Peninsula from the sprawling capital of Santo Domingo. But already groups of 15 to 35 at a time are making their way to the retreat for prayer meetings, seminars or just some holiday time out.
So far two cabins are ready, as well as a makeshift kitchen, outside bathrooms for campers, a generator for electricity, running water from a tank placed high on poles, and a maintenance building.
Ten more cabins are on the way.
David DeCamp and his wife Nancy are the brains behind the retreat.
“The reason why we picked this spot is because we knew the church needed a facility for retreats,” De Camps says. “This place is oceanfront, yet it is on a bay, safe and protected from storms."
"Our churches need these kinds of places so badly, but there has never been a plan to pay for it and make it happen.
"City living in most third world countries, and maybe most developed countries, is not a way to raise children and not conducive to spiritual growth. In the Dominican Republic, poor families live worse in the city than in the country. In the city, they suffer more from malnutrition and poverty — though they may have better access to education."
Dominican Adventists who live in Santo Domingo have already been making use of the retreat. “From the time we cleared the land, we’ve had people coming and camping,” says DeCamp. “We do little programs, they help on the property and in the community.
“People don’t care about facilities. Many of them only earn $60 a month. They are always anxious to come – the biggest problem is finding enough money to get them there.”
DeCamp says Adventists have a strong presence in the Dominican Republic, though it is a predominantly Catholic country. In the cities there is usually a church you can walk to. DeCamp and his family keep a small apartment in downtown Santo Domingo – they can walk to three Adventist churches from their house.
But DeCamp feels strongly about living in the country.
DeCamp says he wants to follow the advice given by Ellen G White, and prepare people to move out of the cities and be self-sufficient.
The retreat has “good, rich soil, and we are able to do a lot of agriculture there, and teach gardening, farming and care of orchards.”
But the retreat isn’t just about teaching city folks how to be farmers. DeCamp says he is also trying to give neighbor farmers helpful tips.
“We have seen a real educational need for people who already live in the country. Their farming techniques are very poor, thus their quality of life is very poor.”
In this undeveloped part of the country, there are many subsistence farmers who live off the land, cook with wood and bathe in rivers. Life is simple.
A simple life is what DeCamp is after, but he says there are easy and inexpensive things local farmers can do to upgrade. “The best way is by example.” DeCamp is trying to farm in the same old traditional way – except better.
“We don’t use tractors or fancy irrigation,” he says. “We do it the same way they do it, but with better ideas – a little more knowledge about what makes plants healthy.”
For example, most people in the Dominican Republic only grow vegetable gardens in the winter, according to DeCamp. In the summer, the soil is too hot, and even the water gets too hot and damages the wilting plants roots.
So DeCamp has built a raised vegetable bed that can even withstand hurricane flooding; he mulches the plants inside so they don’t get too hot, and then plants tall leafy companion plants to provide shade for the less-hardy plants. Instead of planting all the vegetable seeds at once, he plants some every few weeks, so that vegetables produce all year round.
Instead of letting all the fruit trees and root plants grow wild on the retreat, the way they had been, DeCamp and some workers cleared all the jungle back with machetes. They found avocados, mango trees, bananas, coconuts, oranges and more. They dug around the trees, pruned them and fertilized.
“Lo and behold, we had fruit twice in one year,” DeCamp says. “That is not usual. Several neighbors said those trees had never had fruit as long as they could remember. They asked what we did. And that was our opportunity to show them some things about looking after their land. And then that became an opportunity to talk to them about medical care and simple remedies, and then about our faith.”
Plans for the land
Nancy DeCamp is Dominican – she and David, who is American, met in the Turks & Caicos, where they were both working. DeCamp worked there as a lay evangelist for about nine years, building, teaching and running a radio program.
Both Nancy and David have four children from previous marriages. The youngest three are in high school in Santo Domingo, where Nancy’s parents live. Next year they will be attending a local Dominican high school near the retreat.
DeCamp envisions all kinds of things for the retreat. While he wants to serve Dominican Adventists and help the local community, bringing in people from outside is a third mission. For instance, youth groups from the US can bring in some much-needed funds; the youth can help on the camp and in the community, and take a feeling back home that they’ve done something useful.
Right now, plans are being made for a group of college students from Tampa, Florida to visit the retreat, and run some seminars while they are in the Dominican Republic.
They will build a bathroom or kitchen (with improved smoke ventilation) for someone locally, and take trips around the island.
“My first mission trip was when I was 15,” says DeCamp. "I went to Roatan in 1969 to build a church. It changed my life. I am so sold on youth from developed countries coming to a place like this – it wakes you up to what your priorities should be.”
DeCamp has always been interested in how things work. He built treehouses as a kid, and has since accumulated skills as the needs came. He builds furniture, and knows basic plumbing, electricity skills. He learned how to lay block while living in Costa Rica.
But DeCamp’s career was as an artist and designer. His mother was an artist, and DeCamp started supporting himself through art when he was 21.
He moved into stained glass, and opened an art gallery in St. Augustine, Florida. In 12 years he had opened five stores in central Florida.
When he got very sick with lead poisoning, he sold his business and started restoring and reproducing antique toys.
He became a specialist in a kind of Victorian parlor toy. He designed his own pieces, and soon had a booming niche business. He began making antique toy displays for department stores and museums, working for big-name stores like Sachs and Neiman Marcus. He had a show at the American Folk Art Museum.
When DeCamp got tired of it, he sold the business and moved to the Caribbean.
“I have lived at least three lives,” he says.
Now DeCamp is using his experience as an artist and a designer to train Dominican artists and help them promote their work.
He sells his own Caribbean-themed art, including prints, cards, T-shirts and tote bags in resorts and tourist gift shops to help fund his work on the retreat.
He is working on finding ways to increase his sales.
DeCamp also wants to make sure people know that his retreat on the Samana Peninsula is a great vacation spot for anyone looking for a holiday away from it all. Big donors are promised the use of a cabin for life.
See www.samanamission.com for more about the retreat.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/447