The windshield wiper on my car went from one side to the other, keeping the pouring rain from blocking my view. Not that I needed a clear view at the moment; I was sitting inside a still car, faint streaks of light from a nearby fast food chain peeking inside. My sister would finish her college class, enter the car and be on her way home with me any minute; I was just waiting for any minute to arrive.

I turned off the engine and turned off the lights to disguise myself in the dark of the night—maybe no one would notice I was inside. I waited and waited, gazing outside the window to entertain myself, catching a glimpse of a common scenario in my country, the Dominican Republic: two kids playing on the sidewalk, under the rain, by themselves. It was cold—I wondered whether they would catch a flu.

The kids were Haitian, I could tell by their facial features. Anyone from my country would be able to recognize them—they live right next door, they are the object of our rejection, they are taking over our country—Dominicans’ greatest fear. We try to counteract this by being as apathetic to Haitians as possible—even though this is a problem that can’t be easily ignored.

It’s a problem that traces its origins back to the 17th century, when the Dominican Republic and Haiti were colonies under feuding Spanish and French rule, respectively. It’s a division brought about by our founding fathers’ desire to be a free country from all foreign rule—especially from the invasions our country was under at the time of our independence in 1844—that hoped to unite the island under Haitian rule. It’s a rejection promoted by anti-Haitian ideologies spread by the government of Trujillo, and that even led the tyrant to carry out cruel, unjustified massacres against thousands of Haitians. But ultimately, it’s a separation intensified by cultural, racial, religious and ideological differences intrinsic to both countries.

That night, my best attempts to go unnoticed were in vain. Somehow, while playing, the kids noticed me in my car and started asking for money with the palms of their hands facing upward. I had seen this scene over and over again in Santo Domingo—Haitian beggars asking for money on the streets, Haitian kids cleaning windshields for a few coins. The repetition of this scenario had hardened my heart. I felt entitled to do whatever I pleased in the country they had come to invade, the country I belong to.

I shook my head without second thoughts, that’s what I usually did. That’s what every Dominican does most of the times. I had shielded myself behind the fact I didn’t really need my windshield cleaned; therefore, I didn’t have to give them money either. But the kids insisted. The younger of the two got closer to my car, gluing his little face to my window; his eyes scanning inside until his gaze met an almost-empty water bottle.

As if he had just discovered a treasure, his eyes widened and lit up. His index finger pointed eagerly to the bottle, while I heard “agua, agua, agua” in his childlike voice—ironic, since it had been raining agua. I gave in. I wasn’t planning on drinking what was left in the bottle anyway. So I rolled down the window and handed him his treasure, a treasure that seemed almost useless to me.

He held the bottle tightly, as if not wanting it to slip away. The older child who waited patiently on the sidewalk was also excited about the treasure his younger friend had found. As soon as the young one joined him, he immediately asked for a drink. I watched them from my car as they feasted on the water.

And then, the most unexpected thing happened, something I will never forget, something that brings me to tears every time, even as I’m writing this a year later. The older Haitian kid stopped his celebration for a moment and turned around to face me. With a smile on his face, he made a gesture with his hand and said, “Gracias.” I could not hear his voice, but I read that simple word uttered from his lips, I read thankfulness written all over his face. The kids left, and left me all alone once again; but they don’t know how much of them they left in me.

Still in the car, I replayed the moment in my mind. Tears started to pour from my eyes like a flood; and I felt my heart shrinking, hiding somewhere inside, embarrassed. On one hand, I felt happy because the little water I gave them was so valuable to them. It made me wish I had drank less so that I had more to give them. But at the same time, this sense of joy was strongly overpowered by sadness and shame. I was saddened by their condition; and ashamed not because the government or the people would let them live under such condition, but because I never did anything to change it; and the little I could do, I didn’t. I felt ashamed because they had wholeheartedly thanked me for a treasure I had given them with not an ounce of love.

My careless gift meant the world to them. And I realized how blessed I am to have all the things I need, and how selfish I have been to want to keep all those blessings to myself. I realized giving money to the poor won’t make me any poorer. I realized service and compassion don’t require enormous amounts of money or effort, or activities that require planning for a year, or communities in far away places. Most of the times, service and compassion are exercised in daily life, in the simplest ways, and with the people who are nearest—my neighbors. Being compassionate is hard when your neighbor could also be considered an intruder, but these acts of kindness are the purest expression of service and love to Jesus.