To Serve Humanity in Fellowship
Opening words: Craig Greenfield, “Subversive Jesus: An Adventure in Justice, Mercy and Faithfulness in a Broken World”
I have found that when I pray for God to move a mountain,
I must be prepared to wake up next to a shovel.
Reading: Rabindranath Tagore
I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted, and behold – service was joy.
To Serve Humanity in Fellowship: Unexpected Joy
I signed up for my first International Habitat for Humanity build to Paraguay in 2013, not knowing much about Habitat, and with no clear idea about what I hoped to get out of the trip personally. My son Rich was born in Paraguay and adopted as a toddler. I have always wanted him to know as much as possible about the country of his birth and its people. When he was about 19, I heard about a Habitat build in Paraguay through the adoptive families network, so off we went.
Over the last 6 years, I have learned a lot about Habitat and have become a strong advocate for the organization. I knew that Habitat families are required to provide a certain number of hours of volunteer labor on a Habitat house – known as “sweat equity” – but I did not know they they also pay for the house through an affordable mortgage with Habitat. Costs are kept down through the use of readily available building materials, simple yet attractive and sturdy design, and some volunteer labor.
Rich and I returned to Paraguay for a second build the following year, and then traveled to Nicaragua for a third build. At that point, Rich said that he was happy to have had those experiences, but he was done, though he encouraged me to continue.
And I did. I’m now a team leader, looking forward to my 12th build – back to Paraguay in September – with First Parish member Chris Gray on the team. It was only fairly recently that I began to try to articulate why these weeks have become so deeply meaningful to me. The days are hard: hot, sweaty, and tiring, yet I look forward to them all year long. I used to say that it was because the activities of the week were so different from how I normally fill my days. While it’s true that I don’t normally spend hours digging trenches, mixing cement, or carrying buckets of dirt, water, and mortar, I could do similar things. I live in a house with a big yard, but I have little interest in undertaking these projects at home.
I frequently hear people say that when we volunteer for Habitat, or a variety of other organizations, that we receive so much more than we give. But what is it that we receive? A team leader that I traveled with in 2017 put together a short video of our build. When I watched it a few months later, I was struck by the expressions on the faces of EVERYONE participating in the build. What I saw was pure joy.
“I acted, and behold – service was joy.”
But the more I thought about it, I realized that it is not simply the act of service which – at least for me – creates that joy. If I set out on my own to spend even one day on a Habitat build site, it wouldn’t take long for me to feel more hot, dirty, and tired than joyful. I wouldn’t keep going for a day, let alone a week. The joy comes from being part of the community that is created on the worksite – a community encompassing the family, extended family, neighbors, masons, architects, Habitat staff, and the volunteer team. This Habitat community is in many ways a reflection of the diversity of our world: people of different ages, races, cultures, languages, educational levels, and socioeconomic status.
Our congregational affirmation – which we recite every Sunday morning – reflects our desire to serve as part of a community. We covenant not simply to serve humanity, but to serve humanity in fellowship.
Habitat for Humanity understands this, too. Habitat describes its mission as not only building houses, but even more importantly, building relationships. And it is these relationships, the community that we build, that makes a Habitat worksite a truly joyful place.
I’d like to close by introducing you to a few of the people who have helped create that sense of joy for me.
Marco is the husband and father in the family we built for in Honduras this past March. He was undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer in a hospital about 4 hours away from home. He was able to arrange his treatment to be present for the first morning of our build. He spoke very eloquently about what a sense of peace it gave him to know that there was a team of people supporting his family during his absence. We recently received a photograph of Marco and his family in their newly completed house. He looks healthy, and they all look very happy.
Lucie was the aunt of a young homeowner in Paraguay. She earns a little extra money by giving manicures in the evenings and on weekends. At our final lunch, she told me that she had observed the women on the team working just as hard as the men, but added that she did not want us to forget that we were women, offering to give us each a manicure. It was my first – and only – manicure ever, but I was not going to say no to Lucie, who had been a bubbly presence on the worksite all week. I left that evening with purple fingernails decorated with daisies.
Masons are incredibly important figures on the worksite. They are often hired by Habitat, but can be hired by the family if they choose. On one build, the family had hired a mason named Eduardo, who clearly had not worked with Habitat volunteers before. He spent much of the first morning telling us all the things that we would NOT be allowed to do. As he saw that we were following his instructions very carefully, checking with him at every step, we could see him start to relax. By Friday, when we called him over to have his picture taken with the group, he came running and threw himself on the ground in front of the team, arms open wide, with a huge smile on his face.
I can’t even begin to choose one or two team members to mention, as there have been about 150 over the course of all the builds. But I would like to single out those team members who are older than I am, as they inspire me to keep building. And the very young team members, those still in their late teens and 20’s, give me hope for the future.
Sometimes it is the relationship with an entire community that feels so meaningful. As I’m sure you remember, last winter and early spring, there was much negative publicity about the caravans of Central American migrants heading to the US border. Many of these caravans began in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, where our trip started and ended. The migrants were often characterized as criminals, bringing drugs and violence to our border. In Honduras, we met Marco and his family and many of the neighbors, and also visited a kindergarten, an orphanage, and a nursing home. The Hondurans that we met were lovely people, and I have never felt safer than I did in Santa Rosa. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to show the Honduran people that not all Americans believe the propaganda espoused by many in our government and media.
So, I build because it gives me deep joy. We can all use more joy in our lives. I hope that we can all find ways to be of service in which we build community and revel in the joy we create together.