This time last week, we were back at it. Having taken Tuesday off to meet with ministry partners and play tourist, We went back to work on Wednesday building homes for the poorest of the poor.

This week, having been back home for five days, I am starting to feel normal again. Chris Southerland told me yesterday that that morning was the first time he “felt normal” since our return from Ecuador. SInce I’d been in the pulpit for three services Sunday, I was still dragging. Today, despite waking up and still feeling tired (OK, I woke up early, the wheels started turning, so I rolled out early–about 4:00–and after some quiet time, got cranking on a project until 5:30.), I hit the streets and cranked out my best bike ride this year, Go figure.

The bruises are fading, the cuts, scratches and scrapes are healing, the fatigue is slowly disappearing. Whjat remains is the deep appreciation for how fortunate I am to enjoy a very comfortable life, how blessed I am to know and be assured of the love of God. To have a home where one or two of the rooms are bigger than the homes we were building last week. To know that I will have three meals today, that I will have options and choices at each of thos emeals, and I have to worry about eating too much, not about whether I will have anything to eat.

And I cannot get Rosa, the woman for whom we built, who suffers from diabetes and neuropathy, out of my mind. So she stays in my prayers. I hope she will stay in yours, as well.

We have begun the evaluation process of this year’s trip, and already guys are talking about next year. Funny how big, strong, Type-A, in-control guys chomp at the bit to take a week of vacation, go somewhere they do not speak the language, and build homes for people they will never see again. One day last week, a child stayed home from school because he was told “The Americans are coming to build you a new home!” He was excited beyond words, not only over the new home, but also over seeing the Americans.

Funny, I think we get just as, if not more, excited over seeing these children, and doing something-in the name of God-for them and their family.

Physically, I am recovering; spiritually, emotionally, I am still moved. I hope I stay that way.

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We did it. With the plan of building nine homes in five days of construction, we managed to meet our goal. Well, not really. Sort of, but not really. When you bring a mixed bag of accountant, consultants, financial gurus, IT guys, lawyers, developers, real estate and medical technology guys, along with a retired Navy officer and a preacher, what do you expect? Through a miscommunication (face it, only one of the 13 of us speaks Spanish, and of all the folks we have been around this week, only one {maybe two} are fluent in English), our intended schedule was misinterpreted, and we were not able to fulfill our plan on Saturday, the first day we were here in Guayaquil. Our intent had been to use the gas powered auger we brought down with us (which Delta has YET to locate for us), and with everyone together, we would build one home, letting the new guys see how it is done. But we ended up building two homes on Saturday, and flexible saints that we are, we dug our heels in and determined to build two homes each day. So we did it. We built two more homes today, our last build day, and along the way sought to honor God with our service and our labors, and serve people by providing them with two homes. Team Ivan had a terrifically difficult build site, having to work in a location where the water table was very high, and rock made putting the posts in the ground very hard. They ultimately resorted to locating some concrete, and set the posts in that, then braced the posts with scavenged wood. Once that work was done, they moved forward, building a home for a four-generation family; Maria Virginia and her husband (who mercifully works as a plumber, earning $60 a week), their four children, one of whom has a child of her own, and Maria’s father Rene. In a tight lot, where their previous home had one stood, theis home was constructed, and this family enjoys one of the pleasures that many others do not; they have accessible and connected electricity, although how they will get a refrigerator up a ladder into the home, since they did not have lumber for a set of steps is questionable (the floor is about 8-9 feet off the ground.) Team Gato hit their stride today, building a home for Freddy and his wife Narena and their two children in about three hours. Having Freddy home for the day to help, as well as their friend Oscar, multiplied the manpower so that this family was blessed. To each home we have built, we have presented a gift from Peachtree Presbyterian Church; from the small pewter crosses that were given on Easter Sunday to each worshipper, we brought some down to give to each homeowner. We like to think that each of these crosses has heard the news of the resurrection, is a tangible symbol and testimony to the love of God, and our prayer is that each family is able to take a step closer to Christ because of our work, but especially these crosses. Today was yet another reminder of how blessed we are. The families who have homes built are expected to provide a meal for the maestro, the master carpenter, who works on their home. Yet again today, neither Gato nor Ivan were fed by the homeowner. While these two men are well provided for (we shower them with our tools as we leave, and we know they will sell them; plus, they are well compensated by us for their work), the fact that the two families were not able to feed them is a statement in itself. We who enjoy the comforts of a developed country need to count ourselves quite fortunate. And we should also recall the words of Christ, “from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (LK 12.48) Knowing we have served as well as we could, we now shift into tourist mode. We have decided to make a trip to the Steak House tonight, and we’ll see how it compares to Padre Vega’s cuisine last night. Tomorrow, after a late(r) breakfast, we’ll visit a museum, a beautiful cathedral downtown, the Iguana Park, a local market, before having a late lunch at the Guayaquil Tennis Club, a pleasure that has become an end-of-trip pleasure. A trip to the grocery store for coffee to bring homes, then a light dinner at Schoenstaat, before going to the airport to fly home. Sunday is Father’s Day; treat these men like the royalty they are, for this week they have earned stars in their crowns!

Dinner with Padre Vega

June 16, 2011

Admittedly, we were all a bit dubious–trading (so it seemed) our traditional night at a steak restaurant for dining at the residence of the Catholic Priest who is the functional CEO of Hogar de Cristo; but when you see the view we enjoyed, and the smiling faces, and consider that Padre Vega cooked and served us sausage, potatoes, pork, beef, and–get this–pork and beef hearts–we all left pleasantly surprised, quite full, and will awake this morning energized for today’s last build.

  And it is confirmed–we’ll build two homes today, bringing our total to ten, not nine!

Tired Laborers

June 15, 2011

            Some days are just better than others. After a day off from building, we awoke this morning still feeling the effects of fatigue, yet knowing we had work before us, and people counting on us, we “soldiered on.” After an earlier-than-we-have-been-used-to breakfast (7:00 instead of 7:30), we headed out, boarding our van at 7:45 (instead of our usual 8:30.)      

We connected with Patty, the full-time volunteer with Hogar de Cristo who lines up our work, and our maestros Ivan and Gato, met our homeowners for the day, and went to work. The sun came out, making the work harder and the labors more draining, but with families needing homes, we pushed on.

Sad news came to us in the day; Rosa, the woman whose home was built a few days ago—the woman with diabetes whose dog had gnawed on her toe—had been taken to the hospital. Not only is she struggling with diabetes, but we learned today that she is severely anemic, and is in need of blood. Our instinctive reaction is to want to donate blood; but not knowing what type she is, which hospital she is in, and quite frankly the safety of blood donation in a system such as this, forces us to do what we can; we pray.

For some, that is an unacceptable option, a quitter’s solution. Yet when we recall the Lord’s commands to pray, to pray without ceasing, to “ask anything in [His] name;” and Who it is that we pray to, the One Who created all that is, Who holds the spinning planets in their orbits, Who breathes the breath of life into every living creature, Who turned water into wine, gave sight to the blind, sound to the deaf, speech to the mute, and mobility to the lame, we realize that we offer our requests to a Loving Father who has reminded us that He longs to hear our prayers more than we give them voice, and awaits our requests to answer them.

So we ask those who read this blog to take the time to pray for Rosa; asking the Lord to heal her, to bring her comfort and hope, to provide the needed resources of blood and medicine to help her, to send skilled and compassionate nurses and doctors to care for her.

Sometimes we forget that the Lord calls us to pray. In a spirit of confession, I will admit that too many days (not today, mercifully) we have been into the building process before we have stopped, looked at one another, and prayed—for our work, our safety, and the persons for whom we build.

Is it a coincidence, or the hand of God, that we prayed today before we “hit the first lick,” and our work went smoother?

We were also observed by the government today; a helicopter flew over several times, making us curious, then anxious, until we learned what they were doing. The government has cracked down on the sprawling growth of these bamboo homes, and is severely restricting their construction. New building is not allowed; replacement of dwellings is acceptable, and the helicopter was one way of looking things over to see what is going on. When you see the picture of a row of simple, small, poorly constructed shacks, you realize that there are plenty of “homes” that require replacement. We’ll have work for years to come, particularly when almost 1/3 of the Guayaquil population is under housed or homeless.

One of our traditions here has been to visit a steak house near the end of our week; tonight, instead of that, we are invited to the home of Padre Vega, the spiritual leader of Hogar de Cristo, who is apparently well known as quite a chef, and he will feed us. We agreed on the condition that we pay for the groceries, and he agreed. Mercifully, he has also agreed to move the time up from the typical Latin American dinner hour of 9:00 to a much earlier time. If we met him at 9:00, socialized and then ate, then came back and tried to sleep and then rise early to work hard tomorrow, things would not look good.

By the grace of God, tomorrow will be as good a day—preferably better—than today!

Soy Milk and Water

June 15, 2011

            One of the things we take for granted in our American, privileged, life, is that of nutrition. Today we visited the “mechanical cow,” the plant where Hogar de Cristo employees take soybean, rehydrate them process them, add brown sugar and flavoring, and in the process create soy milk.

            It all began a few years ago when nursing students from Brigham Young University came to Guayaquil, and performed simple blood tests on some of the students in Hogar de Cristo’s schools; what they learned was that about 55% of the children were anemic, with over 20% of them being severely so. With soybeans and brown sugar that are produced in Ecuador available, the idea for the mechanical cow was developed. A year later, the same children were tested, and the anemia was found to be dropping, while the children who had not been drinking the soy milk were found to be at the same, or worse, level of anemia. Hogar is now working to produce more soy milk (for those from last year’s trip, the production has moved to a larger space, and is easily doubled). Hogar is currently seeking a means of adding vitamin D to the milk to address a growing jaundice problem.

            Luis Tavarra, the Social Director for Hogar, told us that while they do not agree with the theology of the Brigham Young students, he appreciates the fact that they share a common mission: to better the lives of the poorest of the poor.

            From there we travelled to the central office of Hogar de Cristo, where we observed the kits being assembled that are what we are using each day to build homes for the families. We asked one worker what his production was, and he told us that each day, he puts together 40 walls. Given the number of work stations, we can assume that at a bare minimum, 40 home kits are being assembled each day; some to use in Guayaquil, others to be distributed to other places in Ecuador so they can benefit people in other regions. Hogar has four manufacturing plants in the country, but many more areas where the homes are sold, distributed, and provide shelter for the poorest of the poor.

            That last phrase is one to remember; Luis (a former Catholic Priest, now married with a family) shared with us that the Ecuadorian government is a leftist one, meaning that is oriented towards helping the poor; but the government is not interested in the poorest of the poor, which are the people Hogar helps.

            With a microlending ministry that works exclusively with women (because women invest in their family, while men invest in themselves), the repayment is above 99%, a staggering figure. Hogar invests in these women with trade, skill, and business training, seeking to rebuild their self-esteem that life has shredded. A house of refuge for women and families who are victims of domestic violence, and a growing ministry to the 6000 women who are a part of the sex trafficking industry, to help get them out of that cycle of deprivation and into a redeeming trade make up other ministries Hogar is involved in.

            One other thing that we take for granted is safe, clean, water. It is an uncertain commodity here, and has been a growing concern for some of our team for the last several years. This year—today—we were able to broach the subject with Luis, and Woody King showed a simple ceramic filter he has researched that can revolutionize the issue. Luis then showed us a similar model they are looking at, and we hope to have further dialogue about this.

            Two more homes tomorrow, with another two on the agenda for Thursday. We came to build homes and change lives; that’s what we pray we do!

            Monday dawned cloudy, but it was only to tease us. After a hearty breakfast, with plenty of teasing and laughter filling the room, we all pretty well admitted to ourselves and one another that we were starting to feel the effects of fatigue. Frankly, while we all exercise with some kind of regularity, none of us works out for around four hours a day, which in essence is what we have done for the last two days. We started this day tired, and then went to work swinging hammers, hauling lumber, lifting walls, and building roof trusses and stairs for longer than we are used to. Let’s face it; none of us are used to this.

            The other thing we are not used to is the reality of human suffering that we see when we are here. Today was a good example. One team built for a young mother, likely not out of her teens, who has a young child that suffers from some form of birth defect. What the child’s diagnosis (much less prognosis) happens to be is unclear, but the defect was obvious.

            The young Mom’s home was being built in front of her mother’s home so there is some form of support system, at the very least. And the good news is that at the end of the day, this little family had something they could call their very own; a home.

            The other team built for a woman who enjoys the support system of her four daughters, two of whom have their own families. However, this new homeowner suffers from Type 2 diabetes, which has given her neuropathy in her feet. That’s bad enough, but add in the fact that the neuropathy is so bad that she did not know as she slept that their dog gnawed her toe.

            In the United States, there are heath care systems, government programs, effective public transportation systems, and opportunities that can allow people with real human needs like this to survive, enjoy a quality of life, and experience a sense of hope. In the slums outside Guayaquil, survival is not always of the fittest, sometimes it is a game of chance.

            The sun came out today, breaking through and burning off the clouds. That sounds sometimes like an idyllic situation, but when you are two degrees south of the Equator, the sun burns hot and fast. We slathered on sunscreen, reapplied it, sought shade whenever we had a moment’s break, and did all we could to hydrate; that’s one of the keys to survival here, keeping fluids in our system.

            The two teams reconnected at our local watering hole after the labors of the day, to see who won the daily spitting contest, and compare heartbreaking stories. As much as we enjoy teasing one another, it is the experiences we have interacting with the families we build for that leaves the greatest lasting impression.

            As the afternoon wore on, we returned to Schoenstaat Retreat Center, where there is a comfortable bed for a nap, air conditioning, and a (lukewarm if you are lucky) shower, not necessarily in that order. We give Nieves, the young woman who cooks here at Schoenstaat, the night off, as we’ll go to a sports bar we discovered last year to have some different food, watch whatever happens to be on the satellite channels they are broadcasting, and trade stories and lives.

            Tomorrow is a day off from building, as we will interact with the ministry partner we have here, Hogar de Cristo, to learn more about their various ministries, after which we will do a little sightseeing before coming back to recharge our batteries for the final two days of building.

            While we enjoy a day off from building, we know that our friends Ivan and Gato, the local “maestros,” or master carpenters, that we work with, are never assured work; they will be at the Hogar offices looking for a day’s work to fill in the gaps.

Worship in a New Way

June 13, 2011

            Sunday dawned bright and clear, but mercifully the clouds moved in. Here at Schoenstaat Retreat Center, crowds both small and large gathered early for worship and Mass, while we who have come here to serve Christ and the poor moved ourselves out early to worship through building homes.

            We built two more homes today, one for a single mother of 42 with 5 children. She was living in the open space beneath her oldest son’s Hogar de Cristo home, and the home we built for her today is right in front of that home. That son and his wife were present, along with the Mom and three of her other children, as well as many people from the community, some of whom helped. Interestingly (and somewhat curiously) some Police drove by, the circled back and stopped and watched us for a while. This build went fairly well, Team Gato starting to find our rhythm, everyone settling into our various roles. We added a porch and stairs to this home, as the floor was about 8 feet above ground level. The work was difficult, the air hot and humid, but our spirits buoyed by the fun we were having, and the feeling that we were making a difference in one family’s life, at least.

            Team Ivan had a more difficult build site with plenty of rock, and some interesting opportunities to encounter what seemed like sewer water as they built, but they persevered. They built for a couple with two children, the husband mentally challenged, yet very cheerful and helpful. This home had access to (pirated) electricity, which had to be removed from the home they were living in (which also required furniture removal and demolition before construction). An unintended contact with the wires left one team member feeling very much alive! (No worries, he is just fine—in fact, NO injuries so far, just a few scratches and scrapes; as I say, if you don’t bleed, you haven’t done anything!)

            A new law in Ecuador prohibits the sale of alcohol on Sundays, putting a bit of a cramp in our daily visits to “Two Degrees South,” the little open-air spot we stop to enjoy a cold beverage after the builds. Ricardo, the owner, chose to ignore the law today, and opened up to serve us, offering fresh fried plantain chips. We presented him with one of our Hogar 2011 T-shirts as thanks.

            After a dinner of beef, rice, and salad (dessert of fresh fruit), we had a time of debriefing the day, answering the question, “What did you hear God say to you today?” then had communion in the little chapel, before settling in for movie night (The Expendables.)

            Breakfast at 7:30 tomorrow, we leave at 8:30 to buy more water and Gatorade, then we hope to build 2 more homes. Our plan is to have dinner tomorrow (Monday) night at the sports bar we found last year, and watch the NBA Finals, if they don’t wrap up tonight.

            For those of you reading, rest assured that the people we serve, if they are praying the words of Psalm 70, are finding their prayers answered in and through your husbands and loved ones. These guys are great!

Saturday began at the airport in Guayaquil, in parts thanks to an hour ground delay in Atlanta, because someone on our flight lost their passport, thus had to be removed from the flight, which meant their baggage had to be located and removed from the plane. No, we were not resentful, but our 10:30 arrival turned into an 11:15 and three flights landed, slowing process through passport control, baggage claim, and customs. We were about 1:30 getting to Schoenstaat, and crashed.

Then, thanks to a misunderstanding, Hogar thought we were planning to build two homes today, not one. Being the men we are, we did not argue, and decided that we were ready. Of course, Delta did not load the auger on our flight, but some from previous trips are here and mostly working (we cannibalized them to manage two working machines).  And one of the uagers started breaking today; a neighborhood mechanic was kind enough o weld it for us, for the princely sum of $5; In Atlanta, it would take two weeks and cost at least $50. God is good.

So we divided the group up into two teams (Team Ivan and Team Gato, named after the guys who supervise us each year), and went to work.

Team Ivan built for a couple with 5 children. Marleta’s husband was not there, as he was working as a motorcycle taxi driver to provide for his family. Marleta is HIV positive, as is their 5 year old daughter.

Team Gato built for Alexandra and Christian (a first that we have built for two couples on the same day—usually we build for single Moms.) and their two children. Christian has a very low paying job, making about $60 a week. They are in arrears on some debts, and almost lost the lot they bought this past week; that we have built for them grants them a greater chance of holding the home.

Talk at dinner revolved around where we saw God today; in the faces of children, in the people we worked with, in men working (hard) to build a church in their neighborhood.

Suffice it to say that we are tired; little sleep, VERY hard work today, a good dinner (chicken, rice, mashed potatoes, green beans, and custard). Sleep will come early tonight, and rest will be blessed.

Tomorrow will come early, and we’ll work to build two more homes.

Mission: Possible

June 8, 2011

In a little over 48 hours, it will begin again.

Twelve men from Peachtree Presbyterian Church will board a Delta jet, and fly to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We will arrive LATE Friday night, and settle in to our luxurious accomodations (NOT-more like Motel 3, but at least we have beds, private rooms and bathrooms, and A/C!) at the Schoenstaat Retreat Center.

Saturday morning, we’ll roll out of bed, eat a really good breakfast (even if the coffee is a bit lacking–it’s instant), and head out. We’ll build a home that day, and at the end of the day, there will be a family with a home who does not have one now. Imagine if you and your family, me and my family, and someone else and their family were all living together in a one bedroom apartment. Then you managed to scrape together enough money to buy a little (I mean little!) spot of land, and these gringos from America bought and assembled the Hogar de Cristo kit. No plumbing, no electricity, but walls, a floor up off the ground, and a roof. A few windows and a door, and it is YOURS.

It’s a simple thing for us, it involved a bunch of guys who are mostly desk jockeys using muscles we don’t use every day, so it’s tough, but by golly, it is rewarding beyond your wildest ideas. And it is FUN.

Look; you take 12 men, who do not know each other, who are all mostly Type-As, to a foreign country where they don’t speak the language, and tell them to do something they don’t do every day (swing a hammer); then you take control away from them, and the guy supervising them does not speak a word of English. In hours, guys have nicknames for one another, they are picking on each other, inside jokes develop, and they are laughing until they cry.

This is one of the best weeks of my life, every year.

Watch this space–I’ll be posting (hopefully) daily updates with pictures.

And pray for us–our travel, the families we leave behind, the people we build for and work with, and that God would use us to draw people to Him!

A number of years ago, I was attending a conference where I heard Leith Anderson, a Lutheran Pastor, speak. He shared this amazing, out-of-this-world (literally!) story with us:

Sergei Krikalyov holds the world record for time in space as a Russian Cosmonaut.  Krikalyov, before 1991, held that record; but
in April 1991 he was scheduled for a 4-month orbit of the earth; under the space program the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Of course he was a citizen of that country; a member of the Communist Party; a supporter of Mikhail Gorbachev; and proud to be from the city of
Leningrad.  He was exceptionally well paid, 500 Rubles per month; counted among the elite, pay wise, of all the people of
the Soviet Union. He was launched according to schedule in April 1991.  But a very difficult thing happened shortly
after he went into orbit; his country went out of business.  That is no small problem for someone who is
up in space, so he continued in orbit for the expected four months.  Because there was no one to bring him back
down again, he continued a 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th– 9 months, still orbiting the earth – no one to bring him down.

It was only after 10 months in orbit that someone did whatever ground controllers
do and brought him back, by then the early part of 1992.  When he came back his country was gone,
replaced by the Russian Republic; Boris Yeltsin had replaced Mikhail Gorbachev
as the president; his home city and been renamed St. Petersburg; the Communist
Party was out of favor and virtually outlawed; and 500 Rubles was not quite
enough money to buy one hamburger at Moscow McDonalds.  That was only in 10 months![1]

 

Many people think that change is a dirty word, even if it does have more than 4
letters. Many of us don’t want change, even when we want it. I read somewhere
years ago that Mark Twain said “The only person who wants change is a wet
baby!”

I thought that was a pretty good quote, and I used it for some time, until
something else occurred to me. Even a baby that is wet and wants to be changed,
often will cry all the way through the change process.


[1] Leith Anderson, addressing the Single
Adult Ministry Convention in Orlando, FL, February 21, 1996