This time last week, I was walking through the Atlanta Airport, having flown (and not slept) all night from Guayaquil to Miami, processed through Passport Control and Customs (no problems either spot), boarded the plane in Miami then deplaned and made to change aircraft before finally-FINALLY-making it home.

So many people in the last week have asked, “How was your trip?” my knee-jerk response is “It was great.” And it was. Here is how I explained it to Lib a few years ago when we returned and she was debriefing me: “It’s like this; you take a dozen men, the vast majority of whom are Type-As and control freaks, and you take them to a country where they do not speak the language. You give them a job to do that they don’t know how to do. Sure, we all know how to swing a hammer, but we sure don’t do it all day long for a week, and we certainly do not know how to build one of the homes for Hogar de Cristo. You put a guy in charge of them, who does not speak English. By the end of the second day, nicknames have emerged and inside jokes have formed. At points, guys cannot work because they are laughing so hard, having so much fun despite the really hard work. At other points, guys cannot work, because they are moved speechless and to tears by the reality of the poverty that people are living in, the people we are helping.”

Yesterday, in IRONMEN, five of the guys who went this year helped make a presentation to the larger group about what we did and what it meant to them. They did great, not only in speaking about the work we did, but also about the doors that their work, their facebook posting, etc have opened.

Every year, when we announce the trip and I start recruiting, I employ my “sound byte:” “We’ll work hard, have fun, and change nine families lives for generations.” We do that, certainly the first two of those, and I hope and pray the last. But I’m learning that I need to add a piece to that. It’s not just the lives in Ecuador that are changed-the guys who go down there and work have their lives changed, as well.
I know mine is changed, and I pray it continues to be changed with compassion for the poor, and the determination to do something about it!

Lord willing, we’ll be back next year. I already have guys lining up to go!

The team on the next to the last day of building

The team on the next to the last day of building

Team Gato with OliviaLibia and Geovanny familyWe have come to the conclusion that it is time to come home. Today wore us all out. I’m about 35-40 pounds lighter this year than I was last year, and in much better shape thanks to Randy Nicholson working me out three days a week. But this week of building homes finally caught up with me. About halfway through the build, as we finished bringing the walls up on our home site, I felt fatigue wash over me like an old shirt. Raw nerve and the presence of brothers feeling the same, yet all committed to build the home, kept me going.
When the day was over, the feeling of exhaustion I felt was pretty well pervasive. The sun was out for a part of the day, which contributed to the difficulty, but it was also the cumulative effect of building for five days. The homes, with the stair kits that have been added this year, take about five hours to complete—and that is five hours of solid, hard, heavy, sweaty, hammer-swinging, post-hole digging, wall lifting, work.
Boli separated from us today, as his family from the US is flying to meet him in Quito, and they will all enjoy about ten days in Ecuador. We headed out to the Hogar facility and proceeded to move to work.
Team Ivan had yet another tough build, but also for a very grateful family. Libia Nunez and her husband Geovanny Empuno have five children ranging in ages from 22 (who does not live with them any longer) to 8. Geovanny works for Hogar de Cristo in maintenance, and is also an AC repairman. And trust us, AC is important down here! This family was replacing a Hogar home that they had lived in for ten years.
Team Gato built for Olivia Saltofajardo, a single mother with five children between 14 years and 11 months—and no husband, no man in the picture, and no job. She lives on the government stipend that she receives monthly, which I believe is $50 a month. Olivia, with her older daughters’ help (12 & 14) and the help of a cousin and some neighbors, took her old house apart very early this morning, so that we could build the new home for her family when we arrived. Her older daughters were both in school, were very polite and attentive to their younger siblings, and were quite appreciative of our compliments and work.
But now it is time to return. We are at the airport even now, waiting for our flight home. We leave Guayaquil a little after midnight Atlanta time, arrive in Miami about 5 AM, process through customs, and will finally make it to Atlanta a bit after 9 AM Wednesday.
Those of you with husbands, children, or siblings—or simply good friends—on this trip need to know that these men have been remarkable servants of Jesus Christ, representatives of Peachtree Presbyterian, and indefatigable workers who deserve every accolade you can give them.
They are IRONMEN, true, but more than that, they are friends of Jesus who have made a deep impact—and many friends through their work and their smiles—here in the outlying areas of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Lavish them with love and plenty of rest on their return. They have earned it!

Back to Building

June 11, 2013

Mariana with the teamMichael and Jessica with the teamWe have decided that time flies when you are having fun. Yesterday was a day off from building, and a day to let our bodies as well as our souls recover. We toured some of the downtown Guayaquil area, walked the Riverwalk, saw where Boli’s grandparents lived, enjoyed lunch and swimming at Guayaquil Tennis Club, and did dome simple shopping before having Communion back at Schoenstaat Retreat Center.
This is the seventh year that I have travelled to Ecuador on this Hogar de Cristo Mission trip, the same for Boli Alfaro, and the sixth for Chris Southerland, and others have been on multiple trips—while six of the guys here this week are on their first trip. Regardless, we feel that the trip has passed faster this year than on previous trips.
Maybe the build have been less physically challenging—but do not take that to mean that they have been easy; maybe the family situations have been less heartbreaking—but do not take that to mean they have not been filled with challenges; maybe we have been in better collective physical shape—bug do not take that to mean that we are not worn slap out.
This has been a deeply meaningful trip, a powerful one for us all, as we come face to face with the abject poverty that surrounds us as we work. Each day that we build, when we present the homes to the family, when we give them the replica of the Ascension Window from the Peachtree Presbyterian Sanctuary, we realize that we have been the hands of Jesus, our smile has been the encouragement of God, our presence has represented the Incarnation of the Lord. And that is a humbling reality.
Imagine being a women, who has the privilege of being married and whose husband has made the conscious choice to stay with her, when all around you are women who have no man in the house, who have children by multiple men (all of whom said they would take care of you, but all of whom left for another woman at some point). Imagine trying to care for your children alone.
You sell sausage soup with a friend, while your husband looks for work, doi0ng what he can, whether it is a little or a lot. You make ends meet by selling that soup, and you provide for your family that way. Three times a week, you take your children, 40 minutes each way, to worship and grow in faith at an evangelical church. This is the family unit of Mariana and Micolta, and their three children (between 10 & 17), who Team Ivan built for today. A deeply religious family, and a powerfully grateful one, as well.

Then imagine that you are building a home for a celebrity. Team Gato built a home today for none other than Michael Jackson and his wife Jessica. Seriously, that is his name: Michael Jackson. We saw no moonwalking, but we did see him pitching in to help us move and life walls, build stairs, and care for his family. Michael works as a day laborer essentially, going to “hang out” looking for work much like we in developed cities will see day laborers in certain areas looking for work. Michael has done enough that he can do most anything, and in fact can supervise and direct other workers. When there is work, and when it is good, he can make up to $90 a week. But those weeks are few and far between. The home he and Jessica and their three children (from 3 to 12) live in was literally falling down; it was held up at about a 30 degree angle by several large bamboo poles. Like the previous family, when they received their home it was with a sense of deep pride, and grateful joy.

After our builds today, we cleaned up and dined at the Nato steak house, where collectively we feel as though we ate an entire cow. It’s a bit disturbing, embarrassing, and humbling to think that while we ate more than our fill, the folks we have built for probably will go to bed hungry.
Two more homes to build tomorrow, two more families to fall in love with.
As the piece from “Les Miserables” says, “One Day More!”

Chuck and Joe making presentation to Alfredo and WilmaJoe's presentation to Julian and Tomasa It was another good day’s work.

We left our team leader Boli behind today, giving him a break from the heat and the labor of translation and decision, and the time to get some of his own work done (managing the rest of our trip’s arrangements, etc.) and the two teams headed out to build two homes for another two families. For only the second time in the six years that IRONMEN have been coming to Guayaquil on this trip, the two teams were in sight of each other. In fact, we not only were in sight of each other, we were across the street and one door down from each other!
Yes, this does fuel the competitive fires, but then each home has its own challenges, and when the day is done, we are grateful to hear about the families that we have each built for.
Team Ivan built for Julian and Tomasa and their three children (between 5 and 9 months) today. This family, led by a Dad who works for domestic gate security at the Guayaquil airport, started working yesterday at 6 AM to take down the home they have lived in since 2007, and did not finish until 3:00 AM. Then we all showed up at 9:30, and the team started work to provide them a new home. The kicker was that six of the holes for the support posts had to be cut through 5 inches of concrete, and then the holes managed without an auger, since Hogar de Cristo was locked up, and we could not access spare parts. Yet the team persevered, and at the end of the day, this small family was brimming with pride, and overflowing with joy, at the gift of their new home.
Team Gato built a home for another small family; Alfredo and Wilma and their three children (ranging from 3 months to 9 years old.) this home was built behind the ramshackle bamboo and scrap metal hovel they have been living in. Alfredo has spent many days excavating the bluff their home is on, so the new home would have sufficient space. While that sounds good, what it means is that the team had to work through yards and yards of fill dirt to reach solid ground, and only then begin to drill the holes to build the home. We never got a clear story on whether Alfredo works, but we find it remarkable that in these last two days, we have managed to work with and build for four nuclear families—when for so many years, in so many cases, we have worked for single mothers. When we presented the Ascension Window replica to this family, both mother and father were in tears.
We are blessed to be able and allowed to be the hands of Jesus during this trip, and our hearts are warmed by the fact that people—so many children—respond to our smiles. God truly is good, ALL the time!
That said, we are tired. Shortly we will go out to dinner at a sports bar we found years ago, then come back and crash for the night. Tomorrow is a day off from work; we could use a break before the final 2 days of building!

Two Teams, Two Homes

June 8, 2013

Jose and Narcissa familyJoe Eliis making the presentationDay Two dawned cloudy, just the way we like it. When you are two degrees south of the Equator, that puts you closer to the sun, so it’s really nice when you are working outside, and doing manual labor, to have some nice cloud cover. Someone commented when we reached the Hogar facilities how nice the clouds were, and I immediately “shushed” him, not wanting us to be cursed. Moments later, the sun came out—but mercifully only for a short time, and the clouds came back for the better part of the day.
We broke up into two teams today, in order to build two homes. Team Ivan (both teams named for the “maestros,” or master carpenters that we work with) is comprised of Chris Southerland, Ed Easterlin, Bill Schaeffer, Reid Barker, Joe Ellis, and Scott MacKenzie.
This team had an interesting day, dare I say a “barakah” day. Barakah is a Hebrew word that mean, depending on the context, either blessing or curse. Their curse was that the auger they were using sheared a pin after digging three of their (nine) holes, making the rest to be completed using post hole diggers. Repairs were attempted, and tomorrow will be an interesting day as spare parts are cobbled from old augers and some bolts we brought with us.
The blessing was the family they built for: Fabian and Asuena, and their eight children, all between the ages of one and thirteen. The family was a very grateful clan, cheerful through the day, helpful on the build and when things went wrong, as well (the auger). This was no doubt shown best when, after the presentation of the Ascension window to the family, all of the children presented each of the guys with a handwritten Thank-you note.
This family, supported by Fabian selling drinks on the streets from the cart on the front of an old bicycle, was perhaps more appreciative of any family we have ever been privileged to serve.

Team Gato (Robert Owen, Marty Klein, Jim Beddingfield, Chris Hamilton, Bill Boone, and Chuck Roberts) built for another “nuclear” family, but not one as large. Jose and Narcissa have three children, and Jose—when he has work, is a laborer, hauling pipes to build sites and other projects. In a good week, which is not often, he can clear $85. Similarly, this family was cheerful, helpful, and very kind.
Interestingly, only the middle child—the only son—attends school, following a cultural pattern. The older girl, Amber, was attentive and curious all day long. At one point in the day, Boli asked Amber where she was going to sleep, and she responded, “In the room with the window.”
Think about what a blessing that is to this little girl, to look forward to sleeping in a room with a window—something that so many of us take for granted, so much so that we do not even pause to look out the windows of our homes to see the world God has given us to care for.
Tonight at dinner, we reflected on the verse “Of those to whom much has been given, much is expected,” and realized that while we came here to build homes, we also came to invest in lives—the lives of the families we are privileged to serve . . . and that it is in giving of ourselves, that God gives us more to give back.
We truly are blessed.

Bad news, Good work

June 6, 2013

Boli giving Ascension window to JackiJacki's home coming togetherTeam with Luis and AnitaThe team arrived in Ecuador last night, and the greatest news is that both augers arrived with them! We never doubted God, but we had significant concerns about American Airlines!

After an early breakfast today, we met with Luis Tavares, the Director of Social Ministries for Hogar de Cristo. This grace-filled man, a former Jesuit Priest, was unusually subdued and seemingly bothered. Instead of his usual upbeat presentation about the work of Hogar, he shared with us the news that the Ecuadorian government has begun a process of pushing some of these poor people from their homes, grabbing the land, in order to plan for the construction of government owned and managed housing. The “progrom” (my word) was carried out with no advance notice, and families were displaced and their homes destroyed. The news that was learned yesterday, which has the Hogar leadership in a quandary, is that more of this land grabbing and displacement is yet to come.
We visited and did what we could to encourage Luis, then prayed for him and Anita, his “right-hand woman,” who has been involved with Hogar for years and been a friend to us on previous trips.
We then toured the facilities around the Hogar offices, and saw where they teach people about agriculture, aquaculture, and trades, we saw some new model homes (new designs), before we headed out to build.

We built the first home today, for a woman named Jacki, who has two adult sons out of the house, and a daughter and a son who are early 20s to teens who still live at home. There is also an infant in diapers which she never fully explained, and I suspect is her daughter’s illegitimate child, but she cares for her as well. Jacki works–when she is called, which is with no frequency–as a housecleaner, and the best she is able to do is about $45 a week, which she supplements with a government stipend, and the money she receives from time to time from her sons, or from the last “significant other.” Hers is no doubt a precarious situation, and the labors of so many of these IRONMEN has given this woman a sense of hope.
As Boli Alfaro spoke to her, and gave her a replica of the Ascension Window in the Peachtree Presbyterian Sanctuary, she sobbed with joy.

We arrived back at Schoenstaat Retreat enter around 4:30—we’ll meet to debrief at 5:30, then it’s “dinner and a movie,” before getting ready to split into two teams to build two homes tomorrow.

IRONMAN has landed

June 5, 2013

Boli Alfaro and I arrived in Guayaquil last night, and after a surprisingly swift process through Passport control, we got our bags (swift again) and in short order were met by our familiar driver Samuel, and Patricia from Hogar de Cristo.
We chatted a bit, but then came to Schoenstaat, and were getting settled in by 9:00.
For friends and family, be advised that for whatever reason, I am unable to use my church email account; I can neither send nor receive via it. I have sent several emails through my gmail account, and I think it is working (I sent a test to myself, which I did receive). All of which is to say that communication may be difficult until and unless I can break the code on this. Critical communication should come first via text (but that will get costly if it adds up)
I’ll keep everyone posted via this blog. The team arrives tonight, and build #1 is on the docket for tomorrow!