Well; we’re back home now (with the exception of Fitz, who had to fly from Guayaquil through Quito to get to a business meeting in England, but he will be home tomorrow), we have begun the process of recovering from a long, hard week, laundry should be clean by now, and we have enjoyed a couple of non-submarine showers.
For the uninitiated, a “submarine shower” is when you get in the shower, get wet, and turn the water off. Soap up, turn the water on and rinse off. Repeat if needed (trust me, in Ecuador, we needed it!)
We’ve had something other than stale bread and peanut butter, along with sliced fruit, for breakfast. And that night’s sleep in our own bed . . .
But for we who were in Ecuador as a part of the mission trip this year, many images remain, and will so, for a long time.
The last day we went out to build, we were just down the street from one another. Gato’s back was still bugging him, so Pepe was back with us again. Team Gato built for Angela, a 39-year old single Mom, her 22 year-old daughter Sara (and her baby), and Angela’s two other children, Matthias (4) and Rumina (2). They were living in an 8-year old Hogar de Cristo home that had not been cared for, and was in great disrepair. Angela with stained glass window The children lived in the space beneath the home—mattresses on the ground. Their new home went in, about six inches separating it from the old home. Fortunately, we did not have to worry about setbacks or zoning variances. Digging through the drain field of their latrine to put two of the posts in the ground, however, was a different story. (The week’s best quote, thanks to Eric Edee, “Don’t eat the dirt,” was oft used.)
Team Ivan built for Maritza (49) and her children Kevin (7) and Christo (17). Maritza works about four days a week as a maid. Christo looks so small for a 17-year old due to malnutrition. But to show what character this young man has, Scott MacKenzie gave him a Powerbar, and he went down the street where some little girls were, and carefully divided it so that they all shared it—he did not eat it all himself.
Maritza family with Team

Showered and well-fed, we packed up and loaded up, and headed for the airport. The trip home was uneventful (if only the trip down had been so!), just mostly sleepless, so we all arrived home pretty tired. But we are home, in spacious, clean, air-conditioned homes, where we have more food than we need, and most anything we want, we can get without trouble. We have great transportation, well-stocked stores, and amazing support systems. All that is more than can be said for the families for whom we built, and there are thousands more—THOUSANDS—that need help.
We did not get to meet with the leadership of Hogar de Cristo this year; we do not know what happened, but the meeting simply did not take place. We heard that the Vice Minister of Housing for Ecuador met with them right before our arrival, and was allowing Hogar to continue their ministry of providing homes for the poorest of the poor, recognizing that Hogar is meeting a need that the government is not able to meet. So keep them in your prayers!
Sitting in the airport Tuesday night waiting to board the plane, Tim Adams commented well: “There were more than nine families whose lives were changed this week.” I looked at him, and he looked around at the group of guys who had just spent a week of their lives and cherished vacation on the trip. Well said. All of us who were there have had our lives changed, as well. May God continue to work in our lives!

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Most of us live in a world in which a nice, sunny day, is a good thing. But when you are two degrees south of the equator, and you are working outside in the heat (and the A/C in the van you’re riding in has died), a sunny day is not a good thing.
Despite our best prayers for cloud cover, and a weather forecast for a pretty good chance of rain, we had a very sunny day today. Did I say very? I meant VERY sunny day. We also switched venues, from building homes in the area around the city of Daule (about 45 minutes north of Guayaquil), back to the community of Mt Sinai, an area that the city of Guayaquil annexed a few years ago, and which is rather close to the offices and compound of Hogar de Cristo, our ministry partner. We drove to HdC and met our maestros, with an added surprise of an old friend and maestro Pepe; he was coming along to help out team Gato, as Gato is still hurting from the back he hurt on Saturday—but not enough to hold him back from being with us.
One treat we enjoyed while we were at the Hogar compound was their flavored soy milk. Several years ago, Hogar started a side business making soy milk, after some visiting nurses from Brigham Young University found alarming rates of anemia in schoolchildren. It turns out that many children only eat when they are at school, and when the kids come to school on Monday mornings, they are famished and fainting. By adding soy milk to the school offering, not only are children getting added nutrition, they are also finding a way to decrease the anemia that is so rampant. We all grabbed a bottle and guzzled it down (we are getting virtually no protein at breakfast, and desperately need it—this helped, just a little.)
Then we headed to the build sites, dropping Team Ivan first, to build for an incredibly grateful and affectionate family (most of the guys got “double-cheek-kisses” from everyone in the family when the build was finished. Maria a single mom, has three children (18, 12, and 11), and helps to care for her 76 year old mother, with some help from her brothers (they are all in this picture). They survive—barely—on the $50 a month stipend from the government, and the occasional $15 that her son can bring in from sporadic work. Maria del Rose family & home
It took about another 45 minutes to get Team Gato to their site, after several twisty turny roads, washouts, and virtual rivers deterred the truck. Here they built for Julia, another single mom and her for children (15, 14, 10, and 4), but Julia has a bit better chance of “making it,” as her father, Rodolfo, is in the picture, and when he can find work as a plumber, can bring in up to $300 a month. When that does not happen, they “survive” on the $50 a month from the government. Julia and her family
Hard to believe, but we will head out tomorrow to build two more homes for two more families, then we will pack up and catch flights that will bring us back home. We ended this evening with a long-anticipated dinner at the Steak House, where we dined and laughed, and celebrated. Five men were inducted into the “Order of the Clavo Pequeno,” (the Little Nail—these were the Rookies on the trip); five others, who have been before, were inducted into the “Order of the Clavo Grande” (Big Nail); and Chris Southerland and Bill Schaeffer were inducted into the newly formed (as all these are) “Order of the Clavo Grande de Oro” (Big Gold Nail)—as they have participated in so many trips, blessing so many families. Boli Alfaro was presented an award with a Gold Nail, for Exemplary Service, for his vision, prayers, tireless work, and passion for the poor of this country.
The real end of the evening came when we returned to Schoenstaat Retreat Center, and celebrated the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, remembering the ultimate sacrifice made for us all.
“One day more,” as the song From Les Miserables goes—but two more homes to build. Keep us in your prayers as we seek to serve, in Jesus’ name!

Some Days . . .

June 8, 2014

Some days just don’t turn out the way you hope they will. But then again, maybe they do.

Our day began today as it did yesterday, with a simple breakfast, then piling into the van for the 45 +/- drive to the town of Daule, where we have been working this week. While yesterday we were working next door to one another, today turned out differently. We arrived at a build site, where one of the men we work with, Gato, waved “his team” over. We piled out of the van, as the other team (Ivan’s team) headed somewhere else. We’d enjoyed being together yesterday, and separation today was a disappointment.
Team Ivan built in an incredibly tight spot, but as the family they were building for—really only a couple, Guillermo (80) and Maria Teresa (78) are old enough, their build was only about three feet off the ground. The site was so tight, sandwiched between walls, and so gravelly and rocky, however, the augers were unusable. But this team prevailed for this couple who survive—if you can call it that, with no income, and only one meal a day, either provided by or made and delivered by their daughter who lives nearby. No job, Guillermo is unable to work (at 80, one would think SHOULD he?!), survive is the best they can do.
Team Gato had a seemingly nicer build site, next to a pond and marsh, but the site was terribly rock-filled, making sinking the nine posts that must go into the ground to support every home very difficult. Matters were made worse, when Gato turned funny to grab a piece of lumber, and blew out his back. The team was sidelined for the better part of an hour until he was able to operate again, and it took some time before he was moving with any ease. Clemente (75) and Anna (38, believe it or not!), similar to the other couple, have no work, but they have a $50 government stipend they receive every month, and have a sister-in-law nearby who looks in on them.Guillermo and Maria family
The team had to leave the site unfinished (but with Gato and Ivan and two Hogar de Cristo interns there) putting finishing touches on the stairs, as the delay was allowing dusk to move in, and we have been warned by Anna that there was a dengue fever risk from mosquitos in the pond. We parted, with stern words to Gato to rest tomorrow so he can join us again on Monday.
Chuck with Anna & Clemente  family
We wrapped the night up with a trip to Sports Planet, a restaurant we found about four years ago that we frequent every year. But even that experience, as similar as it is to one we would have in the States, is in sharp contrast to the experiences we have had building the last two days. We have been hungry, but we get more than one meal a day, and often we leave food on our plates, when others wish for another spoonful (or more). We have worked to the point of exhaustion, but we rest behind solid, secure walls, in the comfort of air conditioning. We shower daily, while those we build for may have a sponge bath now and then.
We debriefed last night, and talked some about the call of Abraham (Genesis 12.1-9), and were reminded that we are blessed—not by God so we can feel secure and comfortable, but we are blessed to be a blessing. We hope to be able to do that for the families we build for this week.
Tomorrow will be a day off to let our bodies recover to be ready for two more days of building. We’ll play tourist, and take it easy, but only so others can be further blessed.

There is an African proverb that says “It takes a village to raise a child” (sorry, but Hillary Clinton did not coin it, nor her ghostwriter; they merely capitalized on it.) Today, the men on our mission trip proved that it takes a team to build a community.
We returned today to the exact same build site where we were yesterday. Team Gato (Steve Ike, Ed Easterlin, Will Thomason, Doug Grady and Fitz Wickham—oh, yeah, and me) built for a small family, Katarina and Hamilton, and their three children (6, 3, and 2.) Katarina is actually the older daughter of Vincento, for whom we built yesterday. Here is a picture of the structure where they have been living.Katarina's home

Hamilton works as a furniture refinisher, but only when he can find work, which is not that often. Katarina told us that she does not know how much money he makes, or what they have, she merely asks him for money to buy food. When they have no money, they eat one of the chickens they own. Let’s hope the chickens keep replicating—but even more, that their income stream increases. Their home is literally right behind Vincento’s home, and we saw him a good bit today as we built.
Team Ivan (Chris Southerland, Bill Schaeffer, Jamie Bardin, Scott MacKenzie, Eric Edee, and Tim Adams) built for Norma Moran, a 70-year old woman, her son Danny (whom we met yesterday, and who is missing his left arm), and Danny’s daughter (I think) Iliana, a pretty 13-year old girl. This home is right next to Hamilton and Katarina’s home, so the teams worked next to one another all day, teasing and goading one another as the day went on. Norma told us that the only income they have comes from Danny’s sporadic work as a “recycler;” in Ecuador this means that he prowls the streets and collects trash that can be recycled, taking it to a recycling center, and on a good day he makes about $2.00 a day. And there are not many good days.
One of the humbling realities comes at the end of the builds, when we have finished, and we “present” the homes to the families. We give them a small replica of the stained glass Ascension Window at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, and remind them that the home is a gift from God, not from us. We thank them for the privilege of serving in the name of Jesus, and along with the home, give them a food basket that provides them with many, many meals. It is fascinating to watch these families, whose faces express not only the joy of having a home, but the humble acceptance of the home and a chance for a better life. Many times, the men (when they are a part of the family—often we build for single moms) cry, a remarkable reality in this culture.

Presentation to Norma and Danny

Presentation to Katarina and Hamilton
Then the toys and gift come out for the children, and joy starts all over again! Tonight we will all sleep well, the guys who missed out on building yesterday got their chance today—we’re all tired, but humbled, and grateful for the chance to serve these people, in Jesus’ name.
And we’ll be back at it tomorrow!
Here is the “village we built today: what you can’t see is Vincento’s home.
The village we built

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.

The Shadow of Suicide

April 25, 2012

A friend of mine took his own life almost two weeks ago.

I was at home on a Saturday morning, getting ready to hand some furniture over to the Youth Group from our Church, who would then take it to the Atlanta Furniture Bank, with the expectation of spending the rest of the day working in the yard. My cell phone rang, and it was a colleague telling me the news.

I quickly changed clothes, drove to the home, which was now surrounded by Police vehicles, and spent the rest of the morning doing what I could to help the grieving widow and her son (the daughter was on her way from Law School.)

As our Pastoral staff continued to reach out to, and care for, the extended family, it became obvious that we needed a “point person” so we did not overwhelm them. On Sunday, I was asked–honored–by the family to be that person. On Wednesday, I led the Memorial Service, which I think ranks as one of the top three most difficult things I have done as a Minister. Remember, he was a friend–not just a face in the crowd or member of this 9,000 member church, but a friend.

In the days following his death, I had the opportunity to talk with a number of men; sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in a small group, sometimes in a large (100+) group. In essence, what I said was something along the lines of this:

“There will come times in our lives when we feel that the darkness is closing in around us, and there is simply no hope, no light, no way out. When we allow that darkness to enclose us, we get trapped in a downward spiral of thought that may lead us to think that ‘They will be better off without me.’ The theological term for that is ‘Horsefeathers.’ Men, your family would rather live in a one bedroom apartment in a bad part of town with you, than live in a mansion on the best street without you. And if you don’t believe me, then go home tonight, look them in the eye, and ask your family that. None of us will pass through this life without at one time or another carrying a burden that is simply too much for us to bear. The ‘man thought’ is that ‘this is my burden, i have to carry it alone.’ Horsefeathers. As Proverbs 27.17 says, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.’ We NEED each other, and you need someone else to help you shoulder that load. Do not deny another man the honor–which is what he will accept it to be–by holding the darkness, the burden to yourself. Accept the help that comes from relationships around you.”

It was something along the lines of that, certainly not exact, but that gets it in the neighborhood.

Here is the homily I delivered at the Memorial Service, in which “names have been changed to protect the innocent.” But rest assured, if you are struggling today: there IS hope, and there IS help.

 

I think it is safe to say that all of are having a hard time walking these days. It’s not a mobility or an orthopedic issue, as much as it is the fact that we have had the rug pulled from under our feet with John’s death. So we are walking somewhat unsteadily, and carefully.

We struggle, understanding that John’s death came as the result of unnatural causes; that he made a choice that none of us would have made for him.  But the fact of the matter is that John is no longer with us.

From the perspective that many of us likely carry, he had everything going for him, and everything to look forward to. A wife who loved him, and who he loved more than any of us can describe; a family that he loved and was proud of, who he told that almost every day in one way or another. He so looked forward to Sue’s wedding—in fact, Bill, I’ll drop my guard and tell you that when John and I had a long visit very recently, and I said, as men who have daughters often say to one another, “He’s not worthy!” John very quickly said, “Oh, he’s great.”

He bragged about walking the Masters with David on Sunday. He seemed to be living his normal life, and going through his usual, predictable routines, and then . . . he was gone.

What many of us do not know is that John’s passing is inextricably connected to the accident that happened the morning of December 1, 2010. We know that he was in the attic working, and somehow the nail gun he was using discharged a nail into his heart. By the grace of God, when he instinctively tried to pull the nail out, he could not. Had he done so, he would have died on the spot.

But he could not, despite trying. I’ll come back to that in a moment, but what we need to know today is that he sustained major trauma to his heart, that emergency surgery—by someone he knew—saved his life.

But while the surgery was yet to happen, roughly three fifths of the blood in John’s system leaked into his chest cavity. That reduced flow of blood had an impact that took some time to surface. He had struggles most every day, and did a good job of hiding them.

To make it simple, John was struggling with short term memory issues. Not the “where are my car keys” kind of things, but the ability to come up with the words that he wanted to say. It took him hours to do, in his work, what would have taken him moments in the past. He would spend a good bit of time writing something, then go get a drink of water, come back, and have no memory of writing what he had just completed.

He hid this; he hid it from everyone, from Mary, from his family, from his friends. So he kept going, just plugging away.

John came to see me about two weeks ago, and we had a long visit about what all he had been dealing with since the accident. At some point we did what men often do, and slipped into a bit of Springstein-ish “Glory Days,” talking and laughing about our sports exploits in High School. For the record, John was a MUCH better athlete than I.

He was a running back in High School, and for all accounts, a pretty darn good one. He admitted that he did not have that slashing breakaway speed, but he said that he could pound it away, 2, 3 yards at a time, all night long.

And in his Senior Year, he got hurt, he hurt his back, I think in the last game, but he stayed in the game. That’s who he was, that’s what he did. Two, three yards at a time, playing hurt, and he finished with over 100 yards.

That injury kept him from landing the scholarship to the Division 1 schools that he wanted.

Typically male, like the Black Knight in the Monty Python Holy Grail movie, he played hurt, acting like there was nothing wrong.

In 2 Cor 12, the Apostle Paul says this:

2CO 12:7 “. . .  there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

I don’t share that to suggest in any way that God sent that back injury to John, or that the Lord gave him the lingering effects of the accident. But to help us all remember that Paul asked God to take away something that was causing him to struggle, to suffer, and the Lord did not. Why, we will not know this side of glory.

And those struggles that John had—the mental fatigue, the mental exhaustion, that wore him down—to the point that he was getting lost driving home from places he has known well for decades—he hid them. He hid them from his family, he hid them from his physician, and he hid them from his Pastor. Until he decided to share them, and even then, he struggled, playing hurt, not wanting to accept the fact that something was wrong, and feeling that as a “man,” he should be able to overcome this.

So he kept these secrets for so long; and secrets love to thrive in darkness, and the longer the secrets are held, the greater the darkness grows.

Yet alongside the darkness that he hid, John also hid an amazing, hope-filled conviction.

He was a very private person, as many who knew him will attest. All of these things that he held inside, some bad, some good, he just kept private. John was a part of IRONMEN here at Peachtree, which has nothing to do with triathlons, but draws its name from PR 27.17:

“As iron sharpens iron,

    so one man sharpens another.”

One of our core values is to go deep in transparency and relationship with one another, to keep one another sharp. John did not talk about these things there; he kept it from friends, and some of his family. As much as he delighted in helping to sharpen others, there was something that held him back from accepting the help that comes from being sharpened by others.

John told me that the day of the accident, he had no idea how he got out of the attic. He remembered the accident; he recalled the details of trying to get the nail out. He had listened to the tape of the 911 call. But he had no idea how he got out of the attic, downstairs, to the front door.

Now, you can make of that what you will. You can choose to believe that he crawled out and down, and in the trauma that he experienced, he just did not remember it.

Or you can choose to believe, as he and I wondered together, if maybe, just maybe, these was someone there who carried him down. As he was telling me the story, I reached over to my Bible, turned the pages, and read HB 1.14: “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?”

But the other part of that story, which he did remember, is in that fuzzy state, he said that he was there, but he was also somewhere else. John said that he remembered being there in the foyer, while at the same time, seeing something else, and moving toward it.

He said that it was kind of like a tunnel; he struggled to find words to describe what he had seen. He said that it was grey and rather fuzzy, and at the end there was a figure, it looked like a person, but he could not really tell, and he could not make it out, but there was a definite presence there. Then he heard the presence say, “Holy guacamole, it’s not time.” And with those words, he was back in the foyer, being treated by emergency personnel.

Some time later, sharing that experience with his mother, she burst into tears. John did not know this, but “holy guacamole” was a common phrase that his grandfather used to use.

So from the attic, to the Sanctuary, we have this juxtaposition of this thorn in the flesh—the problems he struggled with and tried to hide; and theology—his deep conviction that he was and is a child of God, claimed in the waters of baptism for eternity.

Let me be clear at this point about one thing; our salvation is not determined by the means of our death. Our salvation is determined solely by our relationship with the Risen Christ. That is a covenant relationship, which God never breaks. If I tell Jesus that I want to be his friend, I want to follow Him, I want Him to come into my life, Scripture teaches that He will do that FOREVER. Six months later, ten years later, I may decide I don’t like Him anymore, but Jesus’ response is that He will not feel any differently towards me.  We call it “once saved, always saved.”

John knew Jesus; and Jesus knew and loved John. And today, they are together, where one day we shall see them both. I believe that last Saturday, John heard two voices; one said, “Holy guacamole, now it’s time.” But the other said, “Enter into the joy of your Master, my good and faithful servant.”

So in this afterglow of Easter, with the grand and glorious celebrations of the resurrection just ten days ago, what do we need to hear? I think two things.

One is GL 6.2: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Frankly, while we all need to hear that, I think men here today need to hear that most. We have this idea that we are supposed to play hurt and not let anyone know.

Friends, none of us will pass through this life without having to carry a burden at some point that is too much for us to bear. We need to let others help us shoulder that load. In fact, most of us, if not all of us, would consider it an honor to help someone else carry a load. Let us not deny them the privilege of helping.

And secondly, remember those words which Marnie read earlier from Romans 8:

38 “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The presence of the Lord is with us always, as it was with John, in even his darkest hour.

NOTHING can separate us from the love of Christ.

May that truth, may that promise, bring us all, but especially you, the hope and comfort that only He can bring.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.