My wife and I are just back from a trip to El Salvador with Habitat for Humanity. We were helping a family of three – a mom and her two young daughters – build their home in Zacatecoluca in La Paz. We were part of a team of eleven, ranging in age from 15 to older than 15. Our group consisted of seven women and four men, all from Canada. A couple of them spoke enough Spanish to help us along from time to time, mostly when we were away from our translator in down times. It was an amazing experience on many levels, and difficult to describe.
Sometimes people, upon hearing of the experience, praise me as if this was a self-less act, a kind of exercise in altruism. But that isn’t quite right. I got much out of this trip; more than I gave, I think. I met some amazing people, saw a marvellous land, made memories that will last a life time, and all in return for a handful of days of labour. I am tempted to say I came out ahead, but the experience reminded me that being with people in a common cause for good is not something that can be measured by comparing costs and benefits. I cannot say that I paid a certain number of hours of labour to accrue a benefit of a matching amount of joy. Sometimes the labour was the joy – as I experienced again that satisfaction that comes with exercising the body in meaningful work. And sometimes the joy of the comradery was a kind of a labour, a giving birth to hope, and meaning, and peace too. I learned anew that some experiences are not subject to calculations and financial accounting.
How do you put a price on young people expanding their world beyond their high school at home? How do you rate the joy of a grandmother seeing a future come together for her daughter and granddaughters? What is the value of a smile from local Habitat Volunteers, happy to see that they are part of a global movement, and not just labouring for housing justice all on their own in their backyard? What is net worth of watching an six-year-old Salvadoran girl teaching teen-age strangers-become-friends some basic Spanish? What kind of a value can you attach to the tears of volunteers and future home-owners as they say good-bye after an exercise in hope? This is a liquid that makes oil, and gold, and diamonds seem like the dross that they are. What matters at the end of the day is not what we have, but who we are and how we share who we are with others.
Jesus teaches us that it is more blessed to give than receive. I like that, but I am sometimes reminded that it is not always so clear when I am giving and when I am receiving. These two do not exist with sharp boundaries, to the end that I can calculate how much I gave and how much I received. Often, giving and receiving come and go together, hand in hand.
As I reflect on this trip, I am reminded that it is a remarkable gift when you encounter holy moments in which giving and receiving merge into a poignant joy. Will I do another build? Most certainly. Can I expect it to replicate what I experienced this time? I doubt it. Grace is a mystery and cannot be orchestrated. This last week I discerned a rich measure of grace in my encounters with people of hope in La Paz; in our team and our time together; and in the gift of being away, for a time, in the land of El Salvador, the Saviour.
Photo Credit: Gwenanne A. Jorgenson