So I just got back from a week building houses outside of Tijuana, Mexico with our high school ministry. It was one of those experiences that you walk away from and can’t really put into words, so of course I thought I’d come home and put it into words. 🙂
First off, I’m battling a cold brought on by exhaustion and general overwork of the week, but it was one of the most incredible work experiences of my life. At the beginning of the week, Evan (our high school director) told us to set a goal for ourselves, something really unrealistic and crazy, to give God a chance to step in and do something awesome. So I thought I’d set a goal for myself that was beyond my own ability. I decided to set a goal to give more of myself than I expect from other people. Despite this being an absolutely crazy week and being utterly wiped, it was one of the most selfless weeks of my life. I worked harder than I had ever tried and I gave more than I could have imagined, but entirely from beyond my own strength.
This week was a lot of snapshots that stood out to me. I think I’ll walk through it slowly.
We spent hours in a bus on our way down to San Diego and we arrived that day at La Jolla Presbyterian Church, we piled into the room for what is possible one of my least favorite nights of the year. My boss, Bill, and I talked about it and it is one of those difficult nights that just makes me feel sick thinking about it. Namely because we have about 45 high school boys all “sleeping” on the youth room floor after being cooped up in a bus all day. So suffice to say, I decided to plop down in the exact center of the room surrounded by a bunch of the guys from my small group two years ago and proceeded to struggle to keep my temper contained for the next several hours. I told my guys, this is the one night a year I yell alot and I felt really grumpy already (and I did in fact kick a student in the butt for farting and breaking the tentative silence), but we made it through the night.
The next day we went to church and then went to hang out at the beach in La Jolla. La Jolla is absolutely gorgeous, if you didn’t know. We sat by this wall with a view over a rocky shore and I took a walk with some students up to the edge of the rocks. I got splashed with ocean spray (and the student I was walking with got lifted bodily from the ground and dumped in the rocks) and it was a beautiful day. We then loaded up and drove across the border and into Mexico.
The actual building of the house this year was super chill, we got way ahead of schedule and getting the house built was no biggie, but what stood out for me on this trip was my connection to the family. I took Spanish classes for seven years and it has been almost a decade since I took a Spanish class, but I worked harder using my Spanish this year than I had in years. We were building a home for a man named Urrial and his wife and young seven month old baby. His wife and child weren’t there the whole week because she was taking their baby to meet Urrial’s mother in Vera Cruz and the house being built was going to be a surprise. Urrial was twenty-four years old. That’s four years younger than me. That hit me pretty hard. We were the same in so many ways and that hit me over and over again. Before, I had been building homes for older families who I identified more with my parents and less with myself, but this time it was me I was buildling this home for.
This got driven home even harder after Tuesday night. Tuesday during the day, we got the roof almost done (which was my responsibility and for the first time too) and I had made some pretty major mistakes in putting the roof together. I was pretty bummed about messing it up and was feeling a little inadequate. So that night we did a joint worship session with the only other church using the camp site at the same time we were, Moraga Valley Pres. They had a much larger group and had all kinds of bells and whistles to go with their set up, but they also had THREE SPEAKERS. And I don’t mean three mini-talks, I’m talking THREE full length speaking shots. One was a testimony from a volunteer in their ministry (which I thought was rad), then the founder of Amor Ministries (the group we were with) who shared a lot of tangential stories, and finally a local Tijuana pastor who had never preached in English before (and who did an incredible job too), but still it was a heck of a lot of instruction in one sitting. Lots of folks were nodding off as even the second speaker was sharing.
The thing that really slammed me was the founder of Amor. He shared a story that broke my heart and gave me intense focus.
A few months prior a group had been building a home for a woman with a little boy following her around everywhere. The group finished up the last day and the woman wasn’t around and althought they were bummed they were out of time and needed to head out. So the founder was staying behind to do some final stuff and the woman came back with her little boy trailing behind her and she started freaking out when she realized that the team had left. She started saying, “no, no they can’t have left, I have to give them something.” The Founder of Amor said, “well, i’m sorry, but they have already headed out, if you want to make sure it gets to them I can take it to them or mail it.” So the woman ran over to the little shack she had been living in for the last several years and rooted around until she came running back with a little picture of a little baby girl. “they have to have this, it’s my last picture, you have to take it to them.” The Founder was confused because she only had a little boy with her and he didn’t understand so he asked her, “who is this little girl, why do they have to have this?” She replied by telling him a story.
Apparently just a few months prior, a big storm had blown through and the rain had been so bad it started leaking down through her home. So to make it through the night with a practical stream of rain water running down the center of the floor of her home, she took a bunch of blankets and plastic and made a little nest for her and her TWO children. She cuddled up close to her little boy and little daughter both laying on top of her and they shivered through the night. When the morning came and the rain stopped, she unfurled the nest and her daughter was really struggling breathing. She rushed her to the doctor, but she died that day.
So the picture of this little girl was the last photo the woman had of her daughter who had only a few months prior passed away. She wanted to give it the group who had built her the home because as she said, “even though they were too late to save my little girl, they saved my son’s life and my life and gave us a new hope for the future and I never want them to forget what they have done.”
My mouth went completely dry. If that team had built the house just a few months prior, that little girl would be alive. It was all I could do to keep from crying. This whole time, we had been talking about getting the house done quickly and beating the other teams even though it wasn’t a competition, but these houses are saving people’s lives by being solid and warm and dry. And just that day I had made a mistake that put holes in the roof and would make it harder for us to really make it waterproof. I was humbled, I was furious, I was ashamed and I was grief-stricken. This was simply not right. I understood holy rage at injustice a little better that night. All my intent of the “competition” of this construction was gone from that moment. I was going to make that roof as waterproof as any roof had ever been in the world. I went back to my tent and collapsed in exhaustion and the next day, we tarred the heck out of that roof and made it super water tight. All I could think about was Urrial’s little baby and how I wanted to make sure that that baby had a good, strong, well-made home that would last. Building that house was one of the most life-altering realizations I have had and the amount of gratitude to God and to my family that I overflowed with coming home from that trip was overwhelming.
The last day, Urrial called me his closest friend and brother and he gave me a big hug. I had to exercise my Spanish significantly more through the process, but he also invited me back that night for a party he and his father in law and a bunch of the neighbors were going to have, but I simply told him my fiesta Spanish is a more little rusty than my construction Spanish. It was still really cool to connect in such a real way with the family.
I also had a realization about myself that was really uncomfortable to realize. Trips like these can often show an uglier side to ourselves than we like to admit exists and I saw things in myself that I was ashamed of.
I am a jealous and resentful man. I saw a great many people working together and leading and taking part in the lives of students and instead of rejoicing in their capabilities and giftings, I resented that they were so much better at things than me. I watched one of our volunteers who just clicked with the students. He was cool and all the kids liked him. And on top of all that, he knew TONS about construction and was an expert at pretty much everything. His house was always just ahead of mine (and I’ve already established I was in a competitive mood at the time). But instead of appreciating what he was able to do with our students, I found mysel questioning his maturity and his motivation to work with these kids. My own insecurities about who I am as a leader and as a man came out really strongly and looking back, I can’t believe how resentful I was towards him. Then there was one of our senior leaders who has an unparralleled passion for God and for sharing with others about the hope that he was experiencing in Christ. I watched him having conversations with other leaders and students and instead of appreciating the zeal that he had for serving God and seeing other people come to know Christ better, I questioned his motives in my heart. I tore him apart theologically in my thoughts. My spiritual insecurities about my own spiritual walk with Christ and ability to minister to others came out like a green-eyed monster wrecking it’s way through our camp site. As I sat back and looked at my brokenness, I was ashamed. Here was a guy openly attributing any good work in his life and transformation to the work of the Holy Spirit and giving all praise to God and all I could see was a showboat. I couldn’t believe myself.
So yah, this was a pretty difficult week for me. Physically, I came home exhausted (and sick to boot). Emotionally, I missed Brittany more than I had ever (not hearing her voice for a week SUCKED) . Mentally, I had gears churning in my mind in two languages (actually pretty sweet). Socially, I was wiped from maintaining conversations and telling stories to groups of students (who are awesome, but I just needed some serious alone time when I got home). And Spiritually, I had to confront some places of personal grossness (which was really difficult, but was important for me to realize).
But I walked away from this week, not shaken or downtrodden, but really experiencing a sense of freedom. I walked away feeling like I had a more complete picture of myself, had more fully submitted myself to the Spirit’s usage, had many great conversations, and not only that had a new passion for speaking Spanish. I was blessed immensely by this week and I’d do it again in a heart beat.
Thank You, Lord for you faithfulness and Your incredible provision!