I returned recently from throwing pebbles into the pond called Guatemala; pebbles that I hoped would send ripples of compassion into the world. I went on the Habitat trip with a team of volunteers to build smokeless stoves, homes, and latrines for a few Guatemalan families currently living in poverty. I went to help them, but what I discovered was my own poverty.
When I first arrived in San Lucas Toliman I saw the overwhelming poverty that I had expected to see. The corrugated metal walls of their small homes soot blackened from years of cooking indoors over open fires. The never-ending diet of corn tortillas and beans. The scarcity of shoes. Field workers, both adults and children, traveling in the back of pickup trucks to their jobs each day, picking coffee beans for wages that keep them trapped in poverty. Old men walking the roads miles each day carrying heavy bundles of firewood strapped on their backs.
Yes I saw the poverty, but what I discovered in the midst of that poverty was the overwhelming warmth and friendliness of the people. The smiles, the eye contact, and the cheerful “buenos dias” or “buenas tardes”. The kids that never tired of slapping our hand and bumping fists with us as they helped us carry dirt and stones for the mortar. The never ending requests for us to take their pictures so they could see themselves on our cameras.
The sense of community and family I experienced through the generosity and open hearts of the families we worked with—–quietly kindled within me a longing for more community, wholeness, and belonging in my own life.
I went to Guatemala to help them in their climb out of poverty, but what I discovered was my own. At the end of our two-week stay I experienced sadness saying goodbye to the San Lucas families we’d worked with, and David Currier our Habitat team leader. As the shuttle drove us to the airport in Guatemala City I knew I was bringing home some wonderful memories, but I was leaving a warmth of community and belonging that was missing in the world I was returning to—–and I was grieving that loss.
As I pulled into the driveway of my home in Redmond, Oregon, I couldn’t help noticing that, unlike the streets of San Lucas, the street was empty of children. Everyone in the neighborhood was inside their home; invisible behind closed doors. There was no chatter of people talking with one another; no children laughing and playing in the street; no roosters crowing; no tuk-tuk’s driving up and down the street; no vendors selling their wares; no birds singing; no flowers blooming; and no people smiling and greeting me.
As I reached to close the garage door, I made a silent commitment to spend more time in the front yard of my home this summer; a commitment to wave at every car that drives by, and to say hello to every person who walks past; whether friend or stranger. I know it won’t create the warmth and sense of community I experienced in Guatemala, but it will perhaps begin to satisfy the need my soul has to belong to and create community.
As I hit the light switch on my way into the kitchen I wondered with a chuckle what my neighbors would think if I purchased a crowing rooster and some chickens for the back yard; or imported a tuk-tuk from India and started giving rides to my neighbors; or fired up my portable fire pit in front of the house each evening and invited my neighbors to come over for a happy hour. I could even offer them a hot cup of Guatemalan coffee and some tortillas. Hummmmmm.
I realized in that moment that the ripples of compassion, that began so far away in Guatemala, had already traveled all the way to Redmond, Oregon.