|October is a special month for me. It was in October, twelve years ago, that my most rewarding building experience began.
It all started a few months earlier when, watching the evening news, I saw former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn, flannel sleeves rolled up, swinging hammers. They were helping impoverished Southern families build livable houses, striking a blow against poverty and near-homelessness with Habitat for Humanity, a relatively new program then but one familiar to many now. The newscaster talked about this grassroots, non-governmental army of weekend carpenters who march to the sound of a different hammer. The volunteers wore T-shirts proclaiming "No More Shacks!".
When I saw the Carters helping lift those walls in the style of a hearty Amish barn raising, I wanted to jump in. I loved the idea of breaking away from my computer keyboard to do something more tangible. So when I learned that Habitat was looking for volunteers to spend a week working in Mississippi, I signed up and coaxed my 13-year-old son Gabe to join me.
Our team of volunteers flew from Southern California to Memphis in the wee hours of a Saturday morning. From Memphis, we drove rented vans to the heart of Mississippi. As we rode through the fertile Delta region, we could see life here was foreign to what we knew...and very difficult. Vast fields of cotton and soybeans stretched to the horizon and tattered shacks dotted the roadsides.
Our destination was a building site in Goose Pond, a tiny settlement of tidy houses, located in the second poorest county in the United States. We soon learned that many of the people along the nearby bayou deltas were--and still are-- pouring their baths with a bucket
When our team arrived at the barren concrete slab foundation, I wondered if we'd get a single wall built within the week. Except for four team members, our group's building experience ran from slim to none and the average age was upwards of 60. But our secret weapon was "Uncle George," a retired construction supervisor.
Before I knew it, we were snapping out chalk lines on the slab and beginning to cut wall studs. For five days, we worked hard and for long hours, yet laughter and friendly chatter cushioned the task. We had fun. And through the sweat and laughter, we built friendships along with the house.
Giving became infectious. From the moment we arrived, people housed us, entertained us, and filled us with hush puppies, fried catfish and sweet iced tea. And they worked with us. Neighborhood kids, caught in the downward spiral of illiteracy and hopelessness, strapped on work aprons to help build their new neighbors' houses. The new homeowners pitched in, giving 500 hours of "sweat equity" to this house or someone else's. Sears donated those aprons, as well as a batch of Craftsman power tools that made our work immensely easier. All of this activity grew from a simple gift of action.
With Uncle George's expert direction ("I don't want to see anything but fannies and elbows!") and what we all figured was a heavy dose of divine guidance, we managed to frame and sheath one four-bedroom house and drywall a second by week's end. And the walls were perfectly plumb.
At the end of the week, we stood with Mildred, one of the people we'd helped. Tears drew shiny paths down her cheeks. One of the guys in our group gave her an understanding hug and--with that--she wept openly. She said, "I just can't believe y'all came all the way from California to help me build my house." At that moment I wondered why I was so lucky...not just fortunate to have the abundant life so many of us take for granted--a healthy family, good work, and a house--but incredibly lucky to be there in Mississippi, tired and sore, sharing with my son one of life's richest times.
Since then, twelve years have passed and we've gone back almost every year. When my younger son, Kit, turned 13, he began joining Gabe and me on these trips. We've worked side-by-side with families to help turn their dreams into homes and, in the process, we've had great fun together. We've also seen hope sprouting and bearing fruit--Ronnie, the son of one of our house families went on to study dentistry at college and has brought his gifts back to the community. We've learned that a house isn't just shelter, it is a place where a family can learn, grow, and love one another. It is a place that inspires traditions and encourages dignity.
When October rolls around and we find ourselves driving the rural highways deep into the Delta, we feel very different than the way we felt on that October Saturday, twelve years ago. Now we feel like we're going home.