Diary of a Habitat volunteer
‘We clearly felt the presence of God and the power of our prayer’
By JUDY STRAVOLO
SAN VICENTE, El Salvador —Bats in the belfry? Perros (dogs) in the pews? Could this be really happening during Mass?
Yes, in a tiny Catholic church tucked away in the volcanic hills of nearby San Vicente, El Salvador, Central America, where a group of Habitat for Humanity volunteers had gone to a Mass and a dedication service for four houses completed by the people l iving there. Although the 12 of us on this short-term mission hailed from each corner of the United States, four of the group were from South Carolina: Peter McCord of Blessed Trinity Parish, in Greer; Charlotte McCreary of St. Joseph’s Parish in Columbia , and Bill and Judy Stravolo of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Spartanburg.
This past summer the entire group of 12 finally assembled on a rainy night in the capital, San Salvador, at an Episcopal Church compound to slowly begin their immersion into this very different and quite dangerous foreign culture. Although a civil war that lasted 12 years ended in 1992 after the loss of more than 75,000 lives, the main issue, land reform, still has not been resolved. There is much discontent with the government. From time to time “death lists” appear mysteriously on the streets usually with names of those who are outspoken about human rights. Most recently the last list included the names of a television news correspondent, a newspaper journalist, a priest who teaches and resides at University of Central America (UCA), and the priest o f the compound where we were staying.
After two days of orientation and visits to the UCA to see the site where six priests and their two housekeepers were slain and then to the site of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was gunned down in 1980 while celebrating Mass, the gr oup was transported by van to San Vicente, 40 miles southeast of the capital. There we would be housed in a small hotel that would serve as a base from which we would travel one hour daily to an area called Vera Cruz Arriba that overlooked twin volcanoes across a verdant, fertile valley of sugar cane, exotic fruit trees, and coffee plantations. The vista was paradise, but the living conditions of the people primitive and deplorable. Our purpose was to aid the seven families who qualified for a habitat hom e to build their houses along with four skilled block masons.
Although no English was spoken, the few translators in the group provided the necessary communication, and the work began. The type of house we were building would be either a two- or three-room dwelling of cement block and mortar with a cement tile ro of, and tiled floor. The area ranged from approximately 300 to 500 square feet depending on the size of the family. The home would be luxurious by comparison to the mud/bamboo dwellings with dirt floors. In many of the dwellings there were no windows and large portions of mud had washed away, replaced with a black plastic or cotton curtain.
Our jobs were many. Electricity was limited and aids to help in the construction were practically non-existent. We had to manually sift sand to make the mortar which we mixed by hand with cement and water. Next we filled in the block and built scaffold s as the structure grew higher. While these activities were going on, someone was cutting or tying rebar to enforce the structure, and there was always the task of carrying thousands of tiles and blocks to sites where no truck could travel. Needless to sa y, this was work we were unaccustomed to doing in an inescapably hot climate, but every member of the group declared it was worth every moment to share in this joint venture with Christian brothers and sisters.
While breakfast and dinner would be eaten in St. Vicente, lunch every day was provided by the community we were helping. A lunch of beans, rice, cream, tamales, ox, cheese and, always tortillas. As we slowly entered into their lives and daily routine, we began to interact more and more, talking about our lives and finding out about theirs, either through the translators or by using key words coupled with gestures.
Very soon the people of Vera Cruz Arriba and we from the States had formed a bond and a lasting friendship. We prayed together before each workday began, and then we prayed before our noon meal, always in both languages. In the evenings, when the Habit at group had finished its evening meal back in town, we would come together to have a devotional hour and share a question posed by one or two of the group members. We all clearly felt the presence of God and the power of our prayer and that of those pray ing for us back home as we considered all that could have gone wrong. Yet everything turned out for the good of all in this very remote part of the world so far from home.
After six and one half actual workdays, our mission time was slowly drawing to an end. The last workday on a Wednesday closed with a lunch and festivities including songs, final words of prayer and gratitude, a testimony in Spanish by our team leader P eter McCord, an exchange of small gifts, promises to write, and final sad good-byes.
Once again we slowly retraced our steps as we headed toward St. Vicente to pack up for San Salvador. After two days there of much needed rest, relaxation, and reflection, this closely-knit group of 12 began the difficult task of saying its own good-bye s, each with some declared mission to take this experience and the mission of Habitat for Humanity back to his or her own community.