Countless experiences working with Habitat
Published 6:51 pm Monday, April 24, 2006
On March 25 I worked on my very first Habitat build and have been trying to figure out how to put my experience into words ever since.
I've supported Habitat for Humanity from afar for years and have actually worked for the Greater Brewton Habitat for Humanity affiliate for a few months, but March 25 was my first time to swing a hammer on a Habitat work site.
I made the 11-hour trek to Lynchburg, Va. With several other volunteers from Brewton to help the Lynchburg Habitat affiliate build a “house in a box” that has since been transported to Evergreen.
This house in a box is patiently waiting in a warehouse until it will be reassembled on Conoley Avenue in Brewton on Saturday, May 6.
I am not new to the realm of volunteer service, but this experience is definitely one of the most rewarding and meaningful projects in which I have ever participated. Part of what made this experience unique was the weather.
When we gathered in the mall parking lot at 8 a.m. to begin working, it was snowing.
Those of us who had traveled from south Alabama to be a part of this project thought that we were being cautious when we threw our lightweight jackets in the trunk - just in case. We were definitely not prepared to spend hours working in the snow.
Even the Virginia natives were pretty surprised it was snowing at the end of March. And it wasn't a nice, fluffy, pretty snow. It was a cold, drippy, yucky snow that eventually turned to a cold, miserable rain.
Something else that made this experience unique was the fact that it was a joint project between two very different Habitat affiliates about 1,000 miles apart.
Our Brewton affiliate has the distinction of being the smallest metropolitan area in the state of Alabama to have its own affiliate and has limped along for a decade with no paid staff and a relatively small, but highly dedicated group of volunteers.
The Lynchburg affiliate is quite large and has a history of success. They have built more than 240 houses in Lynchburg as well as more than a few houses in other countries.
They have several full-time staff persons and oodles of volunteers. The sharp contrast between our two affiliates is pretty distinct but we have the exact same goal - to eliminate poverty housing in our communities.
Among the many volunteers involved in Habitat for Humanity in Lynchburg is the incredible Tom Gerdy, who some of us Brewtonians (as Tom calls us) have been privileged to get to know.
The fact that Tom Gerdy was in charge of this particular project automatically sets it apart. Tom runs his own construction company in Lynchburg, but I don't know how he manages to keep his own business afloat with all the time he devotes to Habitat work.
He recently was recognized by Habitat International as its “Volunteer of the Year.” For the last five years, Tom has been leading a traveling crew of volunteers to distant locations to help with “blitz builds” in order to bolster the productivity and motivation of local Habitat affiliates.
Any of you who have worked with Tom know that Tom is one unique individual. He can manage to be a cheerleader, a drill sergeant, an angel, a therapist and an absolute nut all at the same time.
Just one brief illustration of what I mean - we were working in the sleet and snow and about mid-morning we were beginning to get cold and tired.
I guess Tom just sensed that we needed a bit of a break and so he ripped his sweater and T-shirt off, put on ridiculously silly looking sunglasses, hammered his bare chest with his fists and yelled something like, “Cold? Who's cold? I'm not. In fact, I'm ready for the beach. This house is going to Brewton, and Brewton is near the beach.”
As Tom paraded around in the snow with his bare chest and his goofy glasses, we had a good laugh, no longer felt quite so cold and all went cheerfully back to work.
I learned several important things during this experience. If you bang you thumb with a hammer but your hands are already frozen, it really doesn't hurt too much. I also learned that if you want to fit in and look like you know how to use a hammer, don't choke up on it like a baseball bat.
As I was attempting to hammer my first nail in and hoped no one was looking, I heard a deep voice over my shoulder saying, “You could go to jail for holding a hammer like that.”
I turned around to see a bearded man looking at me with amusement. He proceeded to show me the correct way to hold a hammer and my nails suddenly went in much easier. I also learned that Habitat volunteers are a diverse group of people.
Between trying to hammer nails in straight, I noticed an elderly man with a back bent from age, holding a nail in for his wife to hammer. I looked up and saw a 20-something stud muffin with pierced eyebrows perched high up on the rafters, bolting sections of wall together.
As I continued to observe those around me, I noticed a young college student who had given up part of her spring break to join her parents in this project. I saw African American women who proudly identified themselves as Habitat homeowners and had long-since completed their “sweat equity” requirements but came out in the snow just to help. I saw a local TV station news anchor in her bright yellow news channel jacket who was not there to cover the story, but to work.
She had covered a few Habitat stories before and gotten hooked. As I looked toward one of the big propane heaters set up in a vain attempt to keep volunteers warm, I saw a middle-aged father with his arm around his mentally and physically handicapped son, who stood watching for hours.
The man was Tom Gerdy's brother, and he and his son had driven seven hours from New Jersey just to watch all the fun.
I watched my own daughter hand out carpenter pencils to volunteers and my son operate a video camera like he was Steven Spielberg. I had tried to convince them to stay in the nice warm hotel room and watch cartoons, but they didn't want to miss being part of the action.
As I have reflected on what it meant to work on my first Habitat build, I have come to the conclusion that what I experienced in Lynchburg was actually a glimpse of the kingdom of God.
In the gospels, Jesus refers to the kingdom of God often, and he seems to imply that the kingdom of God is not just some far off place believers can look forward to going one day.
The kingdom of God is also what exists when God's will is done on earth.
On March 25 at noon, as I watched volunteers write messages of hope and encouragement on the walls of the house we had just built, for a family in Brewton most of the volunteers would never even see, I knew I was experiencing the kingdom of God on earth.
The contemporary Tex-Mex group Los Lonely Boys recorded a song I like titled “How Far Is Heaven?”
My answer is, not far if you spend some time on a Habitat build.
Alecia Glaize is the Executive Director of the Greater Brewton Habitat for Humanity. She can be reached at email@example.com or at 867-0095.