I died and went to a heavenly hell this past weekend… Or was it a hellish heaven? Whichever it was it was salted through and through with a little bit of each. Where to begin?
Well, for folks living outside of Latin America, you should probably know just a little about Un Techo. Un Techo is a micro-version of Habitat for Humanity with some pretty important differences. Basically, Un Techo is a three step development program for the poorest of the poor that originated in Chile in 1997. The first step is an interview process of people living in squatter settlements, followed up by the construction of emergency shelters, 14’x26′ “homes” that are windproof, rainproof, and “rat proof” (they are built a couple feet off the ground on piers). The second step is a community development project in the settlement where vocational rehab and community micro-business initiatives are developed. The final stage is assisting the family in building/purchasing their own home and moving out of the settlement.
One story I heard attributes its initiation to the work of a priest, while the more “official” story has the beginning with a group of social work students doing a practical development project in which they built houses in the squatter settlements and helped those who were already helping themselves to get up and get moving a bit more. The movement then took off and over the last 10 years has spread to 8 other countries with over 25,000 emergency structures created. Some snapshots:
“So why did you come this weekend,” Florencia, my “crew chief”, asked me, somewhere around 12:30 am on Friday night/Saturday morning. 40-something Eduardo, and some younger folk and myself all sat around in a circle on the gym floor. “I couldn’t come up with a good reason not to.” was my response.
7:30 am Saturday. Walking through the slum. Trash everywhere. Someone’s door has scratched on it in English, “Don’t Not Disturb.” I’m tempted to knock real loud and yell for them and do a little dance, just to obey their instructions. It occurs to me that the level of English might not be so high in the settlement and that maybe a grammatical error slipped in.
7:38 am. Eduardo tells Ruben, Lucretia’s husband, that today we are all going to build them a better house. Ruben hadn’t said hello to any of us or even made eye contact. He was pretty pissed to be awakened so early. “This house is fine. I don’t need any new house.” I make eye-contact with Florencia and we both exchange some unstated meaning: ‘It could be a long weekend.’ 20 minutes later Ruben shows up with breakfast pastries and we all awkwardly decide how to split one liter of milk eight different ways for our ‘community breakfast’ before we head off to the construction.
8:30 am. I smell maple syrup coming from across the trash filled creek. It’s coming from under the large circus tents. The tents are all pitched in the back lot of some stores. They’re filled with gypsies. The gypsies are cooking something that smells like maple syrup. Archetypal carnival fears arise inside in spite of my fascination.
9:07 am. We cross the top of the hill 1 km away from the settlement, and all I see is about five football fields worth of empty land and piles of eucalyptus piers strewn all over the place. 38 hours later it would look like a town.
10:32 am. Ruben is a stud. I feel bad because his wife and sister-in-law are making jokes at his expense. “Hey, somebody get a camera. Somebody take a picture, quick. Ruben is actually working. Can you believe it everybody? Ruben is actually working.” I think, reminiscing about the marriage workshop I teach to professionals, “She is invalidating him.” Yup. “Lucretia, I really get the sense that you are invalidating Ruben. Would you care to rephrase that into an ‘I-statement,’ trying to stay within the XYZ structure?”
I don’t ask it, because it seems like a really silly thing to say. I think about how the marriage workshop would go over in the settlement, and I think about how it would take them a year just to save up to by the book, and how for the price of four of those books, they can pay their portion of the house we are building for them to live in.
2:14 pm. I wonder if we are going to eat lunch today. I wonder if my hands will ever stop hurting. I wonder how in the world we are going to build an entire house if we only have eight of the fifteen pier-holes dug and we are using two iron sticks to dig them. Ruben has worked his tail off and now he calls me “gringo.” “A gringo down here in Uruguay helping me build my house. How about that gringo?” He smiles. He is a genius. He is taking the leadership today. He is working his fingers to the bone.
3:37 pm. Goolash. I don’t even know how to spell gulash, but it is the only way I can explain the most wonderful food I have ever tasted in any of the times I have spent in purgatory paying for sins that I have committed in thousands of past lives (I don’t really believe in thousands of past lives, but for the sake of the analogy, just roll with me). I’m sitting on a telephone pole eating goulash (I just looked up the spelling), and thinking about writing a song about Lucretia and Ruben and their exodus from the slum and how they become really rich and become champions in the fight against poverty, and how Ruben falls in love with Jesus and how the kingdom of God descends on the whole settlement and people all get jobs, start getting along with each other, and the blind see and the lame walk, and the deaf and mute shout for joy. I think about looking up the etymology of Ruben and Lucretia and pronouncing some prophetic blessing on their lives and their homes. I think about eating a second helping of goulash but realize it will be dark in the next couple of hours and that we have an impossibly long way to go.
7:31 pm. I have sneaked off the gymnasium/municipal compound where we are staying so I can by some turpentine to get the tar off my hands. Everything I touch is sticky. I walk into the grocery store in one of the richest/touristy areas of Uruguay and suddenly realize how dirty/nasty I look and smell and I look like I have excrement stuck all over my hands. I feel a little ashamed and think what it must be like for Ruben to go into the store, and find myself wondering if he ever does. I am wishing I would have bought the “Un Techo” t-shirt and worn it in here so I could show everybody how stinking heroic I was to be so dirty and smelly. I by some apples, tangerines, turpentine, a tupperware bowl so I can eat (I forgot to pack one), a spoon, some sugar-free yogurt, and bag of m&m’s. The grocery store shelves have tar on them now, and I feel pretty bad about it. They have turpentine, though, and so I know they will be able to clean them off.
10:08 pm. I have the reality of living cross-culturally reinforced to me as everyone lines up to walk down to the bus terminal to eat dinner. We just worked a 10 hour day of back-breaking manual labor, came ‘home’, ate cookies and drank mate, and now people are going out to dinner. I try to tell my friend Nico I was just going to stay and go to sleep, but the voice inside says, “Go. Be present. Do the whole thing.” An hour later as everyone is enjoying their conversation, I am walking back alone to the compound, popping an ibuprofen and eating m&m’s. I feel really sick, and cultural immersion is closing in on me. I call Toni just to touch a bit of my reality again, and tell her “I’m taking the boy home to put him to bed.” I get back and read Isaiah chapter 43. I am waiting for the ultimate redemption of the people’s to come, and begging God for mercy that folks don’t shake their fist at him and blame him for giving human beings a free-will.
And so ends day one. If you are lucky, you’ll get to hear about day two, the 12 hour stretch with no food, the attack of tears I had when inaugurating the house, and how I lost all the tools I took, and how I got my hammer back, all before arriving home at 3:30 in the morning on Monday.
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