Service is obviously an important part of anything calling itself an alternative service break, and I’ve alluded many times to multiple service projects–both here and in Belize. In this post I’m finally breaking it down into the most concrete blocks possible: I’m telling you what we’ve done and more importantly, what we’re going to do.
A while ago I said sharing money is a means of sharing opportunity. More so than anything else I’ve spoken about, giving me the opportunity to do this service is what will truly make a difference in the world today. Awareness and information? They’re great. They help us adapt our practices to a changing world and ensure it’ll last for our children and theirs, but looking always at the horizon isn’t enough. It takes concrete action today to make concrete change today–and today, it’s this action I’m telling you about.
The weekend of our retreat, we all gathered early Saturday morning to build a house. Actually we were just volunteering with Habitat for Humanity–but actually, we were building a house. The project we ended up working on was part of a restoration they’re doing locally, so most of the house was already there. We’d be working on the walls all day–building them up inside and installing the siding outside.
I started in the first group. The hammering looks easy, but until that hammer is in your hand and that nail is struggling to get into the wood, you really can’t tell just how taxing it can be. So we hammered and tore nails out and hammered again (and sometimes tore nails out again) and then kept hammering. It took us about two hours to get the first wall up, but once it was there, it was there.
It felt good to be able to step back and say, I built that.
The next wall, twice as wide, took another two hours–which means we improved a lot after the first one. My hammering success ratio did a complete inversion, actually–instead of three out of two nails needing to be redone, now two out of three went in alright. That was exciting.
Then we went to lift it–and as you know luck would have it–it didn’t fit. Since this was a restoration, the original rafters remained, and unknown to us wall-makers, the ceiling height was not constant–and not constant by a lot. The site managers came in, evaluated the system, and came up with a plan, but it effectively meant there would be no more wall construction today. And this meant most of us were out of job.
We moved into the sun and began helping the other group with the siding outside. I paired up with a teammate and I’d measure and cut the pieces and he’d bring them up. Oftentimes, on the inside, I’d pause for a second, muscles throbbing, sweat on my brow, and think to myself, “I’m not made for this kind of work,” but out here I was able to excel. Measuring precise quantities? That’s fun for me. The cutting wasn’t difficult, and I was able to move quickly, estimating along the way about how many more would be needed to finish the section we were working on–and then patting myself on the back when I’d cut the perfect number.
It’s worth mentioning that, although I struggled much more with the building inside, the satisfaction of being able to raise a wall and just see it complete was incredible. There’s honestly nothing like it. It’s comparable to getting a test back with a good grade, but greater. It’s even more comparable to finishing a novel and looking at a stack of handwritten memo pads and knowing, through pain and sleeplessness, you made that. And yet, it’s not completely the same: Coupled with the raw confidence borne through any act of creation there is also a sense of justice, of purpose, a sense of unadulterated satisfaction in knowing what you’re looking at now–what may only be a bunch of wood nailed together that looks pretty–this will be used for someone else, completely to help better the lives of someone else–and you’ll never know them, they’ll never know you, and the only thing each side will know is that, hey, someone did something great and someone else is able to enjoy it.
That’s powerful. Practically indescribable.
Growing up in a Jewish family and going to Hebrew school almost my entire life, I often learned about the many levels of mitzvot, the many levels through which we can change the world and bring it closer to God. Teaching someone a skill is better than giving them charity. Giving food is better than giving money. Giving anonymously is more honorable than being known. Giving anonymously without knowing whom you’re giving to is highest of them all. And that morning with Habitat for Humanity, that is precisely what we did.
When we get to Belize, we’ll be working all week while we’re there. Originally we were supposed to be building drying racks for the growers’ cacao beans, but as many of us began to suspect last December, our liaison in Belize–who works with Peacework and has been planning our itinerary this whole time–confirmed we’ll be working on a different project at the cacao museum they’re constructing in Toledo. I mentioned before that tourism is an important part of Belize’s economy, and with this museum, not only will they be able to further boost their tourism industry, they’ll be able to do so through education–through teaching others about the importance of cacao and helping them make those small changes to ensure the world we love is the world that lives tomorrow.
In our most recent email, she described the project like this:
Looks like the Museum project will be a lot of hands on work to build a nursery for the museum. Your group will be digging ground, casting cement, cutting steel, going into the jungle to cut bush stick, transporting river rocks to the museum site and landscaping an edible garden.
If we’d thought Habitat had been hard, this will likely be excruciating–but even if it takes us a day to get acclimated to the tools and the work we’ll be doing, that still leaves us plenty of time to build the best nursery we can build. Knowing our work will not only help one or two people, but an entire community with repercussions reaching even further, affecting the whole world–well, that can only make the work sweeter.
It’d be foolish for me to say I’m not nervous and a little concerned I might not be able to do that kind of work, but looking back at our retreat, I’d felt the same way about simpler things when we had less than a day to learn it all and do it all. It’ll be different in Belize. And if I continue to hit the gym as I intend to, I’ll be able to build the strength needed to do these things, if not much more. I’ll push myself as hard as I can, push myself knowing the difference we’ll be making truly will change the world.
And sometimes that’s all I want to do. Change the world.
Service is important. Service is perhaps the single reason we’re all doing this. But service is empty without action; service by itself is only a word. Today I may only be able to talk about what we’ve done and what we’ll be doing, but at the heart of our trip is the action that’ll make our service make a difference.
And I hope you’ll help me make that action possible now.