Service can be a thank-less calling

Justin Runquist

Dark clouds were looming in the distance. Then again, those clouds creep over Guatemala often enough in October to be considered monotonous.

Rain was the last thing on our minds. Our service team had been sweating over renovations on a meager home in Antigua for two days, and we weren’t about to stop then. We had already come so far. With what little resources and experience we had, we were already laying blocks, mixing cement and laying a new concrete foundation for a basic kitchen. Just one more room to add to a shack composed of just two tiny bedrooms and an earthy hole for a toilet.

Welcome to the home of the Hernández-Yuc family. A mother and grandmother lived there, both supporting nine to 10 children. No father figure was in sight all week, although drunks and naked kids would consistently come and go through the lock-less front door as they pleased. When we arrived, their kitchen was a chaotic mess; a dirt floor enclosed by termite-infested planks and a sheet metal roof that was about to collapse any day. The roof did, in fact, collapse as we dismantled it. The metal was so charred from months of cooking their food with burning newspaper as a stove; the beams were so unstable from mere hanger wire holding pieces together.

Never before did I think of how important and underappreciated my own kitchen roof was. My own family ate hearty Christmas dinners under that roof, and a chandelier, flowery drapes and a bowl of egg nog always spiced up the atmosphere. Yet here was a different reality. A different world. The third world. This was a family who needed a kitchen roof to merely survive.

Several of the Hernández-Yuc children had been helping us build the kitchen. All week the five to 12-year-old kids had so eagerly picked handfuls of stone and sand – barefoot and all – helping us to mix the concrete that would be their kitchen floor. Yet, as the imposing storm drew overhead this time, they were now hurrying to cover the foundation of wet cement we had spent the last two days trying to lay.

It didn’t matter. The rain finally came. Faster and harder. It was too much. Within minutes our would-be floor was reduced to a mud pit. Our site coordinator could only watch our efforts wash away, knowing we did the best we could. Service work means contributing what little you have, and well, the roof materials weren’t supposed to arrive until the next day. Damn that roof.

For our Villanova group, that was one lucid glimpse into the reality of poverty. But we returned home to vibrant Lancaster Avenue a week later. For the Hernández-Yuc family and so many Guatemalans, and for so many others in Darfur, Tibet and around the world, this was just another day, another struggle they can’t escape. In the hot summer heat, air conditioning isn’t an option; nor are efficient rain gutters or roofs in the chilling downpour. For the privileged, rainy season means pulling out the ponchos, but for the poor it means hoping your street won’t wash away or your house won’t fall down.

The rain just kept coming and coming that day. The endless rain was almost symbolic of the struggle of poverty, of the struggle for justice, of the struggle of being a volunteer. Service can feel like a thankless calling sometimes. At times, as a servant, you just feel lonely and helpless – like you’re fighting a battle you can’t win. Our group eventually refinished the concrete floor that week, yet when our time was up, we left the Hernández-Yuc home and took one last glance down their street before driving away. Down that long, eroded street were scores of more unstable shacks with more urgent needs.

So, did we really help enough over Fall Break? Did we succeed in our mission?

Some may say our service efforts were mere drops in the ocean. After all, when you look at the bigger picture, you’ll see the Guatemalan government is corrupt and its people have a long road to recovery following decades of bloody civil war. Could hope ever prevail? Even look at our own country, facing a seemingly unremitting political, ethical and ideological divide. Why reach out to Guatemalans when we can’t even help ourselves?

I believe we can indeed help ourselves and each other. Again, did we succeed in our mission? Yes, in that we made a positive difference in the lives of one family. Yes, in that the impact on one, in our group’s eyes, is always better than nothing. And a profound yes, in that many of us had earth-shattering prophecies where life actually made sense that week. We were part of a miracle of humans helping humans, and of humans loving each other.

Our human nature assures us that social class disparity will always be a way of life. But imagine a world where everyone would see the beauty in that miracle and the power of one.

Those miracles provide us hope and a reason for lifting up those less fortunate. Next week I’ll explore and offer some ways to do just that.