The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel
November 30, 2008
1st Sunday of Advent
First Congregational Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois, UCC
Introduction to the Scripture:
I hope you all had a blessed Thanksgiving. I imagine I was like many of you, counting my blessings but greatly disturbed by the news stories of the terrible violence in Mumbai, India. As a pastor, my prayers went out to many of you in this church who travel to Mumbai for business. I was struck that travel overseas always involves some risk and uncertainty.
When we left for Guatemala, we didn’t have much idea what we would be in for. We did know that we would do some construction work, and social work visits with poor people in their homes, and that we would help out at schools, but not much more than that.
Before leaving, we had been asked to check off any skills we had. As I sat there reading the questions on the form, I found myself getting depressed. Do you have construction experience? No. Do you have a medical background? No. Can you sew? No. Cooking experience or nutrition? No. Judging by that form, I had no skills they needed. Zero.
I did know I would be leading Bible studies with our little group each morning, and I had decided which book of the Bible to spend the entire week with. It was the letter of James.
You see, James is not big into doctrinal issues, or what you believe. James, short, tough little letters written to the early church, is all about living out your faith. It is from that book that today’s scripture comes: a reading that calls us to reach out, and live out our faith, from the short book of the Bible that kept us company in Guatemala.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I, by my works, will show you my faith.
Ever since I got to this church, Kathy Stodgell has been talking about getting our church to do an adult mission trip. The senior high youth go away every year to work camp, to build things and to help people, so why not the adults?
In theory, I agreed with her, and encouraged her to pursue that kind of ministry, never really thinking I would go, too. Kathy has a way of getting people to do things they never expected to do, and the next thing you know, I found myself riding to the airport at 3 a.m., with six other crazy people ready for an adventure in Guatemala.
enormous suitcases to check, filled with donated items from all of you, items
like diapers, school notebooks and medicine, as well as donations. We had spent
an evening at the church packing everything up. How would we find all these
bags at the
In addition, each of us had a week’s worth of our own belongings in a small carry on bag. We were careful not to bring anything we wouldn’t mind having stolen, in a country where mugging is not uncommon. Arriving at that busy airport in hot weather, we hauled all those supplies and bags until, in the crush of people waiting to greet their family members coming home from America, we found our host and the van. They loaded our suitcases on the roof, piled precariously and high, tied with string, the first clue of many that U.S. safety standards were going to be a thing of the past. With that, we were loaded onto a very old van and we were off to Antigua, and the organization we would be working with, a couple of hours away.
We were going to work with Common Hope, an outstanding non-profit you can learn more about in your bulletin, and at the table in the hospitality area after church. Today, I’m not going to give you a bunch of facts and figures. Instead we, the people who went on the trip, are going to tell you a series of stories, impressions, word pictures about what it was like to go on this grand adventure.
The first day of construction, which was not only my first time to build a house, but my first time to build absolutely anything, we arrived at the workshop and our leader said, “The first thing is to load up everything you need to build a house into this pickup truck.” How could a whole house fit into a pick up truck? I was about to learn.
Monday: The work is hard for us since we aren’t used to hard physical labor. We start by loading the truck with corrugated roof panels, pre-built cement board wall sections, two doors, three windows, tools and fasteners. We climb on the back of the pickup and ride off to the site. Next all the pieces are carried down to the hand mixed concrete pad.
Chalk lines are snapped on the floor, wall panels bolted down, and bolted together. Next we mount hinges to the walls, and the house has windows and doors. Drill some holes, slide in bolts and the house has locks.
Tuesday: Roof joists are added, and the roofing panels nailed in place. We haul our tools back to the truck, and our work is done.
Friday: We return for the House Blessing. The family has painted the house, and added on an extra room. They’ve waited to move in until we return for the blessing. We hold hands, say “Our Father” and sing “Santo, Santo, Santo.” Making the house a home is left up to the mother and her children.
We invested less than two days of our lives, but for the family it is a significant housing upgrade, a place to study, and maybe a chance for a little privacy. For some of us there were firsts regarding construction. For all the team it was a fulfilling experience. For me there were also fond memories of time spent with my dad.
The first house we built was down a winding alley, in a typical neighborhood where the nicest structures were built of cinder block, and the worst were simply pieces of plastic held up by sticks. We had to carry all the stuff from the truck down a narrow alley, stepping over dogs, kittens, children and chickens, all of whom had come out to help. This was to be a two-room house, in other words, a big one. No bathroom – and kitchens are outside the houses, mostly a fire pit for cooking. We went on to build another one-room house, and when we arrived for the final house blessings, the benediction, the single mother had set up an altar decorated with statues of the Virgin Mary and all her prettiest things. She told us that she had been praying for one more room for her children, and now she had one.
benedictions, our guide from Common Hope would translate to us the story of the
family moving in, and share with us their words, and then she would have us all
hold hands and say The Lord’s Prayer, in English and Spanish at the same time. We
had something to add. We actually knew a song in Spanish, the song we sing
every Sunday when we have communion, the song you heard at the beginning of the
Those moments were very emotional with all of us a bit teary-eyed seeing the families in their home, and having prayed together. So then our guide explained that we were going to sing, and I knew enough Spanish to understand her saying, “OK, and now the group is going to sing to you the only song they know in Spanish.” In other words, don’t quit your day jobs.
of our tasks was to travel with a social worker on visits to various
homes in the area. Many of these visits were simple checks to see if
children were attending school. Others were more difficult and we witnessed
situations outside of our “comfort zone.”
Gummer and I approached a typical rural home, built from scrap metal and
pieces of corrugated tin, built in the midst of several other homes. There
is very little privacy in
for her response. We entered her dark home, approximately 12 x 18 feet,
four beds tucked into each corner, dirt floor, no electricity, dolls with
missing arms, food, clothing scattered on the floor. As my eyes got used to
the darkness, I saw a woman sitting on a bed. She told her story, which
included one of pain, little sleep and frustration. She was dying of
cancer...a 54 year old woman who seemed more like 74. She was missing
teeth, wore a knit cap and several layers of clothing. When originally
diagnosed, she was given 6 months to live, but had recently passed the 28
Her quality of life seemed so
poor to me. I was very uncomfortable in that
room and kept searching for a way to make the situation better. What could
I suggest? What could I say to ease her pain? And yet, within moments, 3
bright faced boys came racing to her doorway and greeted her with
enthusiasm...”Buenos dias, abuelita!” and instantly her face was alive. She
told us she had 25 grandchildren and beamed with pride. At that moment I
realized she was in the right place, surrounded by the comfort of family,
friends and all that she had known her whole life. It made me hope that I
might find myself in a similar place in my final days.”
Common Hope never meant to get into the house building business or healthcare. They started and remain an organization whose primary focus is education. In trying to keep children in school, they realized that there were some obstacles. If families had nowhere to live, or got sick, school slid to the bottom of the list of priorities. They realized that in order to make it in school, some of these children’s families needed a house that wasn’t falling down around them, and medical care, as well as counseling.
is the engine that drives it all. Why? Well,
Everywhere, children are working, in family businesses, weaving, hauling things around. They think nothing of it, because that’s the way it’s always been. It’s a cycle. If you don’t have an education, you can’t get a job that pays a living wage. So your children have to work to support the family. If you have six kids, which is not unusual, that’s both a lot of mouths to feed, and too many school fees to pay but also, since most kids live at home until they get married, it’s a lot of potential income earners. So it’s hard for these families to understand why you would want your kids to be in school. A child with a sixth grade education can get a much better job. If you can make it through high school, which is really like technical career prep, you can earn four times what your parents made. So, on our trip we spent a lot of time thinking about the schools and visiting them. Through a child sponsorship program, Common Hope covers those school fees, provides tutoring to help kids keep up, invests in public schools, and now has started it’s own school in a village called New Hope.
After a long dusty ride up a mountain road filled with impossible hairpin turns, we arrived at New Hope, the location of a village built in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity. As we toured the site, we came upon the two-year-old school built by Common Hope for the children of that area. It is a beautiful facility surrounded by tall fences and coils of barbed wire. Debbie White asked if the wire was protection against crime and we were told that, in fact, it was to keep the children out. School is such a safe, comforting place for students, they will try to sneak back in even after everyone has gone home. We heard of a day when school was closed for an emergency water main break and the kids cried at the gate when told to go home.
We visited a public school where we made simple ornaments with the students and it amazed me to see the mischievous teen aged boys crammed behind small desks intently cutting out Christmas trees and paper soldiers. My second grade teacher’s heart was thrilled to see children who viewed school as a privilege. Common Hope began with a mission to educate children in a country with a 25% illiteracy rate. Their initial goal was to see children through 6th grade, and then even better, 12th grade, with a university education being available to only a few. For Debbie and me, meeting the schoolchildren was our greatest gift.
When they planned this new community, they knew it would be very small, so they interviewed families to get those most likely to succeed, hoping to rule out families with issues of abuse, alcoholism and other problems. What they learned is that families are good at saying what you want to hear, and the families came with all the same problems that families everywhere, all over the world, have. You can’t create a perfect community, nor should you. After some years, Common Hope realized it didn’t want to run a village. Common Hope’s main focus was education. The people deserved to be independent. So this year, the houses and the village are being turned over to the residents, so that Common Hope can focus on the school. What a school. You can see why the children don’t want to leave. It’s the best school around, and now it’s open to children from surrounding villages and ravine towns. So who do they accept? There’s one criteria: You have to be the poorest of the poor. That’s who gets in.
We met with the principal, a
Guatemalan man who grew up in poverty himself. He was one of the ones who was
going to quit school in the sixth grade because his grades were too low to
justify going forward, when he could be working. That year, there was a teacher’s
strike. Because there were no teachers to evaluate the kids at the end of the
year and give them grades, there was a government decree that every sixth
grader would get a passing grade. It was for that reason and that reason only,
that he got to start junior high school. It was that next year, his seventh
grade year, that he began to excel academically, going on to high school,
college and then to earn two masters degrees. That late bloomer is now the
principle of the
So often in life, we track kids, we label them, and we stereotype them. He’s a good student. She’s not. She’s an athlete. He’s not. He’s going to succeed. She’ll never amount to anything. In that high school principal, I saw it’s never too late to blossom. He was allowed to, because he was given a chance that one year. Now, his whole life is about giving a chance to others.
On our last day in Guatemala we went to the second house, a one-room structure we had built to celebrate a “House Blessing” with our group, the Common Hope Construction staff and the Guatemalan family who were moving in. This small room would be soon filled with old mattresses, made with tired bedding for many children. I had seen and visited many extremely poor homes all week and yet the narrow dirt path, the fence made of scraps, the chickens, the orange rinds, the crumpled cans, the skinny flee infested dog, the outdoor wood cooking stove. . . were getting to me.
We gathered in the small one-room home in front of a heart warming altar that the family created for this blessing. We prayed, and sang our one Spanish song, “Santos, Santos, Santos,” (which we sing every month at communion) with the group. The Mother shared her appreciation with us. As we took pictures, many, many children joined the group.
A young girl in a very dirty dress with messy hair came in for the picture. She had those glassy eyes and a thick runny nose that suggested she was sick. My own American standards wanted to take her, bring her home, see that she had a warm bath, and a clean place to sleep. As I looked at this little girl, I realized, she was happy, and surrounded by her loving family: A close family of deep faith that had worked sweat equity hours to get this new home. This girl had everything of importance.
rich tradition in all the world’s religions to go on a pilgrimage. Muslims
In the letter of James, he writes that faith without works is dead. In other words, at some point you have to live out your faith by taking care of people’s needs. We felt like we were doing that, building houses, bringing supplies, and I hope that all of you felt that through our church you were doing that too.
Let’s be practical. Wouldn’t it just be easier to write a big check to Common Hope and have the seven of us stay home? For that matter, aren’t there poor people here in America, here in DuPage County or Chicago who we could help for a lot less expense? Why get on a plane and go somewhere? I answer this question in two ways. On the practical level, if all the church is about is being like a mini United Way, then sending a check is efficient, as is staying and working at home. We’re not the United Way. We’re a church, and in the history of religion there’s always been something important about taking a journey, and actually meeting people, and having your life changed by them. Let me be honest in order to avoid hypocrisy. We weren’t in this simply to help the other; we wanted God to work on us, too. We all had different stories.
One of us was an empty nester wondering what God had in mind for the next chapter of her life.
One of us had saved up for a cruise, but at the last minute decided to do this mission trip instead.
One of us, a teacher, discovered that her gifts and skills, that in Wheaton she felt they were unremarkable, were gifts and skills that the Common Hope team truly needed, and she continues to discern God’s call upon her life as her future unfolds. As we all do.
One of us was overscheduled, over-wired, and both excited and anxious to spend a week not being in charge.
One of us was searching to understand her child’s passion for justice, by rediscovering her own.
One of us was remembering time spent assisting his dad in the workshop, and noted that this was the first time since 1977 he had been out of contact with work for a week.
One of us thought she would be on this trip having just received the news that she was laid off, but just before leaving, found out her job was safe, but not her colleagues’. She brought with her grief for her many friends whose lives had been turned upside down and a sense of the unpredictability of life.
We weren’t there to save the world. We all had our stories, our longings, and our own need for healing.
To go back to James, both faith and good works were on our minds. We wanted to do good, but we also wanted to be changed.
Imagine, on your birthday, you wake up sleeping in nothing more then a shack, you might have a bed, you might share your room with your mother, father, siblings, the cook stove and who knows who or what else. You now get to spend your day, playing in the streets, eating rice, beans, tortillas, but will you have a cake? You will be happy, knowing you have family, friends and a gift from someone you don’t even know, a new pair of shoes!
As part of the program at Common Hope, on your birthday, you can come in and pick out a new pair of shoes. The sample shoes are lined up on a wall, so you can pick out the style, and then you get your new shoes. One noon, on our way back to Common Hope, I saw a teenage boy walking down the cobblestone road, clenching to his chest a small plastic bag with a pair of new shoes. You could see in his expression that he was just given the world.
as a team started each day with daily devotions. Lillian
led these devotions based on the book of James, where he discussed that without
works, faith is dead. The faith here at First Congregational
I will always remember that boy, so proud of the work of faith that he carried home with him that day.
As I remember the boy and his smile and his new birthday shoes, I am embarrassed to think about how many pairs of shoes I have at home in my closet. I imagine all of us can feel guilty about some area of our lives where we consume too much, buy too much or just have too much.
I left the United States in the middle of an economic crisis, and I came back to that same story. Without minimizing what people here are going through, I think all of our perspectives on that were changed. Many on our trip had lives intertwined with the financial world in intense ways, and futures filled with uncertainty, possible job loss and change. Seeing a boy, who gets one pair of shoes a year, smiling in delight, makes an impact.
He and his family, living with dirt floors and poverty – they do have a financial crisis, but we are in a very different position. Furthermore, look around you and search your lives for the many blessings that can not be purchased with coin or cash.
It was my great blessing to spend my birthday there. On that day, the group had streamers up in the morning, a cake in the afternoon, a few small gifts from family and friends that had been sneaked into other people’s suitcases, and a slew of cards signed by many of you, the adults and the kids of our church. We all gave up things to be away for that week, and a week is a long time to be away from the people you love. When I read my own daughter’s name on the card, and her sweet and distinctive handwriting, where she was careful to sign her full name, “Abigail Weeks,” I missed her terribly, with a longing that comes from being far away and knowing I was holding something she had held a few days before.
Those are the things that matter to me, and they were the same things that mattered to the people we visited. We all helped each other on that trip. If there were any heroes it was among the women who struggled so that their children could learn, among the men who work there and here in the States to send money home, in the volunteers who stay there for years when they could be somewhere else.
My ultimate hero is the same as Steve’s. It’s the boy with his birthday shoes, who marched down the street with a smile of triumph, the look of someone who was ready to take on the world, the look of a kid who knew he had a chance.
Faith without works is dead, said James. Faith with works is alive. No matter what happens in this country, financially or politically, let’s keep reaching out as a congregation. Let’s stay focused on the other, and the bigger picture, here and abroad. Why? Because there are too many kids out there who haven’t received their birthday shoes; and there are plenty of good people right here who can do something about that. Amen.