Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys made a lively spiritual titled “I’m Working on a Building” famous in bluegrass music circles. Check it out on YouTube to get your blood pumping and your spirit soaring. (YouTube.com/watch?v=Zkyf3viJ5U)
“I’m working on a building, a Holy Ghost building. I’m working on a building for my Lord, for my Lord.”
That’s what I thought I was going to do in San Juan la Laguna, a mile-high community in the mountains of central Guatemala – work on a building.
That’s all I thought I was going to do on West End’s mission to assist ODIM (Organization for the Development of Indigenous Mayans), and, quite frankly, I was a bit disappointed early in the trip. I wasn’t doing very much building. We simply weren’t putting in very many hours at our job sites, someday to be homes for two families.
We arrived and found the outlines of simple, concrete block structures. One was smack in the middle of San Pablo, a couple of miles from San Juan and reached over a bone-rattling, cratered road, and the other was up a ridge over San Pablo with a spectacular view of a valley filled with coffee trees.
Miguel led one work team, and Ees-eye-EE-uh led the other. (I couldn’t figure out Ess-eye-EE-uh’s actual name until his friend and our interpreter, Pablo, spelled it for me. “Isaiah” sounds different when we say it.)
Monday morning was devoted to delivering 500 pounds of medicine to the ODIM clinic in San Juan, so we had to wait until afternoon to get our hands dirty. The work session seemed all too short.
Tuesday was a full day of work on paper, but a two-hour midday break that included an ODIM program about its effort to combat diabetes, made for a short afternoon on the job. Getting to and from our work sites was at least a 30-minute ordeal.
Wednesday was a day off of sorts. We toured a coffee cooperative and saw Pablo’s enthusiasm when he showed us his rented parcel, where he was squeezing in a bean crop between rows of coffee plants that were years away from productivity. His second rented parcel was farther up the mountain, where he tended tomato plants – including carrying water to them at 5:30 that morning before linking up with us at 8.
That afternoon, we heard a harrowing account from the father of an ODIM employee who told of his abduction and brutal torture by the army when he was a teenager. It was during a period of violence that wracked Guatemala for decades. He was held for four years and somehow lives today without bitterness or a desire for retribution – even though he knows the people whose false accusations led to his imprisonment.
Thursday was to be a full day of work – something I welcomed – but rain after lunch cut that in half. Only then did I realize I wasn’t there just to work on a building.
I was there – West End was there – to meet the people of ODIM, the people of San Juan and San Pablo, the people whose houses we were helping erect, the people of Guatemala.
It turns out that manual labor is only part of mission work. “Working on a building” as Bill Monroe sang also means working on the human side of the process – something probably even more than on the bricks and mortar.
Seeing the industriousness of Miguel, Isaiah and Pablo, understanding the love of community the ODIM staff embodies, hearing the harrowing horror story of a victim of state violence, making friends, realizing that God’s hands touch everyone – that was my lesson in mission work.
By the way, I learned how to sift sand, mix concrete and lay a straight row of concrete blocks while standing on rickety scaffolding, too.