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Editor’s Note:  The following is story is shared by Messiah Lutheran Church member Susan Burrer after returning from her mission trip to El Salvador in Feb 2010.  This was not Susan’s first trip to El Salvador.  Last year she and her husband Virgil participated in another mission trip to El Salvador.  If you would like to learn how you can participate in a home building mission a little closer to home, please visit our Habitat for Humanity Page.

Photo Caption: This is a “tool” they designed to lift a cement block up and slide it over the rebar, since all the rebar sticks about 8 feet up from the ground footers, and works really slick without needing a ladder. As I was “explaining” to Antonio (turquoise shirt, Habitat lead mason) one day, that it was pretty ingenious of them to design that tool to lift block after block up over the rebar and how it speeded up the building process. I told him it looked like a cross to me, and it was like using the “cross” as the main important tool to build the house! After patiently listening to me ramble about all that, he looked at me, smiled big, and said, “no comprenda”! I forgot that they sometimes (mostly!) didn’t understand what I was saying, although I think a few understood more than they let on!

…when I was in the store the other night, I kept hearing “Hola, Hola”! …for a minute it took me back to Villa Esperanza and all the friendly little children calling hello as you walk through the village…but reality hit, and it was just a friendly little boy with a BIG toothless smile in a shopping cart down the aisle here in Huntsville, Alabama…he brightened my day as I got a “warm fuzzy” from good memories of my recent return trip to Santa Ana, El Salvador!

…several people have asked where “my story” was, and if my second visit was as profound as the first! I find myself grasping for words to describe what one experiences…because, really, there are no words to adequately tell the story… and yes, the second visit is even better than the first…in a different way! Some of you know my “cap connection” story but in case you don’t, I’ll need to write that first so you know why there wasn’t any doubt that I had to return!

I knew when I left El Salvador on the Thrivent Builds/Habitat for Humanity trip in September 2009 that I would have to return. I thought at the time that it would be a miracle if I ever actually got to; little did I know all the right connections would just fall into place in the next few weeks and leave no doubt…and it all started with the “cap connection”!

When we were building in Villa Esperanza outside of Santa Ana, the Habitat for Humanity architect for the Thrivent-sponsored village, Cristina, kept wearing this blue cap with Basin Electric on it. Being originally from North Dakota some 27 years ago, I knew it rang a bell, so when asking her about it, she said there were two teams from North Dakota there in May and brought it for her, but she couldn’t remember where they were from.

Well, the week after I got back from there in September, I went to ND to help my mom pack as she was moving to another retirement community. She asked me to share my experience in El Salvador with her devotion group at the Waterford; so I did. In conversation, I stated that the architect had a connection to North Dakota through the Basic Electric cap she was wearing…small world, I said. …little did I know! The lady sitting next to me, who had only recently started coming to devotions, stated her daughter, Dawn, was in El Salvador in May but she couldn’t remember which village. I gave her my e-mail address and asked if she would have Dawn contact me so we could compare stories about our experience! She immediately e-mailed, and come to find out, Dawn and the Bismarck team from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church were also in Santa Ana helping build Villa Esperanza, the same as us, and SHE (Dawn) was the one that brought Cristina the blue cap from Basin Electric where she works! Dawn said a bunch of them were going back in February, and if I was interested in going, she would give my name to their Thrivent team lead, Rita Keegan! All coincidences? …I don’t think so! …how could I NOT go now! …the rest is history…I connected with Dawn and the other nine Bismarck, ND team members, none of whom I had previously met, in Houston on February 18 for the journey to Santa Ana, El Salvador! It didn’t come without incident…we were diverted to Mexico for over 7 hours as a lady who was going to her son’s funeral back in El Salvador was having a heart attack. They asked if there was a doctor or nurse on board, and we just happened to have a doctor and three nurses on our team so they stepped up to take care of things. …another small world, but later we found out that the lady was our interpreter Aleks’ step-mother’s sister, and that she, unfortunately, passed away that evening. In the mean time, they had used up all the oxygen supply so we had to wait until someone drove some in from Cancún, which was at least 4 hours away. We eventually got to Hotel Sahara that evening, a 2-hour drive from the airport, and all was well! We were all anxious to get to Villa Esperanza, a 20-minute drive into the country, on Saturday morning! Of the 11 of us, 9 were “returnies” so we were filled with excitement to see the local Habitat workers and interpreters that we had formed close bonds with our last visits, hoping that they would still all be there and remember us, and to see want kind of progress they had made building the village! It was fun to walk down the street where we had previously started the single house and duplex way at the end and now see the street mostly filled in with houses, especially on the same side of the street; across the street is mostly vacant yet, with someone tending to three cows. It was great to see families now living in all three units, and there was a small boy about 2 playing out front! Even the “great wall” we started building that ran the entire length of the street between backyards is now complete! There will be
75 houses total in this villa, and I’m guessing more than half are now built.

This time they had at least six houses going in various stages, from digging trenches in the earth for footers, digging 8-ft-deep holes for the septic system, building walls, painting the inside and outside of houses, laying floor tile, to pouring sidewalks. The first day I transported a lot of dirt/gravel/sifted sand with my wheelbarrow…I’m WELL experienced with that from last trip! Even my zebra stripe bruises returned all across my legs from pushing wheelbarrows with “semi-rollable wheels” through gravel! I was helping make the sidewalk and back patio area, where all the “activity” of the house takes place…cooking, washing dishes/clothes/bathing kyds in the large three-compartment, multi-use sink! The rest of the week I worked with Antonio’s team building walls of a duplex, including hauling block, wiring rebar, mixing chespa (concrete) and mescala (mortar) and filling it in the cement blocks, setting up scaffolding, and backfilling dirt around the foundation. Each part of the duplex is no more than 400 sq. ft., two bedrooms about 9 x 9 feet each, and a bathroom that is also outside, off the patio as well, but has a flush toilet and shower…life is good!

The right side of this duplex was Ingrid and Juan’s (she could speak English also so would interpret for Juan)! I was extremely happy to have the opportunity to work beside them all week as they put in their sweat equity. They had been married 6 months, both had good jobs at Pizza Hut which qualified them for repayment to Habitat, and their love for each other and excitement about building their own house radiated to all of us! You could truly experience the feeling of not just building a house here, but HOPE, the established theme for building the whole “Village of Hope,” or Villa Esperanza! It was an especially touching moment for me as I took off my HOPE necklace I wore all week and placed it on Ingrid’s neck and told her that she and Juan were the finest examples of the future HOPE of the village…they were both so sweet and SO grateful that people come to help build not just their house, but the whole village. …does it get any better than that?

Wednesday is Culture Exchange afternoon in the villa…we had the great fútbol game (soccer), made pupusas, tried a bunch of their foods; and we made them s’mores, which they liked a lot!, had a piñata for the children, and a mariachi. Friday afternoon is the party no one likes…the Farewell celebration! It is heartwarming as they get up and tell you what it means to them to have us give up our lives for 10 days and come help them make a difference…they have such a strong faith. Faith is believing what you can’t see…somehow I think they see more than I do! They present us with certificates, little pails to remember all the chespa we put in the walls, and hugs! The party part is fun in that a different mariachi came so there is dancing, cake, etc. …and then the inevitable, goodbye hugs to everyone…I don’t think they like it any more than we do! I am always amazed at how close you get to these people when you can’t even speak Spanish…perhaps “words” are over rated…like the song says, …you say it best, when you say nothing at all…

The week is not just filled with work…they want you to experience the whole culture thing of El Salvador in general. Sunday we went to Cristo Rey Lutheran Church and then to Lake Coatepeque, an inverted volcano, for lunch, overlooking the lake, with a mariachi, took the boats across the lake to a swimming area. An unexpected added bonus came Sunday night when we were up on the hotel rooftop terrace. A big brilliant orange/red streak came across the sky, close to us, and then we heard a BIG boom! We all thought it was a meteorite, and it must have hit Honduras! Until the next day, when we found out it was actually the Space Shuttle coming home! How cool was that! Tuesday we went to a thermal springs/water park area after work, which felt wonderful after working in the HOT sun!, Thursday afternoon we took the Santa Ana walking tour, visiting Catedral de Santa Ana, a huge beautiful old cathedral; Teatro de Santa Ana, the theatre, both built in the early 1900s, and visited street vendors. Friday we went to the destination we voted on, Hotel Pacific Paradise, a resort on the Pacific Ocean…a beautiful area with GREAT sunsets! Saturday most of us went on a separate snorkeling adventure in Los Cobanos, a couple hours away, and saw more of the countryside and the hot surfing area; and early Sunday morning it was back to the States. …wait…didn’t we JUST get here!

…guess we never know what simple thing can speak volumes and be our next “connection” in God’s greater plan! I’m doubting if it will ever be revealed as simple as the cap connection, although I’m waiting for my next sign, because I would like nothing better than to return one more time! I know I always say, I initially went there to “pass on the blessings” because I’ve been blest in many ways over the years, but how do you even begin to compare with the blessing you get by spending just that short time at Villa Esperanza with those people…there are no words…

My previous “theme” was “Compassion without action is empty.” On the way back I found my new theme in the airline magazine: “The smallest good deed is greater than the grandest intention.” …even though it seems like such a small thing to do to go there and work, everyone’s “small good deed” is adding up to build the ENTIRE village…and that is pretty awesome to be a part of…