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Gratitude

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We stood in the muddy courtyard next to a broken-down house, listening to peeps of chicks and an old woman’s sobbing in Spanish, accompanied by a steady stream of translation. The old woman of about sixty years, with a face lined like a piece of paper crumpled then unfolded, her grey hair hidden under a greasy ball cap, continued with tears coursing down her cheeks as we stood speechless. “God bless you. You are a gift from God. I pray that God will give you strength since you used yours to help me…”

Our mission team had arrived at the Guatemalan mountainside earlier the previous day after completing a work project at a different site. Stumbling down a narrow winding trail through grass and cornfields, we passed houses hiding in walled courtyards overrun with flowering vines, curious children peering through the gates, until we came to a decrepit house perched precariously on the steep slope. Leaning unstably, it looked as if it were ready to join the boulders and logjams left by the mudslide that had torn through the bottom of the ravine. At first, we wondered if we were to tear down the house and build a new one in its place. The existing structure looked rather too beat up to be worth saving. Instead, our task was to relocate the house into the courtyard of another at the top of the slope, closer to the small village.

Carefully removing the woman’s meager belongings from the house, we passed them in an assembly line to the top of the hill. Dingy, once-bright plastic containers full of worn but clearly treasured books and assorted watercolor pencils along with random knickknacks were conveyed up to the waiting pickup truck to be carried to the relocation site. After empting the house, we began disassembly and sent the building materials the same way as the woman’s belongings. Great care was necessary in this process due to the extraordinarily delicate condition of the materials. The corrugated tin roofing, full of rust and cracks but still razor sharp along the edges, was cautiously handed from bare hands to bare hands. Next came the sheets of drywall, covered in mud and mildew from the rainy season and threatening to come apart in our hands. Following a near mishap, we decided these were too heavy to safely pass in an assembly line since one accident could destroy an entire wall of the house, so groups of people lugged them up the slope, sweating and grunting as they stumbled over rocks and tufts of grass in the dusty path. Wide-eyed kids watched and giggled to each other in amusement over all the effort we took to move a dilapidated house up a mountain. After several hours, we collected random pieces left over from the house, like the door and small pieces of drywall, and wearily trudged up the path, almost too tired to enjoy the beauty of the setting sun—our minds were more focused on culinary beauty.

Upon returning the next day to reassemble the house, we discovered that this task was almost as hard work as taking apart and moving the house. While the more construction-competent leaders and boys planned the most effective way to reassemble the structure, we girls procured water and rags to clean the grimy walls as best we could without damaging them any further. As we grew increasingly sweaty in the full sun, the old woman brought us soda in Styrofoam cups, beaming happily as we enjoyed the cool treat before we returned to work. Finally, the walls started going up, held upright and level by straining arms as the supporting beams were nailed together. A miscalculation required the entire house to be moved over two feet so the last wall could be put on, requiring the collaborative effort of the team to gently lift the house without straining the nails in in the less-than-trustworthy supportive beams and sagging drywall. After the walls were reassembled, we put on a new roof of shining corrugated tin, which made an interesting contrast against the old walls. We added the door and corrected minor details, then stood back to evaluate our handiwork. The house was put together correctly, the new tin roof looked good, and the walls were cleaned as best we could, albeit still covered with mildew, but it still did not look like a suitable dwelling. We regretted that we could not have built an entirely new, better house, but we did the best we could with this one. We had turned to leave when the team leaders called us back into the courtyard, where we expected to find tools or other materials left behind. Instead, we had been surprised to find the old woman sobbing out her gratitude.

She continued, “I’m so sorry all I could give you was soda; I wish I could’ve given you lunch, but I have no money because I am too old to work. You are such a blessing to come and move my house. None of my neighbors would help, and I could not pay anyone—and you came all the way from the United States to help me. You are a gift from God…” Each of us had tears in our own eyes as one by one we hugged the old woman, amazed by how God can use people to answer prayers. What seemed simple to us, merely moving a house, meant the world to this woman.

Reflecting about this experience afterwards with the rest of the team, I realized that what stands out to me most about this story is not the woman’s shameless show of gratitude in her tears and prayers, but the way that she expressed this gratitude: in giving us soda. For us, soda really isn’t a big deal. It’s cheap, it’s ubiquitous, and it’s a staple of American life. For this woman though, soda was a rare treat that cost her much. The soda that she bought for us cost, according to our team’s best estimate, twenty-one to twenty-five quetzals, or about three or four dollars. Three or four dollars may not sound like a lot, but it can buy many things in rural Guatemala. This woman, who had nothing by American standards, and little even by Guatemalan standards, had spent an exorbitant amount of money to show her thankfulness for a task that we considered trivial—that is the extraordinary quality of this story. In the words of the poet James Russell Lowell, “Every man feels instinctively that all the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action.”



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DareYouToMove said...
Oct. 21, 2010 at 7:41 pm:
Beautifully written. :)  I like the topic you choose, and the way you expressed the woman's kindness was amazing. Good job!
 
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