He was amazing that week, first climbing a tree and watching the village, the wood fires, the young boys with their games in the dirt, and our construction of the wood framed house. By day three he was down from that tree and already learning the language that he'd master in the years to come.
We finished the work that week, dedicated the house, and handed the key to the single mom who was raising an infant and a young girl. Mercedes would awaken at dawn each morning, courtesy of local roosters, and she'd first make a trek to carry back the days firewood on her head, stacked on a small pile of rags. She'd get the fire started and then while it burned, she'd make another hike down the mountain to gather water for the day. By the time the sun was shining, she was prepared to begin her days preparation of their primary nutrition for the day, corn tortillas.
This would be her ritual every day before she would join into the hard labor of constructing a home, while keeping her infant swaddled on her hip. At the end of the week, we watched and cried while she unlocked a door for the first time in her life and led her children into their first home. Little beds, stuffed animals, a kitchen table, and a door that locked... these were all firsts for them, and each little detail was a new chance at a better life. For the first time ever, that night they were guaranteed to be dry and to be safe.
Caleb and I boarded our flight the next morning and returned to the pace of our first world life.
One year later we would return with our entire family. We'd sold and donated everything we had, reducing our belongings to only what would fit into the maximum requirements of the airlines: 2 suitcases and one carry on per person... a total of 15 items. It was thirteen really, because that included a Pack 'n Play and a stroller.
Our little family, three kiddos, Caleb age 13, Aleksandra age 10, and Sterling age one... we made our way back to Cerro Alto to lead a team and build two more houses. What an experience this was with our newly adopted baby from China. We certainly didn't disclose that to the Chinese officials during our exit interview! They couldn't know that we were pastors and missionaries.
And so we worked the week and completed the houses. New dedications, new families under roofs, new keys placed in hands.
During the final prayer of the final home, while I had my eyes closed, suddenly a small and rough hand grasped my own. I opened my eyes and I gasped. It was Mercedes and her baby was a year bigger, still swaddled to her side!
She had came and found me. She began tugging at my hand as she said, "Vámonos! My feet followed her and I was delighted to see that she led me to her house, there very place where I had been one year before with my son. Her fire was burning and a steel plate was over the top of the flames. Her house had been painted a deep and beautiful blue and she had built herself a small hutch filled with chickens. The door of the house opened and out walked her daughter, smiling and laughing!
Mercedes reached into a bucket and scooped out a handful of corn that had been smashed and mixed with water. She asked me if she could cook me a tortilla. Enthusiastically I said, "Yes!" And so a year ago this would be a tortilla made by a lady who slept on a clay floor. The tortilla would have been made in her home of adobe brick and corn stalk walls. Now she did so outside of her secure home. The corn had been ground down by hand and had been grown on her own land. She cooked on open flames using wood that she had carried on her back up the mountain path.
She had no access to any type of healthcare, medicine, or financial support. Her family existed on about $5/ day. And even with all this hardship, she shared with me what she had with a smile.
Her hands began to pat the paste in her hands with practiced and expert skill. She rotated and flipped the batter as her hands continued to rhythmically pat, pat, pat. I was looking at the chickens in their pens when I heard the first sound from her mouth. Ptttt! It sounded like she spit. Hmm. Must have had something in her mouth. Maybe a fly was buzzing her. And then she spit again. My mouth dropped open as I watched now the operation.
Open palm of batter, a puff of spit from her mouth into the batter, pat-pat-pat, spit, flip and rotate, pat-pat-pat, spite, flip and rotate, and so on. All between big smiles on her face and the hopeful little face of her daughter, sweet little Kendra. All I could do was smile back as my mind freaked out and tried to think of a way to escape! Surely I could not eat this spit-made tortilla!
And then she held it out to me with the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. It was the moment of truth. Mercedes eyes were locked onto me, her baby strapped to her hip, her gorgeous little daughter beside us. The chickens clucked in the pen and a breeze blew soft across the mountainside.
I took that tortilla. It was warm and it represented the sacred relationship that existed between me and my son and this woman and her children. We had shared a week on this land and together we'd built a home and extended hope. I bit deep into that tortilla and ate it and the next two that followed. I will confess that I was also silently praying for my own well being!
Mercedes and Kendra were delighted. They asked if I'd brought my family and I took the opportunity to tell them two things: (1) my family was here and I was going to go get them, and (2) they'd already eaten and so she did not need to prepare them tortillas! Moments later I returned with my family and together we all celebrated Mercedes and her new life!
Mutual generosity made all the difference. It isn't so much about what you have to give, it matters much more that you simply give whatever you have.
I don't care where you decide to be generous, I don't care where you give. If you have a calling to help the homeless in America, then do it. If you have a desire to serve the destitute in India, then do it. If your neighbor is without healthcare... then spend your money to buy him what he needs. Our daily challenge is the same wherever we are... be a force of good. Live out your belief.