“…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” (Matthew 20:28).
Jesus used these words to teach the twelve about the importance of service and humility. Christ later washed the feet of his apostles, truly demonstrating his lesson of service. This teaching was put into practice in November as a team of 22 volunteers , myself included, traveled to the Nicaraguan coastal town of Las Penitas. Their mission was to build homes for young families who were in need of a home but could not afford the cost. On Saturday, November 11, 2017 the team assembled at the airport in Managua, Nicaragua. As the team emerged from the airport, they got their first taste of the local weather. But the oppressive heat and humidity of a Nicaraguan summer did not diminish the enthusiasm of the team. Saturday evening provided time for fellowship as the team got to know each other and learn about the families they would serve. The team organizer shared the dream of one of the young fathers. His dream was to take the land that was passed to him from his father and build a house on it that he would someday pass down to his sons. Thanks to this group of volunteers that dream was about to become a reality.
After a hearty breakfast and Sunday morning service at a small, local church, the team set out to explore the local area. The day was spent visiting the ruins of a volcano site and touring a local distillery. Construction work began on Monday morning. The shock of seeing the current living conditions of these families fueled the team and gave tangible purpose to the mission. In keeping with the goals of the mission, the receiving families were deeply involved in the construction efforts. This involvement extended to the local community, who eagerly participated and supported the mission team. The kids in the community were shy at first, but within 48 hours, the shyness gave way to giggles and helping hands. On Monday afternoon, a small group coined the phrase “Sermon on the Mound” as a priest within the group and one of the other volunteers stood atop a mound of sand and pondered the ties between the job of sifting sand to the grains of goodness and rebellion in each of us. Wisdom was flowing from even the smallest tasks! At the end of the first day, a tired and heat soaked crew, stormed the beach and ocean, washing both work cloths and bodies in the process.
At the end of the first day, a tired and heat-soaked crew stormed the local beach to cool their muscles in the ocean surf before enjoying the evening meal under the veranda of a beach-front cabana. When asked about his first day, one team member quoted Saint Paul from his letter to the Philippians (4:12); “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” This rang true for many of the team, who left behind the comforts of living in the United States to performing hard labor in a depressed country with limited services. A heavy evening rain made for an exciting bus ride to the work site on Tuesday morning. The team members can now scratch off “4-wheeling in a school bus” from their bucket lists. Tuesday was a day of developing new skills, as the team took on metal bending, concrete work, and building cinder block walls. By Wednesday, the team added, latrine digging to their list of developing skills as the septic system for the new bathroom began to take shape. Without the benefit of modern machinery, the team discovered how to break up, move, and lift heavy boulders found in the most inconvenient locations. By this time, the team was starting to acclimate to the heat and was breaking down the language barrier. The community children were now an active part of the building process. The little boys were eager to help with shoveling and carrying blocks and the little girls were showering the women of the team with bright red flowers, which they put in their hair and hats. At 6’4”, one team member became a magnet for these Nicaraguan children, leading the neighborhood kids in a game of La Luz Verde, La Luz Rojo (Redlight, Greenlight). The team was also becoming accustomed to the dogs, pigs, and chickens that were running lose around the construction site. By Thursday, some of the less experienced team members were running out of dry clothes and other needs. But the experienced team members came to the rescue with extra supplies and provisions. The team was now a finely tuned unit, resulting in much progress being made. Despite going an entire day without electricity, excitement and energy grew as windows and doors were framed and the roof was being prepped for installation. As the construction moved towards the final stages, the team’s output accelerated. The team members were now interacting with the locals as close friends. As work continued, there were many smiles and laughter from the jokes being thrown around (and across language barriers). This was a clear sign of the comradery developing between the teams and local community. It was people of diverse backgrounds coming together with a common purpose for good. John 4:12 tells us; “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” In less than a week’s time, John’s words were playing out in a real and meaningful way. The Holy Spirit was at work and it was evident in the interactions that were occurring. For example, the team encountered a huge boulder near the bottom of the septic system, the team felt as if progress would come to a halt. Excavating that 600 lb boulder seemed impossible. But the team responded and soon the boulder became a rallying point as diverse team members worked together to break up that boulder and remove it piece by piece. As each new person took the sledgehammer, the others cheered him on. Eventually the boulder was small enough (now maybe 300 lbs), that it could be lifted out by a group of 3-4 team members. As the boulder sat next to the dig site, Jesus’ words came to mind; “…on this rock, I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18) From the efforts of this team, missionary work is making a difference in the lives of families in Nicaragua. As significant as that is, it should not overshadow the impact the volunteer efforts are having on those who serve as members of the mission team. For many it was not their first mission. These team members are learning the true meaning of service and, perhaps, are experiencing the joy that comes with washing the feet of others.