Sunday, April 24, 2011


The first Habitat for Humanity build I was on, a day long one in Lansing MI, began with a prayer. It was a nice prayer, spoken by the nice young woman who was our leader.  I remember being a little bothered by this mild blessing, since I wasn’t expecting it, don’t come from a culture that prays out loud out of church much, and knew that some of the folks I was building with were not prayerful folks either.  Years in public education, my own religious background (Quaker mother, Catholic father), and some sort of Yankee reserve keep my praying hidden.  I think this has to do with privacy, but also respect for other people.  I am reminded of one of my mother’s garden design clients who saw for the first time a plain column of granite she put in as a sculptural element.  They said “ We don’t worship that way.” And had her remove it.  Religion is never a safe subject with strangers.

On the first day of my time here a year ago February, we began the day with the usual devotions.  This is a custom on many HFH builds, but particularly on the ones with the roaming RVers, we are supposed to take turns.  A woman read several verses of the Bible and then from her Daily Bible Study book, and again my brain sort of snorted and showed the whites of its eyes.  I was in the wrong church, and would soon be exposed as an infidel of some sort.  So I just made myself smaller and figured as long as I could hammer, it would be OK.

The next day, the same woman read again, but this time she stumbled on the pronunciation of a barbarian tribe that Paul was using as a negative example. Steve helped her out, and, flustered, she said “well anyway, they were an evil people”. Steve replied “Pagan perhaps, not evil”. She was even more flustered, and I was vastly relieved.  I later realized that readings could be almost anything thoughtful and encouraging, but didn’t dare actually do one that spring.

This winter I ended up as team leader, sort of a camp counselor for the 2 week shifts of RVers, and one of my jobs was to get folks to sign up for devotions and provide them if no one did.  My first one was a meditation on Jesus choosing to be a carpenter as a way to learn how to be human (in my Christmas story),  and I found I didn’t mind this sort of free form preaching, and it was well received by most.  (Some folks seemed to be a bit concerned that I wasn’t doing a reading, but just speaking my mind). Then we would join hands in a short prayer, and finally raise our hands up together saying this affiliate’s motto: “Habitat is not a hand-out, it’s a hand up”.

Another devotion was based on my first sight of Giotto’s angels with wings in wonderful colors, and later Byzantine angels with wilder colored wings and wild robes of gold and red.  Angels come, I said, in all kinds of colors and outfits and will turn up all the time to help out.  I told stories of the strangers who had appeared in my life to help, and told the group that they were all angels too.

I have a quote from Jimmy Carter that I read when I feel the group is being a bit smug about their work or patronizing about the homeowners. He says that he had felt that always having a place to sleep, food, job opportunities made him better than those less fortunate, but that working for Habitat had shown him otherwise, that the homeowners where just as hardworking, ambitious, and moral as he was.  I like to read St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer,  and the 121st Psalm, “ I will lift mine eyes unto the hills” with the Organ Mountains right there, as a reminder to keep our head up and minds on life not at the task at our feet.

And sometimes, I would just speak about the day’s tasks, reminding the group that sloppy work now means rework for someone later, and telling the story of a retiring builder whose boss asked him to build just one more. The builder was tired and didn’t build well, shortcuts and sloppy workmanship, and when the house was done, the boss handed him the keys, this last house was a retirement gift! If only he had known it was going to be his house…..

Who would ever have guessed I could do this? Daisy the preacher?  I guess it isn’t that far from teaching high school, but daring to be overtly religious?  I’m still astonished at myself.  I suspect that God is too.

Monday, April 11, 2011


This is a bird, the southwest’s version of a cardinal.  I’ve seen it in bird books forever, and can’t even pronounce it.  There are two of them right outside my window, and rabbits in the bushes, and sand and yucca and creosote bush. The towering Organ Mountains are to the south, and other, more round shouldered mountains are all around.  No garbage trucks, no car alarms, no barking dogs, and millions of stars.

I don’t think I really knew how tired I was.  Not exactly physically tired, although that is part of it, but mentally and emotionally tired.  Wondering if the materials for the day’s work were in the right place, worrying that the volunteers in my care would not have a rewarding day, nervous that my patience was eroding.  And hardest of all, tight across my shoulders in anticipation of what management might throw in my path.

As I was packing up to leave, the volunteers stopped by, amazed that I had been fired, and one of the homeowners too, fearful that her house would not be done, and anxious about management.  The homeowners have all been subjected to some pretty mean spirited reminders of their low income status, and sudden shifts of policy.  I will be OK, in fact good, but it saddens me that the deeply Christian, generous and loving mission of Habitat for Humanity is being subtly misused.  I had some notions of expressing these sentiments to anyone who might improve the situation, but the local affiliate is pretty much an entity unto itself, and the Board of Directors get only a spin managed version of this winter’s problems.  Plus, rocking the boat would just make more work for them.  So I will let it go.  The community of devoted roving volunteers is pretty close knit, and when an affiliate does not provide a good building experience, word gets out.  If a good Construction Supervisor gets hired, one with both people and building skills, and that person can cope with management, then maybe it will be good.

We, Steve and I, are at Leasburg Dam State Park, about 15 miles north of Las Cruces.  We both have appointments with Doctors and Dentists, and my chorus concert isn’t until April 29, so will stay close to Las Cruces for a bit.

Steve Blythe, full time RVer for 7 years, late of St. Louis and accounting, a dedicated HFH volunteer all over the country.  I met him here in Las Cruces last spring, liked working with him as he is careful, exacting and a good teacher.  We zigged and zagged our way through the summer, building in various places together, then diverging, and finally came back to Las Cruces.  Companions.  I’m still sometimes weepy over Don, and I doubt anyone will fill his place.  Steve has been married three times, and had heart train wrecks too, so we are both understandably skeptical about romance and all that happily-ever-after nonsense.  But there is a deep and good connection between us, a need to do good, to be honest and polite and considerate, to help each other out, and to have someone to talk to that listens.  We love roaming the deserts and canyons, looking for petroglyphs, we love our music, we love cooking for each other, and we love the security of our own spaces and the peace of our own beds. 

I want to be present in the here and now.  Age and death and uncertainty are on the roads, loss and tears, and sometimes deep in the night, fear.  But I have Steve’s company, and the voices of many who come to me over the air.  And there are still angels that appear with grace to pick up the stones in my way.