By Bolton Kirchner
Wearing an old pair of my dad’s jeans with the t-shirt I designed for a summer service program at Millsaps, I stepped out of a blue pick-up truck in rural West Virginia. We were in a trailer park, mobile home park, I am still unsure of the most compassionate or politically-correct name. But the names are less important than the importance that it was someone’s home. I was starting my first day of work as a summer construction intern for West Virginia Ministry of Advocacy and Workcamps (WVMAW). Besides a few Habitat for Humanity builds and growing up as the son of an architect, I had few to no construction skills for this first day on the job. My tool box was nonexistent and immediately as we unloaded the necessary tools, words were thrown around me like sawzall, OSB board, dimpler bit, and others I didn’t know.
Sawzall took many Google searches to even learn how to spell. But that was part of the experience, an education unlike one received before, even when many of my classes featured experimental, or service-based learning. My computer doesn’t recognize dimpler bit or sawzall as correctly spelled because how often are they written down? These tools are pushed out of the traditional academic world, or at least these were not apart of my academic world before this experience.
I had hung frames on the wall before. I had painted walls before but never had really worked inside or above those wall, which in many ways symbolized the work laid out before me. I learned more or less how to re-shingle a roof, but more importantly how to stand 15 feet above the ground, comfortably and appreciate the beauty of the scene around you. I learned other construction-based skills but the major part of my education was with the people. My previous hammer experience was to improve the look of a wall or space, hanging a photograph there, helping repaint a wall. At WVMAW we were improving spaces by fixing holes in roofs, on porches and helping inspire those we met. From my job description I knew getting to know and appreciate others was a part of my day to day responsibilities. Before the experience, I was unable to recognize this would be an education of itself, like the degree I am also working towards.
Many do not first recognize the giving and receiving between the homeowners and volunteers. While volunteers provide tangible changes to homes, there is also a transference of neighborly affection between the homeowners and the volunteers. This may occur without expectation from either. The family of the home looks forward to moving back in or having much needed repairs. The volunteers look forward to physically impacting an area. Neither tends to expect the emotional change which inevitably occurs when these groups come together.
This neighborly affection made me realize construction ministry is about much more than hammers, walls, and roofs. Construction ministry, like here at West Virginia Ministry of Advocacy and Workcamps is about people. While the physical results of our labor are important, the changed lives from the work proves most important. A strong connection develops between all the people involved; these connections create a neighborly relationship.
Connecting with our neighbor allows you to actively use your faith. Concern for others extends to their place and things, helping create a feeling of control for the homeowner. Seeing people as your neighbor dilutes barriers based on pre-conceived notions of religion, class or background. One key way we tried to achieve connections between people involved with West Virginia MAW was discussing different kinds of poverty. Of course economic poverty is a large problem, but what about poverty of the mind, or heart? While this can seem like a far-flung, Platonic concept, many volunteers were surprised by the simplistic happiness of many homeowners. While their roof may have holes, or their lives missing things normal in other communities, their lives still work.
Never one at a loss for words, I realized listening to the people whose homes we were working on was a large education. Unlike something found in a college classroom, these homeowners had a large knowledge of local plants, history and of those around them, their neighbors. Most wanted to share this information and I even got to sit with one family while they canned the berries they had collected from the nearby woods.
During my blessing and send off from the church were I had lived during the summer, I was presented with a tool box. Before I opened it, I joked, “Are there tools in here?” Not that I needed physical tools; during this experience my own toolbox had emerged filled with things seen and unseen. In between learning the names of a multitude of tools and the uses, I learned a whole lot more about fully living and engaging in life. Between learning to appreciate sitting in the moment or working through a desire to sit down, there was much to be learned, a whole textbook, of learning from all of the neighbors I met.