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A Holy Discontent -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1 October 28, 2006

A Holy Discontent

It wasn’t long after landing in Mumbai, India, that I was reminded of how necessary Habitat for Humanity’s work is around the world—and particularly in this nation of more than a billion people, so many of whom live every day in utterly destitute conditions. In highway medians. Under bridges. In scrap-metal houses clustered thicker than shag carpet.

As I exited the Mumbai airport on my way to the car, I encountered two young girls who looked to be about seven years old. I couldn’t understand what they were saying as they ambled toward me, but their request was abundantly clear. They were poor. And they needed money.

They both wore colorful clothing that hung loosely on them, as a second-hand sheet might hang on a scarecrow. They shuffled elbow-to-elbow across the parking lot. There was something sadly vacant about the way they looked at me, and I knew they had many times made the same request of others.

I’ve had similar encounters before, and my heart just never seems to adjust to them. Each troubles me deeply and renews in me what I have heard described as a “holy discontent,” whereby a person is so moved by an injustice in our world that he or she determines to do something about it, as opposed simply to lamenting over it, then moving on to something else.

My first experience with a so-called holy discontent happened, actually, when I visited India a number of years ago. During that trip, I worked with the lowest of the Dalits (untouchables), who were tasked with cleaning up dead animals and scrubbing public latrines by hand. They were the poorest of the poor. Seeing families—especially the children—living in such dreadful conditions always breaks my heart, and as the children around me pulled on my shirt sleeve then, so did God tug on my heart. I knew I couldn’t sit by with my hands in my lap.

It’s the same holy discontent that draws me to Habitat for Humanity. And I know Habitat partners and friends have similarly compelling—if not the same—reasons for contributing to lasting, positive change.

India is astounding. Its history is rich, its diversity immense. It’s home to several hundred languages, of which 33 have at least 100,000 speakers. Its landscape can be breathtakingly beautiful. The booming economy here regularly pitches the country into the world headlines, but it’s also leaving most of the population in the dust—quite literally in millions of cases, as families live on the ground and under tents beside noisy streets, within a bumper’s length of speeding, horn-honking, exhaust-coughing cars, trucks and motorized rickshaws.

Some estimates suggest that 315 million Indians live in substandard housing. If that number of passengers traveled to the United States tomorrow, it would take nearly a million Boeing 747s (the largest plane in the sky) to fly them there. Once there, if they wanted to take in a ballgame at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Manhattan would need 2,000 “Gardens” to seat them all.

The number of poor in India is enormous, impossible to fathom, really, but the worth of every single person—in India or elsewhere—is beyond measure … like the worth of the two young girls in the airport parking lot. That worth drives Habitat’s work. It’s what gives breath to our mission and a prevailing pulse to our goal of eliminating poverty housing from our planet—in partnership with countless individuals, groups, organizations and homeowner families around the world.

Ultimately, it’s the reason that has inspired a couple of thousand volunteers from around the world to join former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn at the 23rd annual Jimmy Carter Work Project in India. The project began Sunday with an opening ceremony, and Monday morning launches the construction of 100 modest, decent, affordable homes.

Measuring 360 square feet, the JCWP houses will be built in duplex style with a living room, kitchen, bathroom and veranda. The typical newly constructed Habitat house in India has a sponsorship cost of US$2,840.

In spite of the challenge before it, Habitat for Humanity has been working tirelessly in India since 1983, serving more than 12,000 families throughout the nation. Plans are to ramp up that number substantially through a campaign called indiaBUILDS, which will

raise the funds and mobilize the human resources to serve 50,000 families by 2010. This year’s project takes place near Lonavala, a city of about 50,000 people, about a two- or three-hour drive southeast from the country’s commercial center of Mumbai (Bombay).

The site is flanked by a small mountain range that reminds me of Colorado or New Mexico in the United States, its earthy-colored face in places resembling a huge layered cake. Most of the country experiences three basic seasons: hot (March-June), rainy (June-September) and cool (October-February). It’s a very pleasant time of year here, though not that cool.

Each house will bring complete transformation to the lives of those who make their home in it. Each will have floors and a solid roof, sturdy walls—and each will help sustain a larger community. The need throughout India and around the world is truly daunting. Instead of balking at its enormity, however, we have to dig deeper to confront it. Together, we have to shape our discontent into a trowel or a hammer or a shovel, work to meet the needs of exponentially more families. And we are doing it together. This year’s JCWP is a perfect symbol of the important work Habitat partners foster every minute of the day all across the globe.

A trip to Chennai and Thailand to see the tsunami recovery results in a village on the northern edge of the tourist island of Phuket will take me away from the JCWP site for a couple of days, but I hope to write more this week about the life-changing events happening in this part of the world.

In the meantime and wherever you are, thank you for reading and for all that you do to move our mission forward.