The Publication of Habitat for Humanity International | April / May 2000
Sometimes, God is in the Detours
By Karen Foreman
That's how Papa Bolongwa introduced me to people in Mbandaka, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), where I worked as a Habitat for Humanity international partner for nearly three years in the mid-1980s.
When I arrived in April 1985, I was 22 years old and fresh out of college at Furman University (a liberal arts school in Greenville, S.C.). Papa Bolongwa was at least 75 years old and had worked at the brick and sand works in Mbandaka since long before Millard and Linda Fuller arrived there in the early 1970s.
Over the years, he'd seen other foreigners come and go: first the Belgians after Zaire's independence (1960s), then the missionaries, then Habitat volunteers. I was by far the youngest "boss" he'd worked with over his lifetime, but he still graciously taught and nurtured me into my new role as project director in Mbandaka. Papa Bolongwa was one of the first teachers/mentors I came into contact with through volunteering and working with Habitat for Humanity.
When I began my term, I thought I had things all figured out: After two years of international service with Habitat (IP service terms have increased now to three years), I would have knocked the desire for international adventure out of my system. God would then "call" me back to the United States to earn a master's degree in business administration. Ultimately, I would settle into a "real job" as an investment banker, corporate executive or something profitable like that. Certainly, I would remain involved with Habitat and other charitable organizations as a donor and volunteer -- but not through a professional career choice.
My first alteration of plan came at the end of my two-year term. I had finally become proficient in Lingala (the local language), and had only begun to understand the workings of the local Habitat affiliates. How could I leave so soon? I extended my term, took on the role of national coordinator in Zaire, and moved to Kinshasa, the capital city. After another year and a half, as the end of my extended term drew near, I sat in a Methodist missionary's office in Kinshasa awaiting the quarterly phone call from Habitat headquarters in Americus, Ga.
I felt a great sense of resignation -- even depression -- about getting back "on plan" when I returned home to the States. Sitting quietly in that office, I tried to still the personal planning going on in my head, and asked God for guidance.
Slowly, I felt a burden lift and a sense of peace come over me as I realized this is what I want to do. Working with people of different cultures and helping them find their own solutions to their needs was where God was calling me as a vocation, not as an experience before getting "a real job" and claiming that as my vocation.
Through my Habitat volunteer experiences in Zaire, my life plans "strategically" changed. I subsequently pursued a graduate degree in management, but instead of finance, I studied management of nonprofit organizations and international development.
Today, I work in management, but I'm not managing other folks' investment portfolios. In a sense, I'm still seeking increased return on investment for my clients; but the returns on my investment are increased stability and self-confidence for families in need.
Papa Bolongwa would agree that Habitat gave me the opportunity to work in positions of authority beyond my years of experience. Being project director in Mbandaka, national coordinator in Zaire and most recently, Habitat's director of international program, can seem very important -- if you're looking for jobs with great-sounding titles. Although I can't deny that I've enjoyed the prestige and recognition that position titles can give, in reality, the prestige of title is fairly shallow and superficial. What's really needed is inspiration and energy to get the job done.
Over the past 15 years, I have found that real honor and inspiration come from serving and working with people in need. There is the Catholic priest who decided to stay with his parish in a tiny village in El Salvador throughout the civil war. He now leads his community back to reconciliation and stability. There's the national partner in Sri Lanka who travels by train -- which is often bombed by terrorists -- to an affiliate deep within the conflict areas in order to attend Habitat committee meetings and to personally carry the funds needed for construction materials.
I think also of Catholic and Protestant volunteers in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who place their lives and their faith on the line each time they work on a Habitat house outside their designated areas; of the female Habitat homeowners gunned down at the work site while laboring on their houses in Alexandra Township, South Africa (both survived); and of Christians in India who risk persecution for publicly revealing their faith commitment by serving on Habitat affiliate boards and volunteering on the work site.
If I start feeling a sense of pride, entitlement and ownership for my good work at Habitat, the sacrifices of Habitat homeowners bring me back to reality. Most future Habitat homeowners around the world work at a subsistence level, maintain a garden to supplement their families' nutritional needs, live in poor or non-existent shelter, and provide for a large extended family. In addition to their normal workloads, many walk miles to and from the Habitat work site to complete their sweat-equity hours.
It is an honor and privilege for me to work with people who create so much in their local community from so little.
A young "20-something" when she started with Habitat, 37-year-old Karen Foreman thought it was just a temporary stop. Instead, her Habitat career took several turns (including time-out for an MBA from Harvard and a stint at Catholic Relief Services). Today she teaches nonprofit management part time at the University of Washington in Seattle, Wash., and works part time as HFHI's organizational development and partnership specialist.
Reprinted from Habitat World Magazine, April/May 2000.
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©2000 Habitat for Humanity International
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