Brewing a better world -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Brewing a better world

By Steve Little

A few months ago, while chatting with a friendly barista and waiting for my triple tall latte, I noticed a “help-wanted” sign taped to the wall. The sign caught my attention because of what it invited me to do.

It wasn’t offering me a job making espresso, or managing a cash register. It wasn’t an invitation to wash dishes or sweep the floor. The sign invited me to join the team and “Create the experience.”

This might be a good time for a confession: I don’t really like coffee much.

But I like the smell of the pastries. I like the way I’m greeted when I finally get to the front of the line. I like people who smile and move their chairs out of the way to always make room for one more patron; and the people I don’t know who are willing to share a section of their newspaper. I like overhearing bits and pieces of conversations; counting the tattoos and piercings on the coffeehouse staff; and I like watching stuffy businesspeople stumble in to groggily greet the young, hip staff as good friends.

I like the community. I like the experience.

An experience with community is also what drew me to Habitat for Humanity. In 1991, the organization was celebrating its 15th anniversary by building houses across the U.S. Groups of volunteers were traveling from city to city, building houses on stops along the way, and eventually converging in Columbus, Ohio, for the final celebration.

I took a week of vacation, made a date with the woman who eventually became my wife, and we signed-up for an experience that changed my life.

Similar to my current attitude towards coffee, at that time I didn’t really care, or even know much about, poverty housing. I liked helping people as much as the next guy, I suppose. But if I could have fun, meet new friends and help people at the same time, what a bargain!

The years have jumbled together the memories of that week: I remember sleeping on the floor of a church. I remember blisters the size of half-dollars on my hands. I remember shivering in the early morning cold, cupping my hands for warmth around a cup of tepid, weak coffee as I meandered through a field on my way to the construction site, the morning dew beading and dripping off of my brand-new work boots.

I remember meeting people–some were doctors or lawyers; others were students or business owners. A few were unemployed; others carefully working on the house their family would eventually live in. I met blacks, whites and every shade in between. Somebody patiently taught me how to build a doorframe. I remember laughing and complaining about the food with a future homeowner. I remember watching gleeful, sweaty hugs between old friends who yelled things like “I haven’t seen you since that blitz-build back in Albuquerque!”

I remember the community. I remember the experience.

Reflecting on that event, I’m reminded of the Biblical jubilee–every 50 years, when all debts were forgiven, all slaves were set free and everybody returned home with a clean slate. What an experience that must have been–suddenly there are no servants, and no masters. Socioeconomic boundaries completely erased. It doesn’t matter what happened in the past–it’s time to go back home. It’s time to head back to our community. (I’ll bet the celebration during those jubilee years made the blitz-build in Albuquerque look like a hotdog roast.)

Now I work for Habitat. And every time I hear about a new special event, I cringe–even if just slightly. Isn’t this an awful lot of energy to invest in just a handful of houses? Is this event going to help achieve our mission? I know from experience that a lot of those volunteers are just coming to have fun… What do they know about poverty housing? Do they know that the world will see an additional 70 million new urban dwellers this year? Do they understand that the majority of those people will live in poverty their entire lives –and that for them, even a humble Habitat house will be as unreachable as the Taj Majal?

The question has kept me awake at night: Why do we invest resources in lavishly produced, time-consuming events, when we could use those same resources to quietly and efficiently move several additional families into decent housing?

Our mission isn’t about special events–or about volunteers. When all else is stripped away, our mission really isn’t even about building houses.

Our mission is about creating a world where everyone has a simple, decent place to live. It’s about creating a world where every child can grow-up in a nurturing home. It’s about creating neighborhoods that will protect that child, and extended families that will assure her wellbeing.

It’s about the community. It’s about the experience.

And the experience we’re creating is much more critical than brewing a decent cup of coffee. The Habitat experience needs to change attitudes. It needs to open new possibilities for the future. It needs to transform casual volunteers into housing advocates–people who understand the housing situation, and are committed to changing it no matter what it takes. This experience needs to turn the whole world on its head, and make participants–both volunteers and homeowners–want to live their lives to serve others.

But for the rest of us–the event organizers–the experience is very different, indeed. Event organizers bristle when people complain about the food and the tepid coffee. We get irritated when people need to be shown how to build a doorframe. We get downright crabby when our volunteers are off walking around in the morning dew, instead of lined-up waiting for their daily instructions.

Few of us on the “organizing side” of an event are going to have that euphoric experience that provides just a brief glimpse of the mountaintop.

But that’s exactly what we’re providing: we’re creating a world where everything–even if just for a few days–is all right. We live in harmony. We create a community where we’re not measured by the color of our skin nor the size of our paycheck; a world where we’re not judged by the past, and we’re free to live in the moment.

And the end result of that experience is a humble building. A simple house, where a child will grow and play and learn about all that is good in the world.

So what do special events accomplish? They can (and should) be measured in cold numbers–donations received; stories published in the media; houses built, families served, volunteers who participated, and on and on. But through our special events we do something much, much more important.

We create the experience. We create the community.

Steve Little is director of Communciations for HFH in Latin America and the Caribbean.