The ashy, lifeless Andes Mountains rise above the small village of Cieneguilla, Peru. The evidence of poverty surrounds this place like the mountains.
It’s an odd place to make a home. Everything has to be brought here because nothing grows naturally in these mountains. It does not rain here. Only down by the river do you find vegetation growing in abundance.
The markets in town are filled with food, all trucked in. Water for drinking, toilets, cooking, bathing or watering the few trees that line the road or plants that people have at their homes – all have been brought in by water trucks.
The homes that people live in are better described as shacks. The poorest of these places are referred to as shantytowns, where people use any kind of building material to construct shelter.
The walls of one house sometimes serve as the back wall of another. Some people manage to save enough money over time to purchase enough bricks to build a modest home.
In this earthquake-prone area, I shudder to think of what would happen on the sides of these hills should the ground shake too hard.
Most Americans take homes for granted. It’s not whether most of us have a home, but how nice our home will be. Will it have three or four bedrooms? Will it have two or three bathrooms?
Can we pay for it in 15 or 30 years?
Of course, the economy has reshaped how Americans think about shelter as millions have lost their homes in bankruptcy.
In addition, we must not pretend that there aren’t poverty issues in our own country. There are millions who live in subsidized housing or in low-rent housing and are always a month’s rent away from having no shelter over their heads.
Recent disasters like Hurricane Sandy have pushed other Americans from their homes. Many have had to seek temporary shelter.
Others have lost their homes forever, forcing them to relocate or rebuild, grieving the loss of the things they were attached to and will never reclaim.
Coming to a place like Peru forces me to ask, “How attached am I to the things of this world? Whether it’s a house, money or anything I own, it’s all stuff. It can all be taken, destroyed or lost. One day it will all be passed on to someone else. I enjoy what I have and would rather have it than not, but I know it must not be what I live for. So what am I living for?”
After two days of searching for the right kind of soil, Rotarian Wayne Brown and I made some promising blocks with the BP-714 Earth Block Making machine made by the Vermeer Corporation that we shipped here two months ago.
This was made possible with a grant through Rotary International and through the generous gifts of people from First Baptist Church of Jefferson, Ga., as well as others. This project represents part of the reason I live: to serve others.
Our Rotary motto is “Service Above Self.” I think that’s a worthy goal in life. Service is not easy. It requires putting others ahead of ourselves. It requires sacrifice. It requires perseverance amid disappointments. It means staying on task when you want to quit.
There’s been nothing easy so far about this project. It cost about 60 percent of the value of the machine to get it through customs. The winch on the new trailer became dysfunctional shortly after we arrived, which kept us from moving the machine.
Eight men from Colorado on a mission trip in Peru loaded and unloaded the 2,400-pound machine on the trailer using ratchet ties, and moved it to a different part of the compound where the machine was set up for operation.
Locating the right kind of soil in this desert climate proved to be a major challenge. We finally found some dirt in a dried-out riverbed seven miles from the children’s home that proved promising.
While the right kind of dirt isn’t in abundance, what is here is an abundance of people who need sustainable housing. What is in abundance are people who are willing to work. What is in abundance are people who are thankful for what they receive, evidenced by the gratitude of more than 500 people we fed yesterday from the portable soup kitchen we pulled into the Manchy community, just outside of Cieneguilla.
What is in abundance are people who are eager to hear the stories of Jesus. Once you show people that you care about them and you tell them that Jesus cares about them, they are very receptive to the Gospel.
When you look around these ashy mountains, you might think there is not much life here, but you’d be mistaken.
Seeds of faith are being sown among the people of these mountains by people like Rev. Mike Kennedy, missionary and director of New Life Children’s Home in Cieneguilla.
He’s a “James Chapter 2” Christian. He is watering these seeds of faith with the Living Water. The social gospel runs through his message like a mineral vein cuts through a mountain.
James wrote: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17).
You cannot solve poverty in a world like this. You cannot house every person without a home. You cannot take in every orphan. You cannot feed every hungry person.
However, God does not ask us to solve the poverty of the world, to house every person without a home, to take in every orphan, or to feed every hungry person. But God does ask us to be James 2 Christians.
God asks all people of faith to get involved in some way with those who are in need and, if you are not, then your faith is dead.
The test is simple. Are you doing something in the name of Jesus to feed the hungry, to quench the thirst of those who need clean water, to clothe the naked, to house those who need shelter, to provide a family to those who are orphaned, to teach those who need an education, or to employ those who need a job?
What are you doing to help people in any way with the gifts and talents you have been given?
There are plenty of needs here in Peru, but there are also plenty of needs right in your neighborhood. You may have walked right by someone today, someone God placed in your path.
When we live with a service-above-self mentality, we begin to see needy people as opportunities, not obstacles, and we begin to live a faith that is genuine and sustaining.
Our faith will either be like the lifeless ashy mountains that surround Cieneguilla, or full of life – like the rich green river valley that cuts through the Lurin River Valley a few miles away.
It all depends on whether we are living our lives for ourselves, or living our lives for Jesus by loving others as we love ourselves.
Which is it for you?
Michael Helms is pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson, Georgia.