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NCC-Habitat for Humanity June 3-7, 2002, "Durban Build Team"
Build's End Reflections from Durban, South Africa
From Phil LaBelle, a Fund for Theological Education Fellow

LaBelle, of New Haven, Conn., was part of a 45-member National Council of Churches team in South Africa through June 8 to help build Habitat for Humanity homes in Durban.  Photo shows Nana cleaning the windows of her new home.

Nana Washes Windows of Her New HomeThe house we had worked on for the last five days was complete. It was dedicated as we stood gathered near the front door. Nana, our homeowner who had worked closely with us, shed tears as the reality of the situation came to her. This building was now her home. A place to share meals with friends, and to raise her child, and to live in for many years to come. We shared our thoughts and desires for Nana.

Tears flowed freely, and our throats caught. The pain I felt from the week’s work didn’t really seem to matter anymore. I looked at how happy Nana was, and at the people there by her side sharing that experience with her. I looked around at the other houses nearby. They too were having dedications. And so were the others at all of the houses we built that week. One hundred new houses. One hundred gatherings happening at that moment asking God to bless the homes and those living in them.

Hope. Hope for the future. Hope for the good things that would come because of the week we spent working. Hope that it might encourage someone to get a better job. Hope that it would give someone a break in this world. Hope that there was God who loved them.

When I look back over my trip to South Africa, I am astounded most by the sense of hope I felt in all the people there, and especially the hope among the poor and disenfranchised. Even though the situation is bleak at best, most everyone I met didn’t show their fears but rather their hope for the future. They weren’t paralyzed by what they faced, but looked at it head on and saw possibilities.

Possibilities, however, seem to be almost non-existent. In much of South Africa there is a 40% unemployment rate. The numbers balloon in black townships, nearing 80%. Crime - probably heavily influenced by the lack of work - is rampant. More than 28 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, and there are 6 million orphans in South Africa alone who have lost their parents to AIDS. The life expectancy in this part of the world is declining rapidly because of AIDS, and those born today in South Africa aren’t expected to reach the age of 40. Add to this the effects of Apartheid that are still felt, sub-standard housing for many, and the lack of education and schools.

And yet many, like Nana, see hope.

How this is possible is unbelievable. It is something I can’t fathom. How someone can live with the devastation and still have hope in the future, in the things that will come, in God is completely beyond me.

Hope is something we as Americans are in short supply of. We have everything we could possibly need and then some. I have a closet chock full of clothes. I have kitchen gadgets galore. I have books, CDs, DVDs, photos, mugs, a pantry full of food, a car, you name it. Yet I am told I need more. More of the things in life that will make me happy. Things that will help me become who I am supposed to be. I can’t hope to survive in the future unless I have more. The future is less about possibilities and more about enduring to the end. It is trying to make life as enjoyable as possible through possessions. If your life isn’t happy, buy a new car, a new house, a new boat, a new wardrobe.

Our hope is built in the things we hoard.

And yet here is Nana. Moving into a four-room house without closets. Looking at the fact that here son is not expected to live more than another 30 years. And she is full of hope. She is full of joy. She is full of God’s grace. And it is that grace that she shared with me and those who helped build her home.

I read from Proverbs while I was away, and I came across this verse. "Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor" (Prov 22:8). While I may have been generous in giving my time, it really was nothing compared to the way Nana and the rest of the South Africans we met were generous with their hope. They were infectious in sharing their dreams, in showing the grace of God. They showed us again and again that there is more joy in giving than in taking it all for yourself. More to be found in opening your hand rather than in clenching your fist. That there is a blessing in being generous.

Hope, you see, comes through a trust that God can work in this world even when it looks dismal. That hope is experienced in building a home or in sharing a meal or in telling a story or in hugging a friend. It comes through the person of Jesus Christ who stretched out his arms on the cross to embrace the whole world in his love. It comes in the tears of woman entering her home for the first time. It comes in giving rather than taking. It comes not in taking all you can but in holding out your hand in love.

That hope came to me in South Africa, and I will never forget it.

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