A quick update. It is Sunday night July 26th 2009, the end of day 3 of a ten day work trip in Cartagena, Colombia. We are all exhausted. How we will ever make it to day ten I have no idea. Specifically we are here to do one thing: build a church and community center in a poor neighborhood forty minutes outside of the beautiful coastal town of Cartagena called Flora Del Campos. The area is a project town so to speak comprised of a few thousand people who have been displaced from their real hometowns, neighborhoods, schools, and of course from their own houses. So now they live here. All of them from different areas of this fascinating country called Colombia. None of them natives of the area, or neighbors, or childhood friends or relatives of each other; just thousands of displaced people from all over the country and of all ages who became homeless because of the never ending wars over the last forty years between the “paramilitary” of the rich and powerful monopolizing feudal land owners and the equally questionable communist “guerrillas” who have tried for decades to defeat them.
This is our simple mission. But we are quickly learning that there is much more to it than just “building a church for the poor.” Tired. I have been on the road now for five weeks, primarily in the US. This trip was planned months ago; but it came suddenly. Shocking really. Not enough time to plan or pack or consider what or where or when or how. Flew into New York after more than four weeks gone and woke up at 4am the following day to catch a flight to Bogota and then Cartagena. It is no way to live, but it is better than a day job. Maybe. With each new flight I wonder more and more. I am tired of flying. tired of airplanes. Tired of airports and taxis and early mornings and late nights. More than tired. Exhausted and then somewhere beyond that I would suppose… With the new album out and all the work involved in promoting it I lost track of time and never really stopped to ponder this particular trip. I knew it was on my schedule. But I never stopped to really think about where we were going. It just sort of happened. Next stop. Colombia.
All that changed today. Colombia is famous for being infamous if nothing else. Famous for its coffee; infamous for its rather copious cocaine supply, and its place in history in the “war on drugs.” When you say Colombia to people the first thing you hear in response usually has to do with either coffee or cocaine. Its fifty years of ongoing civil wars and guerrillas are less spoken about, but once here, they are impressively moving, shocking, dramatic, and heart-wrenching. The country is also well known for how beautiful the women are and for the fact that many consider “Colombian” to be the best spanish spoken in Latin America (though one understands that both of these ideas are subjective).
Friday was 18 hours of travelling and meetings. Period. Nothing more nor less. If cloning were possible this is the first job I would assign to mine: “wake me up when we get there, are all checked in, and relaxing in our room.” Saturday we had to be at the job site by 8am. Having just travelled for 18 hours the day and night before this was an unexpected and unbearable thought. Worse actually waking up to it. But we made it. The heat here is the hottest I have ever felt. Hotter than Africa. Hotter than the hottest New York concrete Summer day. Something akin to Southern Arizona or Texas at noon in summer. Why we are here to do manual labor under the hot burning sun during the hottest season of the year I do not know. (It occurs to me now. Perhaps we could have come a bit later or earlier in the year. But I also remember looking up the weather here a few months back and noticing that the average temperature here stays exactly the same all year round. 98 or 99 degrees. All twelve months of the year.) So what time of year we come here to work is not really going to help or hinder us either way unfortunately. That’s too bad really. Because truth be told I enjoy work and mission trips of all kinds and try as best as I can – like many – to do at least one a year. But this one is almost too difficult. I don’t say this to frighten anyone else who plans on joining the next brigade we will send to continue working on this project, but only as one of the many facts of the experience. The sun is scorching. It is like nothing I have ever felt before.
On our first day, within less than an hour one of our team members got sick from sun poisoning and had to be rushed back to the hotel. At the same time a few more of us, including myself, felt the same as she did. One minute I was pounding a pick axe into the hard brown dirt of the earth and ten minutes later I had this strange sensation that I was about to pass out. I was panting, couldn’t catch my breath, my skin felt like it was on fire, my head hurt, I felt like crying from how much pain I was in. I stumbled blindly to the tent where we seek the refuge of some moderate shade to sit down. That was it. Something was terribly wrong. Perhaps I under-estimated how hot it was? Perhaps I over-estimated how much work I could do at one time or how fast I could work in such extreme conditions. Sun poisoning like this, whatever you want to call it, is a fascinating feeling. It is brutal. It attacks you slowly. You don’t realize until it is too late that you are about to feel dreadfully ill. So you might work for just a few too many minutes longer in that hot sun than you should. And then slowly… no breath, burning skin, head pounding, no breath, burning skin, head pounding, please make it go away, sit down, no, stand up, try walking, get water, I have to throw up, I need to lie down, perhaps… Yes, this is how it feels.
Lucky for me, the Queen Mother (many will recognize her from the Going to Ghana videos) recognized that there was something wrong with me before I did – pointing out how red my face was – and got me water and then began icing me down with bags of ice, as I sat there in a daze panting, trying to see straight and catch my breath, hoping that I would not pass out. Yep. Not kidding. It’s like that. And we are working in it all day for ten days straight. Doing very heavy manual labor to the point of exhaustion by 10 AM in the morning. One of our drivers, a local woman named Bernarda in her late fifties perhaps, then took over for my care for a few minutes. She explained to me in this very cute “Spanglish” that I needed to slow way down in the heat, that I was working way too fast. She then put my long hair up in a clip, iced me down some more, and then massaged sun block all over my upper body. I wasn’t using any… bascially because I am stupid. I come to that same conclusion every few days. After about twenty minutes I regained my strength and felt better. As most of us soon realized the best way to do it is to work for about ten minutes – depending on what one is doing, breaking up hard rock in the ground with a pick-axe I can only usually go for about five to ten max – and then break for five to ten minutes. More even. You then ice yourself down, pour cold water all over yourself, drink tons of water and Gatorade (I’ll take that product placement check now please), and get your breath back. Of course I would be remiss not to mention the obvious: there is also the issue of extremely sore hands and muscles, and the fact that many of our hands are now covered in blisters. Personally, my three biggest issues are my skin burns like crazy if I am out there for more than ten minutes at a time – it actually feels like it is on fire, I have about seven open or popped blisters on my thumbs and fingers and hands, and I find it difficult to catch my breath doing such heavy work out in such hot sun. Other than that it’s all easy breezy.
So, why are we here? I mean, why bother? Right? It doesn’t sound fun, and honestly it just isn’t. The work that is. So why do it? Why not just give money so these people can have a church and community center here? For years I thought that donating money was the way to go. If you give enough, according to how much you make and what you feel is appropriate based on your own values, then you’re alright. You’re doing your fair share in the “service to others” aspect of your life and all is well in being a human on planet earth. My first work trip, as opposed to peace delegation or mission trip or protest march or demonstration, showed me personally why it is so important to actually show up on work trips now and then in person AND give. To most readers I will assume that the answer is obvious so I won’t go into it too much except to say that for me personally I have recognized that there is something very very very important in meeting and making contact with the people you are attempting to help. The money is important, yes. But more important is the personal connection and the meaning that is unearthed in the hearts and minds of the people when they see you live and in the flesh and realize that you just flew half way around the world to come work for them and to help them.
Some facts: the building that we are erecting here in this small village is the very first Methodist Church that has ever been built in the country of Colombia. There are only two other Methodist churches in the entire country. Both rented spaces and neither real churches with a steeple or anything like that. Just plain old ordinary buildings. So we are building the very first Methodist Chuch in this country. That is a very powerful feeling. Both to us and to the people here in this country and especially in this community. Another thing I learned is that the church that I belong to in New York is funding the entire project. Think about that for a moment. This strange community on the other end of the planet is having an entire church, rectory, and community center built for them – the first in their country’s history – paid for entirely by a few hundred people in New York City. Just plain old ordinary Americans who live in Manhattan are donating any free money they have to provide this impoverished little village with this giant edifice that will hopefully supply them so many things over the next few decades… I contemplated this fact today while walking around the work site. thought about all the things that a church could provide a people so wanting in so many ways. A place to worship their version of God together, a place to foster community, even an idea as simple as just “a place to come to on a regular basis for years” if they so desire, everyday if they want to, a place to learn, to volunteer, to meet future friends and spouses. A place that will provide them with teachers and mentors and others who truly care. A place to help them with medical needs, emergency needs, education for their children, and even just entertainment. Really made me think about how we can take these things for granted in the States back home because we have so many churches. We also have televisions and other distractions that perhaps lead us into not even recognizing the power and importance that a church can have in our lives if we start going to one now and then. For a people like this, here now, without the basic things we take for granted in the Western world such as indoor plumbing or kitchen appliances or electricty or decent schools, a church can be a very powerful and positive force for good in their lives and in the lives of their children and grandchildren to come.
Yesterday we celebrated their church service with them. They worship on Saturday nights here in Colombia, instead of Sunday mornings (imgaine that in the US!) and the pastor of thier little chuch – which is actually the pastor’s house – which is actually nothing more than a seven by seven concrete room adjacent to thousands of others (picture army baracks painted various colors such as pink and purple and red and yellow stretching up and down for miles as far as the eye can see) led this service. I am getting very tired so will keep this breif. He had a tough time keeping it together emotionally as he looked out at these twenty-three strangers’ faces staring back at him. All of us from New York in the United States here in his little village working our butts off for ten days in the hot sun… and more than that knowing that after will come another team, and then another, and then another, until this building is completely erected and fully functional. The man just couldn’t come to terms with it. Who could? In that position? I felt for him.
I really felt what that must feel like. How can one possibly show how much appreciation one has in a situation like that to the people who are helping you and your community? He told us that he had prayed and prayed to find some way to express his gratitude. And all he could do was to profess to us with tears pouring and leaping out of his eyes that he is so inspired by our efforts personally – as a man and a fellow human being – that he was commiting himself to spend “every day every hour every minute every second of the rest of his life to attempting to give back the way that he felt that we were giving to him and his village. And then he sang to us. Acapella. Just him standing there singing by himself, smiling and crying, as a gift to us. A present from him to us as a way of showing thanks. Of course there wasn’t a dry eye under that tent in that moment. It was one of those transcendent moments that one never forgets. I personally can still see his big beautiful brown eyes filled with joy and tears and a little bit of fear that he may never be able to give back enough in his life to satisfy how grateful he felt in that moment and feels today and will feel tomorrow and for years to come I’m sure. It was a pure bilss moment for everyone and well worth the trip and the hard work.
It was then that I knew why we were there. And why I was there. Why I am here. Still. Typing away while the others are at dinner. For it is these moments that make the difference between being alive or thriving. Between making it or making the most of it. So I madly type away as quickly as I can with nothing but going to sleep on my mind because I have nothing but inspiration and joy and gratitude in my heart for this experience. And to think that maybe we can gather just one or two more persons into this world of giving to others… the possibilities are endless for us if more and more of us catch the fever of selfless service to others. (though I hesitate to write these words for so many reasons. Firstly because I do not believe that giving to others is selfless. I find it very selfish in fact because one gets so much more than one receives. The greatest treasure bought on the most expensive vacation that the world has to offer gives us nothing compared to what we get when we go on any kind of trip like this – even if it just for the day or a few hours even giving to others. I have spent my whole life trying both. I have raced my convertible turbo-powered  BMW down I-395 in Miami Beach going one-hundred and twenty miles an hour and felt fantastic with that wind blwing through my hair and all that goes with it. I have also attempted to feel good through living the msot lavish lifestyle money could afford by pampering myself with everything from weekly massages, manicures, chiropractic visits, hot tubs, $100 plates of truffle pasta, and thousand dollar shopping sprees. And these are damn fine things. Damn fine. But they just don’t give back to the heart in that visceral life-altering way that service to others does. I wish they did. Life would be easier. But they do not. And this is why I say that giving to others is a selfish thing to do. Because we just always walk away feeling as though we got more than we gave.) The point to take away though is that if each of us committed to dedicating at least one week of every year of our lives, and I’m thinking of everyone here, even those of us in the absolute most dire circumstances, I get the feeling that life on planet earth for human beings would be a much different experience. For all of us. Much better that is.
I don’t believe this is too far fetched of an idea. For, as many, I have noticed us trending in this direction for some time. Especially in the last five to ten years. It is only a matter of time. Life may indeed by an absurd masquerade ball disgused as a circus dressed up like a Greek Comic Tragedy most of the time, but it also seems to be interspersed with small miracles every now and then along the way. What if we started attempting to create more and more miracles in our shared lives together deliberatly? The possiblities.
Of course, like most of us, I personally feel like I have so far to go in this arena. Most of the time feeling so selfish and small in comparison to others who appear to give so much more freely than I do. But I cannot allow myself to let this feeling stop me from at least trying to help as best as I can.
It is not late, only 10:40 PM, but our new meeting time in the mornings is 7 AM. So I will wrap it up. But this, this is important. Today we met with the Bishop of the Methodist church of Colombia. He flew in to personally work side by side with us for the rest of our stay here. And he told us some of the most hair-raising stories you’ve ever heard. Hollywood movie kind of dramas of paramilitary soldiers hanging guerrillas from trees with ropes and chopping their bodies in half with chainsaws right in front of him kind of stories. Being kidnapped and held in a hole without food for five days knowing for certain that he was about to be murdered at any minute kind of stories. After all, this is Colombia. And that is why we are here. So I will return to share some more in a few days. For sure. But for now I’m going to hit the hay and pray that the sleep will recouperate me enough to slam it another day.
Random facts and thoughts: There are more women on this team than men, many more. How amazing it is that there is no difference in the work ethic or the quality of work from either sex. Everyone just works hard. Some of the girls seem to be able to stay out in the heat and keep working longer than some of the men. And vice versa. I think it just depends on the person. It’s really something to see someone out there digging away for ten to twenty minutes straight without taking a break (our first task was to “break ground” – we are literally starting this new building from scratch and building the foundation of this two story church and community center) When we arrived there was nothing there but an empty field of grass and dirt and some little wooden stakes in the ground. Our first task was to dig 24 holes four feet by four feet and three feet deep into the earth. Next we will then mix our own mortar or cement and shovel it into each hole and at the same time have the ridiculously daunting task of hand-sawing hundreds of pieces of steel reebar that we will place into the cement that we pour that will eventually hold the columns that will make up the foundation of this building. It is quite the job. In many many ways. We are all very lucky to be on this particular trip.