Worldwide Trips  

El Salvador Community Trip - Nicole's Journal

Nicole Doebert - Thrivent Builds with Habitat for Humanity communication specialist, Appleton, WI

Saturday  |  Sunday  |  Monday  |  Tuesday  |  Wednesday
Thursday  |  Friday  |  Saturday  |  Sunday

Saturday, August 2

In the Wisconsin airport at 4:30 a.m., I was the first person of the day to go through security. The trip officially began as I stood there, filled with excitement, anticipation and just a little anxiety as I prepared to embark on my first international Thrivent Builds Worldwide trip. I had heard from so many others about how these trips were life-changing. And I wondered—how would it change my life? Would it strengthen my faith? Would it make me realign my values?

On my flight to El Salvador I sat next to a man from that country. He worked in the U.S. to send money back to his family. It is very common for El Salvadorans to support their families this way.

When we arrived at the airport, our friendly volunteer coordinator Patty greeted us with a Hábitat para la Humanidad (Habitat for Humanity in Spanish) sign. Since we were from all around the country, this was the first time we all met in person. Patty led us to our van where we loaded our luggage and piled in for the two-hour ride to Santa Ana.

On the drive we saw a number of huge farms, a few very nice communities, roadside produce stands, shack-like housing and amazingly lush mountainous scenery. As we entered the town of Santa Ana, it reminded me of other tourist areas in New York City or Chicago—lots of souvenir shops, electronics and clothing stores, even people doing street performances for money.

We arrived at the Hotel Sahara, our residence for the week—attractive, clean, very friendly and, thankfully, air-conditioned. After dropping our bags off in our rooms, we went to a meeting room in the hotel and received our orientation from Patty and her fellow Habitat colleagues, Ana Maria and Fernando, from the regional Santa Ana office. We learned about the desperate housing need in El Salvador—half the population lives in substandard housing—as well as the type of houses being built and construction work we'd be doing for the week. We also received Thrivent Builds welcome kits which were toiletry bags filled with necessities like sun block, bug spray and a reflection journal in which to record our thoughts and learn more about Thrivent Financial and Habitat.

After orientation, we gathered on the open-air veranda for our first team meeting. Our leader John talked to us about how Thrivent members, by purchasing Thrivent Financial products, actually make programs like Thrivent Builds Worldwide possible. As a fraternal benefit society, Thrivent Financial gives back to the community. We each shared why we were on the trip and our fears and expectations.

Since a local wedding party was celebrating in the main restaurant—complete with a live band—we ate dinner on the veranda. It was a simple hamburger and fries, but the burger included some fun cheese and spices. Most of us had been up since 3:30 a.m., so we made it an early night and settled in for a good long sleep. We drifted off to the sounds of the Salvadoran wedding band.

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Sunday, August 3

Our team at Christo Rey Lutheran ChurchMy roommates Laurie and Carole and I were up a bit earlier than necessary this morning, so we took our time getting ready for church. We met downstairs around 8:30 a.m. for a buffet breakfast: scrambled eggs with bacon, refried beans, plantains with cream, fresh fruit and really, really great coffee. We loaded in the van to drive to Cristo Rey Lutheran church with Ana Maria from the regional Habitat office in Santa Ana . The church building was set back amid buildings that looked almost like ancient ruins – but were actually the remains of the previous pastor's house that had been destroyed by an earthquake.

The church was small and brightly painted. Pastor Carlos Najera gave a brief welcome which Tom, one of our team members, translated for us. Despite the language barrier, the church service was incredibly moving. I was almost in tears several times. The people were so welcoming even though we were complete strangers. Pastor Najera spoke about how Jesus fed 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. Tom shared with us that even though most of us couldn't understand Spanish, the pastor had still addressed us throughout the sermon, saying that by our presence we weren't just building homes, we were building hope.

After the service, we distributed school supplies we'd brought for the children of the church. Ana Maria also got up and gave a passionate speech to recruit Habitat volunteers. She had a whole list of volunteers in just minutes!

After church we changed our clothes and headed off together. We drove for about half an hour when suddenly, at the top of a large hill, we saw beautiful lush green mountains with a gorgeous lake nestled in the center. We stopped at the top for photos. Then our amazing driver Ramon took us back down the narrow, bumpy mountain trail. We stopped at a lake front hotel and walked through it to a freestanding deck on stilts where we ate lunch. We were joined by another Habitat team from Massachusetts, and we met Cristina, the architect of the community we would help build.

We had a great traditional lunch with sausage, beef, plantains with cream, guacamole on a tortilla and later, strawberry ice cream. After lunch, we headed down to the beach for a very fun boat ride across Lago Coatepeque—a lake formed when a volcano collapsed. Most of us waded into the crystal clear water and some enjoyed a stone skipping contest.

The bumpy ride back to Santa Ana, along with other times in the van, was a great time to get to know team members better. The rest of the evening was spent in the Santa Ana city center, at the hotel for dinner and then reflecting together in the open-air lounge. We shared the Prayer for the Future by Óscar Romero and discussed the significance of his life in El Salvador: his assassination in 1980 was a tipping point that began the civil war. We discussed how our own spiritual experiences brought us to El Salvador, how the events of the day had an impact on our faith and how the church service had moved each of us. We all wanted to give more. We discussed how easy it is for us to leave our comfortable homes in our luxury cars and drive to church. The Cristo Rey Lutherans—mostly women and children—probably had to work hard just to feed and clothe their families, then walk or take a bus all the way to the church. We reflected on how it may actually be easier for our friends at Cristo Rey to be true Christians, trusting fully that His will and purpose will be done in their lives. What little they have, they gladly share. We, however, are so distracted by our overly abundant lives that it's harder sometimes for us to get past the distractions and remember to truly trust in God. It was quite an amazing observation on faith.

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Monday, August 4

Tim shoveling gravelWe were up by about 6:00 a.m., all decked out in work clothes and boots for a 7:00 breakfast. By 7:30 we were off to the build site in a rural part of Santa Ana where Habitat for Humanity El Salvador has obtained land for a community of about 60 homes. We drove to a larger building that was already competed and will eventually be a day care center. For now it is being used as "construction central." Habitat El Salvador staff and Pastor Najela all greeted us and gathered us together for a morning devotion. Pastor Najela, with translation from Patty, led our devotion and prayer, after which we held hands for the Lord's Prayer, said in Spanish and English at the same time. We also met one of our partner families, Óscar and Marisol and their children Óscarito and Paola.

With water in hand, we headed toward the two duplexes we would help build. The four Thrivent Builds teams here before us had gotten much of the house construction done so our team could finish the houses this week. The day's tasks: apply two coats of primer (called "cal") to the houses, cover the floors with a sort of cinder gravel to level them before laying tile and haul wheel barrows full of dirt to put around each house. The latter was my job...which meant bringing the dirt from 1½ blocks away! I was determined to show that I could do it. Team member Len, a former marine, joined me. He showed me that loading more dirt toward the front of the wheelbarrow put more weight over the wheel and made it easier to move. When one of the masons noticed that I had been hauling dirt most of the day, he said I had "muy músculos" or "much muscles." I told him it was because I was a tough American woman.

After a short break, I shifted duties a bit (realizing my limitations) and hauled cinder gravel into the house with my teammate, Tim. This gravel pile was only about 20 feet from the house. Tim and I took the carts of cinder across all kinds of crazy bridges the masons set up so we wouldn't get stuck in the mud then into the house and smoothed them with a shovel.

At mid-morning, the partner family who would be moving into the house we were working on came to visit. The family introduced themselves: José Antonio and Aída…and soon they will be joined by little Felipe. Somehow, through a few shared words, I learned that the baby was due in October, José Antonio sells cell phones, they hope to run a pharmacy in the community and Aída is excited about the beautiful view from their home. They even showed me ultrasound photos of little Felipe. I couldn't believe how much we could share with hand gestures and a few words. Meeting the family was a memorable experience.

Encouraged by my previous success, I spoke a bit with the masons during lunch. Again, I found that just a few words of Spanish got me much further than I could've imagined. I learned that Antonio had 13 brothers and sisters and five children ranging in age from two to 17. I learned that Juan and Will were brothers and that Matozo had been learning English from the previous teams. Of course, I made mistakes. For instance, the masons all thought it was hilarious when I said "tengo esposa," which means "I have a wife," instead of "esposo" for "husband." But even with my serious lack of grammar skills and large vocabulary I found that if I tried or even made hand gestures, they were eager to share with me. And I'm so very glad they did.

In the afternoon I painted and enjoyed fresh watermelon. After cleaning up, our whole team felt very tired but satisfied with the work that was done. During the ride home we reflected on the language barrier being less of an issue than we'd thought it would be. There are just some things—like family and helping others—that are universal.

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Tuesday, August 5

Nicole paints and sings operaToday we painted the inside walls of the duplex that we primed yesterday. The four of us painting had fun joking and laughing. Sometimes our masons even joined in. Pedro was especially friendly and smiled all the time. He'd also been asking us to teach him a little English, which Tom and Ron—our best Spanish speakers—were happy to do.

We were starting to feel very comfortable with each other and Ron was able to coax me into singing this morning. I had shared that I used to sing opera, so he'd been asking me to sing. I belted out an opera chorus for him and he followed with a song from Gilbert and Sullivan. We spent much of the morning serenading while we were painting. Later we learned that all the masons were listening and sometimes singing too. Apparently, they heard us far up the street!

After a nice lunch of chicken, rice and warm tortillas—more painting. With our strong progress, Ana Maria hoped we might finish the houses by week's end. Where we had painted the masons were connecting electricity and even starting to lay the tile flooring.

During our break, we learned from Ana Maria that she has a bachelor's degree. Her daughter is a doctor, another daughter is an engineer and her son is pursuing his master's degree in engineering in Germany. She is very proud. We also talked about her hopes for the community. She told us that while they have both private and public education in El Salvador, many children don't learn as much as they could. More importantly, she believes children must receive academic education along with education in good values. What good is a lawyer without morals? Or an engineer who doesn't care about people? She believes that for El Salvador to truly improve, the children must receive both education and values. Ana Maria was such an inspiration to me! Here was a woman who was educated and had made a better life for her family—but had also chosen to make a better life for her countrymen, as well. Inspiring!

At dinner tonight, we were joined by some special people—Elsy, communication specialist for Habitat El Salvador, Diana, communication specialist for Habitat's Latin America office and Marco, videographer from Habitat's Latin America office. They joined me to obtain video footage of volunteers, families and Habitat staff in the community. Over dinner we got to know one another a bit and then we discussed the logistics for the next three days. I was sad that I wouldn't be able to keep working on the houses…but at the same time I knew the video would inspire many more Thrivent members and Lutherans to come to El Salvador to help build a community. I also knew this work would be equally as important and satisfying.

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Wednesday, August 6

Sack racesThis morning, most of the team continued painting the inside of one duplex and the outside of the other. However, the "fun" job for most of the day involved moving rock, then digging a ditch in front of both houses to prepare for the sidewalk and curb. The team moved a tent along with them for protection from the blazing sun. As they dug, one of the masons used a machete to make the sides of the ditch straight and to the exact measurements. The measurements were laid out with two strings suspended from sticks.

My job for the day was to work with Diana, Marco, and Elsy interviewing volunteers and masons for the Thrivent Builds video. I was touched by how many Thrivent Builds volunteers felt that this trip was a way to put their faith into action and bless others because the Lord had blessed their lives so much. Others mentioned how their Thrivent membership made these trips possible—that just by owning Thrivent Financial products, they were helping to contribute to this Thrivent Builds Worldwide El Salvador Community.

Later we interviewed local Salvadoran volunteers. One young woman from the youth committee spoke with great enthusiasm. I was quite sure she would be a leader for Habitat someday.

Then we interviewed the masons. Will had been quiet and serious on the work site all week, but when he started speaking for the video interview, this previously soft-spoken man had so much to say! Even with my language detriment, I could understand him saying that more Thrivent volunteers should come to El Salvador because we are brothers and sisters together under God, and, as such, we needed to help families and help children. This man's deep faith brought streaming tears to my eyes.

Construction on the site ended early today for a special treat. The partner families joined us and brought their children while the local women, Patty and Ana Maria, taught us how to make a traditional Salvadoran food – pupusas. We dipped our hands lightly in water, then made a ball with the pupusa dough. Next we flattened the dough by patting it back and forth between our fingers. We added beans and cheese through a small hole, closed up the ball, then flattened it again between our fingers and put it on the grill. Several women, including Ana Maria, had been working all day to prepare the rest of our feast. They served us the pupusas, pastry with vegetables inside, tamales, yucca (which tasted like potato to me), corn and cheese.

While we were eating, a piñata shaped like a chicken appeared. You could just see the anticipation in the children's eyes. The kids waited as politely as they could for us to finish eating, and then the fun started. Patty chose a child, blindfolded them and spun them three times. Then the child would swing for the piñata as hard as they could with a stick. What they didn't know was one of the masons, Alejandro, was pulling the rope and making the piñata dance out of reach. After each child had a turn and the piñata still wasn't broken, Patty pulled up some adult volunteers including our teammates Laurie and Tom. Still no luck. So then the kids were allowed to hit it without a blindfold. Still no luck. Finally, Ana Maria took the stick and, with the strength and fury of a major league baseball player, pounded the dickens out of it until it broke and spilled goodies for all the children.

We moved on to sack races. First the children, then some adults were coaxed (or in my case, dragged) into the game as well. I laughed so hard, I nearly collapsed. It was a purer sense of joy than I'd felt in such a long time.

After a quiet chicken and mashed potato dinner, we headed to the roof for reflection and everyone shared their observations of Salvadoran culture. Words like welcoming, friendly, open and fun-loving came up many times. Surprisingly, every single person said it had been easier to enter into this new culture than they'd imagined.

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Thursday, August 7

Nicole and lovely little FlorThis morning we set a record and woke up a full hour before our alarm went off. No real reason, it just happened that way.

Some of our team continued painting the inside of a duplex. Others painted the outside of the other house while the masons put the tile floor in. The rest of our team had to do some additional digging for the sidewalk because the heavy rain the night before had collapsed some of the dirt. Then they got some rather bad news from Cristina, the architect—the markers had been put in for the wrong measurements and the entire ditch had been dug in the wrong place! So the team, along with several masons, spent much of the day backfilling yesterday's ditch and digging it anew.

My task was to go with Elsy, Diana and Marco to interview partner families: three who will be moving into the Thrivent Builds homes we've been working on and three who already live in the Habitat community.

Our first visit was with Don Napoleon, one of the masons who was helping build a home for his daughter. We drove at least a half hour quite far into the country where there was a beautiful, well-tended garden. We met Napoleon's daughter and son, and also his kitten Tigre and dog, Beluche, who followed him wherever we went. In his usual quiet manner, Napoleon responded to our questions with a serene smile and kind eyes.

As we left, he kissed his children goodbye and hopped onto the bed of our pickup truck for a ride to the bus stop so he could go to work at the build site. It occurred to me that he normally must walk those several miles each day to the bus stop just to get to work – so he can build a home and a better life for his family. I wondered: would I be willing to do that?

Our next stop was in a seemingly unsafe part of town. When we rang the doorbell, however, we saw a glowing smile from Marisol, a future Thrivent Builds homeowner. She invited us in to her very humble, but very clean home. Each wall was painted a different vibrant color and there were baby photos everywhere. Soon after, her husband Óscar came home with two-year-old Óscarito.

It was so much fun seeing them exchange the familiar looks happily married couples share and watching her straighten his shirt for the video. Óscar's face shone with joy every time he answered a question. I could see his hopes—for a safe place to play, for a community of friends, for a quiet setting.

Next we went just a few minutes to the current home of José Antonio and Aída, our partner family expecting a baby in October. Aída delivered her interview so well and, as we hugged goodbye, we both shared a few tears. So little time together, so few words shared, yet that much of a connection was made.

We went to the build site for the afternoon to interview three women already living in the Habitat community. Our first interview was with Noemi, for whom a special house was built to accommodate her wheelchair. She suffered from a stroke that left her unable to support her own body, so she needs the wheelchair to get around. Fernando, the Habitat social worker, mentioned that she could get better with therapy—but that it would be extremely painful and cost much more than she had available to her. Noemi lives in her two bedroom home with her four children and her mother. When asked during her interview what her house meant to her and her family, she broke down into tears as she told us that her house meant everything. It provides shelter for her family and a place where she can maintain her business selling coffee, hair nets she crochets and piñatas made in her living room.

After the interview, she invited us inside and told us a bit more about her life before moving to the Habitat community. She was a single mother who once paid $100 a month to rent an abandoned home—a huge expense considering the average monthly income in El Salvador is $185. She used cardboard to make room dividers for her children. When it rained, six inches of rain and mud covered the floor—a difficult and unhealthy situation. Despite her hardships, Noemi was full of joy and faith. She insisted on having her photo taken with us and asked us to sign her address book so she could remember us. I know that I will never forget her.

One demonstration of true community was the way the children played together and how all the mothers seemed to help care for them. The saying, "it takes a village to raise a child," is definitely true here. One little girl who particularly warmed my heart was Flor (which means flower). She was Noemi's daughter. She ran to Elsy, our Habitat communication specialist, and immediately wanted a big hug. I was surprised when she so readily let me hold and hug her, too. She was so beautiful and trusting…and I was glad she would now be able to grow up in this warm, loving, safe community.

Thursday night was special—we had dinner at Carymar, a local restaurant. Everyone really enjoyed the fun evening out after working hard for four days. And the food was wonderful—several kinds of pupusas, tamales and enchiladas. After dinner, a few from our team, a few from the local Habitat office and our Habitat video crew went to a local dance club. We returned to the hotel that night, tired but glad for the chance to enjoy some time with our new friends.

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Friday, August 8

Mariachi bandUp early once again, we packed our bags for our recreational trip. We could hardly believe this was already our last day of building! Our teammate Laurie said it best: "It seems like we've been here for a month and yet it seems like we just got here yesterday."

At the build site Cristina led devotions with a Bible reading. Then we shared a prayer in a style Cristina said worked well with children—and also with a group like us. We joined together in a circle and not only joined our hands, but also crossed our feet over one another's so we could truly feel our connectedness. Several people then offered their prayers, each in his language.

It was amazing to see the progress we and the masons made in just one week, even though we were not able to finish the duplexes.

Today we continued our interviews with members of the Habitat staff. First, Cristina was interviewed in front of the large tract of land that we hope next year will become an entire Thrivent Builds community built by Thrivent volunteers. Cristina was absolutely brilliant as she talked about her vision for the community and her dreams for the future—dreams that include a clinic, a vocational training center and an agricultural cooperative in addition to more homes for Salvadoran families. Habitat for Humanity El Salvador is incredibly blessed to have such a creative, skilled, innovative woman to design this community.

Patty, Habitat El Salvador's volunteer coordinator, was second to be interviewed. Her bubbly personality, her bright smile, her vivacious energy and her warm heart came through in every statement she made. I couldn't imagine a better person to help inspire future volunteers to come help build a community.

Our last interview of the morning was with Ana Maria from the regional Santa Ana Habitat office. I truly believe God has a special place in heaven reserved for her. She has so much strength, so much love for her country and so much desire to bring hope to her people. She works hard for what she believes in and does it all through her faith in God.

Work today stopped at noon for our team. After lunch the Habitat staff had a special farewell planned for us. Just before it started, I had the most unexpected and most memorable moment of my trip. Will, our quietest, most serious mason, gave me a gift. I looked at him with question—a gift for me? He handed me a small bag. Inside it were two postcards, several bookmarks with religious sayings in Spanish and a wooden plaque with a map of El Salvador. What's more, he had written me a special message and a prayer. I looked at him and started crying. Will had touched my heart with his quiet yet deep faith. But I'd had no idea that he'd felt the same sense of kinship. I also thought about how difficult it must have been for him to find time to obtain these small but precious gifts. I hugged him tightly and tried to express my emotion in my limited Spanish saying he had "touched my heart and was my brother in Christ." Even if I'd had more Spanish words, I still don't know if I could've communicated to him all that his gift—and his friendship—meant to me. Are there really words that can express to someone that they have truly changed your life and you will never, ever forget the impact they have made on your heart?

I managed to collect myself and join the others…until Patty announced that we were going to begin our farewell with a special devotion from our quietest mason. The tears were in my eyes before Will even began. He read a passage from Galatians 3: "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." He went on to say we all reminded him of potatoes, which got some laughter. All potatoes are different—some small, some round, some even with little lumps – just like people are different. Yet we can bring them all together and make delicious mashed potatoes. The whole of every one of us mixes together completely. And that, he said, was how he felt we all were: all together as brothers and sisters under God. We were all one people, working and serving together. I don't think there was a dry eye.

After Will finished to much applause, we were each presented with a few gifts to help us remember our trip. Our partner family, Óscar and Marisol, gave each of us a hand-painted ceramic plate with a house and volunteers in red t-shirts—just like those we'd worn all week. Our Habitat friends gave us each a little bucket with the Habitat El Salvador logo, a Habitat El Salvador hat and a personalized certificate with our team photo on it. Ana Maria also gave us each a bottle of honey that was made on her family's farm.

Just as our group was feeling like we were going to burst with emotion, we got a real surprise. A full mariachi band came out from behind the building! It was the perfect way to move from our sadness over the end of our time with our new friends to a celebration of all the work we'd done and the hope we'd created together. We all took turns dancing and hugging our friends. No one said goodbye—rather, farewell until we met again

Just as we were wrapping up, we got another surprise as the Habitat folks started breaking confetti eggs on our heads! The eggs were made by poking a hole and blowing out the egg yoke, then covering them with paper mache, filling them with confetti and decorating the outside. They are part of the Salvadoran celebration tradition. Finally, we all got into our van—exhausted, emotional and covered with confetti.

We had just a short time to clean up at the hotel, as our tour guide Claudia was already there ready to take us on the Route of the Flowers, a tour through several cities known for their beautiful flowers, scenic landscape and artisan craft shops. On the way to our first stop, we drove through lush green mountains that went on as far as we could see. We stopped in Ataco to visit the most amazing shop full of handmade Salvadoran crafts. In addition to hand-painted items in bright colors, they had hand-woven textiles in every vivid color imaginable. The looms stood in the back and we were able to watch the weavers at work. The complexity of strings, color and skill were mind boggling.

We took a driving tour through the rest of the peaceful, quaint little town and then arrived at Los Cabaños, our hotel for the night. The hotel grounds were a tropical paradise where we each had a little brightly colored cabaña. A highlight of our dinner was enormous glasses of fresh pineapple juice.

During our team reflection no one seemed quite ready for the week to be over or to leave our new friends. The depth of the relationships we'd formed in a short time—with each other, with the Habitat staff, with our masons and with the partner families—surprised us.

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Saturday, August 9

Laurie and Nicole admire the hot springsThis morning we had time to explore our tropical paradise hotel grounds. The maze of stone staircases, each set carved a bit differently, seemed to weave around forever. Around every turn were new and beautiful floral surprises. The Bird of Paradise plant, rare where I come from, was so abundant here it covered a hillside.

This morning's first destination was a quick stop in Juayúa for shopping and to visit the town's cathedral which was home to the only two black Christ sculptures, and as such was actually a pilgrimage destination. Next we headed for a real adventure. We went to an ecological adventure park located amid the coffee fields in the mountains. The park had camping, horseback riding and hiking, which was our plan for the day. We knew we were going for a four mile hike amid the coffee trees, but I don't think any of us realized it was a hike up and down many hills along slightly muddy, rocky roads. Although it was challenging, the rewards were great. We saw breathtaking views of the local mountains and volcanoes that stretched all the way to the Guatemalan border. The ultimate experience was the hot springs at the peak of our hike. The highest point was a rock that was just above a steam geyser. I admit that I was feeling some trepidation as our guide led us across jagged rocks to get to the landing. But when we got there, we felt amazing. The steam washed over us, covering us in warm clouds. And we all felt a bit of pride at going outside our comfort zones…and succeeding.

We moved on to an even greater reward—an actual hot pool on the side of the mountain, fed by a natural spring waterfall! This little crater pool was so perfect, it almost seemed like a manmade hot tub. But it was all natural. We hopped in and enjoyed the warm, natural spring water. It was completely worth the effort of getting there. Then, after hiking back, we ate panini sandwiches for lunch and enjoyed a bit of relaxation in our beautiful surroundings.

We headed next to Salcoatitán for a visit to a coffee plantation. El Salvador is known for having some of the best coffee in the world, probably due to the tropical climate and rich volcanic soil. The plantation owner, who was also the owner of our previous night's hotel, met us to give us a tour of the coffee mill and fields. He gave us a brief overview of how coffee is milled and how they dry the beans on their patios—which he insisted made much better coffee. It began to rain, so he invited us to his home's veranda to ask him more questions about coffee growing and roasting.

First Fernando took us through his personal garden and plant nursery. It was his hobby—but it was the most extensive hobby I'd ever seen! The nursery was amazing. Potted plants stood in rows, vines grew all around, rare orchids were arranged enmasse, and there were special areas for growing and nursing plants. It was larger than most professional nurseries I'd ever seen back home, but again, it was just his hobby.

As we walked, we heard the sound of power tools. It turned out to be the sculpture studio of Fernando's wife, Patricia. She invited us in to see her work. Her current piece was a large table with a ceramic tile mosaic design with butterflies. But she also sculpted wood, stone and metal. She showed us several of her different works, all so creative and beautiful and ranging from abstract to very real. It was unbelievable to me how these wonderful people just opened their home, their work and their passions to us—total strangers from half a world away. Our visit ended with a lovely cup of Fernando's own coffee, which was delicious.

Next we went to the final town on the route, where we picked up more souvenirs from local artisans and enjoyed a walk through the streets. Finally, we headed into the capital city of San Salvador for our final stop. The wealth and modern structures of the big city were in stark contrast to the rural and humble towns we'd visited all week. I was reminded that I would soon be back home in another modern culture. Part of my heart truly grieved for that, and I longed to return to that culture of simplicity and joy.

We arrived at Hotel Mariscal for the night and dressed for our final meal together. A few blocks away at a Mexican restaurant, our meal was a beautiful "make your own fajitas" spread, complete with fresh salsa made tableside. Our entertainment for the evening was a live Mariachi singer. Our night was bittersweet. Several of our team members were leaving early in the morning, so we had to say our goodbyes after dinner. Once again, I was surprised at how quickly a group of people who barely knew each other could become so closely connected. I believe there was something about the shared experience of building homes—and hope—that brought us together. We were doing God's work with God's people. We were definitely two or more gathered in His name, and He was there with us.

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Saturday, August 10

Come build! Help make a difference!Those of us still around this morning gathered for a quick breakfast in the hotel before hopping a direct shuttle to the San Salvador airport. As we drove, we appreciated our last beautiful views of the lush green foliage and majestic mountains. It seemed surreal that we were leaving. We had been in such a different world for the week that in some ways it was hard to remember what home would be like when we got there.

This was so different from a normal vacation. On a vacation, you go somewhere to be entertained…to be distracted. You pay others to serve you. On this trip, we went to serve. We connected with other people. We became part of a new family. We came together, sharing our cultures, united as God's children.

I learned so many things on this trip. I learned that you don't necessarily need a common language to have meaningful communication. That serving together creates a stronger bond than common hobbies or interests ever could. That family isn't dependent on your blood, but rather your heart. That going outside your comfort zone makes you a stronger person. That quiet faith can sometimes have greater impact than loud proclamation. That your home can be in more places—or even countries—than what's listed on your address label. That becoming part of another culture means so much more than just seeing it. That you can do more than you thought you were physically capable of doing with the encouragement of others. That Matthew 19:26 is true: "With God all things are possible."

I learned that one week can change your whole life.

To my new friends and family in El Salvador, I would like to say "muchas gracias." You will live in my heart forever. Thank you for inviting me to be part of your home. El Salvador is now home in my heart, too. And I promise I'll return home again.

To anyone reading this journal, thank you for taking the time to learn about the amazing opportunity you have to serve others through a Thrivent Builds Worldwide El Salvador Community trip.

Come build. Help make a difference.

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