by Nicole Fix
In this week's Torah reading, Tetzaveh (Ex: 27:20-30:10), we learn about the sacred garments the Priests and High Priest wear to serve in the Tabernacle. We learn what one wears to do holy work.
Apparently, what I wear is cargo shorts, an old t-shirt, boots and a baseball cap...It's a look I used to try to achieve sometimes in my young lesbian days. A little stereotypical. A bit butch.
But the outfit was the right one for the job. You see, I've been in Honduras the last week and a half, in Roatan, building stairs up a mountain. Roatan, if you haven't been, is a beautiful island in the Caribbean where people go to vacation. There's a section there called La Colonia, the Colony, and the people who live their, the natives, are very poor. The families live in shacks, if they even have one. They're built up into these hills, these impossibly steep hills. They're treacherous, unnavigable and when it rains...people are stuck.
So I went to build stairs.
Now let me be clear, this is not about me. This is my friend Scott's holy work. He started going to Roatan eleven years ago and has returned every year to do a build project to help the poor families in La Colonia. I came to find something though. Maybe I wanted a sense that I could do something, help someone, affect change that I could actually see, in the moment. I was given the opportunity to latch on and I latched.
Now I don't know about you, but here, in this country, I'm not sure what to do anymore, or maybe, hopefully, that's just right now. It seems like there's a new fight every moment and important ones, the Muslim ban, women's rights, the environment and the news... oh yes the news... It's hard to even know what's real anymore. And then there's this unsettling sense that all of the insane and chaotic things happening in this country are really just to distract from something else that's worse... Yeah... so I went to Honduras. I went to get away from America. I went to get perspective. I went seeking some spiritual solace. I put on my cargo shorts. I went to build stairs up a mountain.
On the first day, we go into La Colonia to identify a project. We leave behind the vacation strip and the vacationers, the retirees who have come here from Canada and America, seeking a better, easier, warmer life and go into the hills. There's trash everywhere, broken glass and nails and I'm thinking that I probably should have gotten that Tetanus shot after all. The ground crumbles beneath my feet and I slide down and scramble back up. I'm winded and drenched from sweat. This is in the first two minutes. We're still at the bottom.
We visit some of the families Scott has helped in the past and then go looking for Johny, the man who will manage the project for us. We gather our team, Johny, Jimmy, Fernando, Scott and I and we go to find a build site. Now I know there's a staircase that Scott wants to build. He wants to build it because there's a boy at the top with Down Syndrome, Daby. And Daby is trapped up there because it's too dangerous for him to walk down. He and his mother are trapped in their house. So we go there and the stairs have already been built by le fiscal, the municipality. And I can tell Scott is a little disappointed, but also happy, because the need is being filled. No one else was doing anything to help these families when Scott started coming here and now le fiscal has gotten involved. There's another team that comes down at another point in the year that is working on other projects. By doing something, just a little something, Scott has made the invisible visible.
We continue looking for our build site. I see that the need is endless. Everything is a mess. There's no infrastructure. But what will help the most families? What's the most dangerous place? Where can our work have the biggest impact? We look and look, wandering around the mountain.
A boy in a yellow shirt appears out of nowhere and tells us he needs stairs to his house. He's maybe 8 or 9, and the rest of us, Scott, myself and the natives, Johny, Jimmy and Fernando are adults. We listen to this boy, like he knows what everyone needs. He doesn't tell us his name and we don't ask.
We follow this nameless boy up the mountain. "Is this your house?" No, he shakes his head and points upward. We follow him, slipping, rocks and garbage and barbed wire everywhere, around a steep bend. "Is this your house?" He laughs. No, he shakes his head and points upward.
We follow him. And the path gets narrower. And the path gets steeper. It's harder and harder to climb. I can't find footing anywhere. "Is this your house?" The nameless boy laughs, shakes his head and points upward. We follow.
The higher we go, the harder it is to reach the top.
We follow the boy to the highest point and from there we see everything. We see all of La Colonia. We see brightly painted ramshackle houses wedged into the cliffs. We see the sea and the cruise ships. We see the flat, blue water. It goes on and on. And the boy in the yellow shirt is pointing to a house off to the side of where we are. That's his house.
In two days, we will find out that the boy's name is Moses.
This is where we build.
So, America. Yeah. Day 1 in office and I'm in the streets marching with tens of thousands, a hundred thousand women, people, in New York and millions across the world. And then it's JFK and then the courthouse and then another action at the Statue of Liberty. Within the first week I'm exhausted and overwhelmed and I don't think there's anything really anyone can do.
Then I think of my friend Scott and I think of that first day we went to La Colonia. We visited some of the families he has helped. It took about 30 seconds for me to start crying. I'm looking around at conditions that are horrific, no running water, overcrowding. It's terrible, but that's not why I'm crying. It's the love, the sheer joy Scott and these families are experiencing at this reunion. Yes--Scott has built some of these families homes. He's constructed things that have made their lives better. But what he's really done, is told these people that they matter. It's about human dignity. And now they know and now other things are happening, electricity in places, stairs that other people built... It's the kind of love that has momentum.
To build stairs up a mountain, you need supplies. You need sand and gravel and wood. You need people to help you and buckets to carry cement. It's tiring work. You're going to be tired.
When you're building stairs up a mountain, you start at the bottom. You start at the bottom so that you have something to stand on as you continue to build.