St. Camillus choir director Jean Cook (at left) and Chris Fedoryshyn span the ages of those who helped build the Illanes family's new Habitat house.
PHOTO BY MIKE MIEHL
THE BOLIVIANS were a bit baffled, trying to
imagine what the gringos were doing in
Cochabamba. “We thought, Who is going to pay
their own expense, for their tickets for the trip, pay
for their food, only to come here to help a Bolivian
family?” says Elías Agreda Dia.
Five days after meeting them, Agreda and his family,
along with a second family of Cochabambinos from across
the city, were quite sincerely inviting these people, who
were now departing, to come back to visit, “even if there are
100 of you.”
Tears welled up all around at the music- and dance-filled
desperdida or going-away party, as the two families thanked
the teams. They had, in the space of a workweek, helped make reality of their dreams of having homes of their own.
Olinda Ojeda Villegas and her husband, José Simón Illanes
Andrade, were similarly surprised by the power of spending
a week working side by side with strangers from the United
States. Like the Agreda family, Ojeda had expected the Habitat
for Humanity team that came to help build her house
would be “closed, hard to get to know” and that communicating
would be difficult.
“We all fear what is unknown, right?” Ojeda observes. “But
in reality they were very kind and caring. They explained
things.They helped with everything and we got used to them.”
Two weeks after the U.S. team left, Ojeda was wistful
about the group that had helped build the walls and foundation
of her house. “Now it’s like we are lacking something.”
Not Your Typical Tourist Itinerary
The gringos about whom Agreda and the Illanes family first
puzzled, and then missed, were the second team to travel to
Latin America in 2006 as part of a fledgling program sponsored
by the Holy Name Province of the Franciscans, called
St. Francis Builds. It launched out of St. Camillus Church,
a Franciscan parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, with groups
that built houses in Guatemala in March 2006 and in Bolivia
in June and July.
All Habitat for Humanity programs are designed to have
a nondenominational spiritual component. St. Francis Builds
offers elements of Franciscan spirituality to U.S. builders.
In the St. Francis Builds model, preparatory sessions ahead
of time, daily spiritual reflections and private journaling add a retreat-like layer to what otherwise
might be just a socially conscious alternative
vacation. Side trips to nearby
venues no travel agent would book—such as Bolivia’s notorious El Abra
Prison and a refugee-like camp for families
displaced in a devastating 2005
Guatemalan mudslide—give participants
a glimpse at life beyond even the
rustic, laborers’ world they sample on
Habitat work sites.
“This was so much more fulfilling
than a vacation,” says Chris
Fedoryshyn, then a Siena College senior
from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who
made his first trip outside the United
States or Canada for the Bolivia project.
He admitted to being a bit uncertain,
especially about the health risks of visiting
a developing country. But he
quickly got past that as he worked on
the Illanes family home.
“The poverty is a little shocking,”
he says, “but by the end it felt almost
Susan Lee, a counselor at St. Ignatius
College Preparatory School in San Francisco,
made her second Global Village
trip and her first with St. Francis Builds.
After building houses in El Salvador a
year earlier, Lee knew what to expect in
the way of cultural differences and overwhelming
But she was again struck by how even
the most basic of expectations about a
mission trip gets turned on its head.
“You go down there thinking, We’re
the wealthy Americans. We’re going to go
to this poor village and help them,” she
says. “Then you get there and you’re not
working for them, but with them. You
very quickly lose the feeling you’re
doing anyone a favor. You become humbled
because they’re the strong ones.”
Everyone Teaches, Everyone Learns
For their part, the Agreda and Illanes
families found more than their expectations
changing. Their own ideas about
helping other people were challenged.
“I remember how my house was
growing day by day, every day higher
and higher,” Agreda says. “I was
delighted, seeing all these people working
with such enthusiasm. How could
I not, with people coming from that far
away to help us when we don’t know
how to help our own Bolivian neighbors?
We need to learn this from them.”
The North Americans found plenty
to learn from the Bolivians as well.
Harrison Christian, then a 19-year-old
sophomore at the University of Chicago,
wrote in a reflection about the trip that
his experience taught him the meaning
of St. Francis’ teaching: “Preach the
gospel. If necessary, use words.”
“When I signed up for the St.
Francis Builds trip to Bolivia, I must
admit that I did not know what I was
getting myself into,” Christian wrote. “The first day on the work site, I realized
that I had no choice but to heed
these words of St. Francis. I had come
to Bolivia with a Spanish vocabulary
consisting of about 20 words. Speaking
was not an option.”
That didn’t turn out to be as much of
an obstacle as the Great Books major
from Lynchburg, Virginia, thought.
“We may not have spoken the same
language or come from the same background,
but in Elías and Juana’s household
I was accepted and loved like
family,” he says.
“I do not think I truly understood St.
Francis’ principle of ‘preaching the
gospel’ until I worked in Bolivia. In retrospect,
I realize that in order to grasp
his words, one must experience Francis’
meaning. That is exactly what happened
to me at the work site,” he wrote.
“I saw the gospel in action, I lived the
gospel, I saw God working in and
through all of us. Words were not necessary
because there was love.”
Luz Cabrera, a St. Camillus parishioner
who emigrated from Peru 12 years
ago, worried about many things before
joining the group: a tendency toward
altitude sickness, chronic stomach trouble
and whether, at 65, she would be
able to do heavy work.
None of those was a problem, and
she thinks it was a matter of God watching
out for her. Perhaps also, she
observed later, it was due to the blessings
of the Bolivian people.
“They offered all that they had for
us,” she said. “Interacting with them
was beautiful, nourishing for the soul.”
From One Room to Room for Everyone
The Agredas’ house, completed shortly
after the St. Francis Builds team left,
gives the couple and their two children,
Elías, five, and Jhesenya, 10, their
own home for the first time.
When they applied to Habitat,
Agreda, his wife, María Juana Molina,
and the children lived together in a
single room, about 12 feet square, in a
friend’s home. They had no bathroom
and cooked in a corridor.
Their new brick home has three bedrooms,
a bathroom, a living/dining
room and a kitchen. “The house is just
beautiful,” says Molina. “I know it is
going to change our lives. Living before
in just one room wasn’t really living.”
Her husband, an electrician, expects
his family’s life to be easier. “We will be
able to really cook,” Agreda says. “We
are going to have a much better life.”
The Agredas’ home was celebrated in
August as the 6,000th home completed
since Habitat for Humanity of Bolivia
was established in 1985.
A Place of Their Own
The Illanes family had even less of a
place to call their own before they qualified
for a six-room Habitat house. “We
lived in my parents’ house, sometimes
in my father-in-law’s house,” says
Illanes. “We were switching from one
house to another from time to time.”
He and his wife decided to move
to Cochabamba from the countryside
so their children, Alex, now 13, and
Patricia, now 17, could go to school. But
they were dependent upon relatives to
keep a roof over their heads.
“We have wanted to have our own
house for 15 years,” says Ojeda. As merchants,
however—they bake and sell
bread in the market—they had little
money and no chance to save.
“Some days we didn’t even have
money for food,” she says. “If it weren’t
for Habitat, we’d be still living with
our parents or with other relatives.”
“We are going to be more at peace
now,” Ojeda says. “We are going to be
independent, with more privacy. Sometimes
it was a little bit difficult to live
with our parents,” she acknowledges.
“There were arguments about one thing or the other. We are not going to
have that anymore.”
Her husband looks philosophically
at how he ended up living with
his parents and in-laws. “Before marrying,
a couple has to prepare first to
have their own house,” Illanes says,
“even if it is very small. But here we
start in reverse. We fall in love
blindly and we immediately marry.
And then we realize we need a house
to live in.”
That’s not so easy to accomplish
in the poorest country in South
America, where per-capita income is
calculated by the World Bank at
$960 a year. Habitat estimates that
more than half of Bolivia’s 8.2 million
people live in substandard conditions.
The price of a house through
Habitat in Bolivia is about $3,700.
Homeowners pay mortgages of
about $25-$30 a month over eight
years. In September 2006, the Franciscan
friars in Bolivia (Province of St.
Anthony) agreed to contribute $100,000
for the purchase of land for Habitat
houses. That assists with another part
of the housing challenge.
Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village
participants each contribute $350 for
the construction. That and airfare,
meals and lodging run about $2,000
Inspired by Global Village Experience
St. Francis Builds grew out of Franciscan
Father Mike Johnson’s 2005 vacation
experience, when he joined 17 strangers
in an open Global Village “build,” as
they’re called, in Retalhuleu, Guatemala.
Part basic physical labor, part cross-cultural
bonding opportunity and part
up-close experience with life among
poor, working-class families, the Global
Village mission is simple: provide an
opportunity for groups of people to
experience global ministry, working
alongside homeowners worldwide.
As in U.S. Habitat projects, homeowners
must do some construction
themselves, typically along with
extended family or friends. Habitat
hires professionals to oversee the work
and to complete parts of the job that
call for expert training. In Latin America,
albañiles or masons are the supervisors
for both family members and
From start to finish, construction of
the simple reinforced block or brick
Habitat houses built in Latin America
takes no more than a few weeks. So,
depending upon complications such as
bad weather, Global Village volunteers
may see a house rise from foundation to
roof-ready in their week on the job.
Father Mike had lived and worked in
mission settings in Latin America frequently
since joining the friars in 1995,
so the reality of life in a developing
country wasn’t news to him. The transformation
he witnessed in Retalhuleu,
however, affected him deeply.
“The participants’ eyes opened to
the reality of how life is lived in the rest
of the world,” he says. But that unsettling
understanding was paired with
the realization that they could do something
to change the situation for at
least a few people, he saw. Meanwhile,
volunteers and the homeowners rapidly
developed a strong sense of community.
Father Mike thought the experience
echoed St. Francis’ response to the call
of God—rebuilding churches that had
fallen into ruins, the first steps in his
larger mission of rebuilding and transforming
the Church and Francis’ world.
“As I worked on these houses, I
thought, This is so Franciscan: solidarity
with the poor, peacemaking, simplicity
of life, community in mission,
ecumenism, raising social-justice consciousness,”
he says, listing some of
the ways he sees the project resonate
with the values of Franciscan spirituality.
“Life-changing” is how Father
Mike describes his first Habitat trip.
Before long, he went on another
weeklong “build” in El Salvador,
completed Habitat’s leadership training
course and started recruiting volunteers.
Habitat’s Global Village program
attracts far more people who want to
make a trip than there are available
slots, he learned. While there are
plenty of houses being built that
could use the assistance of an outside
team, there’s a perennial shortage
of trained leaders to take groups. One
goal of St. Francis Builds is to inspire
others to lead future groups.
U.S. Cross-stitch Sampler
The first St. Francis Builds trip brought
a dozen volunteers to Guatemala’s western
highlands in March 2006. Bolivia
was chosen for the second trip last
summer because of Father Mike’s long-standing
ties to the Franciscan community
in Cochabamba, where he has
worked as a chaplain at El Abra Prison
at least part of every year since 2000.
The 14-member team that went to
Bolivia represented a cross section of
America. They ranged in age from 19 to
65 and included two Latin American
immigrants, three college students, several
teachers, a federal security agency
worker, a yoga instructor and an occupational
therapist. The majority were St.
Camillus parishioners, but others came
from California, Illinois, Massachusetts,
New York and Virginia.
Rosemary Lawson, who works as a
housing counselor for Montgomery
County, Maryland, was one of several
participants who had never visited a
developing country, except for vacations
in tourist areas of the Bahamas
After initially finding the dramatic
poverty and crowded city a bit bleak and depressing, she quickly came to
appreciate Bolivia and its people. By
the end of the week, Lawson was
known to the families and stonemasons
at both house sites as the joyful
woman who liked to dance.
Molina described watching Lawson
work on a scaffold one day, dancing to
music on the radio as she worked.
“I was working below her and was a
little afraid she would fall on me,”
Molina joked later. “She didn’t care.
She was very happy, dancing smoothly,
like she was walking on a flat street as
she moved from side to side.”
Like other first-time visitors to poor
countries, Lawson says it’s been an
adjustment to reconcile American consumerism
with the simple life she saw
Particularly viewed through the lens
of her work for the county, where she
helps low-income and homeless people
find housing, she found, “Expectations
are so different.”
“Here, even though people have no
money, they expect an awful lot, like to
be able to move into a full town house,”
through the county housing program,
Fedoryshyn, who’s studying economic
development, said his first couple
of days back in Massachusetts felt
surreal. “You become so much more
aware of the excesses, and of what we’ve
lost in the culture of family,” he says.
Mary Ellen Gilroy, vice president for
student affairs at Siena College in
Loudonville, New York, had participated
in service trips previously, though
this was her first with Habitat.
She was struck by the ways construction,
and other parts of everyday life in
Bolivia, could be so much easier. “There
wasn’t even a tractor or a backhoe,”
she noticed. “They build everything
The one married couple on the trip,
Mike and Roxana Miehl, both public
school educators in Maryland, were conscious
of optimistic attitudes they found
among Bolivians, especially in contrast
to Roxana’s home country, El Salvador.
“There was such a sense of hope,”
says Mike Miehl. “When I’ve gone to El
Salvador, everybody seemed to want
to leave. But in Bolivia, people I asked
about that said they wouldn’t want
Roxana Miehl said of the country
she left at age eight: “There’s so much
pain there. The war crushed a lot of
Hope and Purpose
The Bolivians’ hopeful attitude was particularly
evident at, of all places, El
Abra Prison, which the team visited as
part of their introduction to the nation’s
culture. In the last decade, outside donors
have enabled the creation of 14
industries there, such as shoe-making
and wood crafts. Besides providing job
training and giving inmates a way to
support their families while they’re
jailed, the industries changed the tenor
of life in the prison.
“There was such a sense of purpose
in life, that they had a chance to better
themselves,” Roxana Miehl says.
The hopeful atmosphere at the
prison, at a privately run orphanage
the group visited and in the families
they worked with also stayed with Jean
Cook, a choir director at St. Camillus
and a retired schoolteacher. She celebrated
her 65th birthday while on the
Guatemala trip and then joined the
Bolivia one three months later.
Several weeks after their return, Cook
says she was again finding that she
really missed the St. Francis Builds
group, despite being quite happy to be
back home in Greenbelt, Maryland. “I
don’t know what other kind of experience
you can have where you come
together so quickly with strangers,” she
The spiritual components were what
made all the difference, both Gilroy and
Cook say. “I found it to be a very contemplative
experience,” Gilroy says.
“The gospel really came through to me.”
Cook says she couldn’t envision
“being able to do work like that without
the spiritual grounding. Otherwise,
the inconveniences, the hard parts of
seeing the way people live, would be
To learn more about St. Francis
Builds, visit www.stfrancisbuilds.org,
write Mike Johnson, O.F.M., at 1600
St. Camillus Drive, Silver Spring, MD
20903 or call 240-413-0229. The Web
site includes links to Habitat’s Global
Village. Web visitors will learn that St.
Francis Builds is working in El Salvador
Patricia Zapor is a reporter for Catholic News Service.
A member of St. Camillus Parish, she participated in
the March 2006 and February 2007 St. Francis Builds
trips to Guatemala. Marisol Anzoleaga contributed
to this article.