Dennis Jaspersen, who lives and operates a Thrivent Financials for Lutherans office in New Ulm, didn't know what to expect when he volunteered this fall to go to El Salvador for Thrivent, a partner of Habit for Humanity in the project, to help build Habitat houses for the poor in a small village within Santa Ana, El Salvador's second largest city.
What he found was that although El Salvadorans may be poor - the average worker makes only about $300 a month - they exude a happiness that can spring only from their deeply held religious beliefs.
In fact, it even carried over in the naming of the village in which the project is located, Villa Esperanza or Village of Hope, he said.
Workers in Dennis Jaspersen group do cement work on a home in El Salvador.
"The people we were working with were extremely religious and not afraid to tell me about it. They don't look at religion [like we do], they are far more simple," Jaspersen explained.
"'Have you heard the word of Christ? and that's far enough. We don't have a lot, but we still celebrate, and we're very thankful for what we have,'" was the message Jaspersen received from the man whose house Jaspersen was working on.
"That was one of the most surprising things to me is that they have very, very little, but their content and happiness were staggering. To me it was humbling to see them with virtually nothing in their church. There was no organ, their hymnal had mold on it. They didn't seem to care. They were just happy to be celebrating their religious faith," Jaspersen said, excitedly.
Another jolt for Jaspersen was seeing what kinds of dwellings many people in the city live in.
"We saw homes that are made out of sheet metal, corrugated sheet metal for roofing and posts. That was their house up on the hillside, the slum. There's a real cry for homes in that part of the world," Jaspersen related.
"Less than 5 percent of the [El Salvadoran] population owns a house. They estimate that the number of El Salvadorans that need a home is somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 families. So, the need is rather large," he continued.
"Central America is missing a tremendous amount of the economic recovery. Incidentally, so is China. The menial labor jobs that were being exported to Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras are now being exported to China which makes their role much harder yet."
The building crew that Jaspersen was a part of was made up of about 30 people from all across the country, Jaspersen said. He was picked by Thrivent as the representative for southern Minnesota on that particular building crew.
"The houses that we built were two-bedroom homes [in which] the bedrooms were 10x10 plus a living room, kitchen and an attached bathroom-shower facility. They have indoor plumbing. They have regular sewer systems, city water, and each [home] has its own septic system," he explained.
'The work was manual, very manual. If you were going to pack a floor, you took a one-gallon paint can, filled it with concrete and stuck a broom stick in it, and that was your floor packer. If you wanted to pack a floor faster, you would get two cans or three," he related, with a chuckle.
"If you wanted to dig a septic tank in, you didn't use a back hoe. You started digging a hole, and the hole is 6, 8 feet deep. If you wanted to dig the footings in, you didn't have to go too far down because if there's no frost, you start shoveling. In order for them to mix cement, they would have a space out on the open ground, and they would start mixing the cement on the open ground," Jaspersen explained.
"Part of our [Thrivent's] commitment is helping to secure some of these properties, helping someone into some of these properties. The individual who will own, who will buy those properties will be buying the land and the home from Habitat. So, Habitat [for Humanity] and Thrivent are building the houses, and then the individuals will be buying the houses from Habitat," he said.
As with Habitat housing everywhere, the intended owner has to provide "sweat equity" by helping in the construction effort.
"My regional office which is headquartered in Rochester had selected me to be the ambassador for Southern Minnesota [on the Village of Hope project]. The regional office runs from Wisconsin [across southern Minnesota and into] South Dakota, [and from] Iowa to Redwood Falls," Jaspersen said.
"Thrivent is sending teams down constantly. If anyone wants information on how to be a part of the team, they should give me a call [507-354-4413]. You have to be committed to helping others [don't even have to be Lutheran]," he said.
"Thrivent is making it possible through the Habitat International program. Habitat is part of our fraternal benefits program, and this year we're going to spend $160 million on our non-profit activities across the country. This is one piece of that."
Ron Larsen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org