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A little notch in the log somewhere

When Ronald Reagan was a young man, he worked for seven summers, from the age of 15 through 22, as a lifeguard at the Lowell Park on the Rock River near his home in Dixon, Ill. In those seven summers, he saved 77 lives (and one set of false teeth). He proudly cut a notch in a wooden log each of those 77 lives. As he lived out his life and career, there had to be many more notches of other kinds.

For those of us who have completed our life's job but still find plenty of life and energy for work, there is the urge to add a few notches to our own logs. After all, life must be more than a job, social security and leisure.

And so when my daughter, Goldilocks, invited me to join her and her church group for a trip to Mexico to work on building a church and telling stories to Mexican children, I heard the call and signed up.

The roster was a cross-section that included 23 men and women, students, teachers, professors, blue collar, white collar, one married couple, a father with two daughters, a mother with her son, and a daughter with her father, including one senior citizen (guess who?). This group became almost like a family in its time together.

Gobierno is a tiny village of less than 100 folks located in "Estado de Yucatan" about 150-200 miles West and inland from Cancun, not too far from Merida. But don't look for it on a map and don't try to mail anything there. The roads to Gobierno aren't numbered and the last ten miles or so is a rocky, bumpy, single lane trail through the woods/jungle that will allow you to speed through at about three to five mph. And when you meet somebody on a three-wheeled bike with a 4' x 4' working truck box, one of you will have to pull off the trail and let the other guy go through. Gobierno is the end of the trail -- it goes no farther.

The village has a single public building that contains a small classroom (for school through the sixth grade), a small clinic that gets periodic visits from a nurse and a storage space, where we kept and prepared our food. We brought our own "safe" water in sealed five gallon containers so as not to pick up any local bugs that would hit us but not the residents when they drink their own water. Next to this building were two toilets that could be flushed by pouring a bucket of water in them.

When you get there, kids will be there to welcome you, but there is no running water system and no electricity. The homes are well ventilated because they're made of sticks and thatched roofs. Near each home is a square concrete block building apparently built by the Mexican government for storage and shelter from hurricanes. Yes, hurricanes strike inland also. Near the block structure is a pillar with a 55 - 60 gallon water storage unit on top with a faucet about two feet from the ground. The resident families come to these faucets for their household water and to a nearby cistern for drinking water.

Visitors stay in these cement block shelters and storage buildings. Four of us were assigned to one of these buildings for sleeping quarters. The other 19 were scattered in similar quarters around the village. People in Gobierno don't sleep in beds, they sleep in hammocks. There were hooks on the wall for only three hammocks in our block domestico, so we had to do some double hitching to squeeze in. I can sleep in almost any bed, but those hammocks defy the principal of horizontal planes, the laws of balance, the laws of science and the laws of comfort. Other than that, they were wonderful.

Running around the village were many ugly and unfriendly little dogs along with turkeys, chickens and pigs. They may have been fed by the citizens, but I never saw any feeding. Mostly, I think they rooted around for whatever they could find. At night when we were sleeping, the dogs barked, the roosters crowed and at about wake up time the pigs were grunting outside our open doors.

With an architect and bricklayer onboard, we had enough talent for our assignment, which was to get a good start on building a small church. We didn't have a cement mixer, any wheelbarrows or hoses, so we carried our water and other ingredients in buckets and mixed our cement on a little slab. The first day, with all hands lifting, carrying, shoveling, mixing, huffing and puffing, we laid a foundation. After that, it was a matter of laying courses of cement blocks with our talented bricklayer showing us how to do it and supervising the project. Day after day the walls went up with all the window and door openings in the right places. When we finished, the major unfinished parts were a roof and a floor. Somebody else will come along and do that. Can non-Presbyterians built a Presbyterian church? Yes, it's almost ready for prayers, songs, baptisms, weddings and funerals.

The architect was also an artist. He designed and painted, with able assistants, a beautiful mural depicting the Tree of Life on one of the village walls just outside the clinic and classroom.

Late each afternoon we had stories and skits for the children. We had two fluent Spanish speaking teammates and a few Mexican coordinating personnel with some English skills for translations. Of course, for the rest of us, one-on-one communications were impossible except for smiles, gestures, homemade sign language and the determination to be understood. These Mexican children, with their big brown eyes, were beautiful and energetic. They have the names you might expect like Jose, Ormondo, Carlos, Sergio Manuel, Edwardo, Santiago, Maria Candelaria, Marguerito, Catalina, Malia and Ramiro, but there was a Nancy and a Wendy too. They loved to throw Frisbees, play catch with footballs, kick soccer balls, play soccer, jump rope, run, make bracelets, do crafts and all the other things that children everywhere do. After a while, their mothers showed up to observe and enjoy and eventually a few of the fathers.

The last night in the village was a "Fiesta" night with special snacks, treats, games, t-shirts for everybody, small gifts, thank you's, songs and prayers for the visitors and hugs and farewells.

So why go? You can't save the world, Mexico, the village of Gobierno, convert the natives or conquer poverty in a week. For some it was a spiritual journey, for others, just a humanitarian effort. Yet others see the week as a stretching of comfort zones or for students, a spring break with a purpose beyond pleasure and personal indulgence. For all, maybe just a little notch in a log somewhere.