Monthly Archives: October 2016

A day in Transylvania

Jan Engkasser, the leader of our team, happen to be staying a couple extra days and had rented a car and driver to take him to castles up in the mountains in Transylvania. Jan was kind enough to invite me along and we split the cost. What an amazing experience! The fall colors were spectacular as we wove our way through these alpine villages that look like Leavenworth, WA in the midst of these majestic mountains. Snow was starting to blanket the tops of the mountains and in a matter of weeks these sleepy villages will be destination places for thousands of skiers descending upon them and their slopes.

First we visited the Peles (pronounced Pellish) Castle built by King Karl I (also known as King Carol) in the late 1800s. It is one of the most ornate, beautiful castles I’ve ever seen. The detail in craftsmanship is remarkable. This is the castle pictured at the top.

Next we visited the Bran Castle, often referred to as Dracula’s Castle. This castle was built in the mid 1300s – 550 years older. It’s not as impressive. It’s simpler, colder, not as well kept, but largely because it’s much older. It’s similar to the experience of visiting the Wartburg Castle in Germany (minus the grand ball room) and then visiting Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany. Neuschwanstein is probably more impressive on the outside, but not nearly as impressive on the inside. 

Why do they call it Dracula’s Castle? Bram Stoker’s fictions novel character Count Dracula is taken from the historic character Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler who had stayed at this castle for a short time. Stoker used this castle in his novel as the setting for his story. There were all sorts of kitsch trinkets one could buy as vampire memorabilia, but the history, architecture, and landscape I found to be much more interesting than the myths, legends, and fictions.

Next, our guide took us to an out of the way lodge nestled up in the mountain above a skiing village where we ate in a room that reminded me of The Halls of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. We ate in one of their dinning halls; a cozy, log room with with an open fire in the center, with pelts lining the walls and ceiling, and long open seating tables with wood chairs covered in sheepskins. We had bear, deer, and wild boar as our main course (pictured with the waitress bringing it on a flaming cutting board), where they bring you a selection of raw meat from which you cut your portion and choice of meat. And did you see the bread? Waaaay too much food for two people! The Romanians, in their pride of hospitality, feel they’ve have not amply provided for their guests if there are not leftovers, so they tend to prepare too much. We see it as wasteful, they see it as hospitality. 

We also visited a series little hunting lodges up in the mountains that our driver was very proud of, but they were unfortunately closed. It gives you a picture of the grandeur of the mountains (that at the moment of this picture are hidden in the clouds). I was so thankful I got to see more of the beauty of the country and historic sites. What a great day!

Our last day together

We left Bachau to travel back to Bucharest. As you can see from the photo above, the weather changed. We forecasted to have rain at least three of the five days we worked, but we only had about five minutes on one of the days. Our weather was beautiful. On the day we left it rained and was cold – until we got to Bucharest and then the evening was decent as we walked around Old Town. In Old Town we saw a beautiful, historic monastery, and several couples having their wedding pictures taken. We also found a Lutheran bar (kidding): “Sinners.” On one side it said, “Sinner or Saint?” I wish it would have followed that up with “Yes” – that was our response anyway. 

We had our last meal together and then we all said our goodbyes. What a great week we had together! Wonderful people that got alone, worked hard in a common purpose, had fun and lots of laughs, and prayed together and for one another. The leadership from Jan and Matt set the tone, and we are all grateful. I’m grateful to Skip and Thrivent for the opportunity, and I look forward to offering such an experience with Skip for folks in our congregation at some point.

Everyone but myself and Jan were leaving Sunday morning. It turns out both Jan and I are staying till Tuesday, and he had already rented a car for Sunday to go visit castles and other historic sites and is letting me tag along. I’m excited to spend a couple of days getting to see the sites and enjoy Romania and the Romanians some more before returning to some very busy and exciting work back home.

To all of my teammates: Multimesc! For other readers, that’s “thank you” in Romanian.

ChThe work is never finished

We didn’t complete our goal. We only finished about 385 trusses of the 423 needed (which Jan, Skip, and I – pictured together above – carried more than our fare share). Had we worked a full day today I’m sure we would have completed it. But we leave without the work being finished, which is the case no matter what – even if we’d finished the homes with the families moved in. There will be need for more Habitat projects, more families in need of decent affordable housing.  That’s the case with ministr – all our ministries – the work is never finished.

We were able to tour  a completed home today. There are four duplexes that were completed last year as part of this development. They are two bedroom, kitchen, bath, living room, and attack that are more roomy than the apartments that most people live in, and more affordable. 

At the end of the day, after dinner, we went into town for a festival going on to celebrate the 620th birthday of the city of Bacau (pronounced Bah-cow, with the emphasis on the second syllable). It was just like a carnival or fair in the states. We met our Romanian friends there and had a great time riding bumper cars, eating, drinking, and watching/listening to Romanian folk music and dancing. Tomorrow we return to Bucharest.

I would sum up the experience with one word: gratifying, and humbling, and inspiring, enriching, amazing, trying, fun…

Heartened by Hard Work & Humbled by Hospitality

 Our day started off with an opening devotion to the whole group led by one of our team members, Pastor Dan. It was moving. 

I would describe our day as productive today. The fence was completed. The play set was completed. We have completed roughly 320 trusses this week with about 100 to go by the end of tomorrow. I believe we’ll accomplish it, which I don’t think anyone was expecting to happen at the beginning of the week. The walls should all be framed and ready to go by the end of tomorrow as well. 

You’ll see pictured above Skip with Jan (our team leader who works at the home office for Thrivent) and Warren (in a green Habitat t-shirt) with the play set in the background. Warren is one of the most inspiring people here. He owns a construction company in Ireland but donates his time to oversee Habitat projects like ours this week. Warren built and donated the play set. 

You’ll see different work stations, like the cutting station where one of our team members, Vann from Savanah, Georgia, worked all week. Also pictured is the staining station for all of the fence boards and play set. And there’s a picture of one of the six truss stations. 

After a gratifying day of hard work we were treated to a nice banquet dinner for all of the participants (including families) at the end of the day. They brought in Romanian folk dancers and a magician for entertainment. We sat with the same two families that we sat with on the first night: Marius, Anka, and their adorable daughter Allysia, and Laurentio, Niculina, and their dapper little boy David. 

After dinner, Lorenzio and Marius wanted a small group of us to come to their homes. They had asked earlier in the week and finally we had the opportunity. First we went to Lorenzio’s where we all piled into this two bedroom, small kitchen, living area, and bathroom apartment. The grandparents have one of the tiny bedrooms and Lorenzio’s family shares the other tiny bedroom (yes, parents and child together). They live with his in-laws who own the apartment. They were so excited and proud to have us visit their home. They had an incredibly spread of food prepared, and kept filling our glasses with drink (one of which would peel the paint off your house – very potent!). This was after our banquet dinner! They also insisted that we leave with gifts: homemade wine he bottled in water bottles for us, and fruit. 

We left Lorenzio’s around 11pm (after a hard day’s work, lots of food and drink, and needing to rise early for our last day of work). We then went to Marius’ home. They too were so excited and proud to have us visit. They too had a spread of food (right out of the oven), drink, and gifts to bless us on our way (a homemade spread for bread). They are renting their apartment which they fixed up very nicely. We got back, after three meals & too much drink, around midnight.

We were all extremely humbled and overwhelmed by their gracious hospitality. The people here are so grateful for our work and presence in their county. They are a beautiful and loving people. The country is poor, and I think it might be full of a lot of corruption (there are taxed as much as 40%, but where is the money going? Certainly not into infrastructure. I can’t help but think it’s lining the pockets of a few). We went to bed full – of a lot of food and drink, and the love of new friends.

Lastly, you’ll notice a bank called “Bank Transilvania.” I grew up thinking that Transylvania was a fictitious place. It’s not! It’s this region. Jason, one of our team members said this was a blood bank (it’s not).

It’s about the people

We’ve accomplished a lot so far. You can see the number of trusses we’ve built – upwards of 220 (another 256 to go!), a fence surrounding a swamp (they call “the lake”) where every slat was painted individually with different colors, and walls are being built to be stored till they get the ok to erect the houses. As gratifying as the work is, knowing we’re contritubing to the well being of families desperate for affordable, safe housing, it’s the people that is the greatest value and experience. Not only is it rewarding to meet the Romanians and families we work alongside, but the volunteer workers from all over the world who come together to build hope, relationships, and homes. There are so many inspiring people I’ve met, like Cathy I’m pictured with above. Cathy is 25 years old from the Bay area. Every year since she graduated from college (this is her third) she has taken a week of vacation to do an international build through Habitat. She does it to remind herself of what manual labor is like, to keep perspective as she works in the face-paced tech industry consumed with the newest, latest, fastest, and best, and to meet people from all over the world who come together to make a difference for others instead of being all about “me” countering our culture. Cathy is as inspiring as Mel, Carl, Judy, Jane, Esther and others in their 80’s working alongside Cathy and myself. 

Day of Inspiration

Today started off with a bummer – one of our team members, Vivian (from Maryland) broke her thumb hitting it on a hammer. I tried to but my fingers and thumbs only blistered and I was told to quit being a wimp and get back to work! She got to go the hospital – go figure.

Today was incredibly inspiring. Every day at lunch Habitat asks a local family recipient to speak the group. Today a man named Marius spoke to us through a translator. He was a man of about 50 years old and was very emotional as he thanked all of us for traveling so far to help him, his family, and his people. The sincerity of gratitude touched us all. Later in the day our team got to go visit a family who will be a recipient of one of the homes – we visited them in their “apartment.” It happened to be Marius and his family – his wife Margarita, his little boy Stefan, and his little girl Denisa. They live in an old Soviet built building from post WWII – they are a plenty wherever you go. They have a single bedroom about the size of my daughter’s bedroom with one queen size bed that all four of them share, and a kitchen that’s smaller than many closets in our homes in the U.S. They share a bathroom down the hall with those on their floor. You’ll see in one of the pictures there’s a room with five showers, but only one works – it’s shared with 60 people! You’ll see the “toilet” is a hole in the floor that you stand over in the place where there are the two feet stands. You’ll also notice a picture with all of the mold in the bathroom. He says they often get sick from the mold. 

When Marius was told they would receive a Habitat House – a two bedroom, one bath, with a kitchen and living area – he cried. He said, “You mean my children will have their own room? With their own bed(s)?” He couldn’t believe it. And then he said, “I’m so happy for my family; but I’m sad because I don’t know if I will be there to live in it with them.” Marius was diagnosed with cancer. He had a surgery in 2009 and spent 150 days in the hospital. He’s doing well now and is hopeful, though he still suffers from it. Despite his condition he works everyday at the job site putting in his hours of labor necessary to qualify for a Habitat House so that his wife can keep working at her job. He gets the equivalent of about $140 U.S. a month in disability which is the price of rent for their apartment. They live on whatever his wife brings home, which is not a lot. The mortgage of their Habitat House will be the equivalent of about $100 U.S. a month. You can imagine what a let down it was to hear that they would not be able to move into a completed home at the end of the week as expected because of the government red tape with permits.

One of the most inspiring moments was when Marius and one of our team members, Doug Jameson (from WI), were talking and discovered that they had both served in their respective armies around the same time. As they/we realized they had once been enemies and could possibly have had to face off, but were now friends bonded in this experience, they embraced and there wasn’t a dry eye! Swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Is.2:4 & Mic. 4:3), or rifles into hammers – when it happens, it’s powerful! It makes me want to continue to pray for peace, and it gives me hopeful that it’s possible.

As we debriefed the day many recognized that these experiences really put things into perspective. It humbles you, makes you grateful for the little things and embaraced by the abundance of too many things. We also recognized that these perspective-makers are fleeting as well. We think it will change us forever but it’s only a matter of time before we are back in our routines and dealing with our realities and we start whining about waiting on slow internet service, or complaining about traffic or other drivers, or… That’s why it’s so important be exposed continually to others’ lots in life. One man I worked along side today retired from the police force in Vancouver, B.C. and now does four Habitat trips per year – precisely for that reason: to keep perspective (and to contribute to the well being of others, and to become immersed in another culture, and to work along side Christians from all over the world, and…). 

If there’s one word that sums up this experience for me it’s, grateful. 

Day 1 of Building

There are several Thrivent teams working here. One team has a couple from Spokane, Dick and Patti, who go to St Mark’s Lutheran Church on the south hill, and who are friends of my brother and sister-in-law Danny & Darcy, and Patti is a sister to one of Skip’s clients – small world! They are incredible workers and great inspirations. This is their 10th or 12th build with Habitat. Fun to get to know them.

Our group built tresses today, along with several other groups. It was exhausting! It was fun to work along side the families who will be living there – those families that we dined with last night. It’s also been fun to get to know the others from our team – Thrivent Reps and Church leaders from around the country. Joan, a Thrivent Rep from Wisconsin (the one showing Skip a picture on her cell phone above), we nicknamed “Chopsaw” – she was a machine on that machine! 

Anyone can participate in a Thrivent Build project with Habitat. If you’re a Thrivent member Thrivent even subsidizes your expenses. They have these builds all over the world. It’s an incredible experience to get to travel, meet locals and learn their culture, and serve to a meaningful and needed cause. I’m hoping Skip will want to lead a group from our congregation somewhere in the world – what a great bonding experience and great opportunity to serve! I’d love to do it again.

The weather here is pretty much like Spokane’s. It gets about as cold in the winter with about as much snow. It gets about as hot in the summer as well. They tout having four seasons, just like we say of Spokane. There are mountains not too far away and a lot of farm land surrounding the area. Today was perfect temperatures to work in but tomorrow and the next couple of days is suppose to be cooler and raining, then get nicer again at the end of the week. It doesn’t really matter the weather, or whether we get to see a finished product at the end as we had expected, the people who are here come to serve, and they really do it with a cheerful heart. Of course, it is just day 1 – I’ll let you know if that’s still true on Friday. 😉

Habitat Banquet

Last night we had our orientation banquet with the families we’ll be working alongside – the 40 families awaiting their new homes. It was a great evening of fellowship with our new friends, great food, and a lot of laughs as we fumbled in our communication attempts. Thank God their English is a lot better than our Romanian (which is nonexistent). We begin construction today. Yes, I’m sure they’ll tell me not to quit my day job!

Cultural difference: we were served salad first before our entree arrived. As Americans we began eating our first course. The Romanians sitting with us stopped us because salads were suppose to be eaten with the meat – take a bite of meat with the salad. By the time we figured out what they were trying to tell us we had finished our salads. Silly Americans!

Big Build reduced in size

This was touted as 2016 Big Build for Habitat for Humanity. We were to build 40 houses in 5 days with 800 volunteers from around the world. However, the day we departed we got an email indicating a change of plans. Evidently there’s been an election of a new Mayor in Bacau, the city in Romania where the build is to take place, and the new Mayor, who is of a different political party from the predecessor, has revoked the permits for the construction and therefore delaying the construction (by as much as a year). This is a huge disappointment to the families of course, and to many who were scheduled to come and work. The Thrivent teams from the USA still came and we will do some construction, but the rest of the volunteers (mostly from around Europe) were called off. We will spend the week constructing walls, tresses, etc. but will not be allowed to erects the houses. We will get to work along side the families who will one day occupy these homes, which I’m looking forward to.