A Saint Bernard crashes the Gospel reading during a sunset Eucharist on the beach. A home renovation crew clad in paint-splattered work clothes does morning yoga stretches. Roosters crow: at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m. Cars swerve every 50 feet to avoid crater-like potholes on sand-encroached roads. A pack of stray dogs scarfs down sandwich crusts alongside an alligator-infested river. A young man with a broad smile inquires, “What is your destiny?”
Sound like a bizarre night of dreams?
Well, “dreams” were involved, in a way—DreamBuilders, to be specific. But these actual memories evolved from my recent mission trip to Puerto Rico the first week of January. All told, 16 “deacons,” including our Seminarian Associate Mike Looney, parishioner and DreamBuilders Team Leader Cathy Gold, and myself, traveled to this U.S. territory to repair homes devastated by hurricanes.
Okay, not all technically or officially deacons, but certainly deacons in the most essential part of the title: people called to serve the various needs of the world, especially outside the doors of the church. Those needs were painfully evident in the Puerto Rican towns of Luiza, Carolina, and Juncos, where our group worked alongside the staff of SBP, the disaster relief organization charged with helping to rebuild homes in these underserved communities. Communities where blue tarps still sit atop wind-ravaged rooftops, thousands still await promised insurance money and FEMA funding, and hundreds remain on SPB’s waitlist since Hurricane Maria struck in 2017.
Our mostly unskilled but mighty DreamBuilders renovation team comprised members from five Maryland congregations: our own Christ Church Columbia, St. Marks Highland, Temple Isaiah Fulton, Trinity Elkridge, and Ascension Westminster. We worked for nearly a week: chipping concrete, laying tile, installing cabinets, and painting fences, among other tasks. We cooked, dined, and cleaned up together, commiserated with each other about 2:30 a.m. garbage pickups, worshipped together at an Episcopal Eucharist and a Jewish Shabbat service, and enjoyed the beauty of the tropics.
I used muscles I forgot I had. And I do not exaggerate in saying I performed more manual labor in five days than ever before in my life. Each night, I collapsed into bed, sore and exhausted. But each morning, roused by squawking roosters and squalling cats, I awoke refreshed and ready to return to work.
Christian, our SBP leader who asked us each day, “What is your destiny?”, is, at the tender age of 24, one of the most inspiring people I’ve served with. His infectious energy and enthusiasm eased even the misery of scraping and painting and repainting an aged and battered wrought iron fence, complete with intricate curves and extremely hard-to-reach surfaces.
As a deacon, I could offer a ready answer to his question. But I sensed in its origins a broader challenge: to stretch outside our comfort zones, to reflect on our motivations, to search deep within for more. More than usual. More than ordinary. More than self.
That challenge resonated throughout my time there—and transpired for me one particular day when we met one of the homeowners, 77-year-old Orlando. Orlando has been staying with relatives since 2017 when Maria’s rage rendered his home uninhabitable. He greeted us with a smile as he walked into his house to inspect the progress. He nodded as he passed from room to room. And finally, he said, “I am the king of this castle.” And we heartily agreed, grateful to play a small part in restoring his castle to its full glory.
Indeed, we are all the kings and queens of our own castles, no matter how small or large, cramped or spacious, simple or adorned. But we are also all beloved brothers and sisters within God’s great kingdom on Earth—co-inhabitants in this vast yet interconnected Creation—all called to help each other live our best lives.
Mission trips are planned to help those in need. But I will tell you that I received as much blessing as I gave during this trip, perhaps more. Blessing in connections with passionate young people dedicated to serving their community, proud of their homeland, and welcoming and inclusive of all. Blessing in work alongside fellow Christians and Jews and non-affiliated missioners who yearn to serve those waiting so long for restoration and healing. Blessing in a sense of community that transcends borders, crosses oceans, and embraces differences in race, religion, ethnicity, and culture—all working together for the common good.
We are all deacons in a sense, members of the Diakonia of all Believers. “Diakonia is a Greek word that means caring for those in need, carrying out God’s vision in word, action, and in attending to all of God’s creation. In today’s world where power can be determined by wealth, but resources only available to some, healing and transformation are possible if we examine that call to diakonia.”
Even in our disconnected and divided world, healing and transformation are possible, if we are open to examining the call. They are also mutual: As we minister to those in clear need, they minister to us, in ways perhaps harder to put into words. What blessings we create when we resist labeling things “impossible”—and open ourselves to the possible.