ARAJUNO, Ecuador—“What can this group truly accomplish in just 10 days?” This was the initial thought running through my mind as I stepped into the Quito Mennonite Church’s building to meet the 18 people who had gathered in Ecuador for 10 days of learning and working together. After becoming familiar with the group’s purpose, and receiving the next week-and-a-half’s schedule, that initial question continued to ring louder and louder in my head.
There was a lot to do.
The group’s stated purpose was to participate in a building project in the community of Arajuno, a town located in what Ecuadorians refer to as El Oriente, the eastern region of the country, which sits in the Amazon Basin. First, the group was off to the city of Baños to sightsee and build rapport. Orientation
At first, I questioned the necessity of this first stop. Everybody already knew each other, I thought. As it turned out, the group had been assembled with volunteers from four different congregations within the Central Plains Mennonite Conference, which is spread primarily across the states of Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota. Adding to the participants from Central Plains were two volunteers from Mennonite churches in Colombia. The last members of the group were Giovanni Flores, our bus driver; Rosembert Ipuz, a Colombian Mennonite worker serving in Riobamba; David Shenk, a Mennonite Mission Network worker serving in Quito; and myself, the web content manager from the Mission Network communication department. Learn more about the Ecuador partnership.
With such a variety of people involved, it became clear that with the amount of learning about each other that needed to happen, these sightseeing stops were a great idea. Building a foundation of shared experiences and trust within the group before heading to Arajuno, set the stage for the rest of the week and prepared everyone for stretching outside of their comfort zones.Arajuno
After our stop in Baños, we continued another few hours to Arajuno where the group would spend the next five days.
During the drive, it was clear that we were descending into El Oriente. Not only was the vegetation changing as we continued to drop in elevation, but the climate was a keen indicator as the air gradually transitioned from cool and dry to warm and humid. Eventually the asphalt would turn into a gravel highway and would lead directly to a sign that read “Bienvenidos a Arajuno.”
We had arrived.
After locating our lodging—a local family graciously allowed the group to occupy the upper floor of their home for the week—we were off to meet the congregation of Iglesia Esperanza Viva for evening worship. During that time, the group met the people they would be working alongside in the construction of the new church building that the Iglesia Evangélica Esperanza Viva congregation would call home.
The following days were highly productive. Piles of sand were sifted by hand and mixed with cement and water to become the mezcla, or mixture, that would be used as mortar and then as a stucco to secure the blocks. Some welded and secured the final sections of metal sheets for the roof.
The church structure went from a poured foundation, a bare frame for the walls, and half a roof to having complete walls on all sides, a full roof, and ready for the final electrical wiring and wall treatments. Hundreds of cement blocks were moved and put into place by hand.
The amazing thing of it all, though, was to be an observer in this process—to wander freely through the work site, to the different work stations, and observe how people were interacting throughout the week.
To start, the community members with knowledge about the building methods used in this particular climate needed to teach our group how to properly build and complete their tasks so that the end product would last and conform to the local building code. Allowing for this to happen, instead of imposing techniques and ideas from Iowa or Nebraska, went a long way in building rapport between the two groups. It demonstrated that there would be respect for the building methods in this region, but also that, despite communication challenges, everyone involved in this project would do their best to communicate. Given the language barrier, this information was transmitted through David Shenk’s translations, and also by participants actively learning either some Spanish, English or Quichua (the region’s indigenous language), and through nonverbal forms of communication.
As an observer, I saw the church building go up. But that was supposed to happen.
Additionally, I saw diverse groups of people that were open to establishing genuine relationships and partnerships with each other on a personal level. This was something I was hoping to see, but I was not sure there would be enough time. As it turned out, with everyone working toward a common goal, a lot of those barriers to communication and understanding were removed rather quickly.
A lot was accomplished in 10 days, the only physical measure of this being a newly constructed church building that now stands in the Arajuno community. However, maybe more important than the building was how people were able to come together in various capacities and establish a common understanding with each other. This happened within the group that came from Central Plains Mennonite Conference and Colombia, as well as between this group and the community members of Arajuno, who served as teachers, co-workers, hosts and friends throughout our time together.