Occasionally certain characters cross our trail, and they pull us up short with demeanor that hints of the dignity and value bestowed upon every human being. Simplicity, constancy and good natured humor set them apart, not because they are extraordinary, but because we may have wandered off the path.
We recently needed some patio repair; in truth we needed patio replacement after years of procrastination: the task seemed too daunting for do-it-myself home improvement. After researching the neighborhood, we located the craftsman who had done a job similar to what we wanted done several years ago on a property a couple of streets over. We agreed on a price, selected the stone and made a deal. Three days later, Selvin showed up with his crew of two and began the demo. He had lived in Rhode Island for almost ten years after eleven years in Southern California, but he was born in Guatemala where much of his family remains.
For the better part of two weeks with weather delays, they labored. The demolition and excavation of brick and concrete, followed by the skillful laying down of six inches of gravel base and an additional two inches of stone dust took six days – six hot days. Carefully leveled with a slight pitch away from the house, the prep work assured me of quality. The preparation completed, he began setting hundreds of stones in a precise pattern. The intelligence and experience that went into the planning and problem solving was apparent. Each stone, placed exactly, was pounded into place with a dozen strokes of his rubber mallet one by one for three days.
Selvin, who is around fifty years old, led the crew with no doubt about who was in charge but with much laughter, frequent breaks for water and clear care for their welfare; he reserved most of the hardest work for himself. The constant, repetitive hammering became emblematic to us of centuries of skilled, steady work that built our cities and homes. Like our Irish, Italian and Portuguese forbears who immigrated to America, these men spent their strength, talent and youth in hard, physical work, valuing the freedom of America to provide opportunity for their children. But there was more than that.
Near the end of the first week, his truck showed up one morning full of packed cases, a small bicycle and several wheelchairs of varied provenance. They unloaded them against my neighbor’s house in my driveway to use the truck to bring in last of the gravel and haul off the debris. I jokingly asked him if he was expecting a real bad day for the crew. He smiled at my lame joke. What he told me opened a window into his reality and mine.
The wheelchairs and the truck were headed to Guatemala at the end of the day to benefit the village of his birth, where his parents still lived. Selvin explained that wheelchairs were almost impossible to obtain in his village and much was needed. His friend was going to take ten days to drive there; the truck would be left behind to be traded for a new home for his parents. He finished our contract with a rented truck.
Our parents or grandparents or great grandparents were all hopeful immigrants. The ceaseless debates about immigration policy and safe borders are worth having and resolving, but the certainty is that human beings will endure much to safeguard their families and improve the lives of their children. Selvin reminded me of the simple truth concerning the dignity of work and faithfulness of intelligent, loving families willing themselves to persevere their entire lives for the good of others. Many of us talk of simplicity as an ideal; few of us live it like Selvin.
Psalm 131 (NAB translation)
O Lord, my heart is not proud
nor haughty my eyes.
I have not gone after things too great
nor marvels beyond me.
Truly I have set my soul
In silence and peace
As a child has rest in its mother’s arms,
even so my soul.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
both now and forever.