You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed. (Psalm 10:17)
This week I am in El Salvador for my third trip with a group of folks to help build homes through a partnership between Thrivent Financial Services and Habitat for Humanity. Mostly I read books to the kids who always show up to help with the construction projects. If I can find them, I take books in Spanish and English. This way I study Spanish while reading to Spanish-only-speaking children.
The people we meet live in desperate situations and grinding poverty. Yet they share what they have and extend incredibly generous hospitality to us as we work together to build a home. On my last trip there I met a young girl named Wendy. Wendy was about eleven at the time. She and I read through the Spanish-English version of Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat multiple times. She corrected my butchered Spanish. I helped with the few English words she didn’t already know how to pronounce.
Through a combination of English and Spanish I learned this young girl – who loves to read and does so very well, has access to exactly zero books outside her school. None. Zero. Zip. As a person who has owned and cherished hundreds of books over the years, this was heart-breaking news to me. Habitat protocol prohibits us giving anything to anyone because to do so causes more problems than it solves. It was extremely hard to resist the urge to leave the book with her. The compromise was that we are allowed to give things to the Lutheran congregation to which most of the people we met belonged.
Meeting Wendy motivated me to go find more books to take along on this trip. I do not know if I will meet Wendy again – mostly likely not. But I hope I will meet other El Salvadorian children who would love to read – if only they had books to read. Sometimes the difference between a life of prosperity and productivity and one of desperation and despair is a small as whether or not one has access to books.