Building a roof while breaking down walls
SWAP volunteers from Iglesia Encienda Una Luz work with homeowners in West Virginia
With scaffolding surrounding a house near Northfork, West Virginia, a group of volunteers is peeling shingles from the roof that is caving in. They maintain their balance on the steep incline while communicating instructions back and forth in Spanish.
This roofing project is beyond the skill set of typical workers who volunteer with MCC’s Sharing With Appalachian People (SWAP) program. Church youth groups, who are eager to paint, hammer and learn about life in Appalachia, have traditionally been the most common volunteers.
However, this group of Latino construction workers from Iglesia Enciende Una Luz (Ignite a Light Church) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had the skills to fix the roof. They learned about the opportunity through a series of connections with Virginia Mennonite Missions (VMMissions) and their “E3 Collective" short-term missions program.
In the spring of 2022, 12 VMMissions staff members were volunteering with SWAP when the idea came about, said Lizzette Hernandez, who serves as Latino Ministries Coach for VMMissions. “What if we start this trip with Latinos who are highly capable of doing this kind of work?”
When the team talked about their idea with Lee and Peg Martin, SWAP location coordinators and associate workers for VMMissions, the Martins told them about the house with a high, steep, deteriorated roof that they hadn’t been able to address.
Armando and Veronica Sanchez provided the missing puzzle piece. They are church planters for VMMissions and pastors of Iglesia Enciende Una Luz, a congregation made up mostly of first-generation immigrants from Mexico. The Sanchezes also own a construction business in their community, and Armando has over 25 years of experience working in construction.
They already had been talking with their congregation about planning a service trip, so when VMMissions presented them with the SWAP opportunity, their ideas aligned.
Serving was not a new idea to the congregation, which has an engrained philosophy of communal support within their families and church community. Church members help with a local food pantry, blood drives and vaccination campaigns. They help one another with home repair projects, give rides to community members and help translate in hospitals and schools.
“When we came to the U.S., American families helped us,” said Armando Sanchez. “So we saw this opportunity to help – not to pay back – but to do something like that. When we came to the U.S., we came to better our circumstances. Now, we are going to another culture to serve and to bless."
SWAP staff had identified the need for translating materials into Spanish, and the group from Iglesia Enciende Una Luz was the first to utilize the newly translated documents and forms. The Sanchezes brought a group of nine volunteers to James and Patty Palmer's house, where holes in the roof had led to major damage. The Palmers had lived there for years.
“The group arrived on a Thursday afternoon in October 2022, and by Saturday afternoon they had done the needed demolition work, reframed and sheeted the back of the roof, and installed roofing metal,” said Lee Martin.
Veronica Sanchez laughed as she said, “Lee and Peg were surprised because the project was supposed to take four days or more, but we were done in two days!” The group was able to help with other projects in addition to the roof.
While the work completed on the house was life-changing for the homeowners, the mutual transformation among everyone involved was equally important. “It was counter-cultural for the receiving group from SWAP and also for our Latino group,” Hernandez said.
The group was a bit nervous at the beginning of the trip wondering how they would fit into the community and what kind of reception they would receive. “In our mindset,” Hernandez said, “generally immigrants come to this country to start a new life, to have more opportunities and to have jobs and work. But they were going to this community to serve the Anglo people. Not only to feel like we are always on the receiving end, but we can also give.”
It didn’t take long for the homeowners and the church group to warm up to one another and find ways to break down the barriers.
“The homeowner (Patty Palmer) started crying and saying it was a blessing … for us to have you here,” remembers Veronica Sanchez. “They gave us a big hug and prepared lunch for us – the traditional soup they make in West Virginia. She was so grateful.”
The unique nature of the group as first-generation immigrants brought an element of connection with the homeowners they were serving.
“The story of Appalachia resonated in many ways with the experiences of the Mexican team, who come from towns where economies have dried up due to outside forces beyond their control, and people who love their native homes fiercely,” said David Gingerich, director of partner development for VMMissions who accompanied the group “Their expertise in their field was used to be a blessing to someone they could identify with from another culture.”
Armando Sanchez, for instance, said he learned from Jim Palmer that outside buyers tried to persuade Palmer to sell their house for a low price so they could fix it up and rent it out to tourists at top dollar.
“I learned we need to help the people not to lose their land and their houses just for somebody who holds the power and doesn’t care about the community,” said Armando.
In addition to conversations with the homeowners, the group participated in reflections and learning exercises led by Peg Martin about the culture, challenges and richness of Appalachia.
The Sanchezes are making plans to return to SWAP with another group from their church, and they hope to bring some teenagers along with them next time.
“We hope to continue doing this kind of things with fathers and mothers and second-generation children to have this experience,” said Hernandez.” It was very powerful for everyone involved.”