Fixing a roof while breaking down walls

Latino volunteers, Appalachian homeowners navigate cultural differences, find similarities on MCC project

Volunteers from Iglesia Enciende Una Luz (Ignite a Light Church) in Harrisonburg, Va., removed old roofing and dormers, installed new metal roofing and made structural repairs on a home near Northfork, W.Va. — Peg Martin/MCC Volunteers from Iglesia Enciende Una Luz (Ignite a Light Church) in Harrisonburg, Va., removed old roofing and dormers, installed new metal roofing and made structural repairs on a home near Northfork, W.Va. — Peg Martin/MCC

With scaffolding surrounding a house near Northfork, W.Va., volunteers peeled shingles from a roof that was caving in. They kept their balance on the steep incline while giving instructions back and forth in Spanish.

The roofing project was beyond the skill set of typical workers who volunteer with Mennonite Central Committee’s Sharing With Appalachia People, or SWAP, program.

Church youth groups — 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, Va., had the skills to fix the roof.

They learned about the opportunity through a series of connections with Virginia Mennonite Missions.

In the spring of 2022, 12 VMMissions staff members were volunteering with SWAP when the idea came about, said Lizzette Hernandez, Latino ministries coach for VMMissions.

“What if we start this trip with Latinos who are highly capable of doing this kind of work?” she asked.

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 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 ingrained 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,” Armando Sanchez said. “So we saw this opportunity to help. 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.”

The Sanchezes brought nine volunteers to James and Patty Palmer’s house, where holes in the roof had led to major damage.

The group arrived on a Thursday afternoon and by Saturday afternoon had done the demolition work, reframed and sheeted the back of the roof and installed roofing metal.

“The project was supposed to take four days or more, but we were done in two days,” Veronica Sanchez said. 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.

“The homeowner [Patty Palmer] started crying and saying it was a blessing,” Veronica Sanchez said. “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 a blessing to someone they could identify with from another culture.”

The Sanchezes are making plans to return to SWAP with another group from their church, and they hope to bring teenagers with them.

“We hope to continue doing this kind of thing with fathers and mothers and second-generation children to have this experience,” Hernandez said.

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