“Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy for you too.” – Frederick Buechner
At some point during each of the six audit projects assignments during the span of my fellowship with Habitat for Humanity International’s Internal Audit department, there has been a moment, if not moments, which have taken my breath away. These moments take on many forms – joy, heartbreak, discomfort – as I learned about the context in which Habitat is working. They are those moments that, while I can anticipate them coming, I can never quite be mentally and emotionally prepared. After this past year of service, I have learned to expect the unexpected.
As an Internal Audit department, our role distills to asking the right questions and observing the operations of each Habitat entity either domestically or internationally. Often, this involves analyzing financial statements, probing staff for longer answers, and most importantly, developing trusting and confidential relationships with each staff member. In addition to providing information on the Habitat entity’s operations, each individual provides critical insight as to the culture and socioeconomic situation of the communities and families Habitat serves. Anecdotes of her or his personal life pepper conversations, preparing me mentally for the homeowner visits.
The excursion to visit partner families in Madagascar is one that, five months later, I continue to have the same reaction. As the team piled out of the Habitat truck and proceeded to follow the GPS coordinates to the reported location, we set off on foot to traverse ragged dirt pathways. We zigzagged between half-finished houses, outdoor latrines, and buckets of standing drinking water as well as passing by families, children, and the occasional barnyard animals in the scorching 90°F heat of the January summer. I was reminded of the world’s deep need for more solutions for whom the fundamentals of daily life are missing – food, water, and shelter. Peering around a corner, I knew we had reached our final destination as I saw a home that was complete with a roof overhead and panes in the windows. That was the model Habitat home – a decent place to live.
During our conversations with the homeowners, who spoke only French and Malagasy, we learned that the mother and father felt that the Habitat home had provided a stable and dry structure in which to raise their three elementary-aged children. In addition to the primary goal of stable housing, the homeowners had been welcomed into the Habitat network of their rural community which provides additional non-quantifiable opportunities for support and friendship. The community formed in that village has brought deep joy to the partners and kids alike, and owning a decent and simple home has brought peace to the parents.
Each individual home I have visited this past year across the world – ranging from Madagascar to Malaysia – has provided joy, but only temporarily. It reaffirms the necessity of organizations such as Habitat to be working in locations of extreme need and poverty in order to empower partner families and provide sustainable support to these communities. But each project further stirs my intellectual and personal discomfort not only in the moment but months later as well. As my fellowship with Habitat for Humanity International draws to a close, I know that I will carry these moments forward which will prevent my own real peace and joy until the world’s deep needs have been met.