Humanity and Grace

by Jeremy O'Bryan

I spent my third day ever working on a Habitat for Humanity project today. Brandon, a young church planter and pastor who is involved in our community group encouraged us back in November to sign up to help a guy named Mohamed and his family with their house. As it turns out they;re doing four house at once in this phase of the project, which is actually a complete neighborhood with about a dozen houses. In November I took down Mohamed’s cell number because his new baby, Solomon, just three days old, was having some complications and we wanted to pray and follow up about how the little guy was doing.

Today I put up a bunch of Tyvek with some dudes I didn’t know, then did some tidying up before one of the local Catholic churches, St. Mike’s, brought sandwiches, cookies, and coffee. I had never put up Tyvek before, but then every day that I’m faced with a house project, whether it’s my own house or one of these Habitat homes, I’m charting new ground.

I think my new friend Mohamed is a Muslim. He is certainly middle-eastern-seeming enough to pass for, or be mistaken for, a Muslim. Who knows, he may not claim any particular faith. He’s been in America for almost 30 years, coming here to Pacific Lutheran University as an exchange student from Libya back in the 1970s. He spends his days behind the dashboard of a car with his clipboard while nervous, inexperienced drivers take their tests and pray he will give them good marks and that the unthinkable will not happen. He is a brave man. And he’s amiable and considerate.

Today, while we were all working in the cold, half of us newbies and the other half fully ripe contractors, a guy who is, like, second in command kept saying this thing that shocked me. Jeff is his name, kept saying to Mohamed, “I’m not a pilot.” At first I’m thinking to myself, “What does he mean.” Then Jeff said, “Sorry. That a bad joke I know,” and looked sheepishly at everyone. When he said it a second time I put two and two together. Which made four.

So we’re using contractor’s knives to cut these long Tyvek sheets. A lot of people refer to these tools as “box cutters.” So the thing comes full circle to me. Jeff, and obviously American-looking dude, sees Mohamed with one of these tools, its blade glinting in the morning sun. Their feet are planted firmly on the ground. But Jeff makes the joke. “Mohamed. I’m not a pilot.” His sheepish apology means nothing, as he says the line again and again. Probably seven or eight times, he says it.

At first Mohamed seems to react like I did, 9/11 being so far removed that we don’t really get the “joke.” Mohamed starts teasing Jeff pretty hard, about his work, which is a little slow and not exactly graceful. I get the idea, and later, alone, Mohamed and I are winding up a 100-foot extension cord and he says, “Jeff is a funny guy.” One thing we agree on is that Jeff means no ill will toward Mohamed.

I know Mohamed is grateful to everyone who is out there, working hard so that he can own a home, a roof over his family’s head. His wife, his little girl, his baby boy Solomon. In Libya, the average man works his entire life with the hope that on day he will be able to own an apartment that in the United States might cost  $30,000. Most don’t achieve it early on, Mohamed says. It takes time. Mohamed went back to Libya several years ago at the urging of some aunts and uncles who have never left the country. He was promised a “future” by an influential uncle. Within two weeks, Mohamed had a business of his own, and an apartment — a situation most Libyan men work decades to achieve. Within the same  two weeks he was bullied by some well-dressed secret-service types for criticizing out loud the local newspaper, filled with meaningless prattle from the country’s dictator.

So when a guy volunteering to do some work on Mohamed’s house makes a tasteless joke, thoughtlessly and mindlessly casting the evils of an empire upon this hard-working middle-eastern-looking guy with the accent of one who grew up speaking Arabic, he just lets it go. And why not. He has chosen to pursue the American dream. Good job, a home to raise his family, and the rest. I told Mohamed apologetically that the joke was unnecessary and unfunny. Together we looked at the ground. He, gracious and thankful. Me, contrite for the belligerent America I know that we can be.