To Light One Candle
During the summer of 1999, I was working as a paramedic for the Berkeley fire department and living in a small town about an hour north of San Francisco.
I was 42 and divorced, my kids were grown and living on their own. I had come to a point in my life where things were settling down in my life and I found myself taking stock and looking at my life from an increasingly spiritual perspective.
One Sunday morning, sitting on my back porch as the sun rose on the northern California countryside, I opened the paper to an article on the war-torn former Yugoslavia.
At the center of the piece was a picture of a bombed-out building somewhere in Kosovo, where the fighting was at its heaviest.
Before earning my paramedic's license, I had worked for years as a carpenter. I knew just how much time and effort it would take to rebuild that structure. Who on earth was going to do it?
"You are" came a voice within. I almost laughed out loud. I was just one man. What difference could I possibly make in the face of all that devastation?
Even as I asked myself the question, I heard familiar words, "Sometimes one person taking just one small action, can make all the difference." That's what my mother used to say to my seven sisters and me, when we were kids.
Once a year, she and dad would pile us into our VW bus and drive from our San Diego home down to Mexico to distribute clothing to needy kids as part of a church outreach. God would bless our efforts, Mom assured us.
My sisters and I always had to watch out because a carelessly dropped jacket or hat might easily end up in the "Mexico Box."
I had done a fair amount of volunteer work myself over the years, reaching out to help others whenever my heart told me to. On that Sunday morning, my heart told me to go to Kosovo.
The following week I told Ron Falstadt, my assistant chief at the fire department, that I wanted to take six weeks of vacation I had accrued to go to Kosovo. "I know it sounds crazy" I said, "But It's something I need to do."
I packed a crate with tools and a backpack with clothes, cramming in a camera at the last minute and climbed aboard a plane for Athens, Greece.
After three more days of travel and countless squabbles with customs officials, I finally approached the border of Kosovo on foot. I headed for its capital, Pristina.
I was swallowed up in a sea of humanity. Thousands of refugees-hungry and exhausted, carrying what few possessions were left to them-slogged numbly back home to Kosovo.
"What have I gotten myself into?" I thought. "This isn't a weekend trip to Mexico to give away clothes. These people have lost everything."
I fell into step behind a young couple. The woman was carrying a crying infant. I reached for my canteen of water and held it out to her. She took it and gave it to her child. The crying stopped and the woman smiled gratefully.
Again, I reminded myself of my mother's words: "Any action, however small, can help. Whatever happens over here, I have to remember that."
I met a man named David Savard, a Chicago high school teacher who was doing relief work with the American Refugee Committee or ARC, in the town of Gjilan in Southern Kosovo.
At David's suggestion, I joined ARC myself. I was assigned a jeep and an interpreter and began visiting the outlying areas to conduct damage surveys with camera in hand.
Seeing a village destroyed by war in a newspaper is one thing, but it is something else altogether to see it in person. Centuries-old family homes had been reduced to rubble by a single mortar round. The houses left standing lacked doors, windows and roofs.
Many of the returning refugees were living in cramped tents with little or nothing to eat.
ARC provided me with home repair kits containing plastic tarps, nails and short lengths of wood to hand out. "These supplies are good," Mohammed, a father of four, said to my interpreter and me one afternoon, standing in front of his demolished house. "But they are not enough."
As I looked around, I could see what he meant. Handing out those little repair kits was like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound. "I must have been nuts thinking there was anything I could do over here." I thought.
In the village of Kishnapole, my interpreter and I were invited to dinner by a farmer named Arsim. The last thing I wanted was to take any of Arsim's food, but I knew that to refuse would be an insult.
I took a seat on the floor and was given a small black bowl filled with a concoction of beans, rice and flour. As I ate, my eye fell on one of Arsim's children-a boy of about seven.
He was painfully thin and wearing a grubby, baggy pair of boxer shorts that seemed to be the only item of clothing he owned. His younger brothers and sisters appeared to be even more frail than he.
Looking at these children, I had a sudden very clear insight: "There's no way they're going to make it through the harsh winter without a real roof over their heads. I have to find a way to help these people rebuild their homes. But how?"
"There's too much bureaucracy, John," the people at ARC told me. "The supplies are available, but it takes money to pay for them and getting that money through official channels isn't easy."
Easy or not, I was determined to try my best. I started attending daily U.S. Army refugee relief meetings in Kosovo, hoping to hear about new sources of help.
At one of these meetings, an Army spokesperson announced that proposals were being accepted for five million dollars in U.S. Department of Defense grants available for rehabilitation projects throughout the region.
I'd never seen a grant propasal in my life, but as soon as the meeting was over I went to the ARC office and pounded one out. I named three nearby towns that I knew well-Gadish, Sllakofc and Kishnapole-each of them more than 80 percent destroyed by bombing.
Then I set to work lining up local suppliers for the materials needed-cement mixers, shovels, sledgehammers, lumber, roof beams and tiles.
I told these local suppliers to be ready to deliver on a 12 hour notice. "The money will come," I had my interpreter tell them, "And when it does, I will pay you." My confidence seemed to satisfy them.
One after another, the suppliers shook my hand and told me, they would make sure that all of the supplies would be available to me.
Because the windows and doors had been blown off most of the houses still standing, the villagers had erected makeshift barriers to keep the cold out.
I had them take the barriers down so that the houses would be immediately ready for rebuilding as soon as the promised money came through. It was a gamble, but I was sure we'd get the money. We had to.
I also called Ron at the fire department back at Berkeley. "I hate to do this, Ron, but I need another month off. I am right on the edge of making something happen over here."
Ron told me several men and women were willing to donate vacation time to help me if I needed it. "If you are making a difference over there, John, then stay."
With each passing day, the villagers seemed to put more and more faith in my plan. All three villages were excited about their homes being rebuilt.
But as the autumn days grew colder and no word came, a horrible feeling of doubt began to creep upon me. With their doors and windows cleared, the homes in the three villages were even more vulnerable. A sudden heavy snow now would be disastrous.
I was hurting for these people. "I'm just leading them on. The grant is not going to come through and they will be even worse off because of my meddling," I thought. I hurt all over.
On October 1, the bad news came. "We've received word from the Department of Defense," one of the U.S. Army officials told me. "Your proposal is going to have to get through more red tape than we thought. It could take another month."
I cried inside. "Another month?! That is by far too late! I will have to leave before then!" The faces of all those villagers who trusted me paraded through my mind. "I can't do it! I can't tell them that! There has to be another way! I have to find another way!"
I headed for the building that housed the local office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "I need to see the Head of Office right away," I said to his secretary.
"He's in a meeting. If you care to leave your name..."
"Thanks. I'll wait."
Two hours later, the Head of Office finally came out and extended his hand.
"Sir, I know you are aware of my proposal. And I know you have the best intentions of helping it get okayed...someday. But winter is coming and I want to make sure you know what this proposal is about." I pulled out a number of photos and lined them up on his desk.
"It's about people like these, who may not live to see another spring if the funds to rebuild don't come through. I've seen these people up close. I've talked with them and worked with them and have seen first hand their homes that need to be rebuilt...now."
"Maybe that's what you need to do, too. If we can't get the funds to rebuild, I'm going to bring all of them-everybody from all three villages- right here to your office." [Writer's note-Here is a Commissioner watching an American from California hurting for three villages in Kosovo...]
He gave me a long look. He could tell I wasn't bluffing. He said, "I'll see what I can do..."
The next day I went down to the daily refugee meeting, more out of habit than anything else. I found my usual chair and sat down, feeling utterly lost. Just as the meeting was about to get started, an official walked up to me and handed me a letter.
"Here is the letter of approval. Go build your villages. And...thanks."
The very next morning, a truck loaded with lumber, tiles, concrete and tools of all sorts, pulled into Kishnapole. Young and old rushed out of the bombed out shells left of their homes, shouting and cheering. Dozens of tractors and horse drawn carts soon arrived to take materials to the other two villages.
I never saw houses go up so fast. Everyone was given a job and one after another, each family got the home they needed to stay warm through the cold winter that was on its way.
On November 1, after living more than 10 weeks in Kosovo, I returned to my own home. I went out to my back porch and looked out at the rolling hills of northern California, but the hills of Kosovo were still on my mind.
What I had accompished over there was just a drop in the bucket of what those wonderful people need to get back to a normal life...
But what my mother used to tell us on the way down to Mexico with a VW bus full of clothes, "It's important to do something. Even if it seems small, do something."
And maybe that's all God really asks of any of us.
Also from Guidepost:
The Upside-Quotes from Positive Thinkers...
"That love thy neighbor thing? I meant it."-God
From a Billboard in Minneapolis, Minnesota
"Life is given to me as a flat piece of land. I hope that when I'm finished, my piece of land will be a beautiful garden."
Jeanne Moreau -French Actress and Director-The First Woman Inducted into France's Academy of Fine Arts
"I stopped whining about not having enough time, when I realized we all have the same amount each day and saw what others have done with it."
Wanda Rosseland -Columnist
Have a great day!