Any Habitat for Humanity house, once built, marks the transformation of a dream into reality, providing a safe, comfortable haven for those who have longed for a place to call home. But on a day when members of different faiths—Christian, Jewish and Muslim—join in a workday to frame the house, pound nails, caulk and paint, there’s a bonus—a symbol of love for God is formed.
That’s what happened Monday, Feb. 13, in Miami, when workers gathered to work and build a house for future Habitat for Humanity owner Tiffarah August and her two children. August, who put 250 hours of “sweat equity” into the house, is scheduled to move in April 1. The effort in February was part of “The Blitz Build,” in which 10 houses were to be built in two weeks. This house was called “faith house” as an example of faith in action.
|Ismael Ferniza, left, of Branches UMC and Jay (Jalal) Shehadeh, representing the Muslim faith, joined together to help build what was called the "faith house" at a Feb. 13 Habitat for Humanity build in the Miami area.|
“This is the fourth time we’ve done a faith build and it was very successful, very well received,” said Mario Artecona, chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity for Greater Miami, Inc. “It’s not a massive effort—it’s more symbolic. But symbols make a difference in times like this, and this group was there to show their love for God and fellow man,” he said.
“As we have worked with different faith groups, we find that there is far more that unites us than divides us,” he said.
The financial part of the effort was already in place, with grocery manufacturer Sazon Goya as sponsor. Finding volunteers for a weekday build was described as a bit of a challenge, but Artecona successfully reached out to groups like the local United Methodist Church, the American Jewish Committee, the local Muslim community and Temple Israel of Greater Miami. There were about five or six volunteers from each faith, according to Artecona. It was the first year for the Methodists in this area, and Artecona said, “Branches UMC brought out wonderful folks to help us.”
One of those volunteers from Branches was Ismael Ferniza. He was recruited by Raymundo Torres, who is facilities manager at Branches Florida City, an organization which provides services to children, youth and adults and is supported by many UMCs, the Florida Conference and the Florida United Methodist Foundation—as well as other entities.
Ferniza, who caulked and painted, worked alongside people of other faiths. He has volunteered on three previous builds, but this one was his first interfaith experience.
“Everyone came from different backgrounds and different parts of the world, but you would never know they were different. The homeowner was there, and we all worked well together and conversed together at lunch,” he said.
“It was a blessing to me to help another individual and put a smile on somebody’s face. This was a build from the heart,” Ferniza said. Ferniza especially liked the prayer that Rabbi Moshe Thomas Heyn of Temple Israel offered at the end of the day.
“My prayer was to ask for a blessing on the work that had been done, the house that we helped build, the person who would live there with her family and the people who had worked that day,” said Rabbi Heyn.
|Making the cut! Volunteers provided their carpentry skills during this year's Habitat for Humanity for Greater Miami's "Blitz Build." Ten houses were targeted to be built over two weeks.|
This was the second house Heyn had worked on.
“It was wonderful on several levels,” he said. “It was a beautiful day, it was fun building a house and the fact that there were people of different faiths working on it transcended typical boundaries that keep us apart. Our differences were irrelevant.”
Heyn worked on framing during the day. He also suggested it was an important and meaningful project and a model for how people of different faiths can work toward a practical, common goal.
Alan Palma, who is Jewish, worked putting in screws for hanging cabinets. He said he had never worked on a Habitat build before. Palma was struck by remarks made by Habitat’s Artecona before the group started working. “Mario said, ‘there is no vetting for compassion.’”
“And it’s true, we were all one community, all there to help each other as we were helping those who need help. It was quite poignant coming a week after (President) Trump’s ban on Muslims,” he said.
“It was multifaceted in that our primary goal was to help build the Habitat house for the owner, and the second goal was to have a relationship with people of other backgrounds and the beginning of developing relationships with them, which I think started that day,” said Palma. “It was pretty beautiful.”
Jalal Shehadeh, called “Jay,” is of the Muslim faith. That Monday, he carried out a lot of jobs on the interfaith build—his first Habitat experience—taking out junk wood, moving insulation, painting and leveling dirt for planting. Like Rabbi Heyn, Shehadeh called the day “a lot of fun.”
“There was no clique-like division of labor and no inhibitions,” he said. “The fact that we didn’t know each other kind of boosted our production because we were trying hard to cooperate and do a good job together.” He said lunchtime was especially meaningful, as he had time to talk to others who were on the build.
“A big part of this was building bridges,” he said.
Asked what he would say to someone contemplating being a part of an interfaith experience such as the build in Miami: “I would tell them, if you’re afraid because you don’t know anything about these people, choose not to be afraid. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
“When you interact with other groups and work beside them, you’ll find an incredible commonality between you and others,” he said.
--Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.