Small and simple

Mostly or firewood project operates in the back yard of the church without much attention from others. We haul in logs from properties where the trees are being thinned. Occasionally a tree service will drop off a few logs from their activities. Sometimes private citizens, seeing our project, use our lot as a way to get rid of unwanted branches and logs. Our volunteers gather, bing careful not to work outside of normal waking hours so the noise of chainsaws and splitters doesn’t bother neighbors, and the trees get cut to firewood length and split. Then we load the wood into trailers and trucks and haul it to our partners, who distribute it to those who need it to heat their homes. The amount of wood on our lot varies, because sometimes we have a lot of help to haul wood and sometimes we don’t have much. Sometimes we have a lot of help to split and stack the wood. Sometimes there is less. Sometimes we have all of the wood we’ve split already delivered and sometimes we have some ready to go. The project grows and shrinks in response to the volunteers we have.

From time to time someone outside of the church will notice what we do. We even have gotten a bit of publicity from time to time. The publicity can help because those who have trees to donate might give us a call. On the other hand, we also get calls from people who have problems we cannot solve. We aren’t a tree service. We don’t have the resources to cut down trees, especially those that are in precarious places. We can’t think the trees from large tracts of land. We try to help our neighbors, but we aren’t set up to help clean up storm damage. We have no way to deal with a giant cottonwood tree that is larger around than the length of our chainsaws. If we can’t pick up a log, we have trouble dealing with it.

Each time we get a bit of publicity, we also get questions about what we do and why we do it the way that we do. Chief among the inquiries is a kind of criticism about paternalism in helping ministries. It is an interesting thought and conversation in general, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of our particular project. People suggest that delivering already cut and split firewood doesn’t invite participation by those who receive the wood. They become dependent on the hand out. Folks ask us, “Why don’t you set up the recipients to split their own wood?” “Why have your volunteers do work that might become jobs for others?” They are good questions, but the answer is simple. We don’t know how to run a jobs program. We don’t know how to train others to use and maintain splitters. We don’t have enough contacts to set up and manage distant distribution points. We are just a handful of volunteers who know how to cut, split and deliver firewood.

It is a principal I learned a long time ago when Millard Fuller visited Boise, Idaho, where we were currently living and trying to help start a Habitat for Humanity affiliate. He said to us, “Habitat does two things: It builds houses and it makes interest-free loans so those in need can buy those homes. Keep it simple. Build houses and make loans.” Just because we can’t solve all of the world’s problems doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do what we are able. We just need to be realistic about what we can and cannot do.

Many years have gone by and Habitat for Humanity International has grown into a very large organization. Many local affiliates, like the one we started in Boise and ours here in Rapid City are now corporations with multiple millions of dollars in assets, staff who need fair compensation and benefits, and more. Our local affiliate runs a retail store that supports its projects. It is continually raising funds that go for things other than constructing homes. It has a large administrative office with a training room and computers and a host of other expensive items. And the director of the organization divides his time between administration, fund raising and influencing public policy. He is continually meeting with the mayor and other city officials. He keeps track of the bills before the state legislature. He rubs elbows with politicians at dinners and other events. He seeks major endorsements.

I have no skills at those kinds of tasks. I have no desire to acquire them. Any institution that is much larger than the congregation I serve is too complex for the way my mind works. I don’t want to have to juggle a thousand responsibilities. Sure, I do my share of behind-the-scenes fund raising. I know how to write appeals. I try to keep up on policy issues that affect churches. But I’m uncomfortable in the places where the politicians and policy makers gather. I’m a bit too quick to speak and a bit too slow to agree. I don’t like pretending that I fit in with a crowd. I much prefer working in the wood lot and sharing snacks and conversation with other workers when we take a break.

This week I’ll spend some of my volunteer time raising funds for another nonprofit in our town whose work is very important to me. I’m involved in the organization because I want to help others. I go to visit folks who have experienced sudden and traumatic losses and provide them support, resources and information. I attend a lot of funerals. But the organization, which started as a small, all-volunteer cluster of people now has an office and a staff and on-going expenses, so it needs its volunteers to help raise money to keep it going. I wish we could focus on just providing the services that we are able, but life isn’t that simple. Lately, I’ve been thinking of ways that we might downsize the organization so that it might have a sharper focus.

In the meantime, it feels good to have our firewood project. No meetings. No pressure. No budget. Just people doing what they can to help others.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!