For one local man, what started as a trip to build homes for the needy turned into a lesson on love.

For one local man, what started as a trip to build homes for the needy turned into a lesson on love.

Port St. Joe resident Matthew White recently returned from El Tejar, Chimaltenango in Guatemala where he and a group of fellow missionaries from Long Avenue Baptist Church spent seven days building homes in poor communities.

Previously, the mission group at Long Avenue Baptist Church partnered with Grace Ministries, based out of Mississippi, on mission trips and the opportunity arose for members of the Port St. Joe church to visit Guatemala.

Though hesitant at first, White ultimately decided to make the journey alongside fellow congregation members Norman Hammock and Michelle Campbell.

White said that he sensed that he needed to go on the mission and believes strongly in taking the gospel to every nation.

“I always thought that someone else would fulfill that need,” said White. “But the Lord wanted me on that trip.”

Having never been out of the country, White was nervous.

He and 16 other missionaries flew out of the Panama City airport and a connecting flight in Atlanta landed them in Guatemala City.

Upon landing, White said that he didn’t know what to expect, but felt comfortable once he realized that Guatemala City’s airport was pretty standard.

A car took them to nearby El Tejar where they would spend the upcoming days in construction mode.

“There was a lot of local color and you could tell that you’re not in the U.S.,” said White. “The residential conditions dramatically decreased as we drove.

“By the time we got to El Tejar, you could mistake homes for backyard sheds in the U.S.”

As the thriving city gave way to poverty, White said he realized that he was in a place in dire need of assistance.

The goal of the trip was to build a series of 12x12-foot dwellings for those in need. Over the course of several days they set the posts, secured roofs, installed windows and doors and built a small porch for each home.

The dwellings, though small, were designed to be as dry and secure as possible.

Families in the El Tejar region share properties with 3-4 families living in the same place. Separate dwellings connected a common kitchen and bathroom area.

White said that he was happy to see that the locals didn’t simply expect the visitors to build their homes for them.

Prior to the arrival of the missionaries, those in need of homes had to procure the building materials and transport them to the job site. Once walls were erected, the families were also responsible for pouring their own concrete flooring.

“They put a lot of sweat equity in their homes before we even got there,” said White. “They have a lot invested.”

Once the 12 structures were built, the local pastor dedicated the houses to the residents and White’s team surprised each family with a laundry basket stocked with dried pasta, chicken bouillon, wash clothes and toilet paper.

“We received an overwhelming amount of gratitude,” said White. “Those items are a big deal.”

After christening the homes with a prayer, each family was presented with a photo of the family alongside the missionary team. White said that it was a very emotional experience since Guatemalan families rarely have photographs, let alone pictures of their loved ones.

White described the locals as kind, gentle and loving. He said that they were appreciative of the missionary work and throughout the visit, many tears were shed.

International travel can be difficult for some and White’s team overcame their share of obstacles, the biggest of which was the country’s altitude.

Guatemala is nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, making breathing difficult. Visitors tend to feel dizzy or nauseated until their lungs adjust. Luckily for White, communication wasn’t a problem. He had minored in Spanish in college, which proved useful in building a rapport with the locals.

 “It doesn’t matter if you speak Spanish or just English,” said White. “The language of love transcends all language barriers.”

When they weren’t constructing homes, White and his companions hosted three days’ worth of bible school for over 400 local children. During the year, children work full time, but during the group’s visit they were on their summer break and the kids of El Tejar were eager to hear what the visitors had to say.

“Seeing the conditions gives you so much realization to how fortunate we are in America,” said White. “In Guatemala, they’re so grateful and appreciative of just having their family.

“I think we got more out of the experience than they did in receiving a new home. I went there to demonstrate God’s love, and I saw that love knows no limits.”

White won’t be returning to Guatemala for the next mission trip in March. Instead, he’ll take a cue from those he helped and stay home to welcome his third child into the world. White said he looked forward to the mission trip in 2015.