Imam Mohamed Al-Darsani and a handful of volunteers stand in front of a home under construction in Lehigh Acres. Before they get started on the dry wall, Al-Darsani opens their workday with a prayer.
“We thank you God for giving us this opportunity to get together to help some of your people,” recites Al-Darsani.
And then they get to work.
People of faith across Southwest Florida joined forces to build a Habitat for Humanity home for a local family in need. They refer to the project as the ‘House of Abraham’ – after the patriarch of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
The aim was to build a home for a family – and bridges between faith communities. They got the job done, but did not accomplish all they set out to do spiritually.
Al-Darsani says the project to build the three-bedroom home known as the ‘House of Abraham’ started in 2010.
“The idea was to bring Muslims, Christians, and Jews to work together in building a house through Habitat for Humanity. Similar projects were done in similar counties and states and they wanted to copy that to Southwest Florida,” said Al-Darsani.
The non-profit Habitat for Humanity of Lee and Hendry Counties approached faith communities in the area to get involved. More than 50 groups joined the project. Pastor John Daugherty’s church, First Baptist of Fort Myers, was one of them.
“I thought what a wonderful way to come together and do something constructive –not using a pun intentionally – to do something together to build community,” said Daugherty.
Rabbi Jeremy Barras of Temple Beth El in Fort Myers says it made sense to do an interfaith project like this.
“Nobody could say they’re not interested in helping someone who needs a home, find a home. It’s something that all of us could easily get behind and it’s a great way to unite,” said Barras.
For two years, the faith communities worked to raise the $50 thousand dollars needed to build the home. They did so despite a troubled economy and early resistance to the project by some congregations.
Construction began early March. About 35 people from the different communities worked together to raise the walls of the home, including Pastor John Daugherty.
“At that point the distinctions went away. We’re all carrying the walls. We’re all lifting. We’re all hammering,” said Daugherty.
“That’s what I think is probably the most beautiful part of it, when we’re standing side-by-side.”
As Islamic Center for Peace member Muhammad Umar Alfarooq works on the dry wall at the House of Abraham site, he says an endeavor like this can bring about much-needed interaction between communities.
“People are just naturally afraid of approaching people of other faiths,” said Alfarooq. “I think this type of a project drops a lot of those walls – but people have to show up to benefit from them.”
Jo Ann Landes Ross is a local Habitat volunteer and a member of its “Building on Faith” committee, which organized the project.
“Most of the interaction I’ve experienced has been with homeowner groups rather than other faith communities,” she said.
Since the ‘wall raising’ few faith communities have come out to build. Landes-Ross gathers people from her church to come to the site each month. But she says enthusiasm for the project among most other congregations has died down.
“It’s been an all-inclusive experience for me. I felt like other members of the community have felt the same spirit. We need to do more with involving members of each of our faith denominations to share that experience with us,” said Landes-Ross.
Rabbi Jeremy Barras says he was juggling many projects and Pastor John Daugherty says his congregation is mostly elderly and their participation was monetary.
But despite diminishing participation from faith communities, almost three months later the Lehigh Acres home known as the ‘House of Abraham’ is nearly completed.
David Ocasio, his wife Yandery, and their two kids will own the House of Abraham. Yandery says the family puts in their sweat equity hours by working on their own home and other Habitat houses close by.
“Every week we go on the weekends. We do a couple of hours here. Maybe three a day, six… It depends,” she said.
The Ocasio’s attended the wall raising and know that people from different faith communities helped build it. David Ocasio says he appreciates the idea.
“Every time we pinch a finger or get a cut, it’s the same color of the blood coming out, you know? Different types, but same color. We’re human,” said David Ocasio.
“By seeing how all these churches and all these communities coming together to build houses in this economy, it’s a miracle. For us, it’s a miracle.”
A dedication marking the home’s completion is scheduled June 29th. Although it’s referred to as the ‘House of Abraham,’ David and Yandery see it as the home of the Ocasio’s.
Leaders in the House of Abraham initiative hope to continue the project. At the end of the day, they say, it’s about building homes for families who need them.