We observe Independence Day this weekend. Grills will be smoking and fireworks popping as we celebrate our freedom. For some reason I have found myself remembering a July 4th from a few years back.
A group from the church I was serving then was in Piedras Negras, Mexico, on the Fourth of July 10 years ago. We were working with Constructores Para Christo (Builders for Christ).
Constructores Para Christo has been in Piedras Negras for 25 years now building houses for poor families. Over that period, volunteer teams have built nearly 400 homes in this border town. The impact of these homes on the lives of the families who received them, and on the town itself, has been hugely significant.
The home we were assigned to build was for a young family of four. The parents were named Jose and Lenora, and their two boys were Juan Carlos and Jesus. The four of them showed up every day to put in their sweat equity. There was lots of it, too.
Jose and Lenora owned the small lot where we were working. In fact, they were living in a small house on the lot, if you could call it a house. The tiny dwelling was a hodgepodge of wooden pallets, cardboard boxes, rusty bed springs and anything else that might be converted into a roof, or a wall or a floor.
Their toilet was a cotton sheet stretched around four wooden posts set out beside the house. What it lacked in privacy it also lacked in basic sanitation.
We started the house on Monday and finished it on Thursday, July 4. Thursday was our longest day. We worked until dark to make sure the house was ready for the dedication service the next morning.
We got back to our hotel that evening tired and dirty. We showered and tried to rest. Sometime after supper, we heard the booms and saw the flash of fireworks going off in nearby Eagle Pass, Texas. Several of us went up to a third-floor balcony, where we could look out across the Rio Grande into our homeland.
As the sky lit up with flashes of red, white and blue, I could see the silhouette of tiny houses dotting the landscape on the Mexico side of the Rio Grande. I wondered how many of them were as sad and flimsy as the one Jose and his family were sleeping in at that very moment.
The next morning we gathered for a simple dedication in the main room of the new house with Jose and Lenora. We presented the family with the keys and a Bible. After the ceremony, our translator asked Jose if he wanted to say anything. Choking back tears all he managed to get out was “Gracias.”
It occurred to me about then that we were witnessing a different kind of Independence Day. Jose and his family had been liberated from inadequate housing into a dwelling that was dry and clean and sturdy. They had not completely escaped poverty; Jose will continue to work two jobs. But the new house provided them a degree of freedom and the hope that comes with it.
Standing on the balcony on that Fourth of July night 10 years ago, looking out over the Rio Grande, the fireworks were for me a reminder of the cost of freedom. But they were also a reminder of the obligation that freedom brings. In the words of Jesus, “To whom much is given, much is required.”
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.