I was taught to say “thank you.” My parents wanted me to know that it is not proper to take for granted the good things that come to us in life. I am sure this is true for everyone who was raised to observe this basic courtesy.

Over time, unfortunately, “thank you” can become just something we say. Someone opens a door for us, or brings us a cup of coffee, or lets us go ahead in line at the grocery store, and we say “thank you.” But it’s just words without much heart.

I saw it another way recently. A group from my church along with a group from Mountain Brook Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Ala., journeyed together to Piedras Negras, Mexico, to participate in a house-building ministry.

We were working with Constructores Para Christo—Builders for Christ. Constructores Para Christo has been in Piedras Negras for 15 years building houses for poor families. Over that period of time, volunteer teams like ours have built over 330 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 profound.

We were working with a young family of four. The parents, Jose and Lenora, along with their boys, Juan Carlos and Jesus, showed up every day to put in their sweat equity. There was lots of it, too.

It was particularly hard on Jose. He put in his time at the building site after working two other jobs. I was surprised to learn he was only 29. The lines on his face and the dark circles under his eyes made him look 40. Holding down two jobs will do that to you.

Jose and Lenora already had a small house on the lot where we were working. I use the word “house” reluctantly. The tiny dwelling where the four of them lived was a hodgepodge of wooden pallets, cardboard boxes, rusty bed springs and anything else that might be converted into a roof, wall or 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.

Not that we built them a palace to replace their patchwork home. The house we built was very basic—three rooms with doors and windows. But it was a sturdy house, dry and clean. It’s a house that will be with them for a while as they make their way through an otherwise impoverished existence.

When the house was finished, we gathered inside for a dedication service. We presented Jose with the keys and a Bible. We sang a simple song and offered prayers for the family.

When we were finished, our translator asked Jose if he would like to say anything. His eyes filled with tears as he looked around his new house. With his voice breaking he said, “Gracias.” That’s all he could get out.

It has been impossible since then to say or hear the words “thank you” without thinking of Jose. His “Gracias” was not mere formality, but an expression of deep gratitude offered with his full heart.

It’s the way all of us would say “thank you” if we really understood that all we have has come to us as a gift of grace. Grace, as in Gracias.

James Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.

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