We’d call it a shack and that would be kind.

He calls it a gift from God, and he couldn’t be more grateful.

A few days ago I stood on a small plot of land — maybe 800 square feet — and looked at Saul’s new house on the outskirts of Granada, Nicaragua.

That’s where the fellowship I attend — Grace Church of Sahuarita — is helping build a school. Leading the efforts are Ryan and Adriana Brooks, who are from Sahuarita and who lived in Nicaragua until civil unrest drove them from the country last year. Now, they oversee the work during frequent visits as they raise their triplets in Mississippi and contemplate a return.  

It was my second trip to Nicaragua; the first was in 2016 when we met Saul. He was about 20 with a girlfriend, two kids and a big drug problem. None of that is surprising. Girls have lots of kids very young there, and drugs — mostly glue because it’s cheap — is an escape from a nationwide 40 percent unemployment rate and poverty. In Saul’s neighborhood, the unemployment is likely double that and most people live on about two dollars a day.

Today, through prayer and the efforts of a lot of people, Saul is married to his girlfriend, has three children, new skills as a welder, and after a nine-month hitch in drug rehab with a healthy side of discipleship, he’s clean.

That’s what took us down that rutted dirt path flowing with gray-water runoff and strewn with trash on Saturday. We wanted to celebrate his next step. We were in El Pantanal — “the swamp” — one of the worst barrios in the country. That path took us to a much narrower one, just as rutted; we had to leap the trickling mystery water several times before reaching Saul and Ana’s home.

By our standards, it’s not much to look at: One room, maybe 9x12 feet, fashioned out of rusting corrugated steel. The roof is a tarp held down by bungee cords, there are no windows and the door is a piece of weathered plywood, no hinges or handle. They’ll move in full time when they finish digging the hole for the septic, which is about eight feet from the house.

You’ve never in your life seen prouder homeowners.

“Gracias a Dios” — thanks to God — Saul told us when we caught up to him later at a job site. Words from the heart.

The house and land mean lots of things — that Saul is providing for his family, that he’s a land owner, that he and Ana have stability and a place to raise their kids. It’s about responsibility, too, a reason to get up every day and find work, a place to put food on the table.

Gracias a Dios.

Saul is a success story in a place that doesn’t see many.

Not far away, a Christian school with sky-high education standards and a remarkable team of teachers is another success story. Its very existence has given the barrio hope. Parents pay $2 per month per child — a serious investment — and take on volunteer jobs to keep the property maintained. An impressive 70 percent of parents are involved in their version of a PTO, and every student learns English. They have pre-K through third grade and are adding a grade a year in simple brick buildings constructed by local workers who are grateful for the paycheck.

The neighborhood that had been known throughout Nicaragua as a place to avoid is slowly earning a new reputation.

Gracias a Dios.

Happy Thanksgiving.

— Dan Shearer

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