Perspectives: Give Thanks in Any Language!
A Highland View Academy senior reflects on how gratitude knows no linguistic or cultural barriers.
Story by Jenny Coleman
On a recent mission trip to the Dominican Republic with my classmates at Highland View Academy in Hagerstown, Md., I realized that there was only one word that I needed to know how to say in Spanish and that was, “gracias” or “thank you.” We went there to give back and help build a school, however, our group never stopped saying gracias all week long. We said gracias to the school principal for slaving away for hours to make us traditional Dominican soup. We said gracias to the pastor for taking the time to drive us to and from work each day. We said gracias to his wife for cleaning up our—their—rooms. We said gracias to the woman who invited us to her house for a “light snack” that turned out to be a full meal, and we said gracias to the church members who welcomed us with open arms.
As we worked six or seven hours a day in intense heat, mixing endless batches of concrete and laying endless quantities of block, we learned to be thankful for the simplest things—a breakfast of bread and cheese, a bottle of water, a clean shirt, a cold shower. More than that, though, we were thankful for the rare word of approval from the stern Dominican foreman, or the friend who stepped in to take a turn at the shovel so that we could get out of the sun.
In the Dominican Republic, people do things for each other. If they find an act of kindness inconvenient, they don’t show it. If we judged wealth not by what you have but by how much you give, these people would be the richest in the world.
Americans like to think of ourselves as independent. We like to think that we don’t need anyone, that we can make it on our own. For me, this mission trip destroyed that attitude completely and taught me to embrace interdependence. I had to depend on the people for everything—food, water, lodging and even toilet paper. At the same time, they were watching in breathless anticipation as we raised a school auditorium for them, one level at a time.
At the worksite, no one told us what to do. We had to step out and work on our own, but all around us our friends were doing the same thing, and without each other’s work, nothing would have been accomplished. I was one small spoke in a very big wheel, and I felt very insignificant and very important at the same time.
It is a good thing to say gracias—to admit that you have a need, but that you also have something to give in return. It may be as big as a school auditorium, and it may be as small as a piggyback ride for an admiring child. It is still a part of the great and beautiful work, and as the wheels go on turning, you begin to enjoy the ride.
Jenny Coleman is a member of Highland View Academy's Class of 2014.