Each year the rescue mission in our town provides a Christmas Eve dinner for needy families and those who have no families with which to share a meal. I had become acquainted with the director of the mission and greatly admired his work. He was a nondenominational minister who had devoted his life to building and maintaining a shelter for transients and for local people in need.
One holiday season, as my thoughts turned to service to our fellowmen, I approached this director with a plan. I was serving as Scoutmaster at the time and wanted the boys to have an opportunity to give service to the disadvantaged within our community. Perhaps, I thought, the Scouts could help prepare and serve the Christmas Eve dinner.
The director was delighted to have our help. The overworked mission staff needed a boost. For my part, I was happy that the Scouts would have an unusual opportunity to help those in need. I convinced five of them—and their parents—that this would be a worthwhile and rewarding activity, and a few hours before the dinner I began picking them up.
But my excitement waned as we journeyed to the mission. The materialism of the season had a perceptible hold on most of the boys; they were not overjoyed to interrupt their holiday festivities for another service project. Because I had been looking forward to spending time with my own family as well, I couldn’t really blame them.
As we approached the mission, driving past bars, abandoned railcars, and junkyards, I began to question my decision. Was it wise to expose our young boys to the company of these men, some of whom might be criminals and drug abusers? As we walked to the front door, I noticed a number of very rough looking characters hanging about, no doubt waiting for dinner to begin. Their haggard faces made me a little nervous.
When we entered the dining room, the delicious smell of roast turkey was in the air. The mission cooks, most of whom had been “down and out” themselves at one time, were busy putting the finishing touches on the dinner. The boys and I began setting tables, filling water pitchers, and assisting the cooks.
As we were busy with these chores, the director came into the room and announced that, because the dining room was large enough to serve only thirty at a time, the dinner would be served in shifts. Families with children would be served first.
“Families with children?” I thought. “Surely there won’t be many in that category.”
But when the doors to the dining hall were opened, a little crowd of disheveled children scrambled in and raced to the tables to find seats. Most of them were accompanied only by their mothers.
After the blessing, we began to serve the crowd. We were surprised to serve three or four shifts of mostly women and children before the men had their turn. The men and women, the young and old polished off their helpings almost as fast as we served them. They were obviously unaccustomed to such a well-prepared and delicious meal.
As the meal progressed, I noticed a very real change in the attitudes of my Scouts. One or two had been reluctant about participating in this project; now their hearts were noticeably softened as they served these hungry people. They seemed delighted to go out of their way to help clean up a spill, or to refill an empty water glass. They felt comfortable, even eager, in serving dinner and talking to some of the roughest-looking men there.
Then I felt the Spirit speak to my heart, and a scripture I had often heard came into mind: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40.)
There, among a group of individuals that some of us would have preferred to avoid, I felt the Spirit as strong as I have felt in any testimony meeting. I knew that the boys felt this same spirit, too. As the mission staff expressed their gratitude for our help, we were sure that we had come away with much more than we had given.
I have a hunch that the boys’ Christmas that year was different from any other they had experienced before. “Let’s do it again next year,” they commented as we drove away. Of one thing I am certain: Their Scoutmaster will never be the same.