The ancient apartment building had stood for nearly a century. Once the home of luxury townhouses, the red brick structure now only hinted at its original elegance. The delicate stained-glass windows were nearly buried beneath strands of ivy that curled abundantly across the walls. Oak moldings, elaborate fireplace mantles, and ornately carved door handles and hinges were streaked and splattered with multicolored layers of inexpensive paint.
Narrow wooden stairs, thinly carpeted and creaking, led to our tiny two-bedroom apartment. Our two oldest sons were born while we were living there, and although we sometimes felt crowded we tried never to complain. Well-meaning friends and relatives, moved by pity when they saw our sloping floors and outdated electrical and plumbing fixtures, constantly reassured us that after we had graduated we could move into a nicer place.
But the truth is, we liked our quaint apartment, loved our neighbors, and, all in all, found plenty to be happy about. Even more important, it was within these walls that we learned the true meaning of compassionate service.
Along with ten single students scattered in various apartments, five couples lived in the “Red Uglies”—as we fondly called our complex. Like us, the other couples were going to school, raising families, and trying to make ends meet. None of us were wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, yet I can’t recall a single family turning to welfare. Instead, we learned to stretch every dollar and to share our material goods with one another.
I will never forget the time Kris Westover, our downstairs neighbor, invited us over for a Sunday meal. She informed us that her husband’s parents had given them some fresh vegetables and a small steak. “We know how hard it is to come by meat,” she said, “so we’d like to share with you. I thought we could just sprinkle the meat over the vegetables!” This attitude of unselfish giving was common among Red Uglies tenants.
At this time we were living in a large student ward, and there were always two or more babies blessed on fast Sunday. When ward members had babies we took them meals for at least a week. Though we were all struggling financially, no one complained or refused to help because they couldn’t afford it. People would even go without so a new mother and her family could have a nutritious meal. We gave because we sincerely wanted to help, and we expected nothing in return.
Once, when our oldest son was eleven months old and I was seven months pregnant with our second child, my husband and I heard a rustling noise, a couple of thumps, and a muffled giggle outside our door. Suspecting mischief of some kind, we abruptly opened the door. There, illuminated by the flickering hallway light, were the smiling faces of our neighbor Camille Rizzuto and her sister Cathy Bubert. Sheepishly apologizing for the noise they had made, they self-consciously placed a large box of food and a wrapped shoebox on the table. Overwhelmed by their generosity, I began to cry. The tears flowed even harder when we opened the shoebox and a twenty-dollar bill slipped out. Unbeknownst to them, an unexpected expense had taken our last dollar. It was two weeks until payday and we had no money and no food. Their kind act of compassion was a direct answer to our desperate prayers.
“I don’t know what to say,” I began tearfully. “Isn’t there something I can do for you in return?”
Cathy put her arm around me and kindly said, “Kris, the best way you can thank us is to do the same for someone else.” Those simple words have stayed with me.
I had been raised in a family that gave generously, but when I was a student and, later, the wife of a student, I found that financial difficulties clouded my good deeds with doubt and sometimes even resentment. The experiences I had in the Red Uglies not only strengthened my faith, they also deepened my commitment to serve wherever and whenever I was needed. I learned that compassionate service is never based on convenience or wealth. Too often we confuse service with tangible offerings, when in reality our greatest gift is unselfishly giving of ourselves. Even the affluent can become spiritually destitute if they have not learned to share.
Beginning with Cain, Satan has consistently succeeded in getting men and women to think first of themselves and their personal gain. He is happiest when we are selfish with our time, talents, love, and money. Sadly, he even deceives some into being generous in order to receive the praises of the world.
But living in the Red Uglies helped me learn that if we give love, we receive love; if we give forgiveness, we obtain forgiveness; and if we give service, we will receive service—perhaps during our time of greatest need. In 2 Corinthians 9:6 we read: “He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.” [2 Cor. 9:6]
President David O. McKay further emphasized this fact by reminding us that when we lose the spirit of sacrifice, the spirit of greed will take its place. There are countless verses in the scriptures admonishing us to serve others with a pure heart filled with charity and love. As always, our Savior, Jesus Christ, set the perfect example. Not only did He give his life that we might live again, but He healed the sick and blessed the poor. His compassionate service was not limited to neighbors and friends. Instead, it was unconditional and for everyone.
Another important principle our family learned during our years in the Red Uglies was accepting help gratefully. Perhaps this was because the struggles we had in common with our neighbors gave us a sense of unity. But the principle applies to all people. The time will come in all our lives when we will need the assistance of others. For the time being, we may feel confident, important, and powerful, yet we should acknowledge our need for others. Tragedy can and does strike without a moment’s warning, and we could suddenly find ourselves on the receiving end of charity. How hard it will be for us then to receive a humble offering from a friend or neighbor if we are not used to both giving and receiving.
Again we are taught by Christ’s example. Not only did he give in the purest form of the law, but he gratefully and humbly received the ministering of others throughout his mortal life. Indeed, even his burial place was borrowed.
Every Christmas, we hear many express the desire that the spirit of giving be kept alive all year. We know it can. Each day will bring greater joys and even greater miracles if we make a sincere effort to render some form of service to those about us.
A few years ago, the Red Uglies were reduced to rubble; spacious and lovely condominiums stand proudly in their place. But even though the structure is gone, its lessons live on in my heart and—I hope—in my service.