Our Not-Quite Tabernacle Choir
During the 1993 Christmas season I was serving as a senior missionary “far, far away” in Bangalore, India. The first week in December, three days after I arrived, I was asked to help organize and direct a choir in the Bangalore Branch of the Church because the members wanted to participate in an annual choir festival held in that city. Neither my companion, Sister Annie Christensen from Utah, nor I were aware of what this festival entailed, but we agreed to help out.
I selected “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains” (Hymns, no. 212) to sing in the program, and 16 people attended the two enthusiastic rehearsals held on a rooftop of a member’s home. They were not familiar with part singing, so we sang in unison without musical accompaniment. If a piano was available at the festival, then I would play instead of direct.
The date of the performance arrived. As we alighted from our harrowing motorized ricksha ride to downtown Bangalore, we stood gaping before a huge city building. It was draped with a large banner that read “Festival of Christmas Music.” Stunned, we walked up the broad flight of stairs and into the foyer, which was filled with costumed participants. This was a big event!
We scrambled to get one of the printed programs. Listed were the names of several church, college, and university choirs that were participating. We looked for our group and gasped as we read, “L.D.S. Choir (Mormon’s Tabernacle).” We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
We went aside and prayed, pleading for heavenly help. I turned to my companion and said, “You’ll need to direct the choir!”
She replied, “I’ve never done that before in my life!”
“Just smile,” I assured her. “Make a figure eight and look confident.”
When the curtain opened for our number, my companion had our Indian “Mormon’s Tabernacle Choir” arranged on risers ready to perform. All seven of the sisters on the front row wore beautiful saris, and the nine men behind them wore suits and white shirts. Sister Christensen, as director, was magnificent. She even took a bow!
Then I took a deep breath, walked on stage, and sat down at the piano, an old upright with ivory missing from some of the keys. My companion raised her hand and started her figure eight, and I played the first chord. The sound that came from the choir and piano shocked me, and I could hardly play. It sounded as if part of the real Tabernacle Choir, whose name was printed by mistake on the program, was singing that night. I knew then that our prayers had been answered and that there must have been a choir of angels singing along with our little group. As the last note sounded, there was silence. Then, in the auditorium, thunderous applause erupted. The curtains closed, and we wept with joy. Guess who won a prize that night? We did!
The fourth verse of the carol we sang that evening reads, “Hasten the time when, from ev’ry clime, Men shall unite in the strains sublime.” Many voices, both seen and unseen, must have united that night in Bangalore, India, in singing praises to the Lord.
I Received the Better Gift
Each Christmas the youth in our ward deliver boxes of food and toys to families that have had difficult times over the past year. Because of job layoffs in the area, one Christmas was especially hard for some families in our ward. The ward members were invited to donate used items still in good condition for the Christmas boxes. Since I had recently donated items my family no longer used to a local charity, I couldn’t think of anything to give.
Early one morning while I was taking my son to hockey practice, I spotted an extra pair of ice skates in his bag. They were last year’s skates, which he had outgrown. Then the thought struck me: I could donate the skates for the Christmas boxes. I asked my son and he agreed. So I replaced the laces and gave them to the youth.
When the time came to deliver the boxes, I assisted the youth. Our group of 10 was asked to visit a family with four children ranging in age from four to nine. We sang to them at the door and were invited into their small living room. Their tree was simple and beautiful, decorated with homemade ornaments. The children, though shy at first, warmed to our inquiries about the ornaments and excitedly pointed to ones they had made. The six-year-old boy was especially pleased with his decoration of baby Jesus lying in a manger.
The children were curious about what we had brought in the boxes. Resting in one of the boxes on top of a pile of toys was the pair of boy’s skates my family had donated. I asked the six-year-old boy if he liked to skate. He said he had never tried it. I asked if he would like to try skating, but he declined, saying that he would never be able to. I encouraged him, and he agreed that he would try it if he had some skates. When I asked him to try on the skates in the box, he again declined. I could not understand his reluctance. Then he explained that he did not want to try them on because they were not his. My eyes stung with tears as I realized he did not know we were there to bring gifts for his family.
The skates were his to keep, I told him. His eyes wide with delight, he eagerly tried them on. They fit perfectly! He chattered excitedly about how he was going to learn to ice-skate. Then he suddenly became quiet. He went to the tree and took down his beautiful baby Jesus ornament. He held it out to me and told me he wanted me to have it. My heart almost burst. I took the special ornament and hugged the little boy tightly, feeling the joy that comes from the kind of charitable service implicit in the Savior’s words, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).
Why Was Choka Here?
The Saturday before Christmas 1992 I sat on the floor of the living room of our new home in Bemidji, Minnesota, enjoying the nativity set on the mantel and the softly flickering lights on the Christmas tree. Through the window I could see pine trees garnished with snow. Into that tranquil scene came the thought of my 93-year-old grandfather, Henry Thomas DeCora, alone for the holidays. I tried to put the thought out of my mind, but it persisted.
On Sunday, as our family was returning home from a wonderful Christmas program held at church, my grandfather (or “Choka,” as we called him, a name meaning “grandfather” in his native Winnebago tongue) came to mind again. This time I had a strong feeling that he was ill and that I should call him. When we arrived home, I called and learned that he would be alone for Christmas and that he was very ill, too weak even to get up from his bed. We immediately made arrangements to have him brought to our home to spend a week with us.
When he arrived, I saw a gray-haired, gaunt-looking man who asked, “Who are you people?” I was shocked. He had been in our home three years earlier and had been baptized at that time. Fighting back tears, I said, “I’m Kandy, your granddaughter, remember?” He seemed to accept that.
Later that night my husband and I wondered if we’d done the right thing by having Choka stay with us. After praying earnestly about this situation, we felt strongly that his presence in our home was no coincidence. I thought how happy Marie, his wife who had passed away, must be to know that Choka would not be alone for Christmas.
Christmas came, and we were happy to share our love and joy with Choka.
We nevertheless found it challenging to care for him, and it became increasingly obvious that we could not send him home. A family conference was held by telephone, and it was decided that Choka would stay on with us.
We worried about how we could care for Choka, for he required help with everything. Often we wondered why, when there were other available options, we felt so strongly that Grandfather should live with us. After long days at work, we would come home tired and still have Choka to care for. We continued the best we could and prayed often for strength and understanding.
Just when I seemed to be at my wit’s end, help would come. Sometimes we found messages in the Ensign that helped us, such as one about caring for elderly parents. Members of our ward opened their arms and hearts to Choka. One ward member even offered to stay with him while my husband and I made a trip to the Chicago Illinois Temple.
One night my husband said, “I have figured out why Choka is here. He’s here so that he can learn about the temple and go there to be sealed to Marie.”
I suddenly knew it was so. Marie had been a faithful Church member for 30 years but had not lived to see Choka baptized. Helping prepare Choka to go to the temple became our family’s focus. Such a change took place in our home! Our entire family worked diligently with renewed enthusiasm to help Choka prepare by having family prayer and scripture study each day and holding family home evening sometimes twice a week.
The day came that Choka received his patriarchal blessing. Then he was asked to bless the sacrament. His desire to live the gospel fully became increasingly evident. Finally, in August 1993 at the age of 94, he went to the temple and was sealed to his wife for time and all eternity.
Four months later, just before Christmas, he passed away. We rejoiced that Choka had lived to receive his temple blessings and that he would now be with Marie. As a family we are grateful that we found out why Choka came to live with us that Christmas and for the gift of gospel blessings that resulted for all of us.
Stranded in a Small Town
Christmas Eve in Wyoming was about as cold and wintry as late December can be. But this didn’t dampen our excitement as we prepared to make the four-hour drive to Spanish Fork, Utah, to celebrate Christmas with other family members.
It was already dusk when we started out with our four children. The wind was blowing across the empty, rolling hills and the mercury was steadily dropping when, some distance east of Evanston, Wyoming, I saw blue smoke billowing out from behind our car. We stopped immediately. The motor had thrown a rod, and the car could take us no farther. The dark and cold settled down around us.
Traffic was sparse. The windchill dropped the temperature to nearly 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and the car was rapidly losing heat. The children were starting to shake from the cold. Then Kai, our five-year-old son, suggested we pray to Heavenly Father and ask him to send us some help. Taking my young son’s advice, we offered a prayer.
After a few minutes a car approached, and my wife jumped out of our car and stood in the middle of the road, frantically waving down the oncoming vehicle. The car stopped, and a man inquired what we wanted. He agreed to transport us into Evanston. All the way into town he kept muttering, “I can’t imagine what made me stop—I never stop for anybody along the road.”
He let us out at one of the few restaurants still open on Christmas Eve. Calling my father in Spanish Fork, I explained our plight and asked if anyone would be willing to drive to Wyoming and pick us up. He promised to see what he could work out. I gave him the name of the restaurant where we waited.
As we settled into a booth for the long wait, Kai wandered over to a neighboring booth and engaged the young couple in animated conversation. Soon our plight became known, and they approached us with an invitation to join them at their motel room, where we could relax comfortably during the long wait ahead.
Who could refuse such goodness? Leaving word of our location with the manager of the restaurant, we headed for the comfort of the motel. The couple, though strangers, opened their hearts to us and showered our children with Christmas treats.
We had just settled the children to watch a Christmas television program when a knock came at the door. When we opened the door, a weather-beaten ranch hand stood there in the winter night holding a set of keys.
“Here’s the outfit for you,” he said, nodding to a truck parked behind him.
“What do you mean?” I asked in utter amazement.
“I dunno what it’s all about. My boss lady just told me to bring her four-wheel-drive truck in for you to take to Spanish Fork. Just drop it off on your way back through when you get your own rig fixed.”
Tipping his hat, he disappeared into the night.
Puzzled, my wife and I stared at the keys and at the truck parked outside. Shaking my head, we bid our kind hosts good night and drove out of town to pick up our suitcases and continue our trip.
When we arrived at Spanish Fork, my father explained that after the phone call he had turned to the family and announced that he was driving to Wyoming to pick us up.
“No need for that,” said my Uncle Charlie. “I’ve got a friend just outside Evanston who will help. I’ll just call her.”
He dialed an elderly widow who owned a large sheep ranch and explained the situation to her. She agreed to help, wished him a Merry Christmas, and sent a ranch hand into town with the truck.
For us, it was a night filled with unexpected, unforgettable acts of service from many people, for we were strangers, and they took us in (see Matt. 25:35). Their many thoughtful acts on that cold winter night many years ago were gifts of Christmas kindness that have warmed our hearts and brightened our memories ever since.
Three Small Headstones
I was waiting in a cemetery, shivering in the bitter-cold winter wind. It was Christmas Day, and we were gathered together to view the headstones for my sister’s three deceased children. Due to a rare inherited illness, three of her four children had died when only about a year old.
After my sister’s third child died in the fall of 1992, she and her husband worked hard to design special headstones for their children. Arrangements were made to have the headstones finished by mid-December.
So on that Christmas afternoon we gathered at the cemetery to set the headstones and offer a prayer. The truck bringing the stones was late, and as I struggled to keep my children warm, I found myself growing impatient about having to wait so long in the cold.
Finally the truck arrived, and we enjoyed a beautiful graveside service. I was glad that I had braved the cold to share in that special moment devoted to children who would never spend Christmas together in mortality. The touching service and the headstones were our final gift to them. What I did not know at the time was that those three small headstones were also a gift to someone else.
About a week later, a friend of my father shared with him how he had spent Christmas Day.
The man had gone through a difficult divorce. Alcohol had played a big part in the breakup. He had checked himself into a treatment center in an effort to put his life back together and had remained sober for several months, then returned home.
On Christmas Day he sat alone at home, keenly aware of the absence of his wife and two small children. Sadness and loneliness overwhelmed him, and finally he felt himself giving in to the temptation to escape his pain by drinking. He climbed into his car and headed for a bar. On the way, he pulled up behind a truck heading for the cemetery.
Lined up across the back of the truck were three small headstones. Two were etched with beautiful nature scenes, and the third had a likeness of the Savior with a child. The man realized there were parents waiting in the cemetery who would never spend Christmas Day with their children. Tears welled in his eyes. At that moment he decided that, despite his challenges, his life was not without significant blessings. He returned home touched by the Spirit and without succumbing to the alcohol.
It still warms me to think that the delay of a truck on such a cold day could result in perfect timing for a man in great need. I’m thankful that our Father cares enough about each of us to allow small things to work wonders in our lives.