Our New Holiday Tradition
During the Christmas season of 1995, when I was 13 years old, my family talked about creating a new Christmas tradition. For a long time, we looked for the right idea in our neighborhood in Manaus-Amazonas, Brazil. But the season continued to pass, and we had not yet put any of our ideas into practice.
Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday that year, and as usual Mama prepared roast chicken for dinner. It never felt like Sunday if we didn’t have roast chicken. But on this special Sunday, Mama prepared three chickens instead of the usual two. She wrapped the extra chicken in aluminum foil and put it in a sack. Then she picked up a cake she had made.
“These are presents,” she told us. “Do you know who they are for?”
We guessed the names of our friends, neighbors, and ward members. None of our guesses was correct.
Then she said, “They are for Banel.”
We fell silent. Banel was a boy about my age who lived with his grandmother in a humble little house. He was also the terror of the streets. He got into cars if they were not locked. He stole the wallet of one of our friends and tore up the papers inside. He threw rocks at dogs and threatened children at play. The neighbors wanted to file a complaint against him to get him off the streets.
But after we had recovered from our surprise, we agreed. My father, my eight-year-old brother, and I took the chicken and cake and went to visit Banel. He was at home and came out when we asked for him.
He looked distrustful. He thought we had come to complain about something. “What is it? What is it?” he kept asking.
My father just smiled and handed him the packages. Banel was very surprised. “For me?” he asked. His countenance changed, and he became friendly and courteous. He was very grateful for the presents.
Since that day, Banel has not bothered the neighborhood children. Sometimes he even plays with them. He smiles and speaks to the neighbors when he sees them on the street.
Our family learned something important that day. We learned that a friendly gesture, however small, has the power to change people, even people who seem as unreachable as Banel.
We also started a practice that we hope will become more than just a Christmas tradition: taking the time to show love and kindness to those who need it most.
Had My Mission Made a Difference?
It was my first Christmas away from home and loved ones. I was a 19-year-old missionary seeing a very different way of life in a strange, faraway country. There was no tinsel or tree, no pile of presents to revel in this year. I expected to miss these things but was surprised to discover that I didn’t. Instead of unwrapping new gifts this year, I was intently unwrapping new experiences.
Drawing my scarf tighter and pressing my numb face against the biting winter wind, I walked with my companion up a frozen hillside, strewn with a maze of twisting dirt alleyways. This place was like many others I had already seen in the four months since coming to Korea. Makeshift cinder-block huts and crude concrete walls were all shapes and sizes, squeezed together and situated in a random patchwork. Everything in sight was shrouded with a gray, powdery dirt and traces of soot from the burning coal that heated the homes.
Again tonight, we turned up a familiar alleyway. We knocked on the decrepit wooden door and removed our shoes before stepping into a tiny one-room dwelling to teach an old woman and her teenage son. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, we began our discussion. Sooni Park seemed unconcerned with anything other than the bare essentials of life. Her face was wrinkled, and she had dark, smiling eyes, unkempt hair, and an infectious elflike laugh. At the invitation of her quiet husband, a convert to the Church, we had been trying to teach this woman our short lessons for the past two months. It was a frustrating exercise.
Each week Sooni would invariably raise her hands and shake her head whenever we asked a question. This was her way of saying she couldn’t understand either the concepts or our strained attempts at Korean. Most of the time she would just smile or laugh at us if we tried to discuss anything of a spiritual nature. To make matters worse, her son Sang Ho constantly ridiculed us for coming and said he could never believe anything we said about God.
We simplified our continued lessons for the woman, hoping she would better understand. Exhausting all the patience we could muster, we kept coming to visit her and trying to reach her. For some reason she always said we could come back. During the final lesson, almost reluctantly, we asked her if she wanted to be baptized. She laughed, but then surprised us by answering yes. Her son just scoffed and shook his head.
I couldn’t help wondering if my companion and I were doing the right thing. We wondered if she would stay active after we were transferred. We worried that we might be wasting our time, that maybe we should not be baptizing this woman. We really didn’t know how serious she felt about this ordinance. We examined our motives carefully. Were we doing this for Sooni Park or for ourselves? Was she ready? Since we had a baptism scheduled for later in the week, we finally decided to include her and prayed that we were doing the right thing. We had a white Christmas that Saturday in Korea as we baptized nine people into the Church.
During the years that passed after I returned home from Korea, my thoughts often turned to the people we baptized that day. Had baptism made a lasting impact on their lives, or had the experience with American missionaries been just an interesting but fleeting cultural exchange?
Almost 17 years later a business trip took me back to Korea. The country had changed dramatically. Tall, modern buildings and newer homes marked the landscape now. It was three weeks before Christmas, and I had the chance to return to the area where I had spent my first Christmas away from home. That Sunday I was excited to revisit the white cinder-block chapel in Map’o-gu. Running a few minutes late, I hurried up the familiar hillside. The little chapel looked the same as I had remembered it: simple, stark, and beautiful against the morning sky. It reminded me of the people I had known and loved here. I wondered if any of those long-lost loved ones would still be here.
There were only about 20 people who had braved the winter weather to attend sacrament meeting, among them a pair of pale, foreign missionaries. I searched the faces in the room to no avail. No one I had taught was here. I could not help feeling disappointed, although I told myself that over the years many of them had probably moved away. When the meeting ended I rose to leave, trying to brush off melancholy thoughts. With a prayer in my heart I wondered if my missionary service had brought about anything really lasting in this place.
As I pushed open the chapel door, someone pushed from the other side. Both of us laughed at the coincidence. I looked down at the person holding the door handle. The wrinkled, grandmotherly face looking up was familiar. The short, unkempt hair, even the elfish laugh were the same; it was Sister Sooni Park. Amazed to see one another, we embraced. Spontaneous tears of joy rolled down the creases of her weathered face, and I thought we might both collapse.
After regaining my senses, I spoke to her and learned that she was one of the stalwart members of the second small ward that met in the building. She had been faithfully living the gospel for the past 17 years. We sat together through fast and testimony services. She held my hand tightly and wept as she told me of her husband’s recent death. Then she looked at me with complete faith and whispered, “But I do know that I will see him again soon.”
I was shocked again to see that her son Sang Ho—the same self-proclaimed atheist who had scorned our message 17 years earlier—was now a counselor in the bishopric. He had been baptized after I left the area. He had served a mission, married a beautiful Korean woman, and they were expecting their first child. Sang Ho stood to bear his testimony. Tears welled in his eyes as he talked about lessons learned years earlier from two missionaries who kept struggling up a crowded Korean hillside to visit his mother so many winters ago.
When the meeting concluded and we had said our good-byes, I turned to take one more look at Sister Sooni Park. This was an early Christmas for me. There she stood on the chapel stairway, bundled against the cold, her eyes still smiling: a beautiful soul who had taught me more than I ever taught her about the strength of humility and what it means to be a faithful child of God.
My Cork-and-Burlap Treasure
Many years ago I had the good fortune to be a volunteer teacher at a privately owned home for mentally retarded children, where my duties included helping children with their normal daily routines, reading stories to them, teaching music, and creating various forms of entertainment. I was given permission to teach a gospel class to a few of the more receptive and eager students.
My eight gospel students, who ranged in age from 8 to 16, were excited to learn about Jesus Christ. Despite their various capacities to learn, they responded well, each in his own way—except for Freddie.
Freddie was 14 years old, mildly retarded and severely disturbed emotionally. He had been abandoned when he was very young, and no one really cared about him other than the people who worked or lived at the home. For this reason I allowed Freddie to become a class member, even though he was the center of every disruption imaginable. It bothered me that I did not seem to be getting through to my little troublemaker. While the rest of the class seemed to have some concept of who Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ were and what they represented, Freddie seemed oblivious.
Each week it was my practice to present each child with a scripture verse. While most of the children could not read, many taped their verses to the wall above their beds so they could be reminded of it as they offered their evening prayers—a requirement in my class. However, each time I gave Freddie his verse, he would tear it up in front of me. It was frustrating, and I was beginning to seriously consider removing him from the class.
As Christmas approached, I explained to my children the meaning of this special holiday. All but Freddie seemed receptive. Then, a few days before Christmas, the home held a party and invited everyone: staff, volunteers, students, and parents. As I mingled with the guests, I did not see Freddie. I found him in his room, laboring over a very crumpled, worn-looking package that he was trying to wrap by himself. I left him to his task and returned to the party. Shortly after, Freddie approached me and threw the package in my lap and ran away. When I opened the package, I found a ragged piece of burlap, hand sewn at the top, with a piece of cork glued in the middle. It was a wall hanging, and the cork in the middle was to be used to tack up the weekly scripture verses. Later, I was told that Freddie had worked for three months on the gift. It was indeed a labor of love, sacrifice, and patience, for I knew the frustrations Freddie must have suffered in making it. Maybe in his own way Freddie had understood what I had been trying to teach him.
Freddie lives with Heavenly Father now, but the gift he gave me still hangs in my home. Whenever I look at it, I see Freddie once again and remember the sacrifice he made to teach me about patience. The lesson he taught me is embedded deeply in my heart.
Why That Gift?
Every Christmas, in celebration of the Savior’s birth, our family selects an individual or family to surprise with anonymous gifts. A few years ago we chose a family in our ward with three little children. We knew they were struggling financially, so we decided to buy them a few small toys, and groceries for Christmas dinner, and leave it on their doorstep. However, each time I went shopping for those things, I felt troubled. When my husband asked me one night why I hadn’t bought the gifts, I shrugged and told him I didn’t know, that I just didn’t feel good about it.
One afternoon a week before Christmas as I was driving past our bank, I was impressed to get a $100 bill. I immediately went into the bank to get one. When my husband came home from work that night, I told him what I’d done. Naturally, he wanted to know what we were supposed to do with it, but I didn’t know.
Later that evening as we were eating dinner, I suddenly felt the money should go to the home of the family we had chosen to surprise with Christmas gifts. I asked my son to go with me to deliver the money. We left it in an envelope on their doorstep, rang the doorbell, and ran. We heard nothing about it in the ensuing days and soon forgot about it.
A year passed, during which the family moved away. Then, just before Christmas, the family visited our ward, and the sister stood to bear her testimony in Relief Society. She had a strong testimony of tithing, she said, and went on to explain that one night about a year ago, a week before Christmas, she and her husband had gone to tithing settlement, where they discovered they were $100 short. To be full-tithe payers, they would need to pay it that night. She and her husband looked at each other in dismay. The only money they had was $100 they had worked hard to save for a Christmas celebration with their children. Since it was the only money they could spare, they gave it to the bishop.
Through tears, the sister related that they had gone from tithing settlement to home, only to find an envelope with a $100 bill in it on their doorstep. Her heart overflowed then with gratitude toward an understanding Heavenly Father. It was a Christmas she said she would never forget, and the gift she received that year was one that would stay with her always.