Tonight before dinner, we bundled up to go spread some Christmas calories and introduce ourselves to our neighbors. (Low key, we’ve only lived here FOUR months, so it wasn’t overdue or anything. Primary made hermits out of us. Whoops).
Our attempts were mostly unsuccessful, since most newlyweds or students are already home for the holidays, but when we got to the apartment in the bottom corner of our complex, something felt different. Cody knocked and it couldn’t have felt more like Minnesota, waiting on the answer out in the wet and the cold, light from a TV flickering inside the blinds of the dark apartment. The man inside called “come in!” and we tentatively opened the door, unsure if he was expecting someone else. A little old man with glasses sat in a recliner, tangled legs tucked in a blanket, back lit by a single lamp. A wheelchair was propped next to the chair, easily accessible. We explaining quickly that we were his upstairs neighbors and wanted to introduce ourselves and wish him a Merry Christmas. We told him our names, learned his, and wished him a happy holiday.
Cody stepped back to close the still-open door, showing we were ready to listen, and the man went on. He told us of a Christmas on his mission, where his mission president had given each companionship 50 flyers containing the Christmas story as told in the scriptures with a testimony of Christ. The missionaries were given the instruction that week to avoid proselyting at all, to simply share these flyers and let everything else develop naturally.
Although they tried persistently to share the flyers, he and his companion were repeatedly rejected, not because people were against what they stood for, but because they simply didn’t have time. They were too busy, they said, “getting ready for Christmas.” He said they got the same response over and over, that December was such a crazy month, that people were just too busy getting ready for Christmas. Out of fifty flyers, they had successfully shared three, and Christmas was almost there. Desperate, they reached out to one of their investigators, a wealthy doctor, hoping for referrals. He recommended they seek out a nurse working at his practice and gave the missionaries her address.
When they went to deliver her flyer, she wasn’t home, and most of the lights on the street were out, except for one tiny house down on the corner, with a very dim light inside. He and his companion walked down and knocked on the door, hoping they wouldn’t be rejected once again by those “too busy getting ready for Christmas.” Instead, the man who answered the door of the humble home hungrily pulled the two missionaries inside before they could even finish explaining the contents of the flyer.
Once inside, they saw that the home was extremely destitute. There was a scrubby branch of pine in a cup of sand, with a single present beneath it. The children living in the home gathered excitedly as their parents explained to the missionaries that all they had been praying for all Christmas, was for one person to read the story of Jesus’ birth to their children. They had talked with salesman, been given ads for Christmas deals, but not one person offered to share what mattered most. Both parents were illiterate and could not read the Bible to give the gift they so wanted to share. It was their fondest wish that someone could read the words of the prophets concerning the teachings of Jesus.
The missionaries stayed and read the flyer with this family, sharing a meager, but meekly-offered meal of canned beans and cornbread. They learned that the single gift beneath the tree wasn’t a toy or a treat, but a Bible, a hope for their children to someday be able to read the precious words about Jesus for themselves.
He concluded the story by explaining that they made sure this family had a Christmas, gathering a month’s worth of food donations, toys, clothing, and even a year of donated check-ups from the doctor the missionaries were also teaching. But the family was satisfied simply with the gift of the Christmas story. “So,” he explained, “Ever since then, though I’ve always heard it, Christmas has meant something kind of different to me. I remember not to get caught up getting ready for the holidays. I remember this family, who, of all the families we talked to, could have been left wanting for Christmas, and instead yearned for the thing most important, something given freely.”
He sighed, settling back into his recliner, tears in his eyes and a shaking hand over his mouth. Cody and I looked at each other, emotional and extremely grateful for the gift we’d just been given. We thanked him for sharing his testimony and his time, and I shared a few fond memories from my mission, of a Christmas spent with those in total poverty, feasting on fufu and a single piece of chicken. He beamed at us and understood.
I told him of my own Christmas miracle, living with the Spanish sisters and getting a call that their investigators had lost everything in a fire around the same time that our English ward had finished their annual clothing drive. I shared with him the memory of sneaking out of Relief Society to see what we could do to help, only to find that the only clothing left after having been picked over was in exactly all the right sizes for this little family in need. I told him that my most precious Christmas memory that year wasn’t in a package or a presentation, but in the drive through a blizzard with a backseat full of clothing and a heart full of testimony to share with them.
He smiled at us, emotional, testifying that angels are real and all around us. He said there were Christmas miracles all around, all year, if we could see them. He spoke thankfully of the lack of coincidences and the value of everyone in our lives. He talked without pity of his MS, citing his only regret as not being able to volunteer with the special needs angels at Provo High School anymore. He said he missed them every day. He spoke reverently of his faithful home teachers, who were never too busy to come every week to bring in his mail or take out his trash. He cried about his daughter and her selflessness, about the call he got when she found out she had breast cancer and how saddened she was that she would have to take a break from helping with his laundry and cooking while experiencing chemo.
Again and again, he told us of miracles and beauty, referencing the talks he’d had with Heavenly Father in prayer, the new sight he’d been given — the opportunities again and again to see something different. He reminded me of my African immigrants, worlds away from their loved ones, survivors of the tragedy of civil war, witnesses to death, hate, and ugliness like I cannot imagine, existing on a single bowl of rice a day in a one-bedroom apartment, who sing only God’s praises, who show only love, who only see blessings and say only thank you. He reminded me of the power of the Atonement, the glory of a gift that banishes loneliness, hurt, unfair judgment, longstanding grudges, insecurity, heartbreak, and difficulty. He reminded me why it matters that Christ was born at all, why the birth of THIS baby was something different.
When we finally said goodnight, I walked away feeling that surge of love and Spirit I felt everyday as a missionary. I felt a privilege in sharing in such unabashed awe over the Savior of the world and his goodness in even the most difficult life. Listening to this sweet man, glowing like the Christmas star in his dim, lonely apartment, I felt guided. Seeing the power and joy exude from his frail little body, I thought of another little body, filled with power, full of humility, laid in a manger on a night so long ago. And smiling on our walk home, I felt with every bit of my heart that we had spent some time by the manger, getting to know and adore the Savior.
I remembered the scripture Cody had shared with our primary kids earlier today, in reflecting on the Christmas Spirit. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” And it’s true. We went to give to this man and left feeling so indebted, so filled with love, so empowered by peace, just like the wisemen and the shepherds must have been. This lonely, incapacitated man shared his love, gratitude, and adoration with us, and in doing so, praised the Lord as if He was there. And in those moments, I believe He was.
Miracle memories like today are what remind me that Christmas is not a calendar holiday, but something deeper, something different.