Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Christmas that Changed My Life

As a full-time missionary, I was assigned to serve in the California Fresno Mission. I was also assigned to learn to speak Lao, in order that I might help the refugees from Laos. These people had fled their communist country during the Vietnam war and waited in refugee camps in Thailand for their chance to make a new life somewhere else. Because there were no other sister missionaries who spoke a Southeast Asian language in the mission, I also had the honor of working with Cambodian, Hmong, Thai and Mien people as well.

 I had no idea what a tremendous blessing it would be to mingle with and learn from these beautiful people, each with their own heart wrenching stories of how they fled from the homes they loved.

I arrived in Fresno, California two weeks before Christmas, December 1993. A lot of missionaries become very homesick at Christmas time. I missed my family, but I wasn't necessarily homesick, maybe more apprehensive and nervous about the exotic language I had just been trying to learn for the past two months in the MTC. I wanted to be obedient and hard working. I wondered if I was up to the task.

Little did I know that arriving at Christmas time would be the perfect beginning of a beautiful 18-month soul-stretching and life changing experience.

The Lao people are Buddhist and do not believe in Jesus Christ. I cannot count how many times I told someone that "No, Jesus Christ is not the American Buddha" or that His native tongue, when he was living on the earth, was not English. I repeatedly taught that He was much much more than just an historical figure. He was truly a new concept for most of them.

Since it was so close to Christmas, my wonderful trainer had the inspired idea to ease me into the language and teaching by doing an activity which has left a powerful impression on my heart even to this day.  She had ordered several copies of this Nativity picture.

 We took these pictures and went from house to house teaching the story of the Nativity to people who had never heard it before. Many of the people whose houses we entered, had Christmas trees but had no idea the meaning of it all. They just knew it was the American tradition. The Lao children wanted to join in the fun and so their parents obliged - never knowing the significance of that first Christmas morning.

What an experience! The simple story of the birth of Jesus was a revelation to many. I could see the light in people's eyes as they felt the truth and knew it. My heart was touched every single time.

But it only got better from inspired mission president challenged each zone of missionaries to do as much service as possible in the week before Christmas. Of course, teaching discussions was our number one goal, but our zone leader found some great ways for us to do other service that week.

I will share one...

A member of the church in Fresno ran a Christmas tree lot. He told the Elders that we could have any trees which were left over on his lot on Christmas Eve.

Then the Elders found a willing man with a big truck to haul those trees around as we took them to needy families in our wards. As missionaries we didn't have much money, but we had purchased strands of candy canes, tinsel, and present bows for each family to use to decorate their trees.

Even as I am typing this right now, 18 years later, I can still feel the rush of joy that filled our hearts as we entered each unsuspecting home. The children cheered. The mothers cried. Hearts were softened. The love of our Savior was tangible. A group of 20 young men and women forgot about themselves and their longing for home that night. Christmas, and life for that matter,  just couldn't get any better in those moments.

My companion and I went back to one of those homes the next day, Christmas Day. This sweet Lao family consisted of a dad and three young children. We had been teaching them about the Gospel of Jesus Christ since I had arrived in California.

I will always remember what I saw as we entered their apartment. Of course, this family who had never celebrated Christmas before, didn't have a Christmas tree stand. So the tree we had brought them the night before was just leaning in a corner of their very small apartment. On the tree was the strand of candy canes (still in their packages), the present bows, and some colorful yarn. Right in the center of the tree, right where it belonged, was this picture which we had given them a few days earlier...

This family, who's cultural traditions do not teach of Jesus Christ, who had just learned the real "reason for the season", this humble little family with nothing of worldly wealth, understood what Christmas is all about.

In 1 Nephi 11:12, Nephi is shown in vision Mary bearing the baby Jesus in her arms. Then an angel basically asked him if he understood what he saw and what he had been taught. Nephi says,

"And I answered him saying: Yes, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things. 

"And he [the angel] spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul".

Those words describe the feelings I felt during those first two weeks of missionary service. Those words describe what I felt while teaching family after family the true meaning of Christmas. Those words describe how I felt as I left a sweet Lao family's home on Christmas Day having felt an outpouring of our Savior's love in their little apartment.

It was most joyous to my soul!

and I've never been the same.

(If you have a child on a mission, or know a full-time missionary, send them $10 - or more - and tell them to spend it on a needy family in their area. I believe this will curb any homesickness they might be feeling.)

Author's note: When I was 21-years-old, I chose to take a break from college and work to serve an 18 month full-time mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. To learn more about what this means, click on this link Missionary Work. There is much about a full-time mission that can be confusing to those who do not know the facts. I have written this post several times, including facts that those who may not belong to the LDS Church may not understand about missions. I do not want to take for granted that all the nuances of mission life are understood by anyone who may read. BUT all of those little facts made each draft so long that I do not believe anyone would read long enough to get to the good part. So, I have decided to just write my experience from a missionary's point of view. If you have questions please feel free to contact me, or maybe you might know a member of the LDS Church who could help you understand more. To request that missionaries come to your home, follow this link Meet With Missionaries


  1. Dear Lisa,
    I had bookmarked this article in a "Read later" folder since you first posted it. Today, I had the time to read it. And I really loved your story. What you do out there is something marvellous and Lord-loved.
    I wish you a merry and beautiful year as Jesus Christ defines these words... Love for the things that God loves... I say a big hello from orthodox Greece!

    1. Dear Forerunner, I'm sorry I never replied to this! I'm sure I meant to but got side tracked. Thank you so much for your response. I'm sure you are doing wonderful things in Greece to serve Jesus Christ as well. My daughter was just assigned to do a report on Christmas traditions in Greece. She has done a lot of research but it would be so fun if you could share some of your traditions with me and I'll share them with her.
      Thanks and Merry Christmas from sunny Yuma, AZ, USA!


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