Wednesday, July 3, 2013

My favorite 4th of July didn't have any fireworks...

I have always been a patriotic girl. I have elementary school memories of hiding the tears in my eyes while saying the Pledge of Allegiance or participating in some other event honoring the United States of America. I have always been aware of, and grateful for, the freedoms I enjoy. Needless to say, I have always loved the 4th of July.
It is interesting then that my most memorable 4th of July - the one that comes back to me in a powerful way every year - was not spent wathcing a parade, or lighting sparklers or watching a brillant display of fireworks. My favorite 4th of July was spent in the service of some refugees from another country.

I was 22-years-old and I was serving as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the California Fresno Mission. I had been assigned to learn to speak Lao so that I could serve the refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. These refugees had flooded the United States after the Vietnam War.

 It is such a long, sad story as to why they needed to flee their countries. Some of the tales are gut wrenching and some are so horrific I can’t even bring myself to repeat them. Missionaries are now in Cambodia, but Laos is still a place where the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be taught.

On July 4th, 1994, I was in Modesto, California, sitting in church. My companion and I served a small Lao group that existed within a larger English speaking ward. We would sit at the front of the chapel each week during sacrament meeting with headphones and translate the meeting from English into Lao for the Lao members who were also wearing headphones. I knew our translating was distracting to the English speaking members, but I knew most of them accepted the Lao people and did their best to make them feel welcome.

I also knew it was hard to understand why the Lao people did some of the things they did. They didn’t dress the same, their food was different, their cooking spices made them smell a little differently, and many of the adults did not speak English at all. For reasons I will not get into here, their teenagers seemed to gravitate toward gangs and other dangerous behaviors. Also, the transition from Buddhism to Christianity is a difficult one and so some of the Lao members never seemed to be as converted as the Caucasian members had thought they should be. These and other problems, made full acceptance of the refugees hard for both groups.

On that day, It was also Fast Sunday.  During Sacrament meeting, I had translated testimony after testimony of the Caucasian members who were grateful to live in the United States of America because of the incredible freedoms we enjoy. I shared their gratitude.  But something a little different started to burn in my heart.  Something was stirring that wanted to be shared but I wasn’t quite sure what. 

A moment came when I had the opportunity to say the words that were starting to form in my heart. I literally felt as if I was being pulled out of my chair and then out of my mouth came the words to a poem I had once put to memory: 

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

After reciting the poem, I related it to the refugees from Laos – those huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse, homeless, tempest tossed children of our Father in Heaven. It was so obvious in those moments that they had been brought here by the Hand of God so they could have freedom, but more importantly, so they could learn about Jesus Christ and the Great Plan of Happiness He has for them. In all honesty, I don’t remember what I said. I just knew that the words coming from my mouth were not my own. They were powerful words and they left an impression on my heart that still remains to this day.

After the meeting a woman came up to me and said, “Sister Davis, I will not soon forget that testimony. No I will not.”

I hope she hasn't. Not for my benefit. I don't even care if she remembers who said what she heard that day. I just hope that she remembers what she felt and she still uses it to this day.

I know what I felt. My heart swellled with love for four whole countries (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand) full of people and the refugees who have left that country no matter where they may be on this planet. I know that sounds unbelievable but, it is true. I can feel it right now as I type these words. That kind of love can only come from one source - Jesus Christ!

I had been told in the Missionary Training Center that I had not just been called to be an ambassador for Jesus Christ. I was taught that for the rest of my life, I am to be an ambassador for the people the Savior called me to teach.

On that 4th of July, I understood what that meant. It is a responsibility I still feel today.

A missionary in the Book of Mormon had an opportunity to teach some people for whom he felt the same powerful love. Of his experience he said, 

"Yea, they were encircled about with everlasting darkness and destruction; but behold, he has brought them into his everlasting light, yea, into everlasting salvation; and they are encircled about with the matchless bounty of his love; yea, and we have been instruments in his hands of doing this great and marvelous work.

"Therefore, let us glory, yea, we will glory in the Lord; yea, we will rejoice, for our joy is full; yea, we will praise our God forever. Behold, who can glory too much in the Lord? Yea, who can say too much of his great power, and of his mercy, and of his long-suffering towards the children of men? Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel." Alma 26:15-16

I couldn't say it any better. :)

There is not a day that goes by that I don't think of some lesson learned from the beautiful Lao, Hmong, Vietnamese, Mien, Cambodian, and Thai people whom I served during that short 18 months. I know I was sent to teach them who Jesus Christ is and what He did for them but they taught me how to follow Him. What an honor it was to be there among them as we learned the gospel of Jesus Christ together. I will truly be eternally grateful - for it changed me, eternally.

Freedom - real, eternal, lasting freedom - 
comes from one source...
Jesus Christ.

I love knowing that He is doing all He can to lead us to the freedom He offers. He won't ever force us to choose that freedom but I know He will never stop inviting us to accept His offer.

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