Track 4: An Irish Christmas Blessing – Keith & Kristyn Getty
A Season of Love and Service in Ireland By Stephen R. Covey
For a moment, I felt like I had slipped into the transcendent magic of a long-remembered fairy tale. The December cold of Belfast, the kind that shrouds the streets and pierces to the very core of heart and hearth, was wondrously replaced by a surging warmth I will never forget. I stood back in the crowd, allowing myself the supreme satisfaction of observing one of the rarest moments any mission president could ever experience. There they were, our missionaries, being followed like so many Pied Pipers by adoring children through the streets. Little Irish lads and lassies—their faces grimed with soot or chafed and red with cold, swathed in mended wool scarves and layers of patched sweaters—joyously teased toys and treats from young Mormon missionaries playing Father Christmas. I saw our Saviour’s light in the missionaries’ faces as they greeted weeping, grateful parents, amazed storekeepers, and surprised shoppers, going from shop to shop and house to house, offering themselves in pure love and service.
Such is my treasured memory of Christmas 1962, my first year as president of the Irish Mission. It all started when teaching opportunities were eclipsed by Christmas busyness and made us take another look at what we were about. People were full of the Christmas season with its shopping, festivities, visiting, and various traditional celebrations. They were so busy celebrating Christ’s birth that they didn’t make time to learn of his mission. It was, therefore, the time when missionaries most easily lost focus in homesickness and longing for their own holiday traditions. So, on about the tenth of December, we decided that we should shift our entire strategy from one of finding and teaching to one of serving and friendshipping.
We had all the missionaries literally stop their traditional proselytizing activities and spend their time meeting human needs in every way they possibly could. I know the highest thing you can bring people is the gospel of Jesus Christ, but sometimes you have to prepare them for that, and it was the example of the Saviour himself that guided us in our decision. Christ often served without agenda. He blessed only for the sake of blessing. He loved because it was needed. Later, he taught and the people flocked to him because they knew him. They responded to his ministry because they had felt of his ministrations.
So for the holiday weeks of December, our only mission was to meet people, make friends, enter homes and assess needs, then go about with our greatest efforts to emulate Christlike love to meet those needs.
I remember knocking on the door of one particularly humble home, strangers, non-members. There was a mom and dad and many small children. I was most forcibly struck with how cold their home was. You could see your breath in the air; you could see dampness frosting the wood furniture. As soon as I entered, the father hastened to turn on a little electric heater in the front room. I later learned that there were small heaters in the two bedrooms, which they would turn on briefly before the children went to bed, then turn down again once they were asleep. There was so little money for heat they had no other choice.
My purpose (as was the purpose of all such visits that month in the mission) was to view this situation through Christ’s eyes and then bless this family as I thought he might. I later returned with my wife, Sandra, and our three smallest children, Cynthia, age six, Maria, three, and Stephen M. R., still a baby. We brought with us blankets, food, clothes, and some money so the family could increase their heat. We also brought Christmas presents, which, of course, the children enjoyed most. I’ll never forget the mixture of delight and wonder in those people’s faces. I could see they were waiting for the catch. What was it we expected from them in return?
They soon enough had their answer. We expected nothing. For those two or three weeks that December, our motive was service. Not service with the intent to teach. Just service.
The missionaries were beautiful. All across Ireland, young men and women—whom everyone knew were Mormons—met human needs in every way they possibly could. They combed the streets shaking hands. They went into people’s homes asking, How can we serve you? How can we help? They helped decorate or made small repairs. They gave food to the poor, played with children, fetched and carried and ran errands, chopped wood, scrubbed floors, tended the sick—whatever came to mind and heart.
Even I couldn’t resist the fun of dressing up as Father Christmas and visiting the homes of our members. Most of them didn’t even know who I was, other than a jolly, boisterous person in a red suit who hugged the little kids and brought presents and candy. It was unbelievably satisfying and joyous to be totally in the service mode, with no other aim in mind.
Of course, we were rewarded beyond imagination. The missionaries wrote home telling their families of their grand experiences. They described the overwhelming sense of happiness and joy they experienced in going forth, as our Saviour did, ministering to people. Letters back from parents to the mission home said they’d never seen their sons or daughters have such a glorious Christmas.
Floods of teaching opportunities met us downstream; three, four, even five times as many discussions were taught in the months of January through March as in previous months. It naturally followed, then, that we learned a great lesson about the value of renewal and the power of Christlike love. This season of service became our mission holiday tradition for the following two years while I was president.
One of the most tremendous benefits was that the missionaries got very close to the people. They loved the Irish people. Our group of missionaries later established the Shamrock Society, a non-profit organization that continues to function today. They have, during the past thirty-plus years, contributed money to send out more than seventy Irish missionaries into the mission field, on the condition that they would return and build up their own country. I also believe that the spirit of the Shamrock Society keeps our missionaries united. We still draw more than 150 people annually to our reunions. We read touching, newsy letters full of support and gratitude from our “adopted children” serving in Ireland and can’t help but feel the wonderful connection.
Personally, two important lessons were reinforced by this experience. First, joy comes in service. It’s plain and simple, but true—and as mission president, I realized a double dose of joy in seeing the joy that came to our missionaries in creating happiness for others. Second, there’s a season for everything. Half of the Saviour’s ministry was spent teaching, half in just meeting people’s needs. So it is with our teaching. We have to read the culture, whether it be as a missionary in a foreign country, a teacher in Primary, or a parent at home. There is a time to teach and a time to live the work of the Saviour, which creates the ripe moments for teaching.
Those three Christmases in Ireland are my most memorable, not only because of the joy that Sandra and I had, but also because of the joy that we saw in the lives of our missionaries when they really learned to live outside themselves in love.