Last month I promised a follow-up article to my challenge to give thanks in all things. Part 2 begins with a story. In India, when we started a little pre-school, it happened to be within half a mile of a hotel that had a pool. Since the hotel was so close to our little pre-school, it became the place where our volunteers stayed when they came to India.
I remember looking at the sparkling blue water of the pool one day and thinking wistfully, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if our little preschoolers could come use the pool?” Chennai is unbearably hot in the summertime, often getting well above 100 degrees. There was no air conditioning in our pre-school. As crazy as it sounds, this little pre-school was a boarding school. It was impossible for the children to get to and from the school every day, due to the tremendous distance of the leprosy colonies. They simply had to live at the school. These were only 3-5-year-old kids! All the children slept in one room at the school, all bunched up together on one mat—27 kids! You know those had to be hot, hot nights!
Then during the day, these small kids sat in a hot windowless room and tried to learn their ABCs. A swim session would be heaven to them. . .
I hardly dared to ask the hotel owner if our students could use his pool. There is such a strong stigma against leprosy, that even if he wanted to, there would likely be severe consequences of the other guests being offended. Then I got an idea. What if they used the pool in the mid-morning, once all the guests from the night before had left and before the new guests would be arriving? After all, the parking lot was completely empty every morning around 10:30. I decided it was worth a try.
I approached the owner at the front desk and bid him good morning. I told him how much I enjoyed the hotel, and casually reminded him how many Rising Star Outreach volunteers stayed at his hotel. Then, with bated breath, I popped the question. Any chance the preschoolers at Rising Star Outreach could use the pool when there were no other guests around? At first, a stern expression crossed his face. The audacity of such a request! These were children from leprosy colonies!
I reminded him again of how many of his guests came from our volunteer groups. Just one time? I begged. I could see him weighing the business consequences of either side of that question. I told him how much it would mean to the children. I promised that we would have one volunteer for every two kids to make sure that everyone was safe.
After a long thoughtful pause, he reluctantly agreed that we could have the kids come ONE time, and only for ONE hour—but only if the parking lot was completely empty.
The next morning, as the last car pulled out of the parking lot, our bus pulled into the hotel and stopped by the pool. The kids were beside themselves with excitement. They had never seen a swimming pool. One by one, each volunteer took two kids in their arms and took them into the water. The squeals!! The absolute delight!! It was precious. After an hour, we reluctantly called everyone to come out of the pool. As the kids returned to the bus, giggling, laughing and talking a mile a minute, they passed the hotel owner with his arms folded across his chest. Every child said enthusiastically, “Thank you so much, Uncle!” “We love you, Uncle.” Some added that this had been the best day of their lives.
As the door to the bus closed, all the kids were leaning out of the windows to wave goodbye to the wonderful hotel owner who had let them come, and to get one last glimpse of the crystal-clear blue water. I also glanced at the hotel owner, prepared to offer effusive thanks. But it was unnecessary. He was so moved by the gratitude of the children that he was in tears. He was embarrassed by his emotion but managed to sputter that we were welcome to bring the kids every day and teach them how to swim!
In all the years I’ve worked in India we’ve struggled against the stigma of leprosy. It’s stubborn and the result of years of conditioning. There’s hardly anything we can do to budge it. But that day, it melted in the heartfelt gratitude of 27 tiny kids.
You’ll never convince me that there’s not a tremendous power in gratitude! Perhaps its greatest power is how it can help us through the tough times in our lives. Barbara Bush, the wife of President George Bush, not speaking the Chinese language and having no American associates, had spent many lonely and isolated days as her husband served as a U.S. envoy, and later as Ambassador in China. She found herself slipping into a deep depression, even reaching the point of feeling suicidal.
In one of her dark days, she noticed that there were many Chinese women who seemed to have great burdens. She began going every day to a nearby home for elderly women. There she spent her time lifting and encouraging the forgotten. She expressed her gratitude frequently for how this changed her experience in China. Before she knew it, her own depression had lifted. This daily ritual became a way of life for her.
Even when her husband became President of the United States, Barbara Bush continued this ritual. She would put on her disguise each morning (she didn’t want the press following her around), slip out the back door of the White House and go read stories to inner-city elementary schools, or serve in soup lines, or visit elderly shut-ins. The press was baffled. We were living in Washington DC at the time, and I simply adored Barbara! What a great living example of both the powers of service and gratitude to heal.
I’m reminded of the beautiful promise in D&C 94:24: “Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good, if ye walk uprightly and remember the covenant wherewith ye have covenanted one with another.” Our trials in this life can be excruciating, yet they purify us, refine us, strengthen us, teach us compassion and humility and prepare us to become more like our Heavenly Parents. They are a critical part of our life experience. While sometimes soul-crushing, they can be turned to our eternal benefit through the Atonement. For this I am tremendously grateful.
This is why Paul could counsel us to give thanks in all things. (Eph. 5:20)
Working in India with the ravages of leprosy, it’s hard to imagine how such a dreadful disease could ever be a blessing. But interestingly, our first Executive Director, Amy Antonelli would often say, “You’ll probably think me crazy to say this, but the best thing that ever happened to our students is that they were born into a leprosy-affected family.” Invariably, someone would exclaim in disbelief, What???
Amy would continue, “Because now their lives are so much better off than many of the other children in poor villages. Because of their family leprosy connection, these kids get to attend Rising Star where they are receiving a superior education. They have excellent medical and dental care. They have three healthy meals a day. They all have access to college scholarships. They have loving sponsors who pray for them and encourage them. Truly, leprosy is the best thing that happened to them.” A very interesting perspective! If you ever get the chance to visit our school, you will readily agree that these are the most grateful and happy children you will ever meet.
So even leprosy can be made to “work together for our good” through the graciousness of God.
Finally, I would have to admit that personally, the greatest trial of my life was the eight long years we struggled trying to help our daughter, Amber, through a very severe bipolar disease. As many of you know, she lost that battle when she took her own life. How could this ever be a blessing?
As some of you know, this event was the catalyst for the creation of Rising Star Outreach, through which many thousands of lives have been blessed. But this wasn’t the only blessing that came from this trial.
Years later, as my husband served as the President of the Santiago, Dominican Republic Mission, we one day received an interesting call from the President of the Dominican MTC. He said, “I just put a girl on the bus to come to your mission. She has really struggled here in the MTC. I didn’t think she would actually get on the bus, but she did. I doubt she’ll last more than 5 minutes. She has a number of very serious emotional challenges.” Then there was a long pause. He added, “I know you probably think I send all my struggling missionaries to you. The truth is, that I do. Every time we get a missionary into the MTC who has emotional challenges I’ll say to my counselor, ‘Oh please tell me that this Elder is not going to Santiago.’ Invariably the answer is, “Yep, he’s going to the Santiago Mission.”
I was so thrilled when I heard this. Yes, I knew we had an unusual number of missionaries with emotional challenges. I honestly believe it was because we had been tutored by the Lord for eight long years as we struggled through emotional challenges with our own daughter. We had come to love and appreciate those who struggle with this challenge.
I feel that we were prepared by God, through the trial of losing a child to suicide, to appreciate the absolute preciousness of every life. We were determined not to give up on a single one of those missionaries. I’m grateful that the Lord was gracious in letting our own heartbreak become a blessing to others.
That young lady not only finished her mission honorably but became a tremendous missionary. She’s been married in the temple and is a tremendous asset to her ward. So many of our other missionaries with similar challenges also became wonderful missionaries. They took some extra time and effort, but how grateful we were that we were blessed to have them in our mission.
I believe that every struggle we face in this life, if met with faith and gratitude, will truly be blessed by God to work to our good. This life is all about meeting challenges and trials as we strive to become more like our Savior. Gratitude throughout these trials lends the sweetness that makes them bearable and even the bearers of joy.
judy fosterFebruary 19, 2022
Thank you so much!!! This is exactly what I needed to read today and want to reread later!!!
JanelFebruary 18, 2022
Thank you for sharing these stories and your testimony of gratitude. I can’t wait to share this with my family, especially my three teenagers. Perspective and gratitude are everything!