It had been a beautiful Christmas Day. The glorious unwrapping mess in the living room was finally cleaned up, the Christmas dinner had been enjoyed and cleaned up and our nine children had all gone upstairs to play with their new treasures. As I cleaned up the last few peanut shells sliding down between the cushions on the couch, I could hear peals of laughter coming from upstairs as the kids played together with a new game. I’m sure you know the feeling on a wonderful Christmas evening: exhaustion, gratitude, happiness, warmth. Little did I suspect that in a few short minutes my life would be turned upside down, although not as much as the lives of more than a million other people across the world.
The year was 2004, soon to be 2005. 2004 had been a stunning year. At Rising Star Outreach, we had spent several frustrating years trying to help the leprosy-affected in India by working through other charities and non-governmental organizations. Unfortunately, we learned that the funds we were supplying weren’t going to help those most in need.
Even worse, we learned that the patients and their families were not being treated with the dignity and respect they needed. Accordingly, we decided that the only way to achieve our mission would be to register as our own charity in India. It had been an arduous process, consuming many months of red tape, but we had finally been successful. Rising Star Outreach of India was born! A little pre-school was opened with 27 tiny 3-5-year-old children. Humanitarian programs were started in six Leprosy colonies. Hope was in the air.
Our little children’s home and preschool opened in April, and by Christmas was already so successful that we had leprosy patients from all over the state of Tamil Nadu clamoring for us to open a second home. We already had a waiting list of several hundred children, with more parents seeming to contact us every day seeking spots for their children. Funds were extremely limited. After all, we were a brand-new charity! The need, however, took no heed—it was overwhelming and daunting.
Located on East Coast road, our children’s home and pre-school was less than a half mile from the beautiful Indian Ocean and the children were able to walk to the beach once a week for special playtime. They loved the beach! But I’m guessing you can imagine how frazzling that once-a-week afternoon had to be for our volunteers trying to keep tabs on twenty-seven 3-5-year-old children, none of whom could swim!
Right before Christmas another small home, also close to the beach became available for rent, and we jumped at the chance. So it was, after things in America had settled down Christmas evening, I called Gopi, our Director in India, to find out if this new available house was large enough for us to bring 20 additional children into the pre-school.
We had spoken for only a few minutes when Gopi suddenly blurted out in a panic, “Oh, I have to go, there is ocean water coming to the house!” I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. “How is that possible—the ocean is half a mile away?” “Yes, but it’s coming toward the house.” He was talking rapid-fire, with the words spilling out on top of themselves, “This day has been crazy. Already two times today, the ground was shaking and some of the walls fell down close to us, and now the ocean is coming to the house.” It was as if the world was suddenly standing still as I realized in a panic that Gopi was trying to describe both earthquakes and now a tsunami. I literally shouted into the phone, “Gopi, you need to get all the children into the van and drive inland as fast as you can.”
Gopi said,” I can’t get the children into the van, there are hundreds of people in the street in front of our home.” Again, I was trying to picture what he was saying, but nothing was making sense. “Why are there hundreds of people in the street?” He said, “They are carrying their children and crying that the ocean has taken their families away.” Gopi was now crying. With that, the line went dead.
I tried again and again to reach Gopi, but there was no connection to be had. I then tried to call our volunteers. Again, nothing. By now my pulse was racing and I could literally taste the panic as it rose in my throat. Gopi had mentioned TWO earthquakes. How could I warn him that there would likely be another wave of tsunami?
I felt totally helpless. I yelled to my son to get on CNN and see if there was any earthquakes or tsunamis mentioned in the Indian Ocean. He quickly tuned into CNN and heard that there were early reports of a tsunami in Indonesia, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka, but there were no details. They were scrambling to learn what was happening.
I kept trying to call but was unable to get anyone. Again, I felt an overwhelming helplessness. I called my children and husband down from upstairs and we all gathered around, knelt down and offered a desperate prayer for safety for those we loved in India.
My children kept surfing all the news channels trying to get any updates. I kept desperately calling Gopi’s phone over and over again. Shortly after the prayer—a full 45 minutes since the line had gone dead, Gopi suddenly answered the phone. I fairly shouted into the phone, “Gopi, Gopi are you all okay? Where are you?” He replied that he was in the van with the children and they were driving inland as I had told him. “Do you have all the Children?” ”Yes, all of them!”
I burst into tears and fell to my knees in gratitude.
The next morning, I booked the quickest available flight to India. My experiences on that trip were nearly indescribable to anyone who has not been involved in a catastrophic event claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. As a result of that tsunami nearly 230,000 people lost their lives, across seven countries. It was the largest natural disaster in modern history. Miles and miles of the Indian coast were completely leveled. More than a hundred fishing villages were destroyed. An estimated 10,000 people died along that coastline.
One of the most humbling moments I can remember in my life is when I finally arrived in Chennai and rushed to our children’s home, not knowing what sort of damage to expect To my utter amazement, though the area across the street was absolute devastation, our Children’s home and the other homes around us were literally untouched. I couldn’t understand it. We were on the famous East Coast road that ran along the coastline. All up and down that road was terrible, indescribable destruction. Yet there our house stood, as if nothing had happened.
Gopi explained it to me. The tsunami wave was six feet high when it reached that area. Our home was on a hill, above the six-foot level. I honestly hadn’t even noticed before that we were on a slight hill. But it made all the difference in the world. Then Gopi showed me the water mark on our front porch where the water had literally come up to our porch before pulling back. I remember chills running down my back when I saw that water mark.
For the next few years we loved to show it to visitors when they visited the home.
I learned many lessons as I worked in the aftermath of that tsunami. I will share some of those insights with you in subsequent articles. But in this article, I’d like to bring it to our world today as we face a new year in a new decade.
This past year, 2019, was a year of many natural disasters worldwide, and 2020 appears no different. Thousands of people were displaced. Hundreds of thousands of acres have burned. There have been floods, hurricanes, typhoons of unprecedented fury and power, draughts, and water shortages around the world. It is easy to “let our hearts fail us.”
I am reminded of the scripture in Doctrine & Covenants 88:89-91 where it says all the earth will be in commotion in the last days, as God speaks to His children through lightening, thundering, earthquakes, tempests, storms, and the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds. I remember as a teenager reading these verses and feeling fear.
But now, at the beginning of a New Year, I believe we can look ahead with peace and hope. How can I say that?
One of the most powerful tsunamis in history had lapped at our children’s home but was turned back without reaching into the house. Was it the prayer? Was it faith? Was it a tender mercy? Perhaps it was all those things. What I learned was that regardless of how the earth might rage around us, there is peace and safety in prayer and faith. God has a power that can shed forth peace even in the midst of raging waters.
I don’t want to suggest that nothing bad ever happens to good people. This is far from the truth; in fact, one of the purposes of this earth life is for us to be tried and tested through our experiences—all of them, including the trials. It is the trials that often draw us closer to the Lord and help us develop strength of testimony and character. I often say that in my own life, my greatest growth seems to follow my greatest destructions. I personally believe that each trial has great value in our eternal progression.
We all know wonderful people of tremendous faith who have prayed for healing and received a Priesthood blessing petitioning the Lord for just such a healing, yet they seem not to have had those prayers answered, at least not the way they were hoping. In my own family we went through a spiritually searing experience of losing a beloved three-year-old granddaughter to a glioma brain tumor in spite of many people fasting and praying for her. It was an devastating trial for our entire family. She even received a blessing at the direction of the Lord’s prophet, through another General Authority. There was certainly no question of their faith or righteousness! Yet, still our beautiful granddaughter was called home. It was the Lord who gave us peace and comfort through that agonizing experience.
Many of us also know other people who have received Priesthood blessings that resulted in amazing miracles as their prayers were answered in miraculous fashion. These two seemingly opposite facts do not destroy my faith—in fact, they strengthen it. It is a blessing to realize that the Lord knows each of us and carefully watches over us. As I have faced trials in my life, sometimes the Lord has tempered those trials, a few trials He has actually mercifully removed, but many others He has had to strengthen me and walk beside me to help me make it through. He has shed his love and peace on me, in spite of the rigor of the trials.
I suspect that 2020 will hold a mixture of all three of these types of trials for all of us. Some will be tempered, a few may be removed, but through God’s grace we can be strengthened and comforted as we go through those that we must pass through. Elder Maxwell used to call trials tutorials from a loving Father. Hopefully each one will draw us closer to our loving Heavenly Father as He carefully tutors us in our efforts to become more like Him this coming year.