“The First Christmas,” New Era, Dec. 1979, 45
“No tree?” I sat up in bed.
“That’s right,” my companion replied.
I couldn’t believe it. Only eight days before Christmas and Elder Sonderegger was telling me we weren’t even going to have a Christmas tree.
“Good night, Elder Mitchell,” he called out from the other side of our small apartment. Our room, which was barely large enough for two beds, a closet, and a desk with one broken leg, was again silent. I quietly lay thinking.
“No tree,” I muttered to myself. That was too much. I thought of the Christmas my family would be having—good food, carols, snow, friends, and of course, a tree. The only carols I’d heard were sambas; snow was nonexistent; all my friends were in the States; and now to top it off, no tree. I rolled over in my lumpy bed and stared at the cracks in the ceiling. Too soon, out of the corner of my ear, I heard a familiar buzzing.
“Oh no, not again tonight!” swatted in the general direction of the sound but missed. Quickly, I pulled a sheet over my head for protection, but this only intensified the humidity and heat. The perspiration began beading on my back. I stayed under the cover until my pajamas began sticking to my body, and then I furiously kicked it off. However, it was not much cooler since we didn’t even have a window in the room, and I still had the mosquitoes to contend with.
Suddenly, a flea began crawling up my leg. I reached down in time to pull it off before it bit me, but I knew I would not be so lucky all night long. I sighed, for I also knew it was going to be another long night. And mom had written that week, “Have a merry first Christmas in Brazil, Greg.”
“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the wayyyyyy. Hey, get out of bed, Elder Mitchell. Only seven days till Christmas. Yes sir, Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way to the shower. Ooohhhh what fun …”
The door of our small apartment slammed shut as my companion went out to shower. The night before hadn’t been very restful between the mosquitoes, fleas, and sticky, humid heat. Lying back in bed, I decided to rest a few more minutes. It was only a short time later that I heard a familiar monotone coming up the hall.
“… one horse open sleighhhhh. Hey, you’re still in bed.”
“Hey, I’m meditating,” I replied.
“Well, do your meditating in the shower.” Elder Sonderegger stood in his robe, with water dripping off his six-foot-three-inch, 215-pound body. “It’s 6:48, Elder Mitchell. Time to be up and Adam.”
“That’s at’em,” I corrected.
“Like I said, ‘Adam.’”
Pulling off my covers, I kicked my feet onto the bare, wooden-tile floor. Putting on my shoes and grabbing a towel, I turned to Elder Sonderegger.
“No tree, huh?”
“Oh.” He stopped whistling. “That’s right. This is your first Christmas here, isn’t it?”
“Yup and some Christmas this is going to be. They don’t even have the simplest Christmas tradition of a tree.”
“Oh.” He nodded understandingly. “Well, they do have some trees, but they’re pretty expensive.” His brow wrinkled and his lips came together as he pondered the situation. “Look, you go shower, and I’ll see what I can do. Okay?”
I shrugged my shoulders. What could he do? I guess this was just one of those times on your mission when you had to sacrifice. After showering, I felt cooler and a little better. Reentering our room, I noticed Elder Sonderegger sitting at the desk reading his triple combination and wearing a suspiciously mischievous look. Turning to my bed I saw why.
“What’s that?” I cautiously asked, pointing to an oblong-shaped package on my bed. It looked like a bomb.
“Don’t have the foggiest, old chap,” he said in his best phony English accent. “Why don’t you open it and see?”
I walked to my bed and pulled the papers off the package. Inside I found a small, green, artificial Christmas tree. True, it looked as if someone had sat on it, but it was a tree nonetheless.
“It’s not in really great shape,” Elder Sonderegger hastened to say, “but it might do in a pinch—or on a mission.”
It wasn’t in the greatest condition, but it didn’t look too bad. “Where’d you get it?”
“My ex-girl sent it last Christmas, and I’d forgotten all about it until you started this talk about trees and Christmas. It’s been through some pretty rough transfers though,” he said, picking up one of the bent aluminum branches and sticking it into the base of the tree.
I didn’t know what to say. “Thanks, Elder Sonderegger.”
“It’s okay. Come on, hurry and get dressed. Remember we have an 8:00 appointment this morning.”
As I dressed, he looked in his Bible for a devotional scripture.
“Here’s a good one. Will you read it?” he asked, handing me the Bible.
I began reading. “Matthew 25:40: ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’” [Matt. 25:40] I looked up.
“Amen, brother. Since you read the scripture, I’ll say the prayer.”
After prayer, we grabbed our briefcase, ran out the door, and hurried down the street to the blue and white pole marking the bus stop.
“Elder Sonderegger, I appreciate what you did about the tree and all,” I said, as we waited for the bus. “I was wondering if you could do anything about the snow situation?”
“To be honest, Elder Mitchell, being from Colorado, you wouldn’t know what good snow was if it hit you right between the earlobes.”
“You think Washington snow is better, I assume.”
“You know it.”
The bus came, and we left, but on the way we held an in-depth discussion on the relative merits of Colorado versus Washington snow.
Sorocaba, Brazil, is an interior city. And in our mission, interior is synonymous with hot, humid, and muggy. As the morning progressed, the temperature rose. After our lesson, we checked out some referrals and made some contacts, and then we were ready to return home for lunch. Leaning against the pole marking the bus stop, I was surprised by a tugging at my hand.
“Feliz Natal (Merry Christmas),” a small girl said, holding out her hand. She couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, although her eyes looked older.
“What does she want, elder?” I asked, turning to Elder Sonderegger.
Crouching down, he spoke with her for a minute and then stood up. “She said her father died three days ago, and they don’t have any food in the house.”
“Okay,” I said, “if she wants something to eat, let’s buy her some milk and pão dôce (sweet bread).”
Elder Sonderegger glanced again at her ragged, brown dress. “I think we at least ought to check it out. Maybe there’s something we could do.”
I looked at my watch. “We’ll be late for lunch if we go, and besides, we don’t have time to waste on some wild chase.”
He didn’t say a word.
“Oh, come on, Elder Sonderegger. Don’t be so naive, so gullible. We’re not out here to play welfare worker. We’re here to teach the gospel. Besides, even if we did go, we’d probably find her father in the house, unemployed but healthy.”
She looked up in polite confusion as we spoke in English.
“Elder Mitchell,” Elder Sonderegger reminded me, “Matthew 25:40: ‘When ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren. …’” [Matt. 25:40]
“What do you mean, it doesn’t apply?”
Stubbornly, I insisted. “Just what I said. She’s probably lying, and you know that. Come on, it’s time to eat.”
A trickle of sweat slid down my back. He still gave me the “I think we ought to go” look, and sighed. I was obstinate, but in the month we’d been companions, I’d learned he was even more so when he felt he was right.
“All right, all right. You win, but I bet dollars to doughnuts we find the father home—alive, well, and lounging around.”
A swirl of dust from down the road announced the coming of the bus. It careened toward us and slammed to a stop ten feet past the bus stop. We ran, two large Americans and one small Brazilian, and grabbing the handrail, jumped inside. It started up again, and I jerked open a window for some fresh air while Elder Sonderegger leaned across the aisle and began conversing with the little girl. Her name was Angela; she had never been to school, never had shoes, and from the looks of her skinny body, hadn’t eaten a good meal for some time. I began to feel a little sorry for her (and a little ashamed of myself) since a majority of the Brazilian kids attend school, are neatly dressed, and eat fairly well. After a 15-minute ride on the dusty bus, she indicated it was time to get off. We did so and began walking up a steep dirt road into a poor section of the city. There were no cars, no glass windows no grass—none of the things that could be seen in the rest of the city. Here there was nothing but dirt—dirt roads, dirt houses, and dirty children. And unlike the rest of the houses in the city that were kept in good repair, most of the red-tiled roofs here had holes and the walls were either unpainted or had peeling and chipped paint. I felt out of place in my clean white shirt and tie.
Finally, we arrived at what she called home. Most of the homes in Sorocaba had a good gate and fence surrounding them. Her gate consisted of a few strands of wire tied between two posts, which she opened and invited us to enter. In the back of the lot stood a two-room shack made out of cardboard and old signs. On either side of the dirt path leading to the house, instead of flowers, grass, or beautifully tiled entrances, as was the custom, we saw litter, debris, and one scrawny chicken scratching for something to eat. Not seeing a flower or tree anywhere, I doubted whether even weeds would have grown. Angela scurried inside and quickly reappeared at the doorway with a man, also thin, with blue eyes and dark hair, who appeared startled to have visitors.
“Entrem por favor (Come in, please),” he said, still looking surprised but apparently pleased to have guests.
“My name is Antonio.”
“You’re her father?” we asked, pointing to Angela, who was now just one of seven or eight small children scattered on the dirt floor.
He nodded. Most homes had at least a gas stove, but here a thin, pregnant woman was kneeling by an open fire, stirring a black kettle.
“Did you know she was begging this morning? And she told us you died three days ago.”
A look of surprise crossed his face. “I’m shocked to hear she was begging, and as for being dead, well, as you can plainly see, I’m not.” He laughed at his joke.
“Come on, Elder Sonderegger. I think we should go,” I said quietly.
Ignoring me, Elder Sonderegger said, “No, you’re not dead, but you still need help. We’re missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
“Stop,” he said shaking his head. “We have our own religion. But if you really want to help,” he said, looking at our clothes, “a hundred cruzeiros would be very helpful.” He eyed us again as if wondering whether he should have asked for more.
“No, we won’t give you money,” Elder Sonderegger said. “Have you tried looking for a job?”
Antonio protested. “But I’ve looked all over, and there isn’t one.”
Elder Sonderegger thought for a minute. “Okay, I’m sure we can help you find something. In fact, this morning I saw an opening for a mechanic’s helper at a garage. If you want it, we’ll take you down right now.”
Antonio turned and looked at his wife. “Well, we were just going to have lunch …” His voice trailed off.
Just as I thought. He didn’t want to take advantage of an opportunity put right in his way.
“But I guess I could go,” he hesitantly added. “If my wife would save some lunch for me.” She nodded unemotionally. “All right, senhores, let’s go.”
I thought I detected just a hint of trembling enthusiasm in his voice.
The three of us left and walked down the hill to where the bus was parked. Entering, we paid his way, sat down, and the bus began its journey, dust billowing behind. It was about a half-hour ride to the garage, but since it was close to where we ate lunch, I could last that long. I looked at Antonio sitting on the bench across the aisle.
“Elder Sonderegger, you’re probably wasting your time again,” I whispered. “Do you honestly think that if we found him a job, he’d work? He probably wouldn’t stay more than ten minutes if he stayed at all.”
Shrugging, he simply said, “Maybe.”
Unexpectedly, Elder Sonderegger reached up and jerked the cord that signaled the bus driver to stop. Getting up from his seat, he raced to the front of the bus. I grabbed our briefcase and Antonio and followed. Ignoring my “What now?” look, he pointed to a sign he had seen from the bus window, Precisa-se serventes.
“The sign says they need construction workers. Why don’t we try there? It’d be closer to his home, and the pay would be better.”
By that time I had given up hope of ever seeing our lunch. “Lead on,” I wearily said. “We’re right behind you.”
It took only a few minutes to walk to where a few houses lay in half-completed shells.
“Have you ever worked construction before?” I asked. He shook his head and I shook mine in unison, looking at his lack of muscle. He reminded me of the skinny guy in the weight-lifting ads who always got sand kicked in his face, but he evidently was in good health. Elder Sonderegger started down to talk to the supervisor, and after a few minutes motioned us to come down too.
“Antonio,” Elder Sonderegger said, “the foreman has agreed to hire you starting early tomorrow. Do you want the job?”
“Do I want it?” he exclaimed. “You bet I want it! I’ve been all through this area looking for work. I didn’t know they needed workers so close to home.”
Antonio continued, “Can my son come, too? He’s only 17, but he’s strong.”
Hesitating, the foreman looked at us, then at Antonio. “Okay.”
Antonio walked to Elder Sonderegger and shook his hand vigorously. “You just don’t know what this means to my family, now that we will have two working members.” He turned to the foreman. “Six o’clock sharp tomorrow morning, I’ll be here with my son. Thank you, senhor.” Taking Elder Sonderegger by the hand again, he said, “And thank you.” I thought I saw a tear in Antonio’s eye.
“We’ll come back and see how you’re doing in a couple of days,” Elder Sonderegger said. “Okay?”
“Please do, and we’ll invite you home for dinner. Até logo, amigos.”
“Até logo, Antonio.”
We watched as he walked down the dirt road toward home, and once again we began walking to the bus stop and lunch.
“Elder Sonderegger …” I paused. I wasn’t sure how to say it. “I think I owe you an apology. I believe you were right and I was wrong.”
“That’s okay, Elder Mitchell.” Reaching the bus stop, he set the briefcase down. “Really makes you feel good, doesn’t it?”
“It sure does.”
A dusty cloud could be seen coming up the road. “Hey, here comes the bus,” he said. “We’ll have to hustle to get any lunch. I hope the dona didn’t throw it out.”
“The only question I have,” I said, stepping into the bus, “is how are we going to count these last two hours on our evaluation? It wasn’t member work or proselyting, and helping people find work isn’t listed on the sheet. Compassionate service?”
“Nope. We’re not in the Relief Society.”
We both laughed as the bus lurched to a start.
The next week was busy, with many families to teach during the holidays. We were so busy with lessons and contacting that besides being kept on the run, we hadn’t even had time to put up our little tree. A couple of days before Christmas we gave a lesson near the construction site where Antonio was working. Since it was only a few blocks away, we decided to drop in and see how he was doing.
“You know something, Elder Sonderegger?” I said as we walked toward the site. “You probably did more for that guy than anyone ever has. Why, this might be just the break he needs to pull out of the life he’s been living.” Crossing the street, I continued: “Think of what could happen now that he’s working: good food on the table, clothes and shoes for his wife and kids, and maybe even a nicer house one day. He could live like other Brazilians and have you to thank for it all.”
Elder Sonderegger blushed and tried not to show his enthusiasm. “That would be neat, wouldn’t it?”
We spotted the foreman easily but when we looked for Antonio, he couldn’t be seen anywhere.
“Probably in a corner somewhere or working on the inside of a house,” I suggested as we walked to the foreman.
“Who?” the foreman asked when we inquired about Antonio. “Oh yeah, that skinny guy you brought here last week. Neither he nor his son showed the next morning, and I haven’t seen them since.”
“Didn’t show up?” Elder Sonderegger asked unbelievingly. “You’re sure?”
“Positive,” he replied.
“Thanks,” Elder Sonderegger said dejectedly. He kicked at a dirt clod. “Let’s go, Mitchell.”
Picking up the briefcase, we silently walked out onto the street. “That Antonio,” he muttered. “I’m sorry, Elder Mitchell. You were the one who was right. I should have followed your advice.” Angrily he finished, “What a waste of time!” He stomped down the street.
But somehow, something wasn’t right. I just knew it wasn’t. Suddenly, as if in a flash, I understood. “Wait, Elder Sonderegger,” I called out. “It doesn’t matter.”
“What?” he asked, turning around.
I ran to where he stood. “I said, “‘It doesn’t matter.’”
“It doesn’t matter?” he asked lamely. “What doesn’t matter? Has the heat gotten to you, Elder Mitchell?”
“No, no, you don’t understand. It doesn’t matter what Antonio does. ‘When you’ve done it unto one of the least of these my brethren …’”
He paused and looked away. Then slowly he smiled. “You turkey. I guess you’re right. It really doesn’t matter.” He picked up the briefcase. “Come on, let’s go home and get that tree up. After all, what’s Christmas without a Christmas tree?”
I laughed. “That’s right. Can’t have Christmas without a tree.”
We sang “Jingle Bells” until the bus came. Still singing, we jumped on amid the mixed smiles and stares of other passengers. I didn’t mind, though, because they didn’t understand that this was my first Christmas.