My first Christmas in America, and my first interaction with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, changed my life.
As a child, Christmas was a foreign concept for me. I grew up Muslim. My family immigrated to the United States when I was seven, and I had never celebrated or even heard of Christmas.
In fact, I came to the US barely knowing two words—yes and no—and I would get them confused. While it was frustrating not to understand the language, I developed a love for America after discovering supermarkets, Cheetos, and school lunch pizzas.
My parents had only brought enough money to live in the States for one year. My mom, who had never worked outside the home, was working long days at a dry-cleaning service doing alterations. My dad, a trained neurosurgeon in Iran, was driving a delivery truck at night while he studied during the day to become a doctor in the United States. We were barely making ends meet.
Receiving a Christmas miracle
That first holiday season, a friend named Maryam invited us to the ward Christmas party. After our family went to the party and a family home evening at Maryam’s house, my mother requested that the missionaries come to teach her the gospel. We soon joined the Church and simultaneously witnessed countless miracles during several difficult years of starting over in the United States.
During our second December in the States, we were new Christians who didn’t know how to celebrate Christmas. A sister from the Church stopped by to visit, and she noticed we didn’t have a Christmas tree or decorations. Just before Christmas, our whole family was watching our mini black-and-white TV when we heard a knock at the door. We were surprised to see a group of people singing a beautiful Christmas song. They filled our tiny apartment with huge baskets of wrapped gifts for each child in our family.
They also brought another basket full of food, a Christmas tree, and decorations. Our little apartment had never seen so much bounty. Suddenly, we were no longer alone in a foreign country but were surrounded by love, light, and a new family in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Since that Christmas, I have remembered this generous act and attempted to pay this kindness forward in some way at Christmas, though I have never done it in as dramatic a way as I remember it was done for me.
Ministering as a mentor
Fast-forward 31 years to the Christmas of 2018. This pay-it-forward spirit of kindness and love was not alive in my heart.
I felt exhausted thinking about my calendar filled with Christmas shopping, cards, concerts, and parties. I wondered how I could simplify the holiday mayhem so I could have more energy to take care of myself and our family during my difficult fourth pregnancy, which brought acute pain in my pelvis and hips and made walking excruciating.
As I hyper-focused on my growing to-do list, I lost focus on the joy of the Savior.
During this low point in my life, my friend Kristin reached out to see if I wanted to join a mentoring circle for several refugee families. She asked me to donate towards Christmas gifts as well as commit to a longer-term mentoring relationship. I wanted to help. But I wondered, “How can I take on someone else when I am barely surviving right now?” I felt like I couldn’t say yes, but I didn’t want to say no.
I sheepishly told Kristin that I would write a check, but I could not be a mentor to a refugee mother.
But an unsettled feeling from declining an opportunity to help someone gnawed at my soul. In February, after I had given birth, the Spirit brought this refugee mother to my mind. I decided to reach out to Kristin and ask if it was too late to help. In some incredible twist of events, all the women had been matched with mentors except a mother named Speratha and her young baby.
Speratha lost her parents and eight siblings in the genocide in Rwanda. She and her baby were alone in a new country and in life. The first time I met her, I walked into the simple apartment she had recently obtained with government assistance. It was clean but empty. Speratha didn’t have a chair for us to sit on or a mattress to sleep on, but we both felt warm gratitude as we sat on the floor to get to know each other.
I will never forget what happened next. The Spirit whispered to me, “She is your sister,” and my heart was flooded with sincere and instant love for her.
Tears filled my eyes as I hugged this woman I just met, and the Spirit impressed upon me how similar we were. Like Speratha, I had been a single mother at a point in my life. I remembered that when we came to America, we also lived in an apartment with no furniture until we were able to find some mattresses on a curb. We had also escaped a fraught political environment and were unsafe in the country where we originated. My family was blessed by disciples of Christ who were His hands in loving us like we were family.
Through the promptings of the Spirit, I decided at that moment that Speratha was going to be part of my family. I knew that, through me, Heavenly Father would pour out His love for this daughter and that together we would be sisters in Christ.
Sharing Christ's love
Elder Ulisses Soares relayed a tale of a rabbi watching the sunrise with two friends in his talk, “Brothers and Sisters in Christ.” In answer to the question, “How do you know when the night is over and a new day has begun?” the wise rabbi said, “When you can look into the east and see the face of a woman or the face of a man and can say, ‘She is my sister; he is my brother.’” Elder Soares assured us, “The light of a new day shines brighter in our lives when we see and treat our fellow beings with respect and dignity and as true brothers and sisters in Christ.”
When I was full of love for Speratha, her problems became my problems, and her burdens became mine. As Elder Soares taught, I started “to see [myself] reflected in the dreams, hopes, sorrows, and pains of [my] neighbor.”
Everyone in our mentoring circle felt the same call. We all became brothers and sisters in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and our “hearts [were] changed through faith on his name.” Our new family in Christ worked together to immediately fill Speratha’s home and kitchen with essentials. Over the next few years, we helped her learn to drive, get her driver’s license and buy a car, get into school to obtain her GED, and put her son in school where he could thrive. We adopted her into our families.
This sisterly and brotherly love brightened Speratha’s life, and she met with the missionaries. In 2021, she decided to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, making her own covenant to become a disciple of Christ. On that holy day, the room was full of members of Speratha’s gospel family who gathered to support her.
At her baptism, I said, “You have lost so much of your family, but God loves you since you are His daughter. And I know you don’t have your parents or most of your siblings anymore, but now you have sisters and brothers in the gospel, and Jesus Christ is with you.”
Whatever our family circumstances, when we recognize each other as brothers and sisters, God’s love will brighten our lives.
There is a lot of good to be done, especially at Christmastime, but we cannot do it all. As Alma reminds us, “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass.”
If all you can do this Christmas is invite someone to a ward party, that simple invitation can change their life.
It changed mine.
Hear more from Shima on the Magnify podcast.