Christmas Day 2004, and the sun was just rising over Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The country was still recovering from the late 1970s genocide of more than 2 1/2 million people under Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader and the infamous "killing fields" episode. Indeed, there had been little "peace on Earth, good will toward men" in this 95 percent Buddhist land. Nothing had prepared my missionary companion and me for the abject poverty we witnessed serving here as humanitarian missionaries for LDS Charities.
We shared housing with Elder and Sister Taylor, with whom we had previously agreed not to exchange Christmas gifts, but go out on the streets to spread a little Christmas cheer by giving money to the very needy surrounding us. We each put $25 into the pot, which Elder Taylor exchanged into Cambodian currency at the bank. Our total of $100 was exchanged into forty 10,000 reil notes. One 10,000 note equaled $2.50 in U.S. dollars. By our standards $2.50 is not much, but in Phnom Penh, where most people wonder where their next bowl of rice is coming from, a 10,000 reil note was a significant fortune.
We asked Lim, our driver, to have the van at our residence by 10 a.m. Each of us donned a red Santa hat and off we dashed! We drove by Central Market and Russian Market, where tourists shop and the professional beggars line the entries. Many, many times we had contributed to them as well as the young women holding their babies, who they would pinch to make them cry as mothers pleaded "Hungry, hungry." This day we asked Lim to drive into the outer city. We'd asked Heavenly Father in prayer to direct us to his other needy.
Shortly thereafter we spotted an elderly bent-over woman sweeping up the littered street. Jumping out of the van, we began singing "Jingle Bells" as we came toward her, placed the money in her hand and cried, "Merry Christmas"! She looked at our black missionary badges, then looked at the money in disbelief, started waving her arms in a gesture of appreciation as we returned to the van. We waved our red hats out the window to her.
Driving along, we saw one young man going through the garbage in an effort to recycle goods. As we began singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" we got his full attention, and then placed the money in his hand. He put it mechanically into his pocket and walked about 100 feet when he suddenly sat down, pulled the money back out and just stared at it in shock and disbelief. We shouted "Merry Christmas" to him and returned to the van.
As we drove along the riverside, we stopped across from a young mother with her baby and a metal cart. She was counting all the aluminum cans she had collected that day. She was sitting under a tree, so we approached her with our great singing of "Jingle Bells," placing the 10,000 reil note in her hand. It might as well have been 10 million reil because she started to cry with joy from such good fortune coming from four singers in red Santa hats and wearing black missionary badges.
In another area we saw a young little family riding in a metal cart being pushed by the father. They were looking for things to recycle. The mother was cradling a new baby in her arms while a wide-eyed little boy smiled as we sang "Jingle Bells." I placed two 10,000 notes in the father's hand. He was so excited and surprised that he looked at them again and again, then passed them to his wife, who held them to her heart and cried tears of joy.
This was one of my most rewarding, joyful and never-to-be forgotten Christmas Days!
As we knelt in prayer that night, we thanked Heavenly Father for the great gift of his Beloved Son and those choice Christmas Day experiences we had shared with our Cambodian brothers and sisters who validated for us once more our Savior's teaching: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." (Acts 20:35)