by Amy Brigham
On Christmas Eve 2008, my husband was deployed to the Middle East and I was trying my hardest to make Christmas a happy occasion for our daughter despite his absence. To accomplish this I invited people over for a Christmas open house and made a table full of good food for the occasion. I decorated the house nicely, including a live evergreen wreath with a pretty red bow. And I lit a lot of candles. Can you see where this story is going?
As my daughter and I were putting the finishing touches on our party and waiting for guests to arrive any minute, she started yelling “fire fire mommy!” and I looked behind my back and somehow the bow on the wreath had fallen off the wall and was ablaze. I yelled at my daughter to get out the front door while I grabbed the fire extinguisher. The smoke was thick and dark as I headed towards the fire causing me to feel dizzy and making the fire extinguisher difficult to operate.
In what felt like an instant, the fire burned through the bow and ventured to the wreath where it burst up into flames and started burning the wall. Part fell to the floor and the carpet went up into flames. Up until that moment, I didn’t appreciate just how quickly fires can spread. I dropped the fire extinguisher and ran out right as the sprinkler system began pouring down water to extinguish the growing fire. Completely soaked, I pulled the fire alarm and found somebody to call the fire department as I had left my phone behind in the blazing apartment.
Almost immediately neighbors came from my building and the surrounding buildings. Some came to watch the drama in perverse fascination but many more came with blankets, coats, and offers of help. Somebody took my daughter and got her into warmer clothes. Somebody brought me a dry shirt and a coat. A few men ran in after the flames had died out, with wet t-shirts over their faces, and opened the windows to prevent further smoke damage. They rescued our Christmas gifts and began to move out furniture as the sprinklers kept raining down. Others went to find maintenance; still others attempted to find a way to turn off the water, which wound up raining down on our possessions for over twenty minutes when all was done.
A kind woman put her arm around her and walked me away from my door, telling me the smoke was bad for me but watching the destruction of my life more worrisome. She didn’t want me to watch this scene any longer and together we walked down the stairs. She asked if she could call my husband at work for me. The tears I had held back with great difficulty finally came streaming down my face at that point as I shared with her that my husband was deployed to the Middle East. Already my neighbors had been so willing to help but once people began heard that my husband was a deployed soldier, I was humbled and touched beyond words at what followed.
People told us we could stay with them and have Christmas dinner with their families, if we had no place to go. A young single guy heard about the fire and went to Wal-Mart, returning with a doll, a Little People farm set, and some dress-up clothes for my daughter. I tried to refuse out of embarrassment, but he’d hear nothing of it, insisting he couldn’t let a little girl with a deployed father have no gifts on Christmas morning. Over a dozen people gave me their phone numbers and told me to call them as they’d be willing to help clean up my apartment and get us settled again. My daughter was provided the loving comfort of a sweet grandmotherly woman as the paramedics checked us out at the same time.
So often I have heard unkind remarks made about those who put yellow ribbon magnets on their cars, how they don’t “support the troops” or care about what military families go through, but as I sat in the parking lot last Christmas Eve, surrounded by such cars featuring these very magnets, as is common down south, I knew this wasn’t true at all. At my moment of greatest need, I was surrounded by strangers who gave up their holiday evening, several of whom stayed with me and my daughter rather than going to church as they didn’t want to leave us alone until my parents arrived.
They did all of this for me, a stranger to them, a woman they’d never met before, who disrupted their holiday evening. In the midst of these trying moments, I was given one of the best gifts I had ever been given: to have people sincerely care when they had no real reason to. What a true representation of Christ’s love, of sacrifice, of loving your neighbor as yourself, and on Christmas Eve of all days. As I sat on the steps that night, a peace came upon my heart as I felt myself enveloped in the love of the Lord and the many people He had moved to help my family that evening.
One of my favorite Bible verses came to life in that cold Georgia parking lot that evening, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[a]—which means, “God with us.” God was with us that night. He kept us safe, spared our home and that of the others in our building, and blessed my daughter and I with loving people who we will never forget. God is with us, He really is.
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