It was 16 years ago. The 21st of December was a typical New England winter day with snow and ice already making their regular appearance, and I was writing a talk. However, this was not an ordinary talk I was preparing. Not a neatly packaged sacrament sermon or a personal testimony. Rather, through a torrent of tears and profound sorrow, I was summoning God for hope and peace through words, as we buried one of our beloved young women. Not only was it winter, but it was truly a season of death and sadness that came with a jolting chill to my soul, and to the souls of all who loved Oeun.
To borrow from Charles Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.” At the burgeoning age of 24, I was the Young Women’s President in my ward, which covered a number of communities in the greater-Boston area. The youth I came to know through this calling were the best, despite living in some of the worst conditions. Many of these young people, including Oeun, had immigrated to the US from south-east Asia and were first generation converts. Oeun, our Laurel President, was the only young woman whose parents were also members of the Church. These gospel-seeking youth were growing up in the inner-city, where violence and gangs were commonplace and poverty, both monetary and spiritual, was the norm. I had been naive to such suffering, and such strength. These souls were beacons in the night. They sought truth and light. I witnessed the confidence that comes from knowing that one is a child of God. My heart was opened in new ways as I saw their goodness and charity and learned more about the pure love of Christ.
Oeun was vivacious, silly and loving. It had only been two weeks prior that she came over to our house to work on her application for Brigham Young University. The draft essay which she brought was not the proper essay for an admissions reader, but was a letter of appreciation and gratitude to her dear parents. She was truly a pure soul with infectious goodness.
Oeun was the victim of a gruesome crime. Sometime early in the morning, after her parents had left for work, an intruder stole her innocence and her life. One cannot attempt to make sense of such evil. But in the midst of deep sorrow I was reminded of what the Prince of Peace can offer us during our own winter solstice: “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:18).
In the winter months of life when we have little reserve left to draw upon, Christ offers stars to guide us through the dark patches, words of nourishment to our souls, angels to sing, and gifts of peace on earth and good will to all. And, most of all, hope: Hope of restoring that which has been lost or damaged from the storm. And hope of renewing that which appears to be dead from the bitter chill. The moments that I have felt the purest forms of love and compassion have been in the midst of the most difficult trials, or when I have seen others traverse through difficult experiences. The American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson summed this up nicely: “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.”
Sixteen years later I cannot think of winter, or Christmas, without thinking of Oeun. My life will forever be enhanced by the beauty of knowing her and being reminded of how precious life is. And when the dark seasons come, I hold out hope that Christ will offer healing and peace as he turns the tide to usher in the warmth and renewal of spring.
Shelli now lives in Connecticut where she does financial strategy consulting part-time and spends much of the rest of her time enjoying life with her husband and two kids.