This Christmas, the entire extended family of a man who caused a drunken freeway collision that hospitalized a Nevada mother willfully went without holiday gifts.
The family donated the money saved to the family of the injured mother, Deedra Russell, who has weathered 18 surgeries since the Sept. 8 accident, a horrific head-on collision on I-15 in the Virgin River Gorge of Arizona.
For the Russells, it has been a second tragedy. Six years ago, Deedra’s husband Troy Russell accidentally backed his pickup over their 9-year-old son, Austen, who died, a story later shared by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
On Tuesday, Elder Holland invited members of both families, including the driver, to the Marriott Center at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, where he delivered a devotional address illustrated by their examples of love, repentance, forgiveness and faith in Jesus Christ.
“God does not now, nor will he ever do to you a destructive, malicious, unfair thing, ever,” Elder Holland said. “It is not in what Peter calls ‘the divine nature’ to even be able to do so. By definition and in fact, God is perfectly and thoroughly, always and forever, good, and everything he does is for our good.”
Instead, he said, “Miracles flow even from the mangled wreckage of a charcoal-gray Honda and a white Silverado pickup — all in response to childlike submission and meekness when dealing with what the Father allows.”
His wife, Sister Patricia Holland, also spoke briefly on the same topic.
“I am old enough to bear witness of a God who thinks ‘peace’ regarding us, and not ‘evil,’ a God who will ‘hearken’ unto every one of us in our times of need,” she said.
Elder Holland, who was BYU’s president from 1980-89, shared three lessons from the September crash and the reactions of the drunken driver, the victim and their families. He also shared a video message from Deedra and Troy Russell.
Lesson 1: Keep the commandments and seek forgiveness after breaking them.
“Behind what we want to be a hopeful and constructive ending to this story,” he said, “is the constant reminder, the drumbeat in my brain — rain or shine; night or day; spring, summer, winter and fall — that there is a loving reason to obey gospel laws and a worthy reason to follow gospel principles, the keeping of God’s commandments really is important, and that revealed do’s and don’ts are for a purpose.”
When a mistake is made and a commandment is broken, “Our purpose is to learn. It’s why we come to a university, and one thing this brother and his family have taught us is when we have made a mistake, serious or otherwise, we should feel genuine remorse and sorrow, and we should take responsibility for damage done and suffering caused,” he said.
Elder Holland said that responsibility includes a determination to change the habits and behaviors that led to harm as well as prayers for God to repair or repay what one cannot do oneself.
“To deserve such help, we surely ought to seek to live a life that would warrant it, always remembering that heaven’s grace exceeds our merit,” he said. “I am touched that this good brother who caused this accident is trying to do everything he knows how to do and has done just what I have just said in every way he knows how.”
Elder Holland reported that driver who was headed southbound in the northbound lane on I-15 and caused the collision that hospitalized Deedra Russell has abandoned drinking and returned to religious activity. His extended family joined him in his attempts to make amends by donating their Christmases to the Russells, whose medical expenses likely will bankrupt their family.
The driver also wrote Deedra Russell an eight-page letter.
“Deedra, I feel so horrible (about what) I (have done) to you. My heart is (broken). My lungs can’t breathe. I am so sorry for the pain you are in,” the driver wrote. He added, “Troy, you are an angel (to forgive me). ... I am so sorry you had to go through so much in your lives already, and now this all because of me. ... (But) I am going to church again. I am reading my scriptures every night.
“And please tell the kids I am so sorry I hurt their mother. (Deedra), I know I nearly took your life but if it matters, you have saved mine.”
Lesson 2: Everyone needs forgiveness, so we should extend it to others
“I offer a second lesson,” Elder Holland said. “It is the other side of the forgiveness coin: Just as the transgressor seeks forgiveness as part of the quest for relief and peace, we need to forgive at least in part for the relief and peace it brings us.”
The Russells felt that they could not withhold forgiveness to the driver in part because of Troy’s struggles over the past six years with his accidental role in their son’s death.
“We all thank God for being a Father of forgiveness and for the gifts of mercy and relief that he offers us, all of it ultimately coming to us through the majestic Atonement of his Only Begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ,” Elder Holland said. “We are to join in and participate in that offering. The Russells have done that. They have looked up to their God and, even in their anguish, have humbly but resolutely joined the Savior in extending forgiveness to one in need.”
Lesson 3: Faith in Christ is the most powerful balm and strength
Elder Holland urged BYU students to keep their faith in the face of life’s inevitable struggles.
“So when you are being hammered on the anvil of adversity, when your soul is being refined with severe lessons that perhaps can be learned no other way, don’t cut and run. Don’t jump ship,” he said.
He said that the only help and strength in the most difficult experiences comes from Christ, “the very physician who is unfailingly there to treat your injuries, lift you to your feet and help you finish the course.”
“What we need from everyone,” he added, “from those of you solidly in the church as well as those struggling to hold on, is powerful faith, faith that sustains us here and now ...”
That message resonated with students. The total estimated audience was 7,783, according to the Marriott Center events office.
“It thought it was timely because forgiveness and repentance are not things we see in today’s culture,” said Ryan Smith, 24, an advertising and business major from Lake Forest, California. “The driver’s example and his family’s example inspired me to want to improve myself.”
Smith’s twin brother, Tyler, said he turned to his wife, Sage, while Elder Holland was talking and said, “I’m ready to do hard things with you.”
“For me, it was a call to gratitude,” said Bryson Lichtenberg, 23, a computer science major from Grand Blanc, Michigan. “It was eye-opening to realize how good my life is. I go through hard things on a regular basis, but they are so manageable compared to what others have been called to experience.”
Video message from the Russells
Elder Holland said the Russells’ example of forgiveness has produced miracles of love and faith rippling out to touch hundreds who have done their laundry, brought them meals, taken their children to school, and stayed with Deedra in her St. George, Utah, hospital, hundreds of miles from their family home.
Others have helped Troy at work, allowing him to spend half of the past 132 days since the accident by her side at the hospital.
Their example of forgiveness has touched others who want to understand the source of their strength.
Elder Holland shared a video message from the Russells.
“One thing I’ve learned these past few months, which have been really, really hard for me, is that we have a very loving Heavenly Father,” Deedra said. “... I don’t think that I would have had such a strong testimony of just how much Heavenly Father really loves us if I hadn’t have gone through these things.”
Troy said he has thought Deedra would die three or four times over the past four months, but said that he has been sustained by the Latter-day Saint belief in temple sealings and forever families.
“We hope that we always use our agency to forgive others that have wronged us, to show love and kindness and to be there for other people,” he said.