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Opinion: What an unexpected Christmas in the Philippines taught me

No matter the location or conditions of any family’s Christmas, God loves us all

People attend the first of nine daily dawn masses before Christmas at the St. Joseph Parish Church in suburban Las Pinas city, Philippines.
Residents wear face masks as a safety measure to curb the spread of COVID-19 as they attend the first of nine daily dawn masses before Christmas Day at the St. Joseph Parish Church in suburban Las Pinas city, Philippines, on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, writes that he learned a lesson about gratitude during a Christmas in the Philippines years ago.
Aaron Favila, Associated Press

Every holiday season, every home takes on a special sense of warmth and love. And every holiday season, Americans are given a sense of renewed hope as they enter the new year. This time of rededication has perhaps never been so important.

There is no denying the hardships we’ve all endured over the last two years. From the outbreak of COVID-19 to the painful withdrawal from Afghanistan, the spirit of our nation was tested time and time again. But in these ongoing times of adversity, that spirit endures.

The new year will bring the long, hard work of economic, cultural and geopolitical recovery. These are all-important challenges, but we should approach them as opportunities to once again prove what we already know: We are up to the task at hand.

And we should take this time to recognize how blessed we are to live in a country where we have the chance to prove that point. I fully recognized the importance of that thankfulness a long time ago, right around this time of year.

Years ago, when I was an Air Force pilot, I was returning home from a long deployment overseas. Naturally, as seems to happen when you’re rushing home right before the holidays, my trip got delayed. We ended up diverting to the Philippines for some major maintenance to be done on the plane.

The American air base had no billeting for us because we arrived on such short notice, so they sent us to a very nice hotel downtown. Stepping off the bus in front of the hotel, we were greeted by a chrome and glass building towering over us. It was a major upgrade from the usual air base living-quarters. But I also couldn’t help but notice the razor-wire fence lining the street behind the hotel.

Walking to my room, I was frustrated to say the least. As you would expect, the thought of possibly missing Christmas with my family was weighing heavy on my mind. The only question was who would be more disappointed — myself or my children — if I didn’t make it home in time.

But as I entered my room and looked out the back-facing window, my mind was quickly taken elsewhere. Just beyond the razor-wire fence were thousands of people living along a terraced, cement canal that ran through the city.

My eyes were draw to one person, though. She was a young mother. Her hair was dark and damp, her clothes were baggy, and her feet were bare. She had three little girls. She was washing their hair in a brown water that dripped out of a metal pipe. Her girls looked about the same age as my three little boys at the time.

And there I stood, on the other side of a razor-wire fence, worrying about my flight from the room of a luxury hotel. Immediately, my selfish concerns were made small and unimportant. And instead, I was filled with deep sympathy and gratitude.

I didn’t have to wash my children in a culvert. I didn’t have to worry about my family’s next meal. I didn’t have to worry about whether or not there would be a roof over my family’s heads tonight. I proudly served my country, and, in return, it gave me so much for which to be thankful.

I didn’t need to be home by Dec. 25th for my family and myself to enjoy a wonderful Christmas. No matter the location or conditions of any family’s Christmas, God loves us all. And, in that moment and to this day, I am grateful for that.

Ronald Reagan once said that Christmas is more than just a day, Christmas is a state of mind. I pray that we can all carry that state of mind — one of hope and togetherness — into the new year. We are all so blessed to live strong, free and proud in the greatest country on earth, and we would do well to remember that enduring gift.

God bless America. And from my family to yours, Merry Christmas and happy holidays.

Rep. Chris Stewart is a Republican congressman representing Utah’s 2nd District.