As Antje Uchtdorf Evans thought about the many challenges that have emerged in 2020, she said simply, “It’s been a tough year.”
Evans, who is the daughter of Church Apostle Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Sister Harriet Uchtdorf, recently joined her mother and others in the community in turning some disappointment from this year into an uplifting experience as they helped to organize and execute a large service project to bless the Navajo Nation.
In a time defined by quarantine and isolation, serving the community has been like “a breath of fresh air,” said Sister Uchtdorf of the service project.
The first week of December, Christkindlmarkt SLC — for which Sister Uchtdorf and Evans are executive board members — partnered with the Church and a nonprofit called Navajo Strong to gather and distribute essential supplies for the Navajo Nation, who has been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We might have been thinking, ‘Oh no, what a horrible year,’” Evans said, “But now we feel like we’ve been able to come together and focus on something positive — that we can make a change for the better.”
How it started
When the Evanses first moved to the United States several years ago, they missed many of the Christmas traditions of their beloved Germany. “I missed going to Christmas markets and doing the lantern parade,” recalled Evans, whose son was just 8 years old at the time.
Eventually, she and her mother were delighted to find Christkindlmarkt SLC, a German Christmas market held the first week of December along the Main Street of This is The Place Heritage Park among the pioneer replica homes overlooking the Salt Lake Valley.
Sister Uchtdorf and Evans joined the executive committee for the annual Christmas event and have watched it grow through the years. It features traditional food, open-air stalls with vendors selling their wares, a children’s choir, petting zoo and even a children’s lantern parade.
“It’s a wonderful, happy community and family event,” Sister Uchtdorf said. “Everyone is welcome. No entry fees. Great for all who want to feel the spirit of Christmas.”
Which is why they were so disappointed when they had to cancel it this year due to COVID-19.
“We were so sad, but we tried to focus on ‘What can we do?’ and not so much on what we can’t,” Sister Uchtdorf said.
The market is also service-oriented, Evans explained, and based on the story of St. Martin, who is known throughout Germany and many other countries for his compassion.
Legend says that Martin, a wealthy Roman soldier, rode past a beggar on a cold wintry day and, unable to offer the man a coin, tore his heavy woolen cloak in two with his sword and offered the warmth to the poor shivering soul. His story of kindness has been one of the foundations for the market and served as the premise for this year’s fundraiser — which they named the St. Martin’s Project.
The committee was brainstorming many different service ideas, but her mother was inspired, Evans said, with the idea to serve the Navajo Nation.
Sister Uchtdorf, who traveled to New Mexico last year with her husband, thought of the lovely people they had met who were being greatly impacted by the coronavirus.
When she posed the idea to the executive committee, everyone was immediately excited about it, Sister Uchtdorf said.
The comfort of service
“We didn’t know how the community would react,” Evans said. “Instead of inviting people to come to the market, we invited them to come and bring needed resources for their Navajo neighbors.”
The committee thought maybe 50 or so people would participate. Instead they collected enough for about 800 COVID kits and close to 700 education kits.
The COVID kits provided by the St. Martin’s Project included hand soap, Clorox, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and nonperishable foods such as Spam, canned tuna or chicken, canned corn or green beans and a bag of beans and rice. Backpacks stocked with a notebook, washable face mask, a binder, lined paper, crayons, mechanical pencils, pens, scissors, colored pencils, a glue stick and a jump rope or bouncy ball composed the education backpacks for the youth.
“We were hoping for something good and couldn’t envision how wonderful it was when everyone really, really stepped up and came together with a big heart,” Evans said.
After Christkindlmarkt put the word out about the project, supplies to put together kits were collected at community drop-off locations in Salt Lake City, Draper and Bountiful, Utah, from Dec. 2-5 — enough to fill 28 pallets or to cram the back of a more than 40-foot semitrailer, reported Elder Todd S. Larkin, an Area Seventy who oversees the stakes around the reservation, which stretches across New Mexico, Utah and northeast Arizona.
Sister Uchtdorf said it was joyful for her to be able to talk to people as they dropped off their donations. “We told them our story and the Christkindlmarkt story, and we talked about so many important temporal and spiritual things. We talked about missionaries, we talked about Jesus Christ, and we talked serving God by serving our neighbors, especially in this difficult time.”
It made people happy to be serving, she said, “And it made me a better person to feel their goodness, their willingness to give, and to feel the spirit of Christmas.”
Dozens of volunteers gathered to help pack and load the donated items at This Is The Place Heritage Park on Tuesday, Dec. 8. In addition to organizing transportation of the kits, the Church also donated a semitruck full of bottled water, pallet jack, 500 boxes, 18 pallets, shrink wrap and tape. Service missionaries for the Church will also help deliver the donations to Navajo residents.
Through the partnership with Navajo Strong and American Indian Services — who help to provide essentials to vulnerable populations on the reservation such as the elderly or those in isolated areas — the Church is making sure that the items are getting right to the people who have real needs, Elder Larkin said.
Read more: Operation Firewood Rescue: How tragedy on the Wasatch Front became a blessing for the Navajo Nation
The Area Seventy was also involved in a project in September where downed trees from hurricane-like winds in Utah were donated as firewood and transported to the Navajo Nation. Elder Larkin said he feels “an extreme amount of gratitude” for how quickly people have responded as soon as they’ve realized a need. “And these donated items were really, really needed,” he said.
The Navajo Nation has the highest per capita infection rate of COVID-19 in the country. About one in eight people on the Navajo Reservation have tested positive for COVID-19, and in the last three weeks, they’ve had about 3,000 cases in a population of about 150,000 on the reservation, Elder Larkin said.
About 40% of people on the reservation don’t have running water or electricity in their homes, which means they also don’t have refrigeration. Many have limited access to transportation or health care. Quarantining, shelter-in-place directives and weekend lockdowns have made it difficult for many individuals on the reservation to restock or access basic household goods.
“To date, we’ve served over 800 families on the reservation,” Melissa Pickering, project coordinator for Navajo Strong, told Newsroom. “All these bins are going to be distributed throughout Arizona and New Mexico.”
Providing relief to those who need it has brought comfort and happiness to her and her family, Evans said.
“The whole process has uplifted me in so many ways,” Sister Uchtdorf added, “just to see how people care. We are all in this pandemic together, and we all want to help each other out. We are all God’s children. We are all brothers and sisters. That is the spirit of Christmas in action.”