Our Real Masisi Story

Masisi Territory

I remember typing the words “Democratic Republic of Congo” and “North Kivu” into my computer for the first time. I was 18-years-old, sitting in the living room with Jean Ngirwe and his wife Eva. They were Congolese refugees who had gotten a visa to immigrate to the U.S. with their family.

An image of vast rolling green hills popped up on the computer screen.

“Masisi Centre,” it read.

The former Congolese refugees, now a U.S. citizens and also board members for Rally International NCE gasped.

“We know that place with our feet!” They exclaimed—a funny way to say that they remember walking in the same place where the picture was taken.

My then future-husband, Andrew Roth talked to them while I continued reading about the place where the picture was taken. It spoke about rebels, land conflicts, war crimes and political instability.

The description of Masisi seemed so contrary to picture that I was looking at. The picture told a story of peace, tranquility and magnificent beauty. But the words told a story of a hopelessness that seemingly had no end to it.

I decided in my heart from that moment on, I would go there. I would work in the same place that Google image showed me.

But the Cost
Masisi taught Andrew and I more lessons then anyone could ever know.

It taught us that world was beautiful, but not kind.
It taught us that the best intentions are not enough.
It taught us that it takes a lot of faith to fear.

It also built our skills and capacity to a level that makes our resumes particularly attractive. We’ve gotten job offers all over the world in places where other people don’t know what to do. It is humbling. It is also sobering.

We bought a piece of land that we thought could be a refuge for children and youth around the community who were constantly under the threat army recruitment or being taken as child brides. We also supported the education of nearly 100 young people trying to recover from recruitment into the war. But the more we worked, the more we saw that it wasn’t enough.

Nothing was ever enough. Not prayer. Not training. Not jobs. Not education. And definitely not the best that we had to give. It was a vicious cycle of giving, never receiving and finding that whatever we gave never even touched the root issues that existed in the hearts of these youth.

Education is powerful, but it doesn’t heal.
Programs can be effective to a certain extent. But they don’t fill voids.

These children had huge voids. And the longer we worked there, so did we.

They needed to belong somewhere.
We needed to belong somewhere.

The same belonging (or lack thereof) that led the people we worked with to destroy each other was the same yearning for belonging that lead Andrew and I to nearly destroy each other and ourselves.

There is a war inside of us all that makes us adore our conquerors and despise ourselves. When we live in an environment where the conquerors' voice speaks louder than the voice inside of us, we end up becoming the conqueror.

Letting Go
We stopped working in Masisi almost four years ago in an effort to become a part of a local church where our spiritual and mental health could be nursed and nurtured. On the outside, people could say that the church needed us—but the truth is we probably needed them a lot more than they needed us.

Our marriage was crumbling.
Our finances were underwater.
And our mental and health and stability was almost gone.

Honestly, I just wanted to go home and lick my wounds. Or escape...

Traveling in Convoy to Masisi in 2013.
We didn't know that we were bringing
people who one day help us return today.
I considered killing myself.
I also had a period where I thought about Andrew dying. I thought if he died, I could just make a generous donation to the Congolese (in his name) and then move to Spain, get a new identity, new life and no one would ever know I tried to pursue the ministry.

Don’t get me wrong, there were parts of it that we loved. We loved living on the frontlines, we loved being stuck in the mud and recovering vehicles. We loved the chaos of it. We also made some our most valuable friends and relationships through it all.
But it took a toll that I don’t think either of us can really explain. And we took a toll on each other that I don’t think either of us can explain either.

A piece of me died when we decided that we weren’t going to continue projects in Masisi. We needed to invest in the church we were joining in Goma. And though we may not have admitted just then, we needed them to invest us. I felt like that was the end. We would never get back to Masisi—other things would take the priority and ten years later, Masisi would be like a passing dream.

That’s really what I thought. And I was so angry about it. I felt like we failed.

“I came here because of Masisi, and I’m stuck doing what I didn’t even want to do… a building at the bottom of a volcano—literally.” I would tell God.

Life has an interesting way of turning things around
We are going back now. This is after three years hardly ever visiting there.

This time with a peace that we never had before.

We belong somewhere.

A picture when we were in missionary burnout
recovery period. We participated in a marriage
conference, which was planned by Andrew's
team at Samaritan's Purse. Our guest speakers
included Euclide and Lilian Mugisho. (2014)
Andrew is not a missionary in the same sense that he was before. He holds a high position within Samaritan’s Purse and is internationally recognized as a logistical expert within disaster situations. People who I never dreamed of knowing, now know who I am-- just because of my husband's position. The rich and the powerful; the ones with residuals.

In some ways, he owes so much of that to Masisi. His work in Masisi was his Bootcamp that prepared him for what he is doing today.

Rally International NCE has a beautiful team of foreign workers who are incredibly committed to the Congolese people and to the church. They are also incredibly equipped with unique skills and strengths that neither I nor Andrew has.

We have the church, while not perfect (what community is?), it is a safe place where neither of us feels like we have to perform. We can visit with whoever we want to, have lunch at anyone’s house, go to prayer and sit on the ground, walk around or lay prostrate, doing whatever it is we want to do. We can go to Sunday Service and come-as-we-are. If we want to raise our hands, that’s fine—if we don’t that’s fine too. I can even wear pants to church and I’m not afraid of being judged for it.

Every individual needs an environment where they don’t feel pressure to perform, especially leaders. It is invaluable.

Finally, we have Pastor Euclide and his family, our most precious partners. Congo is a place of little assurance. A person can do everything right and still end up on the bottom. But there is a sense of peace to know whatever we get into, we are not alone. If we feel screwed over, at least we feel it together. If we’ve one a victory, we feel it together. That’s the best reassurance in an unassured world.

Masisi Centre also has something that it didn’t have before. It is more stable than it was before. The war still rages in Congo, but it has moved farther from the small village where we bought the land, Mukohwa, giving its people a chance to breath; a chance to start thinking beyond dodging bullets. Aid agencies have also reduced the amount of aid to the area, leaving the people forced to start thinking about rebuilding rather than living hand-to-mouth on foreign help.

Returning to Mukohwa was not met without hardship.
The old chief died during our time away. His son (who we didn’t have a relationship) inherited the throne. We had to start a new relationship with him.

We were also met by land conflicts. A large part of the war in Congo is over land conflicts—we can’t expect this not to also affect us.

But after settling those issues, we are now building a little wooden building on our 4,000 square meter property by the river. Its not much. In fact, by now we thought that we would have a big cement building on our property. None of that worked out the way we had planned.

This wooden building is even more exciting than the big one we planned. It symbolizes a new beginning— not alone, but together. The people in the village still know us. They are genuinely happy to see us back.

They thought we were gone forever.

So did I.

But God works in his mysterious ways.

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." John 14:12 

An old but sweet memory from 2012. We were visting caretakers from our children's education program.

Our most valuable memories together were those on roads like this. This was actually our favorite part about Masisi: getting there!

God of Small Things

“Ammu said that human beings were creatures of habit and it is amazing the kind of things one could get used to …and some things come with their own punishments…” Arundhati Roy 

I finished a book earlier this year called “The God of Small Things,” I picked it up during one of my tours across the U.S., intrigued by its name. Contrary to the normal line of thought about how great God, the Universe, the Creator is—I felt particularly captivated by the fact that God is just as attracted to the small things (maybe even more) than He is to the great and big.  The book wasn’t a particularly easy read for me. It dragged on a bit, but I kept reading. I felt like there was a soul-truth running parallel to my pilgrimage somewhere hidden in the depressing narrative.

There was.

A story of a dysfunctional family living together during India’s threat of communist domination. The term family could be used loosely, since they were a group of people from random walks of life whose stories all somehow intermingle throughout their unfortunate experiences. They aren’t people who really chose to live together. Their circumstances put them together that way. None of them particularly content at all.

It was awkward.

You couldn’t say that love wasn’t in the midst of the family. But the author managed to inject this great sense of unease throughout the entire narrative. There was a constant air of things left unsaid—small nuances that kept the story and its characters cold and disconnected from each other. The family didn’t lack food; they didn’t have it that bad in comparison to others during their time. But some things just weren’t quite right.

Eventually all these small things become the backdrop for tragedy that destroys everything.

That’s basically it in a nutshell. Pretty depressing. It even left me feeling a little bit immobilized, like, “Why did I just read that?”

Earlier this year I found myself in great awe of how God uses the small and insignificant to do great things on the earth. But now later in the year, the same truth has hit me in the opposite direction. The small and insignificant have terrible affects too.

Perhaps the greater revelation is that God uses our small and significant to shape this world. The small and insignificant shapes the very course of our lives. Our everyday decisions are our God. And our God will shape our destiny.

Waking up early in the morning for intentional meditation and solitude.
Putting the dishes away so that your spouse doesn’t have to do it for you.
Greeting people at work in the morning instead of moving quickly to your desk, clenching a (probably oversized) cup of coffee.
Choosing to stimulate your brain with exercise, rather than looking at how many likes you’ve gotten on your most recent social media post.

These small decisions actually form who you are and how people see you in this world. These small decisions create destiny. Small things matter. They matter because people don’t just ‘happen’ in life. There’s a story behind every person. Every small decision, word left unsaid, word said too abruptly, every time matter wins over mind—these are important parts of the narrative of an individual’s life. 

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man [or woman] took and planted his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of the garden plants and becomes a tree, so the birds come and perch in its branches.” Matthew 13:31-32

But why are small things so hard?
It is easier to grasp a big picture and find all the great injustices in it, than it is to address small awkward things in life that just don’t seem quite right.

Some examples…

The cultural misunderstanding that I just “let go” of—because its easier to “live peacefully” than to actually talk about the thing that separates us and makes everyone feel uncomfortable.

The socially impaired person in the room that everyone runs away from because they are doing something so grossly ignorant that people around the are embarrassed for them—because its easier to ignore someone and hide from them, than to look them in the eyes and tell them… you smell bad, or your tie is too high, or other people see this about you and they are being driven away from you. Are you aware of that?

Seeing the cracks in communication or the hiccups in a plan and saying something about it—wisely and with care.

Talking to your spouse or family about the small things that create tension, but must be worked through in order to bring the relationship to a deeper level.

There is no surer sign of the wise than when they encounter ignorance and choose not to ridicule but to teach. Small things are hard, because there’s not a formula for them. A person just needs to be a practitioner, there’s no way to make you get out of bed and exercise, there’s no way to disguise your vulnerability if you’re going to have a transparent conversation, you just need to do it. You need to be a practitioner of your destiny.

 …because in the end, these are the trees that we plant for ourselves (ref. Matthew 13).

Rachel's Story

Rachel is in the second grade and the oldest child in her family. She’s intelligent, bright and has an ear-to-ear smile that can melt anyone’s heart.

But something tragic happen in Rachel’s family recently. Her Dad was digging latrine, which required him to dig 10 or more feet deep into the ground. We live next to a volcano, which means there are patches of deadly gas in the ground. Rachel’s dad was unfortunate and hit some toxic gas just a few feet short of completing.

He called for his co-worker to help pull him out of the 10-foot-deep hole, but when his co-worker tried to help, he too fell in the hole. The two men probably yelled and screamed, but nobody heard them. They were found dead later that evening.

Left behind was Rachel, a younger brother and sister and her pregnant mother. Rachel’s mother, like many other women in our community, has never been to school and has no skill that can generate income for the family. She knows only basic farming techniques, but the family doesn’t own any land to farm on. She was taught to cook, clean, farm, be a wife and be a mom.

But what happens when a husband dies?
The results are more tragic than you think. The custom in Congo (DRC) is for the wife to return to live with her parents when her husband dies. This is because wives usually aren't financially stable enough to support the family.

Rachel’s family fled from a warzone to have a better life near town. Her father's death will send them back to the warzone. This time more vulnerable then ever. Rachel’s position as the first child in the family leaves her to carry the weight of caring for her brothers and sisters.

“We will get Rachel’s report card and bring it to the schools in Kichanga (the village where her mom is originally from) She will return to school when we get there.” Rachel's mother said with strain in her voice. She smiled hopefully as she wiped the sweat from her face. She was so pregnant that even walking a few steps made her sweat at this point.

The principal of our school ended classes a few minutes early so that the students with their teachers could walk to Rachel’s house and give their condolences: some money they had collected, a bag of clothes and prayer.

The school principal and I looked at each other sadly. We knew the reality. Rachel is a statistic that was being made right before our eyes.

Rachel is goes to school for no cost, because our church believes that education is a human right. Children shouldn’t be denied an education based on their financial status. Education is their best shot at a better future.

The place that Rachel is going will not have a school that allows its children to study for free. She is going to an area highly affected by war and sex-trafficking. She is going to live with her widowed grandmother who does not have means to support or protect her in that area. If a miracle doesn’t happen in her life, Rachel will become the sole provider for her family. She will raise her younger brothers and sisters and (if she’s clever) maybe give them a chance to go to school. But it is unlikely that Rachel will ever step foot in a classroom again.

Rachel sat next to me. She had a blissful confidence in her eyes.

She has no idea what is ahead of her. 
I told her the story of Esther.

“Whatever you do, don’t stop studying. Even if you have to sell peanuts by the side of the road. Don’t stop studying. When you feel that there is no one who can help you, pray to God. He can do miracles for you and he can hear your prayers.” I told her. “And if you ever get lost and can’t find your way. You can always remember that there’s a church in Mugunga that will always accept you.”

We all prayed together and the children from our school sang a few songs to the family. And we left.

Rachel never picked up her report card from school.
She never came back to church.
Today, I passed by her house again and found it empty.
They were gone.

Another statistic, right before my eyes. Another girl who will be denied her right to education, because of a situation she didn’t choose to live in. Another girl who will probably get pregnant early and be in the same situation her mom is in now: entirely dependent on other people to survive.

This is a sad story, I know. But it also helps me to remember why we do what we do.

Our primary school is putting girls (and also boys) into school that would not have been able to go any other way. The Esther Project teaches women (that could find themselves in the same situation as Rachel’s mom one day) a working skill that can support a family. We teach them sewing skills that generate income so that they don’t have to be completely dependent on other people. They won't have to take their children out of school.

Our work is to stop cycles of injustice. The worst injustice is to watch statistics happen before your eyes day-by-day and say that you’ve done some thing because you told them about Jesus.

I believe that it is possible to tell someone about Jesus and yet not bring the Gospel. 
The Gospel is the Good News, it is something that lifts people up from where they are and returns their value. It puts a spoke in the cycles of injustice and sets the captives free: captives of poverty, captives of loneliness, captives of shame, captives of oppression, captives of sin. It sets the captives free.

That is why we believe that pencils and books are more powerful than guns and missiles.
That is why a sewing machine has more power than an rocket propelled grenade.
Those things have the power to destroy. Our arsenal has the power to rebuild.

Rachel might have been one statistic we saw pass us by. But how many statistics are we preventing by building this community? How many children could suffer her same fate if it weren’t for our school? How many Mama’s are becoming more financially-independent? And how many families are being transformed through the counseling and member care offered by the church?

"Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?" 
--Isaiah 58

A Letter To My Old Boss

Dear Phil,

It has been almost twelve years since I joined Overland Missions. I was 17-years-old when I started to work for OM. I worked there for three formative years in my missions career. I did a lot of small things like taking out the trash to coordinating trips to Indonesia or fetching food for the staff. I lived in my car for a couple of weeks. I sold cell phones and stood up all night studying for my university degree. When I was in Zambia I spent days and days just carrying rocks to make paths around the Rapid 14 Base. I peeled garlic, arranged laundry-washing schedules for missionaries on the base, washed tables and sat in the back of AMT classes to try and listen in as much as I could.

My old boss, I may not have left you with the best taste in your mouth about me. I was really unpolished… I didn’t know how to be quiet. I had so much more to learn. Still do actually. 

But maybe I should have left you with this report instead. OM inspired me more than you know. From age 13-19, OM was my only connection to the hope that I could possibly become what I wanted to be: a missionary.

I’m not sure if OM's missionary recruiters will ever know how much hope it gave me when they called me just to follow up or to invite me to the mission conferences. I’m not sure if Dave P------ or Dan H---- will ever know that if it weren’t for them, I’m not sure that I would be who I am today. There was point in life where almost every girl I knew wanted to marry Dave Philips. I never wanted to marry him. I wanted to be him. 

I went to the 2004 OM Conference at age 14. Pastor Vaughn Jarrold was speaking about marriage… and it was there that the Lord spoke to me that I would meet my husband through OM and that I would be launched from there into our destiny. Little did I know that only 4 years later, I would have my wedding in the same church where God spoke that word to me… and I would have one just the same way Pastor Vaughn described.

 I don’t know if I ever told you that.

I didn’t know than how much it means to a founder to hear what kind of impact their work has made on someone else’s life. I didn’t know that these stories of how the Gospel became real through the work they are doing can be like a petrol in the engine of a visionary.

I didn’t understand.

I now understand how hard it is to start something from nothing; to gain people and to lose them; to see a vehicle break and it feel like its your insides that broke down with it. I now understand what it feels like to have so many people tell you how they think you should do things; and to see young, passionate people come fresh into the ministry and feel like they can run everything having not walked on the road that you walked on and not having one ounce of understanding of some the realities that can only be understood through life experience.

I didn't fight in the Angolan Bush Wars like you did. But eastern Congo (DRC) shows me more about life and death than most. And honestly, I don't like to talk about the things we've seen either.

There are so many ways I saw you behave: so many things you said. I never understood it, really. But today …I do. I now have an appreciation for it.

You have been through so much. I know that you lean on God and you are a person of Hope, so you’ll always have more stories of God’s goodness than the pain. But it was your decision to work through the tough stuff that made you what you are today.

I remember when you got the news about Maverick flipping over.
When Peter H----n lost the tools in the sand.
I even remember when you and Sharon weren’t ready to have kids. I remember you talking about it. You are way passed that stage in your life. But I understand how you felt now. I feel that way now.
And I remember when your spiritual son left you… I wasn’t in the details. I don’t know the details. Maybe its not even my right to say who left who. All I know, is that the separation had to have hurt so much

My hindsight is clearer to me. And seeing your pain has made you a hero to me.

Thank you.

Andrew and I have been working in Congo for almost nine years now. I have been in ministry for 11 years. You used to say that I should talk to you when I get to twenty years into ministry, because hardly anyone makes it to twenty years in ministry. But I wish I could talk to you before than. I want to make the right decisions, but as the ministry grows I see that I sometimes lack the life experience to answer some of the questions I'm facing. Degrees are one thing, but when I look around and try to find someone else who has done what we we are trying to do (or at least some version of it), the crowd is pretty thin. I don't have many people in my life who've founded great ministries or built big bases. So, when I have questions about the practical mechanics of it, I struggle to find someone who can speak from a place of authority on some issues.  

Andrew has been my most trusted advisor—and I him too.
I have a partner and a father here in Congo who is an invaluable relationship in my life. He’s mentored us in life, marriage and ministry.
I’ve got some great pastors (back in U.S.) who have been in my corner since my beginning. Their advice is so right on.

But there are some organizational things that I really wish I could to talk to someone about. Someone that has done it before.

I once read that poverty is ultimately a result of broken relationships. People often have ceilings because their relational capital is limited to the circles they grew up with and it is difficult to break out of those circles and enter into new circles.

I would not like for the people who work with me to be victims of my own relationship poverty. I have to seek God, seek out good counsel for how to make decisions that won’t just benefit us for today, but for a better tomorrow for this nation and this house that God has given us the grace to build…

But it means anything to you. I'm sorry that I didn't understand and may God forgive me for any judgements that I may have passed on you in my heart.

All the best,
Amethyst A. Roth

My first trip to Zambia in 2006. Overland Missions
uses ex-military vehicles to reach some of the most
neglected places on the earth.

Accused. Guilty.

I live in a country that has long history of being oppressed (DRC). I come from a country that has a long history of being an oppressor. But within the U.S., I’ve always defined myself as one who has experienced oppression. I never had enough power to oppress anyone.

Sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. Its an essential element for taking people out victimization and into a place of liberation and eventually activism.

When my Congolese friends practice social imagination, it comes with grief and anger—both essential for a person's healing and liberation. It comes with recognizing the pain of their missed opportunities, their subhuman existence that the world forces them to live in and the unfairly stacked odds against them. You see, its easier to live a life not knowing what you missed, living ignorant enough to the world around you to never consider what your passport, skin color or religious denomination has cost you. And that’s how many people live. But the contemporary leader cannot live that way. In order for the Congolese to transform the world, they need to reconcile what the world is and the reality of where they are in it, no matter how painful it is.

The agonizing part is with that recognition comes a clear understanding that I, Amethyst Roth, their friend, their daughter, their co-worker: I represent one of the two parts of the society—and its not the part they represent.

I represent the oppressor. I am the oppressor.

I’ve never represented the oppressor before. I used to be the girl in school that got paper balls thrown at me for praying in the courtyard. I used to be the girl with the not-so-ideal body image. I used to be the one with no family connections that could promise me a better future. I used to be the girl that got ‘lesbian’ written about her all over the bathroom wall (back before being a lesbian was cool).

I thought I was Puerto Rican.
I thought I was on the ‘oppressed’ side of social imagination.
But I’m not. I’m the oppressor. I’m the white privilege. I’m the one who they are fighting for justice against.

Everyday, I walk the shaky tightrope of my own insecurity of being left alone, abandoned or isolated and their insecurity of being controlled, being taken for less than what they are, being colonized.

Both insecurities equally valid according to our histories and personal experiences, but both equally destructive to wholesome trusting relationships. Maybe there is something that is wrong with me and I have a deeply oppressive and dominating nature, which stems from my own past oppression. Paulo Friere said that “...the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.” Maybe I’m not without guilt.

I constantly feel accused of being something that I’m aware I represent and I try so hard not to be.
An oppressor.
A controller.
Another hypocritical missionary that says she cares about justice but is really the antithesis of it.

But if I defend myself, I run the risk of being a colonizer. If I don’t, I run the risk of facing my own greatest insecurity—isolation. Its a deep, deep battle that I face everyday. A battle that I can’t win with my words. I don’t even know if I can win it with my actions. Will I always be the person that the people I love most must protect themselves from?

I’ve heard it said that the best way to love someone is to serve their best interests, even at your own expense. What do I have to lose? Being alone? Being abandoned? Being accused and misunderstood? Or even being guilty? Its nothing that I haven’t been through before and God vindicated me then. I have to believe that even if I hate it; even if I don’t want that to happen, God is the one who will be there to hold me even if I get the bad end of the stick. They've certainly felt the sting of vulnerability. Why not me?

 I have to believe that. And I have to accept it. Nonetheless, some cups are never easy to drink—even if they are given to us by our fathers.

My Congo Christmas Story

Christmas Eve this year in Congo (DRC) started with me almost losing my most cherished gift from Andrew, a mini Martin guitar (the Ed Shereen edition!) that was returned to me by a stranger who made no more than probably five dollars per day. It continued with walking and singing for a couple of miles with our family to baptize 14 new believers and setting up the Jesus film for families in our community while we all peeled potatoes and prepared food for our celebration the next day, then driving home on a motorcycle with my husband at 8:30 p.m. and just barely escaping an armed robbery by FARDC soldiers next to a dark, empty field while the rest of our friends spent the night in the church. 

When Andrew and I came home, we held eachother and shared memories about what Christmas was like when we were young. We dreamt about what it will be like for our future family. We chose to make this country our home almost seven years ago, but it took just under seven years to finally feel like this was our home. That night, as I helped cook food for 300 people over coals with ladies from our community while talking about the birth story of Jesus, I couldn't help but conclude that though the world may be tilted toward the rich and powerful, God is tilted toward the underdog, a quote by Yancey.

Home is where the heart is and for awhile, my heart felt very displaced. Andrew used to say 'Home is where we are together, and it grows as we grow as a family,' I didn't understand it then. But now I do. 

My three days of Christmas celebrations were some of the best ones yet. We woke up very early to a heartwarming Christmas service that was lead by children in the church. We gave simple gifts like crayons and coloring books to the more than 100 children in the service. It was the first time for some of them to get their own set of crayons and coloring book. We ate beans, potatoes, cabbage and beef for Christmas dinner. Nothing special. But yet so incredibly special. 

The day after Christmas I felt like the luckiest lady in the world as I sat in between my husband, Andrew and my spiritual father, Pastor Euclide. They both hugged me and told me how much they loved me. Our familes opened presents together and laughed. 

I didn't have a Christmas tree this year. 
I didn't have Christmas lights. 
In fact, I didn't even hear many Christmas songs. 

But I had one of the best Christmas's I've ever had.