Christmas with Leos

It’s been three years since Leos left this world but Christmastime and the one we spent with him lingers in my heart as one of the best Christmas gifts I’ve received. 

It had been one of the coldest winters in Czechia when we met Leos and his two friends. They were sleeping under the bridge next to the Labe River which runs through our city. 

My husband was driving an old van which our pastor had given us, and he used it as a makeshift food mobile. He’d take a pot of soup and coffee for the guys in the evenings and have Leos read from the Czech Bible while keeping warm in the van. 

A friend who knew of Jimmie’s background, had told us of Leos, and we contacted him and invited him to come and hang out at our house project. The first day he showed up he was still hung-over and could barely function. (We later found out that he believed drinking during the night helped his blood from freezing.) But Jimmie told Leos in broken Czech— no alcohol, you work; alcohol you no work. A few times he had to send him away.

Leos had spent 15 years in one of the toughest prisons in Czechia and had found it nearly impossible to find work after he got out. His parents lived in the Pardubice region but wanted nothing to do with him.

If you’ve ever seen the latest (affiliate linkLes Miserables movie — there’s a scene in the beginning when Jean Valjean comes out of prison. I cried when I saw it because he reminded me so much of Leos when we’d first met him.

Leos had worked as a cook in prison and so most days he made soup on the old woodstove we were using at the job site. We got to know him more and more. And one day, we sat down with him and told him the Gospel and asked him if he would like to give his life to Jesus. And he said yes and told us that no one had ever told him that God loved him!

He contacted his parents and they stopped by one day to make sure it was true. Surprisingly to us, a few weeks later they invited us to come for an evening at their house along with Leos. We picked up Leos in the city and he was holding his hand which was covered in dried blood.

He told us that some young guys had beaten him up during the night, taken his wallet and left the cut in his hand. The children were in the van and could hear what he was saying and as a mom, I wondered if this was appropriate for them to hear. In reality our oldest, who was seven, was the only one who was aware of what was going on.

We had a great a visit with his parents who like him did not speak a word of English. His parents, who were a sweet, elderly couple, gave our children candy they had received from their daughter who lived in Canada.  

Fall came and one evening after dinner, Leos thanked us for the meal and out of the blue asked if he could spend Christmas Eve with us. He told us that it was one of the toughest nights to be out in the cold and have nowhere to go.

And that is how Leos and his friend Misa came to our house on Christmas Eve. Financially for us, it had been one of the hardest years primarily because of our house project. We were paying rent for the apartment we lived in, making a land payment for our new house and trying to build our house.

But God is faithful — we had just what we needed that Christmas and more. Our oldest eagerly wrapped the thick gloves we bought for the three guys we were expecting to come. It was the day before Christmas Eve and the American candy canes which were previously selling for $1 a piece dropped to 25 cents and we were able to get one for each of the kids. 

When the guys showed up — only two of the three came with Jimmie. They took off their shoes as is customary here, and I wished it weren’t so. We had to open every window!

Leos rolled up his sleeves and fixed the carp, which we’d bought from the street carp vendors in town earlier. Jimmie made his famous potato salad to go with it. This is the typical Czech Christmas Eve dinner. As we sat down to have dinner, a sense of God’s peace filled our little apartment. We held hands as Jimmie prayed over our meal and our friends. 

Having Leos and his friend really made me think that Christmas was in fact about people like Leos and Misa. Jesus was born in a smelly stable where there was animal manure — the first Christmas Eve wasn’t about fine china and perfectly decorated homes. 

The girls still remember how after dinner Leos unwrapped the bundle of newspaper he’d brought and gave them toy rings, a small, plastic car for Robbie and the ceramic angel candle holder, which we still use every Christmas. He’d found work cleaning the car wash place at nights and these were some of the items left in the bins. 

As they got older, the girls were no longer willing to share their Christmas and would say things like,

“Do they have to come on Christmas? Can’t they come another day? Can’t we have Christmas just as a family?” 

And we would talk about Christmas and why we celebrate it. I’d remind them how when they were younger, they were happy to share their Christmas with Leos, Vojta and others God had brought to us.

We remembered our moments with Leos — how he’d found work, had gotten reconciled with his parents, and how he spent his last two Christmases with them.

And the oldest asked, “Mom, if we hadn’t met Leos, he’d still be homeless right?”

Maybe, but most of all we’d remember that Leos gave his life to Jesus and was now in heaven. He passed away suddenly three years ago. 

And as a family we are learning that Christmas is not about us or the presents under the tree — but about Jesus and how when He came as baby, there was no room for Him.

Yes, Christmas is the best time to make room for Him. Jesus said, “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was a stranger and you took Me in.” 

A few weeks ago, Vojta (our formerly homeless friend from Prague) called and asked if he should come for Christmas. And the answer is yes, of course!

And while the kids may not see it now, the Christmas memories we are making with those whom God sends us will live in our hearts forever. And someday, we will gather around the Lamb’s banqueting table and have the best Christmas ever — with Leos, Vojta and others we’ve been blessed to know. 

This video is so powerful. It reminds me of our friend, Leos and the Christmas we spent with him.

Photo by Roan Lavery on Unsplash

huldabennett@gmail.com

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