Years ago, my husband and I lived in an urban community alongside some of the poorest and most marginalized people in this country. We were working with the Salvation Army, so December was always our busiest month.
After six weeks of manning the red kettles, delivering food and toys, Christmas caroling in city streets and shopping malls, and directing a Christmas musical production with inner-city kids, we were glad to see the morning of the 25th arrive. We were ready to rest, exchange gifts, enjoy a feast, and finally have time to lounge in front of our Christmas tree. And then the phone rang.
A single-parent family had slipped through the cracks, somehow overlooked by every agency in town; a worried neighbor called the Salvation Army. The corps officer immediately dispatched us with another younger pastor to gather toys and large food bags to deliver to the family.
They lived in a violent, drug-ridden housing project in a partially boarded-up tenement. A woman opened the door, completely shocked to see three white people standing on her doorstep. A crowd quickly gathered, so she promptly pulled us inside. As our eyes adjusted to the bleak room, we saw that the walls were covered with filth, and the apartment was devoid of furniture except for a little kitchen table.
Yesterday, I asked my husband what he remembered about this day, and he said – the fish. Their cupboards and refrigerator were bare, but the freezer held one tiny fish. A small saucepan filled with greens boiled on the stove. This was to be Christmas dinner for her and her many young children. Our friend sat at the table with mom, compassionately listening to the story unfold. Her husband had brought them from Jamaica to start a new life and abandoned them shortly after.
As they talked and cried together, my husband began to give toys to the children gathered in the front room. They sat leaning against the wall as if they had no strength, with distended bellies, runny noses, and running sores. Their orange-tinted hair had fallen out in patches from malnutrition. My husband urged them to open their gifts, but the children were reluctant to tear the wrapping paper. It was so pretty.
I followed the sound of a television coming from another room and found a young boy perched on his knees, watching cartoons, oblivious to everything. I knelt beside him and laid my hand on his head. He looked up, his eyes widened, and in child-like wonder asked, “are you an angel?” I sensed the presence of God fill the room. The little boy reached out to touch my long hair and pale skin, still convinced that I was a Christmas angel.
I assured him I was as human as he – that angels were much taller, better-looking and way less cranky – but he remained skeptical. He stared in amazement for a bit longer before turning his eyes to the stack of presents beside me. He soon joined his brothers and sisters laughing and playing in the next room – but continued to keep an eye on me, just in case.
After stocking the family cupboards, unwrapping the new toys, playing with the kids, praying with mom, and enjoying hugs all around, we went home to our own Christmas dinner.
The food stuck in my throat that day. The poverty and misery of such precious children living only a few miles up the road, in conditions worse than a stable, with no food, no health care, a helpless, distraught mother, and no father to protect them – had extinguished my Christmas spirit. Or perhaps just shattered my rose-colored glasses.
My festively decorated apartment no longer interested me. Nothing had changed in the last few hours except my view of the world. God made me stop and look when, honestly, I didn’t want to. Not that day. I wanted food and presents and holiday movies and a warm and fuzzy Christmas with no intrusion from the harsh outside world. Reality wasn’t on the menu, until it was.
As I thought about it, I realized that I was more impoverished than that little boy in some ways – who, in that hell-hole that he called home, still had a capacity for wonder. He fully believed he had met an angel face to face. That an angel would appear and kneel beside him on Christmas Day was entirely possible; indeed, it was the only explanation he could come up with for our presence there.
I have forgotten many Christmas celebrations over the years. Still, I have never forgotten that child or that day when God turned a squalid tenement into a sanctuary, showing an arrogant young woman the world through his eyes. I do not doubt that the room was filled with angels because God himself was there
When he came near, Jesus asked him,
“What do you want me to do for you?”
Lord, I want to see.