From Mary Zakariasen McLeod:
I participate in an ongoing writing seminar, and each Christmas our instructor gives us an assignment for a written piece to be read aloud at our Christmas party; the assignment the year the following essay was written was "Christmas lights." Though essentially true, it might contain some modest embellishments. My familiarity with the homeless shelter comes from several years of serving there as an overnight volunteer.
This Little Light of Mine
Technically, I was once a cherub, but only because I sang in the cherub choir at church. We were second- and third-graders, with impossibly high voices and mostly bright blonde Scandinavian Lutheran hair. Our mothers competitively starched and ironed our white cotton surplices and sent them back to church, where they were soon re-wrinkled and torn as we chased each other through the halls between services. With huge red bows tied around our necks and big, white round collars, our angelic appearances belied secular behavior advanced for our age.
The music was not a challenge: Jesus Loves Me, Silent Night, This Little Light of Mine, all songs simple and familiar. Sitting still was harder. We wrote notes on the offering envelopes, played tic-tac-toe, kicked, poked and tickled each other, pulled hair and had ours pulled. The boys made up for their small numbers with the fury of their teasing.
On Christmas Eve, we were entrusted with candles, held chest-high, the glow lighting up our round cheeks and making eyes sparkle. What were they thinking? All of us behind the front ranks were blowing out our own or our neighbors’ candles, then relighting them, again and again, dripping hot wax over gowns and floor, burning our fingers. It’s a wonder we weren’t all standing there with our hair on fire. Best toys ever.
Pastor Stohl, the senior minister, had a kindly manner, and a serious and craggy countenance that cherubs easily confused with the face of God himself. After we had sung and settled down, the pastor took the pulpit. As he asked each one of us to open our hearts to make room for the arrival of the Baby Jesus, I imagined I could feel the tiny doors of my heart creaking open, and willed the Baby Jesus to choose mine. It didn’t occur to me that the Baby Jesus could possibly live in more than one place at a time. My worry was that my heart wouldn’t be quite big enough, literally, and he would have to choose larger accommodations. The magic of that candlelit service gave my young, unformed religious thoughts an emotional kick-start that lasted through grade school.
Now, sixty years later, candles have a different meaning. Each December, there is a vigil and march from downtown Minneapolis to Simpson Methodist Church to recognize and celebrate the lives of the homeless citizens who have died in Minnesota during the previous year. Marchers carry candles, one for each deceased soul. All had done the best they could to survive mental illness, chemical addiction, medical catastrophe, sudden job loss. Simply being homeless had shortened their average life expectancies by thirty years. Nobody should have to pay so high a price for falling into poverty.
It’s a long trek on a winter night from the Hennepin County Government Center to 28th Street where Simpson church is located. It’s not a pretty place, this aging, rundown behemoth with creaky wooden stairs, wooden floors that have long since lost their varnish, mismatched furniture, graying walls, and not nearly enough lighting, but love and respect dwell there, and in the basement, an overnight homeless shelter opens its doors to sixty men and women, every single night.
Gradually, on this one evening each year, the chilled marchers straggle into the tired sanctuary for a nondenominational service of recognition and gratitude. It’s the gratitude that brings tears, as social workers speak about individual clients who had done heroic, generous things for their friends and even strangers, the sharing of meager foodstuffs, arranging medical help for each other, letting families know where a loved one could be found. Every client had been a unique soul, with virtually no possessions but always finding something to give, even when their own mental illnesses may have made it hard for them to trust and receive. From anonymous bundles of rags, portraits of fully human, sometimes quirky personalities emerge and rise up so that we can see and observe all sides of them. Finally, literally after the actual fact of their existence, they have received some attention and recognition for their humanity and equal worth.
Some of us in those pews also feel shame and regret at not having done more, or nearly enough, to befriend and support those who have so little. We resolve to do better, to light another candle, this little light of ours.
Mary Zakariasen McLeod
Thanks for being a part of our world!
To you and yours', Merry Christmas!