Well, lets just start by saying that our Thirdway Christmas Eve service at the Union Gospel Mission wasn’t your average Christmas Eve church service. Or at least it was a far cry from the Christmas pageants put on at the large church where Jason and I grew up, complete with live animals and a cast of more than 200 people.
No seasonal decorations, no special Christmas choir, no one dressed in fancy clothes, no pageantry of any kind. Just Danny with his guitar and a simple little set of tea-light candles on the stage in the front of the big gym-like room that the UGM calls the chapel—and a bunch of down-and-out guys sitting as far apart from each other as possible, most barely uttering a word. (That is, except for the guy who claims he is a world-renown surgeon, regularly performing “double-lung-double-heart-lung-lung” operations, at least when he is not flying Tie-fighter jets for the military. I kid you not.)
Let’s face it, drumming up your typical feeling of Christmas celebration among a bunch of homeless guys isn’t all that easy. They aren’t exactly looking forward to the end of the service when they get to head home to a big family meal and gift-opening. There is definitely a sense of forlorn sadness that’s impossible to combat, so instead of deny it, we simply joined them there in it, chatted with the ones that wanted to chat, fed everyone, and held our rather humble service.
Of course, for any of the guys who would accept, we also washed their feet and gave them a new pair of socks. Once their feet had been washed, Jason and Rita (Rudy’s mom) provided care to those who had medical issues with their feet. I had gone out a few days earlier and picked out some professional-grade socks made for construction workers, with extra padding and support, and I got enough that we were able to give some of the guys a few extra pairs. It was fun to be able to give them the best this year, and they snatched up every last pair.
We decided that this year we’d bring fresh fruit along with some desserts, realizing that the expense of good fruit means that it’s something the guys don’t get very much of. It turned out to be a great idea. The guys piled their plates with the fruit, and left lots of the desserts untouched. As one guy took some strawberries he said to me, “A food of the gods! I haven’t had one of these in years.”
I think for me the best part of the night was the very end. Jason convinced Danny to end by playing the “LaLaLa” song (sorry Danny…I don’t know the real title of the song!), so a bunch of us stood around the front of the room with Danny and really did celebrate a little. A couple of the guys even joined in the song during the La La La parts—a wonderful moment, a happy way to end.
I had been sick for several days leading up to the night, and so my voice was nearly gone and I didn’t get to talk to the guys as much as I would have liked. But one of the brief conversations I was able to have really made me think about our little Thirdway community and “where we are at,” as we often say. One of the guys asked me where our church was located, and I stumbled around a little—“well, a lot of us live in the Midway area, and we’ve been meeting in an apartment there, but we kind of need a different space and we’re not sure where to really settle, and we don’t have any money to pay rent….um, I guess we’re kind of a homeless church right now.” You should have seen the recognition register in their eyes. Instant connection. The next thing I knew, they were fighting with each other about whether the UGM would let us meet in their space! Here they were, homeless and alone on Christmas, but hearing about our own somewhat precarious situation, they instantly connected with our plight and they were showing care for us. Amazing.
So anyway, we didn’t have a flashy Christmas Eve service, but according to the ending of the Christmas story as we tell it, we got to spend our afternoon with some of the most blessed people on Earth—sick, addicted, criminals with not an ounce of influence in this world or a penny to their names. And it was so good. Without any Christmas wreaths (that will soon die) or choir robes (that will fade and tear), it was so beautiful! Jason and I left there very joyful and thankful for such a rare and precious opportunity. We’re already looking forward to next year.