It is the turn of a new year and another Christmas week with the winter shelter has happened. Thirty-four different adults including one infant found rest in the church building the Lord provided us. That is right, it is his building, not ours. I am thankful we embrace this truth because without it we would mistake stewardship for ownership, especially when it comes to the things God provides (time, resources, etc) and eliminate the possibility of growing as a community of hospitality and self-giving love.
I could take this entire post to offer you data from this week. I could tell you how over 75% of our church family served during the week. I could also tell you how our missional communities (just over 50% of our congregation) provided dinner, lunches and breakfasts (I will thank some specific folks later). I could go on to tell you how our Christmas Eve dinner was beautiful as we enjoyed the company of over 150 people while providing a good Christmas Eve meal for a total of 179, including the shelter guests. But I think I’d rather offer you three stories.
The First Story
Joey and I encountered a man living through homelessness. I’ll call him JT. He looked heavy hearted and was reeling from a very bad day. I asked if he wanted to talk about it. He began to tell us what happened. Once he told us it was no wonder why he was feeling down. To top it all off, he was called a terrible name by person who was supposed to help him. He was tired, hurting and hopeless. He told me how he wanted to go ahead and end it all. “I just can’t catch a break,” he said. We sat with him and listened as he told us more.
After a little while I asked him what a “break” looks like. His very first example was simple, something God’s people could do very easily. So we committed to helping him catch that “break.” He looked stunned.
I knew JT’s story. Some of my friends who used to be homeless have told me about him. He’s all alone and due to conditions beyond his control, very vulnerable.
Finally, I asked him to look at me. As our eyes met I said, “Can I share a couple of things with you?”
He nodded yes.
I said, “I imagine you feel all alone, but I need you to know you’re not alone. Not one bit. You’re not lost on God–He is how we met–and you’re not lost on us. I can only imagine how lonely you must feel, but I also need you to know that even in your loneliness you’re not alone. So, can we be your friends?”
He fell into my arms and wept. We all cried together.
After a few moments I lifted his head and said, “I am so sorry you had such a bad day. I am sorry you lost what was important to you. I am also very sorry you were called such a horrible name. I need you to know something. You are not your behavior. You’re not a _________. What’s your name?”
“Thats right. You’re not a __________. You’re not a ‘homeless man’ either. You’re JT. You’re known by God, loved by God and you’re our friend. Right?”
“So who are you?”
“I am JT.”
“I’m loved by God and I’m your friend and his friend.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Wanna get coffee next week?”
All he needed, all he really wanted was to catch a break and have a friend. Well, now he has both. JT is no different from any of us.
The Second Story
As I was cleaning up the kitchen after the Christmas Eve dinner and gathering, a man living through homelessness showed up to our building. Throughout the week he came to the shelter each night for dinner, though he only stayed a couple of nights. Knowing he was invited to the dinner Christmas Eve, he came but he was late. I offered to make him a big plate to take with him. He was grateful.
As I was preparing his plate he said, “Pastor, I’ve gotta tell ya. I’ve been in the shelter the past couple of years. I haven’t seen a church do food like your church. I mean, man, it was like you all were putting on a king’s banquet!”
A king’s banquet. He literally used those words. I was immediately reminded me of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 14:
12 “Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.'”
All I could think to say in response was, “I guess you could say that is exactly what we were doing.”
The Third Story
This happened apart from the shelter. As you know Randy Otis is a police officer for James City County. But he isn’t just a police officer, he is a christian, a missionary. On Christmas Eve he received a call that a woman, apparently homeless, was cold, without a place to stay and hungry. Randy immediately responded, picked her up and called me in the middle of the Christmas eve dinner. He asked if he could bring her by for dinner and if we knew where she could stay for the evening. Of course Randy knew the answer was obvious. So we, WCC, offered her a place to stay in a local inn and Randy filled two large plates of food, one for the evening and one for Christmas day.
She was deeply grateful.
On Christmas morning as we preparing for our worship gathering we received a call on the office phone. It was the lady. She wanted to join us for our worship gathering but needed a ride. I called Erin Otis and she picked her up. It was a joy to see her sitting with the Otis family as together we celebrated the Lord.
Later I found out the Otis’ took her home for Christmas lunch.
Keeping Christ in Christmas
It has been said that if Christians want to keep Christ in Christmas we ought to give food to the hungry, house the homeless, welcome the stranger and care for the lonely. I think these three short stories demonstrate what keeping Christ in Christmas can look like. More so, these three short stories serve as signs of God’s in-breaking kingdom among us as the Christ-child has come and is coming again.
I used to believe that our willingness to take on Christmas week, the most busy time of every year, as our week to host the COFM shelter is a gift we can our community give in Jesus’ name. However, I’ve come to realize that being offered to host Christmas week is really a gift God gives us. We are formed but it as Advent invites us into it. We get to see God at work in a time in our country when poverty, hunger and loneliness becomes the megaphone through which the brokenness of our world speaks. And we, in God’s grace, get to hear God’s voice whisper, “No one is lost on me. Tell them. Show them. For I am with you.”
My hope is that we will not be content with keeping Christ in Christmas. My hope is that we will press on as God’s beloved community committed to extending God’s welcome to all as we join him in his pursuit of restoring lives. We have 51 more weeks each year. Let’s remain faithful.
I have never served with a more gracious and giving community of faith than Williamsburg Christian Church. How a church family our size does so much for so many is only possible because God’s Spirit is at work in, among and through you. WCC family, you humble me as God’s work in you encourages me and my family beyond measure. Thank you to all who served and made this week one of hope, peace, joy and love for our neighbors living through homelessness!
I especially want to thank Joey Allen for leading us in coordinating our shelter week. I want to thank Jon and Sherry Sprankle (and the rest of their missional community) for making sure meals were provided and delivered on Christmas Eve. I want to thank TYGES International, a local company in town where some of our WCC family work, who provided incredible backpacks filled with practical items for our neighbors living through homelessness. Finally, I want to thank Community of Faith Mission (C.O.F.M.) for all they do to make this happen. Without their love and hard work there would be no winter shelter.
Oh, and you can read an article reported by the good folks at WY Daily concerning Christmas week here.