"What do you want for Christmas this year, dear husband?"
For 24 years my wife, Wendy, had asked me the same question; I rarely knew how to answer it. My tastes are simple and my needs are few a visit with our daughters who come home for a few days, my wife's gourmet turkey dinner and silent nights watching the twinkling lights on the Christmas tree after everyone's gone to bed. But this year I knew what would make Christmas even more special.
"I'd love for you and me to make the day memorable for those without family or a home. I'd like to serve dinner at the Bread of Life Mission in downtown Seattle."
A few weeks before, I had met Larry Cooney, the director of the mission. He gave me a tour of the century-old building. I was moved by what I saw. Larry shared his vision for a ministry of feeding and sheltering homeless individuals. He described the plight of college graduates and business executives who had lost everything because of poor choices that led to lives of addiction. He explained how volunteers are just as blessed as those who receive food and shelter. I assured him I would find a way to get involved with the mission.
I really wanted to help Larry's staff on Christmas, but I didn't want to force Wendy to do something that would steal her holiday joy.
I could sense Wendy's reluctance and knew what she was thinking. Two weeks earlier, a windstorm had taken down dozens of trees in our community. For eight days we had been without heat and lights and waited for utility teams to repair the power lines. We braved sub-40 degree temperatures in our bedroom. We heated water in the fireplace to make our morning coffee. We lit candles to warm the kitchen and sat around in down coats listening to a battery-operated radio. Living without conveniences was exhausting and stressful.
"After all we've been through, I think I'd like to just have a quiet day in our warm house," Wendy confessed.
"What we endured for eight days is what some people are forced to face for years," I said. "Couldn't we give up a portion of our family celebration to guarantee some folks a hot meal? Think of Mary and Joseph. Providing for those without a place to stay is a big part of the Christmas story."
Wendy's countenance changed. "OK, I'm game. It may be the gift you most want for Christmas, but I'm going to do this as a way of giving Jesus a birthday present."
Helping Mary and Joseph
Can you imagine Mary and Joseph as a homeless couple in your town? I picture a disheveled, bearded man in wrinkled clothing. His body odor bears witness to several days of travel without bathing. He's holding a hand-printed sign that reads "Homeless Couple in Need of Food and Shelter." A very pregnant Mary leans up against a building and shivers in the cold. She is weary and hungry.
I can also imagine the reception that history's most famous homeless couple would receive. Drivers stopped at a red light would look straight ahead. Pedestrians would walk by. A street evangelist distributing tracts would ask if they are married or just living together. I wonder if Mary and Joseph would be offered the help in Seattle that they eventually found in Bethlehem. Yes, helping the homeless at Christmas seemed like an appropriate way to commemorate the Nativity.
A Meal for the Soul
After opening gifts with our daughters and eating a leisurely breakfast of egg strata and bacon, Wendy and I drove to the mission. People were lined up outside the entrance waiting for the worship service to begin. Larry met us and ushered us to the kitchen. We introduced ourselves to a handful of volunteers who were giving Jesus the same gift we were.
Donning aprons and gloves, we stationed ourselves at a steam table arranged with stainless steel trays of green beans, mashed potatoes, candied yams and ham. I could hear Christmas carols being sung in the chapel. A few minutes later, the men filed in.
Picking up plastic trays and silverware, they passed in front of us. We ladled food onto their plates and wished them a merry Christmas; most mumbled a quiet thanks. Few men made eye contact.
I couldn't help wondering where these men had spent previous Christmases. When was the last time they sat at a family table with their parents, wives or children? What childhood memories filled their heads on this holiday? What bad choices continued to undermine their dreams of starting over? How far were they from siblings who still loved them? How far were they from God?
One man returned my glance as I served him his food. I talked to him later when I was clearing plates. He told me about his life. Even though he looked much older, he was 42. He ran away from home when he was 14 and never returned. Drugs and alcohol had destroyed his dreams for a normal life. He missed his mother. My heart ached.
I looked into his soft brown eyes and remembered Jesus' words: "I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me" (Matthew 25:45). I wasn't just looking at a homeless man far from home on Christmas Day; I was feeding the One who entered our world to experience an imperfect world firsthand.
As Wendy and I drove home, we looked at each other without speaking. We had made a Christmas memory. What is more, we began serving the lost and the least at the Bread of Life Mission regularly. Now when I encounter homeless people on street corners, I remember Mary and Joseph's plight in Bethlehem. Who but God knows the journey of the men, women and children on the streets today? Instead of making snap judgments, the least we can do is offer them the shelter and hope they need.