My friend Tracy from church just sent this story out over email and he gave me permission to share it here too. It's an insider's view of the preparations and celebrations that occurred at the Simpson Housing Shelter for Christmas Eve. Our Hats for the Homeless project was a part of this joy, but only a small part, as you'll see when you read his letter. So many other amazing pieces of the puzzle had to come together to make it all work and what a beautiful picture it made. I think of our homeless neighbors a lot these days since our temperatures are dangerously cold even in the middle of the day. Tracy's email signature is sticking in my head too:
"Everyone wants to help. The problem is that not so many want to get involved."
Let's make 2010 the year that we collectively get over the "getting involved" hurdle and help others whenever we can.
(P.S. I was the "young mother with her two children and husband in tow" of which he speaks and while I'm not sure I can vouch for the "kids listening quietly to the stories" for my family, the addition of kids to the Shelter scene that night visibly and audibly lifted everyone's spirits even more.)
Christmas Eve at Simpson Housing Shelter, by Tracy Jones
Months before Christmas, the infectiously wonderful Barb Melom called me and exclaimed "We got Christmas Eve." Immediately, I knew that she meant that our small group of volunteers from First Universalist would be serving the Christmas Eve meal at Simpson Men's Shelter. The level of her excitement was reached only by my level of nervousness. We've served countless meals at the Shelter before, and all have been successful, but Christmas Eve is special. And I was afraid that my friends who live at the shelter would be sad because of it being Christmas, and I wouldn't be able to help them with their sadness. But it's Barb, so I decided to join in her jubilation.
Almost weekly she would call me. One family had decided to donate 100 steaks. Another promised to make her special au gratin potatoes. One lady was going to make pies. Another family, dozens of Christmas cookies. She called to say that she had snagged tablecloths from a church group. That we had new socks so that each guest was going to get a new pair of socks. And toothbrushes. And toothpaste. We had centerpieces for the tables. Another evening she breathlessly explained that we had enough food for an appetizer table. That she talked to a chef friend who explained how to cook the steaks. That this was going to be an event of a lifetime for the Shelter.
And it was.
Just like the song says, "the weather outside was frightful." The Shelter staff opened the doors early to that the men could warm up. When I arrived, they were watching a movie on the TV and sharing bags of chips that someone had donated. When I went back into the kitchen to start working, there is only one word that can describe the scene. Joy. Joy in the family with their 5- and 7-year old sons who were already setting the tables with placemats and red and green napkins. Joy in the men cooking the steaks. Joy in the people chopping the greens for the salad, and those washing the pots and pans. Joy in Barb as she directed this crew like a conductor with an orchestra. Joy. Joy to our world in South Minneapolis, were we came together with like ideals, with like love, and with like compassion. Joy.
A young mother with her two children and husband in tow gave out the hand made hats knit by the people at First Universalist and our greater community. Every person who wanted one got a new, beautiful hat. Joy. The guests feasted on appetizers of meatballs, chips, dips, crackers, cheese and sausages. Joy. They sat at their decorated tables and ate wonderful steaks, potatoes and salads. They had dozens of desserts to choose from and I'm sure some ate dozens of desserts. Joy. No sadness or melancholy. Just Joy.
I'm sure that the guests didn't expect the decorations, or that there would be children at the Christmas Eve dinner. I'm sure that they thought that they'd be forgotten on Christmas Eve, because it's a special night when most spend time with family and friends, not at a Shelter. But I'm also sure that now they know that they are our friends. That there isn't a place in the world where we would have rather been. That the children, sitting quietly, were fascinated with their stories. That we not only wanted to see the hat that they had chosen, but wanted a keepsake picture of them wearing their new hat. That they could talk forever about their own children because we wanted to know about them. And that we could sit quietly with them and explain that perhaps they didn't have dinner with their biological families but they were now part of our family, their logical family.
Cleaning the kitchen took a little longer than usual on Christmas Eve, the special night. Not because we were slower, but because we didn't want the night to end. The night that we were supposed to be anywhere else. The night of Joy.
In past years, I always like to walk to the Christmas Eve services at church, because I like how quiet the streets are on the special night. This year I didn't have time to go to the church's Christmas service, but I did get to walk home from the Simpson Men's Shelter. It was quiet. It was a silent night.
It was the most Holy night.