It felt a little bit like Bethlehem at Warrenville yesterday.
In the midst of the chaos of sorting all the donations for Christmas Sharing, our annual partnership serving needy families at District 200 schools–there she stood, a pregnant mom asking for the pastor. So I introduced myself as the man she was looking for, then she went on to explain that she, her husband, and her boys had been booted from the local P.A.D.S. (Public Action to Deliver Shelter–a local homeless ministry) shelter the night before because of an altercation with another client. As policy dictates, both this man (the perpetrator) and her family were asked to leave the shelter for the night. Not having enough money to rent a hotel room, they spent the night in their old minivan in a local dept. store parking lot. Then she told me that her family needed another $17 to rent a room for last night. She wanted to know if I might be able to help. Feeling compassion toward this pregnant mom (and not having any cash on me…), I asked if she was willing to wait for a minute while I ran to get some money. She said she’d be happy to wait and then added, if I could spare any extra money for a meal for her family that night) I responded that I would see what I could do…
I excused myself and then drove to Family Foods in downtown Warrenville to re-stock our fridge with soda for the volunteers streaming in all week to set up our sanctuary for Christmas Sharing (we clear the chairs each year to make room for table, after table, after table of donated clothes, toys–you name it, we’ve got it–just look at the picture and you’ll see what I mean…) As I thought of this homeless mom and her horrible predicament, living out of a van as our Chicago winter just starts to get serious. So, I bought the soda and got some extra cash, remembering we had a bunch of pizza sitting in the kitchen left over from our earlier volunteer lunch. I just wanted this poor family to have a room last night. That’s it.
I often don’t know how to respond to needy guests and/or homeless folks that occasionally stop by the church. The stories I hear are sad, disturbing–and sometimes beyond belief, too—so much so, that I do the “professional thing” and pass their name along to the crisis counselors we support at Outreach Community Ministries in Carol Stream, who have the skills and real-life pathways to help these folks get on the often-long road to recovery–financially, physically and spiritually.
I don’t like it that the Church itself isn’t able to take responsibility for people like this pregnant mom in crisis. This is part of the reason God created the Church: to boldly embrace the diplomatic license given Her by the Creator to passionately fulfill the duties of Her “ambassadorship” as ministers of reconciliation for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, like so many other things, we’ve farmed this important work it out to parachurch organizations and even trust in our city, local and state governments to take on the desperate needs of”the orphan and the widow” in our neighborhoods. I hope that partnership ministries like Christmas Sharing this weekend can help our church rediscover its charter mandate. Just look at the groups God has brought together in DuPage County: the 10 different Christmas Sharing sites between Wheaton and Warrenville. You might be curious to know how families are invited to Christmas Sharing–it all starts in the local schools of District 200. A general mailing is sent out to all the families who have qualified for the Federal free lunch program at the schools. The letter gives these families the option to sign up to attend one of our Christmas Sharing sites to pick up donated goods both from participating churches, more and more businesses, as well as these local schools themselves.
As a matter of fact, that was one of the most moving things about this whirlwind of a week, watching the young fifth graders from Johnson Elementary School load our donations truck–one of the poorest statistically in the District, with over 50% of the school’s kids on federal lunch subsidies,triple its donations this year to Christmas Sharing. You often hear the maxim that the world’s poorest people are the most generous. Sounds a lot like Johnson School to me.
This is also the school that has a radical shift in demographics: just four years ago the school was 18% Latino. This year the percentage is above 60%! I have the privilege of tutoring young readers at Johnson every Friday and so enjoyed working yesterday with a shift of seven teachers who came directly from their full day of teaching at Johnson to help sort the donations at our Blanchard Warrenville church in the late afternoon…
As I brought the pizza from the kitchen to the mom in her minivan–I saw what looked like all their worldly possessions jammed in the back of that car–and in the middle of it all–stood two sweet, innocent, little boys–looking happily at me for a meal in the van in the middle of that cold evening. In that sad, surreal, Advent moment, I had to think about what it would feel like as a boy to see the sides of that van as the walls of his own mobile home.
Talk about no room in the inn…