And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
During my years as a university student, I worked in the West Broadway neighborhood as a community youth worker. I was involved in running a couple of regular drop-in evenings—including a pretty fiery weekly floor hockey game that took place in the parish hall of this church—and I spent a lot of time in and around the area, connecting with the kids and their families. For a young man who had grown up in a very stable family in the suburbs, time spent in this neighborhood was all pretty eye-opening. Out of my depth? You bet.
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One of the families with which I connected lived in what was then the most notoriously run-down apartment block in the neighborhood. Apartment blocks like this are euphemistically referred to as “revenue properties,” but with its perennial cockroach infestations, bad windows, rotting stairs, and insufficient heat, it would have been more accurate to call it a slum building.
This particular family was not what you’d call conventional. There were two adult sisters, each of whom had a daughter; one about six years old, the other ten or eleven. There was the grandmother; a rather ancient looking Aboriginal woman who had never really adjusted to life in the city, and longed to return to the north. And there was Bobby, a brother in his late twenties who lived with some sort of cognitive disability, and so intellectually and emotionally was more like a child of eight or ten.
Somehow this family made their way together. And somehow one of those women began to get really restless—maybe even a little righteously indignant—about how this particular landlord treated his tenants. Rather than moving out of the building, she decided to dig in and insist that the roaches be dealt with, the heat turned up, the stairs fixed. All very risky, of course, because no one in that building had a lease, and they’d all seen “trouble-makers” tossed out at the end of any given month. But she did her homework. She talked to the health department, she found out about tenant’s rights, and she dug in. She was going to see this one through, and that landlord wasn’t going to push her out.
It was at about this time that one more person joined the family; the second sister had a new boyfriend, freshly paroled from jail. He seemed pretty committed to putting his life straight, and determined to not return to prison. Their deal was that he could stay there so long as he didn’t drink… and one night in the middle of December he drank. You can picture it all, with him banging on the apartment door and her yelling at him to just go away. As he staggered down the stairs, he lashed out in drunken fury, and put his fist through the stairwell window.
As soon as the landlord got word of that, he contacted the family with an ultimatum: move out now, or else he’ll be reported to the police and tossed back in jail. It was at this point that I got the phone call. “He wants you out by 6:00pm today? Won’t he at least give you to the end of the month?”
“I’m going to plead with him,” she said. “See if we can stay until after Christmas.” It was December 21, and I thought that surely the landlord would ease up at least that much. She called me back about an hour later, just as my own family was finishing up its very comfortable supper. “He says we have till midnight.”
It turned out that they’d found a friend who had gone up north for Christmas, whose apartment they could use to store all of their belongings. What they needed was a vehicle, and I was one of the two people they knew who owned a car. In my case, it was a 1976 two-door Toyota Corolla, and the other guy’s car was no bigger. “I’ll be there in half an hour.”
Aside from mattresses, this family owned virtually no furniture—it was a “furnished suite” you see—and we could tie mattresses on roofs of the cars. And so for the next four hours, we hauled boxes and bags and battered suitcases down three flights of stairs, packed it all into our two little cars, drove about ten blocks, and hauled it all down into the friend’s basement suite. The two women were stoic, the little girls confused and teary-eyed, the grandmother by turns anxious and angry. The boyfriend hardly said a word, but his body language spoke to his shame. Bobby, on the other hand, was boundlessly enthusiastic. Grinning from ear to ear, he’d curse the name of the landlord with increasing vigor and creativity, and when he’d ride in the car with me he’d turn up the radio and tunelessly sing along with whatever song came on. Nothing was going to break this guy’s spirit.
I think for me the most heartbreaking moment was when we stuffed their meager Christmas tree—lights, decorations and all—into a big garbage bag and crammed it into the back seat of my car. Into another garbage bag went the gifts, the wrapping paper showing tears, the bows discarded so it would all pack more evenly.
Four hours on a very cold, very snowy December night, over the course of which those two sisters had come up with a plan. They’d sleep the night at that friend’s apartment, and in the morning would take as many of their belongings as they could and catch the bus up north to Thompson, where they had other family who would make room for them. They’d be there through Christmas, and then what? Maybe they’d just stay.
“There was no room for them in the inn.” Whether due to the bureaucratic callousness of an imperial regime or the chilling greed of a bad landlord, this business of leaving some with “no room” sadly seems a part of the human condition. And sometimes the kinds of wicked curve balls that life can throw our way—be that an issue of physical health or maybe the collapse of a family or relationship—leaves people feeling uprooted, unmoored, homeless. No room for me, for us, for this child.
We had only to take one last quick look around the vacated apartment to make sure nothing had been missed, when one of those strong women gave an exhausted cry: “Where is Bobby?” I watched the strength drain from her body, as she leaned against the wall and let herself sink to the floor. “Did anyone see him go?” And of course, nobody had… we’ll have to wait…
It was only minutes later that Bobby came bounding in, laden with McDonald’s bags filled with Big Macs and large fries. “I got us food!” he shouted, “Eat up!” And we did. I never thought to ask where the money for that food had come from, and maybe that was just as well. And so in that battered room, lit only by whatever streetlight could make its way through the grimy old windows, we shared together in the strangest of Christmas feasts. I love the classic Christmas turkey dinner, but I’ll tell you I don’t think I have ever tasted anything quite so good as the food that night. There wasn’t much conversation, and I’m sure our meal didn’t last more than about five minutes, but we found our hearts strangely lifted.
There’s a text often read around this time of the year, from the 11th chapter of the prophet Isaiah, that envisions the day when, “The wolf shall live with the lamb / the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” And what does the prophet say next? “And a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6) As Christians we quite rightly hear in this text a rumour of the baby born in Bethlehem, but it also speaks of how in the economy of the kingdom of God it is often in people and situations of social insignificance and perceived weakness that the deepest truth and the deepest power are made manifest. While not literally a child, with his childlike heart and childlike mind, Bobby knew something that night that the rest of us had missed. We needed to eat together, and for Bobby that could only mean the best food available… And it wasn’t just about physical sustenance, for what was offered there was a feast. Not just our stomachs, but our souls too, were filled.
To share a festal meal during times of stability and abundance is a good and right thing. But when it comes out of a place of displacement, disorientation, and loss? That’s when the feast is doing its deepest work. It is when we feast “in spite of”— when we feast in the midst of the darkest and hardest times—that we taste something of the great work God began in Bethlehem those 2000 ago, which will yet be drawn to its completion in the fullness of time.
The last run with the two cars was to carry the family members over to that basement suite for their final night in the city (and as far as I know, they never did move back here). We stood in the apartment doorway for a couple of slightly awkward minutes, thinking that there must be something more to be said or done.
Finally the grandmother, who through the whole evening had been anxious, distracted, and preoccupied, looked at me and with an almost startling clarity said, “Don’t worry about us, Jamie. The Lord will look after us this Christmas.”
I don’t think a Christmas has passed that I haven’t thought about that night; about that family and all they went through. I wish there was a way in which I could thank those two women, for allowing me to come alongside of them like that. I’d like to thank the grandmother for her words of trusting assurance. Mostly, though, I’d like to thank Bobby for breaking bread with me, and for reminding me of why it is we feast in the first place.
“And a little child shall lead them.” Amen.