I remember very clearly the Christmas I was in first grade. I remember it because it was the only year that I can remember getting everything on my Christmas list. As I write that now it sounds so extravagant to me and yet, as I remember that year, I know that it was just a simple Christmas and I was a child with simple Christmas wishes.
That year, at the beginning of December, my teacher had us draw our Christmas lists and then we were able to take them home to our parents. Maybe it was because we were not yet prolific writers or maybe it was because our teacher just wanted a creative way of doing something routine. Whatever the reason, I, like my classmates, set out to make our Christmas list as beautiful a drawing as it could be.
On my Christmas list were three very well drawn items—at least I thought they were well drawn. I had put much thought into what I wanted for Christmas and equally much thought about how to illustrate these hoped for items. Carefully, I drew and colored my list. It felt daring to me to draw everything that I wanted because I knew I wouldn’t get everything. I never had before so why should this particular year be any different. But I was hopeful.
So my drawn list included these items: a shiny silver baton, a red umbrella with bright plaid print, and the most hoped for item, a transistor radio. I wanted a radio more than I wanted the other two items. I would have been satisfied with just a radio, but I was so certain that my parents would not be able to get it for me that I settled on the other items and didn’t really dare hope for the radio.
I took my drawn list home to my parents and showed it to them. They looked at the list and of course, I got the standard statement: “Don’t get you hopes up because you know that you will not get everything, right?” I knew that. Money was always tight in a preacher’s household, in the 1960’s and my parents tried very hard to live within their means. Actually, most of my classmates were in the same situation. Looking back now, my wish list was quite simple and nothing was extravagant, but I didn’t know that at the time.
When Christmas came I was excited because I received a baton and an umbrella that was the prettiest red with bright plaid that I had ever seen. I kept that baton for years even though it turned out I had no talent for twirling. Later that spring, as I was out in a rain storm, the wind whipped underneath my umbrella and lifted me off the ground, placing me back down a few feet away and it was thrilling! I also received an item that had not been on my list—a new purse, just the right size for a First grader. I was quite pleased with my gifts.
As we left for the family celebration at my Papa Randolph’s I was a little upset that there was no rain so that I could take my new umbrella. As we drove along I was thinking about what cousins I would see and about my mother’s sweet potato casserole with the tiny marshmallows that seemed to be her specialty. Marshmallows were not something we got very often so I was looking forward to them, even if it meant that I had to eat sweet potatoes. It never really occurred to me that I hadn’t gotten everything on my list because I hadn’t expected to anyway.
We didn’t exchange gifts at this gathering, but we always got something from Aunt Ruth. After lunch Aunt Ruth brought out her gifts and as she handed mine to me it seemed that both of my parents stopped talking to watch me open the small package. I had no idea what it could be, but since it was from Aunt Ruth who, the year before had given me my first Barbie doll, I knew it would be something fun.
I must have been startled and amazed when I opened my present because I heard my mother say: “Look at her face!” There in my lap was a brand new transistor radio and batteries! And although they were a little different from mine, my brothers had both gotten radios too.
That radio went everywhere I could take it that winter and spring until my parents told me that I was using too many batteries and limited the time I could listen to it. I was sick quite a bit that winter and my radio was always by my side. I remember hearing Herman’s Hermits singing Mrs. Brown, you’ve got a lovely daughter, and waiting patiently for the song Love is Blue, my favorite.
On the way home from the family gathering that Christmas Day, I remember my mother remarking to me that I had gotten everything on my list. She reminded me that it was not likely to happen again and it never has, mostly because as I grew older, my Christmas desires were no longer simple, but became more and more extravagant, though it never bothered me to not get everything. That one Christmas that I did get everything has become a precious childhood memory and a reminder to be happy with simple gifts.
This year I find that even though there are many surprises that would thrill my soul if I received them for Christmas, there is really just one item on my Christmas list. I have thought long and hard about this and I keep coming back to this one item.
What I would like for Christmas is for everyone, throughout this world, to know the comforts of a home.
This year, I have several reasons for this Christmas desire. This year, a great deal of my time has been taken up with thinking about how so many people come to Crosslines at the Parish House in search of a home. Sometimes the need is just for one night. Sometimes the need is more permanent. This task, this request is becoming more and more frequent. Several times a week, someone will come to Crosslines with this need.
Often, in the middle of the night, I am called by the non emergency center to put someone up in a hotel overnight because he or she is in need of a place to sleep for a night. They are suddenly homeless, many times through no fault of their own. Most of the time the call awakens me from out of a deep sleep and a very comfortable bed. How can I not respond by saying that we will take care of that homeless person for the night, especially if my own bed is soft and warm and cozy?
Many times we are asked to help a family with lodging until they are able to move into a safe place. Often these families are in transition and there is not a place where they can stay while they are locating a home and getting the home livable. So a temporary place to stay or help getting utilities set up is what we can do.
One of the most difficult parts of our work at Crosslines is helping people to find home. While the need seems to increase daily, we realize that it is not just a physical structure that we hope our families can find. It is also a place of safety and health that we envision for our families—a place of calm and peace that can help the family thrive.
Then, the other part of home that I long for is for all displaced people throughout the world. So many people worldwide find their homes in war zones, in dangerous areas, in places where one day there is a shelter and the next day there is not, reduced to rubble by destruction. This year, so many disasters have taken homes. Winds and rains and floods of hurricanes reeking havoc on the lives of so many and robbing them of safety and shelter. Earthquakes and fires have also left homes destroyed and hopes dashed.
My heart is heavy for anyone who does not have a home and most recently for some 65 million displaced people in our world today. So many people have had to make a decision to leave everything they know in their homeland just to hope and believe that their lives will be safer and better and that their children will have a chance to grow up. And for so many of these people, making the choice to leave home is not the most difficult of this process. The most difficult part is finding a place where they will be welcomed.
It may be that this issue of displaced people–refugees–is important to me because in the last three years part of my identity has been defined as a descendant of refugees from the Thirty Years War in Europe. It may not seem that important to think of myself as descendants of these refugees from over 300 years ago and yet, when I think about these families–Conrad and Ursula Goldtman and Nicolaus and Elizabeth Starnes (last name anglicized)–I am reminded of the questions that they asked themselves, difficult questions whose answers would demand leaving everything behind in order to take a leap of faith that life could be better.
These ancestors of mine had to consider whether it was worth leaving behind any land that they owned. Would life be better somewhere else than in the dangerous and poor conditions of home? Would it be a mistake to leave the support of family and friends behind? Would it be worth the risk to stay put in poor and dangerous conditions in hopes that things would be better next year? Would it be possible to find a place to start over? Would it be possible to find a place where people would accept them? Would it be possible to trek throughout the world with no resources?
Over the last three years, as I have researched these two of my ancestral families, my understanding of what it means to be a refugee has deepened. I have discovered that the questions that my families asked centuries ago are the same questions that displaced families must ask today. The same risks that my families took centuries ago are the same risks that displaced people take today.
And all the time that I spend thinking about my families or about the displaced people of today, I am aware of the command by Jesus to welcome the stranger.
My Goldtman and Starnes families made the decision to leave Germany in 1709, along with many, many other families made refugees by the same circumstances. They spent months wandering through Europe, almost penniless. They made it to London where Queen Anne took care of them sending many of them throughout England, including the Goldtman’s who spent several months on the Isle of Man. In the spring of 1710, Queen Anne sent my families along with around 3,000 other people to the Hudson River Valley in New York to settle and to make tar for the British Navy. On the crossing, two of the Goldtman children died, leaving the added layer of heartbreak to the already long list of their sufferings.
The tar that was made from the pine sap in New York proved to be inferior and was rejected by the British Navy. In an attempt to find another way to support the German refugees, Queen Anne conscripted the men of fighting age to fight the French and Indians in her war raging in Canada. So, in 1712, my ancestor Conrad Goldtman went to Halifax, Nova Scotia to fight and was killed on the battlefield, fighting a war for a monarch who was not his and whose language he did not speak. Was it worth it?
I cannot speak for Conrad’s wife Ursula or his children or for Nicolaus, Elizabeth, and their children. Probably, in those first years they would not think that their sacrifice was worth it. But for me, I do feel that the sacrifice was worth it. After all I am here! And from those two families have come a long line of people that have contributed to their country and their world. Educators, farmers, merchants, factory workers, local government leaders, soldiers, scientists, nurses, artists, musicians, and at least 4 pastors can claim these courageous people as ancestors, just to name a few.
Surely, it is the same for the displaced people of today.
As I think about what I want for Christmas, as I think about and pray for all the displaced people in our world today, I know that my one item Christmas list is not simple, like the three item list when I was six, but I believe that it can be something that is doable. And maybe that is really what I want for Christmas—for all of us to realize that we can work toward safe housing for all people, here in West Virginia and throughout the world.
It will take working together, finding creative solutions, openness to those who are different than us, and admitting that there are many, throughout our world, who have no where to lay their heads at night. We will have to admit that sometimes people bring the situation on themselves, but we will also have to admit that, often, homelessness happens through no fault of the person involved. We will have to admit that, no matter what, everyone deserves a home. And we will need to admit that when everyone has a safe place to live everyone in the community wins.
How do we do this? I wish that I had answers. But here is what I do know, we have a mandate from Christ to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and the imprisoned, and most of all to see Jesus in all people. As Jesus said in Matthew 25:40: Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. So, maybe we start by looking for Jesus in all people.
During this season of Advent, when we focus on preparing our hearts and minds for the coming of the Christ child, I am reminded that the Christ child came to a couple, who had no real home at the time of his birth and shortly thereafter, fled, as refugees, to another country. How can we celebrate the birth of this child, our savior, knowing that the circumstances of his birth and early childhood were filled with danger and uncertainty? How can we load up on so much stuff, when there are so many people who do not have their basic needs met?
Maybe it is time to return to a simple Christmas list. Maybe it is time to make certain that at the top of our Christmas list is the well-being of those around us.
Many of you know that the last few months I have studied and written about Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. During this time of study and presentations I have been reminded that Martin Luther was an accomplished musician and hymn writer. While there is much debate about its origin, there are many who believe that the sweet Christmas hymn, Away in a Manger, was composed by Luther for his children.
We may never know where the hymn originated, but we do know that early German Lutherans in Pennsylvania sang this hymn in yearly celebration of Christ’s birth, early on in that colony’s history. Maybe my Goldtman and Starnes ancestors, who were Lutheran and Reformed respectably, sang this hymn their first Christmas in the Hudson River Valley. It is the third stanza that contains the most simple lyrics, but most profound longings for all the world:
Be near me Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay
Close by me forever and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And fit us for heaven to live with thee there.
We sing these words as a blessing for all the world because all the world’s people are the “dear children in thy tender care.” You, me, our family, friends and neighbors, the stranger next to us on the street and all over the world—we are all “dear children” in the tender heart of Jesus. I cannot sing those words without wondering how Jesus looks at us and ponders our celebrations of his birth. I cannot sing those words without wondering how Jesus mourns over how, sometimes, we do not care for one another as he longs for us to.
And in singing this blessing each year I am reminded that if, for one moment all the people of the world had food, shelter, purpose, hope and love, it would be enough for lasting peace.
To God alone be glory!