My approach to Christmas this year was no different from years past – decorating the tree (and wimpering over each special ornament), spending an afternoon baking (followed by a day of over indulging), a little shopping (grabbing door buster specials just for me), and writing out cards (signing up for an e-card service) which all led to my wallowing in a brief pitty party. My holiday is not the one pictured on any Hallmark card, even if I add the glitter.
Then I met Jane (not her real name). On Saturday morning, I picked up a food basket through my church to deliver it to a family who could use the extra support. Jane greeted me warmly at her apartment door, her 4 year old son and two year old daughter excited to see a visitor bearing gifts (all food). Her accent was unfamiliar to me and I had to ask, though it was probably rude. Iraq she said. I wished her a Merry Christmas and left.
Two days later, I spent some time visiting her and hearing her story – I just had to know firsthand; I had to put a face and a person with today’s headlines. Seven years ago, she and her siblings were placed in Lansing by the UN – Christians saved from a government regime that plucked young girls from their families to marry off to Muslim men, among other practices of religious intolerance. Her husband, also a Christian Iraqi refugee that she met and married here, works for a local auto parts supplier. She worked for a local grocery store chain until they closed a couple of years ago, but today, she stays home and takes care of the children and maintains their small, sparsely furnished, but incredibly clean, apartment. When I asked her what she liked best about living here, she was quick to respond. “Peace and freedom.” I got a lump in my throat. I can’t even imagine, I thought.
The next day, I met Nia. Together, we worked at the sink defrosting and getting chicken ready for dinner later that day at the food program for some of the area’s homeless. Discovering she was also a volunteer and noticing her arm covered with chicken guts up to her elbow, I asked her what time she got there.
“I got here about 7:00 (in the morning),” she replied. I could barely drag myself there by the 7:45 start time, and wondered why she was there so early.
“I am used to getting up every morning by 5:00, so it’s not hard for me. I was here last Friday and knew they could use help,” and then she began to tell me about her daily schedule as a high school senior. Her goal is to become a nurse practitioner. I want her to take care of me when I get old. Well, older.
Tonight when I returned to the shelter to serve dinner, I met Jessie, tonight’s boss man who has been there for seven years, 10:30am – 6:30pm, five days a week. Again, I had to know – what inspired him to manage the kitchen, cook the food, direct new teams of volunteers at every meal, and three times a day, park his judgement at the door so some of our area’s most vulnerable can get healthy, nutritious meals.
“I like interacting with the people. They all have a story,” he told me. “And I like to cook.”
Early in the Christmas season, my friend Kathy and I decided to throw ourselves to the Gods of Service. “12 Days of Service”, she called it.
Jane, the client, Nia, the volunteer, and Jessie, the staffer, are just some of the people we have met who will always be the faces of Christmas for me – faces of hardship and healing, hope and believing. I can’t think of a better way to experience the true meaning of the season this year – no glitter needed.