Christmas morning is a time of tradition. My Christmas mornings have, for the most part, been remarkably similar. In my childhood, after I marry, as our children grow into adults, the pattern perpetuates itself. We get up, we eat breakfast, we open gifts. On the busiest days we prepare to serve guests. On the quieter days, we prepare to be guests.
Then one Christmas Day, a quieter day, something new is added. My son Mark has made the outrageous suggestion that he and I should fill our backpacks and walk the streets of the inner city before we open the gifts. This is a shot in the dark, for he has no prior experience to tell us what we will find. Such a voyage would have been unthinkable only a year earlier, for we never walked the inner city streets in those days, unless to park the car with a hurried flourish and race into some store, wanting to ensure the cars safety by returning to it as soon as possible. But now, since our move from the suburbs, the inner city lies in a walkable path between our home and the office. Somehow its inhabitants are less scary in person than they were from the car window. They talk to you about the weather when you are close to them, when you speak to them while crossing at a light. So the place feels familiar, yet unfamiliar as we journey out on the deserted streets. Any other day the traffic would be whizzing past. On Christmas day there is no traffic, no need to stay on the sidewalk.
On Christmas morning the sun rises some time around 9:00 AM. As dawns first rays extinguish the streetlights, we find people drifting into the open air. The shelters for the homeless spill out men and women of all ages with no particular place to go. They hover in doorways and alleys, sit smoking and chatting in circles on vacant lots. They walk, rest, walk some more. If you approach them with a friendly greeting and an empty cup to fill with coffee from your thermos they will proffer a cigarette for a light. You will soon be having a conversation about the weather, family, plans for the day. If you have something they can use, a sandwich, gloves, warm socks, a hat, a little money, they will accept that thing with hearty thanks. Nobody takes everything you have, no sign of conspicuous greed, no hoarding here.
The first time we visit the streets on Christmas morning we are tentative in our approach, cautious in our advances, fearful of causing offence, relieved by the graciousness shown to us. Even as we walk home to join the others around a tree laden with gifts, we are making plans for next year.
The following Christmas is a busier day, our turn to do the family hosting. Nonetheless, we scramble to make the time. The second visit begins remarkably like the first. Some of the streets are deserted. Some of the people we greet lower their heads and hurry past. Then, with a shout of greeting, a man emerges from the shadows, running across the street to hale us. Remember me? he cries. His whole being is vibrating with the kind of excitement you see when a two-year-old bounces down the stairs to find that someone has placed a full stocking beside the empty milk glass and cookie plate. Remember me? We met outside the liquor store last Christmas. I was just telling my buddies about this man and his mom who came around here last year and here you are again. Remember me? Remember me?
One hand reaches into his shirt pocket drawing out first a cigarette for a light, next a bar of chocolate to offer as a gift to us. The other hand beckons his buddies to join us. In a moment the others are straggling across the empty street, clustering around, reaching for coffee, wanting to know why we are here, what we do on the other 364 days. There is banter, there is laughter, and then, because last years remembered friend is asking for it, there is hugging all around, Marry Christmas wishing. Time is flying. It is time for us to go home.
I once told this story during a hope workshop. One member of the audience was highly offended. She wrote me an angry letter, accusing me of the worst kind of charity, the look down on the poor kind of charity, the hand out five dollars and then go home to a laden tree instead of really helping kind of charity. I thought it was the injustice of the thing that hurt me most. If the people of the inner city were glad to see me, why should she want to take that from them? Later I thought it was the truth of what she said that hurt me the most. It is true that I sacrificed nothing for them, nothing except a little of the time on the morning I have always found to be most precious. Today I speak up whenever people say they wont go to 96th Street because it is too scary. I tell them we walk the area several times a week, sometimes even on Christmas morning. I tell them we talk to the people. They arent as scary when you are close to them. They are just people, albeit different from us. If helping is what we want to do, we will know better how to help them once we get to know them. If changing them is what we want to do, we may have to be prepared to change as well. If laughing with them, celebrating with them, is what we want to do, Christmas morninghot coffee in hand--is an excellent time to do that.