He stood shivering outside the Hesed House homeless shelter. Even his heavy coat and thick hat could not block the damp chill of a frigid Illinois winter. His long, scraggly beard helped. At that moment he was glad he had the beard, even though it drew stares everywhere he went. He had grown accustomed to people staring. He barely even noticed anymore. His bag sat next to him in the snow. Most other people had a backpack or duffel bag, but all he had for his stuff was a garbage bag. People didn’t notice, though. A man carrying a garbage bag of possessions is a common sight at Hesed House. When the door to the shelter finally opened, he heaved his heavy, weary body into the warmth, and his thick boots tracked dirty snow inside. The person opening the door tried to graciously welcome him but immediately scurried off for a mop so that no one would slip on the mess his boots had created on the floor. Once inside, the man gave the “guy nod” to a few people he knew. This was not his first night at Hesed House. He had been coming for years… far too many years. Staff spotted the man from across the room and quickly made their way toward him. Whenever he showed up, chaos always followed. They hoped to prevent any problems by getting to him quickly. Normally the policy at Hesed House is that everyone must take their hats off inside, but scanning the man’s face, they realized it would be best to make an exception on this night. Staff led the man to a separate room, away from everyone else. They had him sit in a single chair in an empty room. It would be safer, while they dealt with other matters. The man’s garbage bag sat limply on the floor next to him. Even though he was inside, the man didn’t take off his coat. This isn’t uncommon in places where people own only one winter coat and cannot afford to lose it. A young girl—about five years old, with long, dark hair and brown eyes—wandered into the room by herself, eating a Christmas-tree-shaped cookie with overly thick, green frosting. The man made eye contact with the little girl, searching for fear in her eyes. Children were often afraid of him. But children in a shelter grow comfortable with strangers quickly because of the thousands of people who cycle through to volunteer.
The little girl—green frosting oozing between her fingers—walked right up to the man and stood in front of him, not breaking eye contact. She noticed that the man had a slightly sad look on his face (as much time as he had spent in homeless shelters, seeing children still made him sad). It was obvious to the girl that he was trying to hide his emotions from everyone, and she understood what that was like. She smiled and he smiled back, though she could tell he was still sad.
A commotion broke out in a hallway behind the girl, but she didn’t notice (shelters are noisy places). The noise got closer, but the little girl just stood there smiling. Fourteen young children burst into the room screaming, lead by a tired staff person. They froze when they saw the man.
The man took a deep breath to shake off his sadness and said with a baritone voice that he reserved for these occasions, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas! Have you children been naughty or nice this year?” The little brown-haired girl crawled onto the man’s lap, careful not to get green frosting on his bright red coat with the furry white trim…
Peace (and justice!),