A Different Christmas (a reflection on serving at the men’s shelter with my family on Christmas Day)
“When you serve Jesus – make sure you bring a six-year-old”
As I walked towards the dingy, metal door at 2100 Lakeside Avenue, I felt many emotions start to churn in my stomach. I had never been at a men’s shelter before and had no idea what to expect. I had been told that some of the men were felons so I was a little bit afraid of what I might see that night. With a big deep breath I reminded myself that I could do anything for a couple of hours. So in we went: my husband, Mike, my seventeen-year-old son, Nick, my parents, and Zach, my six-year-old and me.
As I looked in the faces of some of the men at the shelter I remembered one of the stories Pastor Mike had told us about when he worked in a mission in his early days as a pastor. He told of when one of the men, drunk and covered in urine, questioned the Pastor about what Jesus looked like. Without missing a beat Pastor said to the man, “he looks like you”. That story really stuck with me and reminds me that Jesus was similar to a man you may find in a shelter…broken, battered, and bruised and, in the case of Jesus, ultimately dying on a cross for me.
As I recalled this story I felt more at ease as we were directed towards the kitchen. But at the same time, I began to wonder if I really wanted to do this, I mean, shouldn’t we be eating turkey at home right now? It was Christmas Day. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all. I trudged on trying to get in the “serving” mode. As we entered the kitchen I knew right away that the people here knew what they were doing. We were given hairnets, aprons, and plastic gloves to wear – very professional. We quickly met the men working in the kitchen that night (probably about six in total) – the names escaped me almost the moment they were mentioned; there was a lot to take in. We were given tasks right away…it was 5:05pm and the first rush was coming at 5:30pm. Zach, grandpa and I started making bundles of plastic ware. Grandma and Nick were getting bread, cranberries and desserts prepped. Mike volunteered to carve turkey…whole turkeys right out of the oven. We were told to expect to feed about 400 men that night and needed to be ready soon.
As the 5:30pm hour drew near, Zach, grandpa and I moved to help serve on the line. The metal doors were drawn up and the men started coming through to pick up a hot plate of food. Grandpa would get a plate already prepped with bread, cranberries and dessert and he would add green beans and ham. Next he passed it to me and I would add baked beans. Next it would pass to Zach and he would add turkey and last it would be passed to a regular worker who added dressing. The men passed along, collected their meal and many greeted us with “thank you” and “Merry Christmas”. We greeted back with a warm “Merry Christmas”, but mostly we just moved the plates along, conscious of the growing line. As food was depleted, the cheery staff called to each other with nicknames and yelled out signals about needing more food. In mere seconds a piping hot bin of new food was replenished and the operation began again. This was quite a production! Mike continued carving turkeys – 12 turkeys in all by the time we were done at 7:15pm! The kitchen staff commented more than once about what a great job Mike was doing. He really worked hard! Nick and grandma worked the bread/dessert line the entire night while grandpa, Zach, and I continued on the serving line. After a while we really had a system going as a team! At about 5:50pm the metal doors came down again and we were told our first shift was done and we would start up again at 6pm. Break time. We were offered a plate of food if we were hungry. Zach, of course, did not hesitate to fill up a plate of green beans and turkey and dive into it with full gusto! We served another group at 6pm and then the largest group of the night at 6:30pm.
I was moved and touched by many things that night…by the dedication, care, graciousness, and cheery attitude of the kitchen staff. These men were grateful and appreciative of our help. They looked out for Zach’s safety around the hot bins of food. Even more, they were respectful, polite, and caring towards the men in the line – greeting many of them by name. I was also pleasantly surprised by the way all of my family did not hesitate to work without complaining – and work hard! This was definitely something outside all of our comfort zones, but we put our whole selves into it.
However, the thing that touched me most of all that night was my son, Zachary. This kid was not at all afraid. He was concerned at first that he would not have a task to do because he was too little, but he soon proved to be a valuable part of the team! He was staffing the turkey station and heaped mounds of steaming turkey on plates. He talked non-stop to his fellow “line mates” about what he got for Christmas, joking about being “turkey boy” and random other things that six year olds talk about. He was very possessive of his turkey station too, warning that no one take his place there. He continually greeted the men in line, to whom he referred to as customers, with a cheerful “Merry Christmas” or returned the greeting with “and a Merry Christmas to you too!” He bantered a little bit with the men in the kitchen and the ones in line and they grinned at him, laughed a little and got a big kick out of him. His customers were thankful that the turkey boy on this night was so generous with his helpings! Zach kept commenting on how much fun he was having being there and being the turkey boy. About halfway into the evening he started “motivating” the staff by saying things like, “come on guys we can do this faster…we have a lot of customers here!” The kitchen staff just let out huge guffaws at his funny comments and enjoyed working side by side with this unlikely teammate. A couple of times Zach said that he was having so much fun he wanted to live there. The only other place that had solicited that sort of comment from Zach so far in his six years was the swimming pool. So, this explained how the kitchen at the shelter stacked up in his mind. Of course, I felt a twinge of irony at the naivety of such a remark, since men did in effect live there, at least for one night, only if they were among the first to get a cot. Still, the pure joy that Zach expressed that night…having a ball heaping turkey on plates and just helping was something I will never forget.
As I lay in bed that night reflecting on the evening at the shelter I kept thinking that I had witnessed a type of “ministry of presence” from my six-year-old son that night. Witnessing Zach being fully present and full of joy helping others was such a cool thing to see. As I tried to go to sleep, I was overwhelmed with awe at this little person. Filled with emotion, my thoughts turned to those we served that night. I wondered where the men who didn’t get cots were sleeping on that Christmas night. Questions filled my mind: Why are so many homeless? Why them and not me? What more can I do to help? As the tears flowed and I tried to come up with some answers on how to fix it, I remembered how simple it had been to Zachary that night…there were a lot of “hungry customers” and he was the “turkey boy”. That was all he needed to know. Maybe sometimes it is supposed to be that simple…heck, shouldn’t serving Jesus always be?
Written by Lisa Marie Ramsey – 12/26/08