So close and yet so far away at Christmas
December 16, 2015
GLENN SHUFFLED UP toward the front the church, stopped, gazed at the muted lights coming from inside the opaque windows, listened to the familiar carols being joyously sung by the dozens of men, women and children inside, their collective yuletide sounds drifting outside, soothing the night, at once warming and seemingly making more bearable the frigid air.
Glenn wanted to go inside. But he didn’t. He seldom went inside the night shelters, the soup kitchens, few of the warm places that extended a welcoming hand to those like Glenn who really had no place to go. Glenn was tempted to enter, but, just like most of the times before, Glenn chose not to.
Still, Glenn wanted to be near those places. So he would go to them, stand outside a while, then go to the sides or the back of them, find a place to sit, pull the coat the social worker had given him at the start of winter up closer, more snuggly around him, wrap tighter the blanket some church members had given him at another place in the city, settle down. Glenn wanted to be close to the joy, the happiness, the comfort of the convivial people inside who had come together this Christmas night to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, to sip coffee and hot chocolate and eat cake and sing carols. The church members did not want Jesus to be forgotten in the misguided rush of Christmas, as they thought Jesus often seemed to be.
Glenn wanted to be near that, all of that. Close, but not too close. At arm’s length was the way he liked it best. Close enough to hear, to share what he knew was going on inside the century-old church in the neighborhood of older but well-kept homes. But not too close. The church that took pride in diversifying to include whites and blacks and Hispanics and Vietnamese and all of the others who lived in the long established but now ever-changing neighborhood. The church that chose not to be inward but instead to reach out – out to the homeless, the poor, the broken, the hungry, the dispirited, the rejected, the disenfranchised. Everybody. Anybody.
Out. Out to whomever. Out to whomever might be out there, out there in need. Need of any kind.
In a way, those inside the neighborhood church on this frozen Christmas night all had known in one way or another what it was like to be outside. But now they were here, here inside this church. Warm. Happy. Joyful. Singing carols. In their own way, singing happy birthday to Jesus.
Some of them wondered how many might be out there, out there on the streets. Cold. Hungry. Ignored. Despised. They knew those streets. They had seen those of the streets wandering around. No place to go. No where, no one to go to. Especially on frigid nights.
Some of those inside the church wondered if they should leave the church lights on after they had ended the celebratory night. Leave the church heaters on. Leave the hot coffee and cocoa, the food there.
They knew the danger of that. In years past, the policy was to never lock the doors should someone – anyone – feel the need to step inside the church at whatever time for whatever reason they wanted whatever solace the church might offer to be available to them.
But some who came stole from the church. Took not only church property but stole too some of the secure feeling, the serenity of church members. So they decided it was best to lock the doors.
Despite that, those who had come this Christmas night knew that it would be a night of an especially hard freeze, with temperatures dipping into the teens. Maybe even lower.
They decided that just for this one, challenging night they would leave the church front door unlocked, the lights on, the heaters on, the food and coffee and cocoa.
Maybe someone would come.
They wanted them to see the welcome mat.
They left the church with their moods and spirits warmed, if not their souls.
The warmth of the inside seemed to waft through the church walls, warming – and, in a quiet real way, inviting — the outside as well.
And anyone who might be out there.
The collective, exuded warmth came so close, so very, very close to George, who, on the outside, was within the thickness of the church walls from it, only a few steps away from it, steps he never took earlier in the evening when he decided to just go around back of the church, find a place to sit on the ground, lean against the church building, get what he could intercept on the outside from the warming glow and the promise coming from inside of the church.
Glenn had been that way since the awful war he had been sent off to, the one that saw him answer to three deployments, each one extracting more and more from him than the last. The war that rattled, then shattered his nerves, claimed his soul. Brutalized him, left him to – mostly alone – deal as best he could with his addictions, loneliness, depression, the countless demons that incessantly chased him, exhausted him, haunted him into frightening desperation.
So now he had come here on this cold, Christmas night, here outside this church, seeking whatever momentary restorative offering it might give him.
He could not muster whatever it might take to go inside, but maybe some of what was inside the church might find its way outside to him.
At least, sitting outside in the cold out back of the church, he could be close to whatever it was he sought.
Yet ever so far.
Yet infinitely distant.
On that starry Christmas night, out back of that impactful, involved, neighborly church that gave so much to so many, and to which Glenn was so inescapably drawn, Glenn – a plastic bowl of partially-eaten, ice-covered mashed potatoes a woman on the street earlier that day had handed to him cradled in the crook of his left arm — froze to death.
Roger Summers is a journalist, essayist and author.
His latest book is The Ladies in the Pink Hats and My Johnny.