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A Christmas Morning Gift: The Joy of Pouring Hot Chocolate

8751405926_a6f6212590_zPhoto by stratman² via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

This year as Christmas approached, the candle of my eldest daughter’s life burns down. Cancer may extinguish it on that very day. Within the greater loss, anticipating the pain of Christmastide as its anniversary has forced me to shed some of my illusions. I begin with the realization that I can do with many less decorations, lights, gift exchanges and celebrations of the sort that once meant “Christmas” to me. What I’ve discovered that I cannot do without are my fellow humans, people of goodwill who, in Charles Dickens’ words, consider themselves as “fellow passengers to the grave.”  In seeking the company of “fellow passengers” — people intent on making the voyage worthwhile — I find fringe benefits: flashes of brilliant humor, an abundance of practical solutions and a ceaseless broadening of intellectual pursuits.  After all, aren’t these the lights, the gifts and the celebrations we need most.

In American history, when we teach about the Puritan settlers of Boston, we emphasize the importance of their Calvinist beliefs, including predestination. This means that the final destination of one’s soul — heaven or hell — had been determined by God prior to one’s birth.  To keep the souls from reasoning that one might as well do whatever one pleased, the idea of “visible saints” — those whose good works were so commendable that they were surely heaven bound — provided a model of rectitude. I’ve always thought of visible saints as growing out of an ill advised carrot-and-stick mentality.  (The Scarlet Letter might be instructive here.)

Several years ago I participated in a project that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). I mention this because the people responsible for local arrangements were among the pleasantest folk I’ve ever worked with.

Many had participated in other community projects together and had developed a generous way of working together: non-competitive, genuinely cooperative, appreciative of each other’s contributions. I thought then, and continue to think, that if visible saints could exist, this is how I imagine them to be.  As for me, sainthood, visible or invisible, was out of the question.  I’ve been too busy being au courant, noticeably clever and splendidly entertaining whenever possible.

In search of a new understanding of the Christmas spirit, I turned to the SNCC model of generosity that had so impressed me years before. This time, I turned to Enoch Hendry, Rector of Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah, Georgia, who I knew as a SNCC participant, and discovered when interviewing a homeless friend, that he presides over a Christmas breakfast for the homeless.

It all began five years ago, Reverend Hendry tells me, when the approaching Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. Few people come to church when Christmas falls on a Sunday in Reverend Hendry’s experience. Trinity had recently received a substantial monetary gift meant for outreach and community service. Together with his parishioners, Reverend Hendry combined the two circumstances — empty church and full purse — to provide Christmas breakfast for the homeless. It was an immediate success and continues to be so, feeding a total of 400 (100 at a time in the parish hall) with the joyful assistance of about 80 volunteers each year since.

Trinity recently began partnering with an African-American church, Speedwell United Methodist, in the community of Sandfly, which now provides the same menu to the homeless on Savannah’s south side. The menu — scrambled eggs, grits, sausage and biscuits, accompanied by orange juice, coffee and hot chocolate — is served by volunteers in both parishes. The surprising highlight for many of the diners is hot chocolate, not a beverage often offered to the homeless.

In addition, those who come for breakfast go away with a bag of fruit, a toothbrush, a new pair of socks and a ten-dollar gift card to spend at a local supermarket, where they can buy items not obtainable with food stamps, like batteries.

This Christmas will be my last with my daughter, who is now in hospice care. It will mark the end of what I thought was the proper celebration of Christmas.  Next year will not, however, be an attempt to recreate the past without her.  I will be giving my own gift of service to some of the 400 homeless who show up at the door of Trinity Methodist Church here in Savannah. I look forward to the joy of pouring hot chocolate in their cups.

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  • Linda Heisel December 25, 2015 at 10:51 am

    I cannot imagine either your grief or the journey towards the loss of your daughter. However, your story is a gift. Your personal loss is also a metaphor for all that the elderly lose — the children are far away, the resources and facilities are diminishing no matter how we try to stave of helplessness, the Christmas fervor seems meaningless and it is hard to hope. That you have transcended the sadness of your own story in service to others is both inspiring and challenging. To rise above the personal to offer ourselves to other helpless humans offers compassion to ourselves and others.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/25/opinion/the-christmas-revolution.html?emc=edit_th_20151225&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=71686363&_r=0

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