This happened to me on December 24, 1997. I have to tell you that first because I wouldn’t believe this story myself had I not lived it.
It was like God was trying to get me to just slow down and pay attention for once. Call it a miracle or call it a thin place, it was a place where God stepped closer and something beautiful happened.
I was newly ordained, and I had my first official ministry job working at a large downtown gospel rescue mission in New Orleans. I directed the women’s shelter there, and that year was my first holiday season on the job.
Try to envision the chaos of a homeless shelter during the holidays. There are many volunteers coming in and out, people dropping off donations all day long. Local celebrities make their way in for photo ops, camera crews looking for human interest stories follow close behind.
And because of the weather or stress or all of the above, there are many more people in need of help. Chaos.
We were short on staff at the mission that Christmas Eve, and to make matters worse, it was very cold that year. Everyone who lived on the streets was crowding in for holiday dinners, coats and a place to sleep during the freezing nighttime.
I was assigned to work right at the main door of the shelter that afternoon. Meanwhile, the women’s shelter in the back was already packed to the gills, with women sleeping on cots in the hallway.
I was trying, among my many other tasks that day, to sit at the telephone and call other shelters to see if any of them had room for some of the women in my shelter. In the meantime, I had the onerous task of turning people away, no more room in the inn, and watching them head back into the cold.
As the afternoon sun began to disappear, a woman came through the front door with two children of about 10 and 12 — a boy and a girl. She was well-dressed, another person coming to do a holiday good deed, my cynical self thought.
She approached the desk with tears in her eyes and explained that her husband had problems with drugs and that they left the house quickly before he became violent; she didn’t have any family in town, no place to go that night, no money for a hotel.
She went on to explain that they had already been to every other homeless shelter in town, but no one had room for her and her kids. Could they please stay just one night until she could make arrangements to get to a friend in Mississippi?
With the words of Luke’s gospel ringing in my head, “she wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn,” I began to feel a deep kinship with the Innkeeper of Bethlehem.
There were too many people with too many crises. I didn’t have enough space, and I couldn’t allow them to stay. I calmly explained to the woman that I had no room whatsoever.
Firmly I told her I was very sorry, but she would have to find another solution. Her tears started in earnest, and she began to beg me to please help her — it was Christmas Eve!
I began to try to explain again that there was no way I could help — that I was sorry, but I had to abide by the rules of the shelter. As I tried to explain, I couldn’t get the words out over the ringing of the front desk telephone.
It rang and rang and rang — “why doesn’t someone get that?” I thought. I asked the woman to sit down for just a minute while I answered the telephone.
“Good afternoon, New Orleans Mission, can I help you?” I answered.
The woman on the other end of the telephone said, “This is a strange request, but I have already called all the other shelters in town, and no one seems to know what I am talking about.”
“My name is Joyce Smith, and I am a member of Greater Saint Stephen’s Full Gospel Baptist Church,” she explained. “I live by myself, and I have a rather demanding job. But yesterday while I was praying, I felt God was telling me a family was coming to visit me and that family would need my help to have Christmas.”
“I’m not exactly sure, but I think this family is a woman with two young teenagers,” she continued. “I felt it so strongly that I went out yesterday to buy decorations and presents and food — I usually don’t do Christmas that big on my own. And I got my house ready for them. Tree is up, presents are wrapped, ham is in the oven. But I’ve been trying since yesterday to find the family that God wants me to help. Do you have my family?”
I sat there in the chair behind the desk, exhausted from all the running and planning I had been doing. I could smell the smells of the big mission building: Clorox, body odor and despair. I could feel the dissonance of Christmas music blaring and hearts breaking.
While I listened to the voice of Joyce Smith try to explain what even she knew sounded crazy, I looked across the lobby at the woman huddled in a row of chairs, holding her two kids close to her, trying to reassure them they’d be alright but sobbing quietly nonetheless.
I listened and I looked, and I finally said, “Just a moment, please.” Then I crossed the lobby to the woman waiting and said, bewildered, “Excuse me, ma’am? I believe this call is for you.”
Joyce Smith did come to pick the family up. They did spend Christmas with her, opening presents and sleeping safely. And they did get on a bus two days later to get to a friend who could help them.
It’s almost 30 years later, and I am still bewildered by what happened at the mission that day. But I learned that miracles float all around us, thin places; we just don’t recognize them until the situation is desperate or we just can’t solve the problem or an angel shows up … or calls on the telephone.
In and among the chaos and stress of these weeks, take some time to look hard for a miracle. Open your heart, even just a crack, to the presence of God.
Thin places are all around us — like a shooting star in the night sky; like a hopeless and hurting family suddenly celebrating abundance; like a young teenager who became pregnant and delivered a baby.
Like God, with us.
Founder of Invested Faith, she previously served as pastor of several churches, including as the seventh senior minister and first woman at the helm of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Butler holds degrees from Baylor University, the International Baptist Theological Seminary and Wesley Theological Seminary. She is a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.