I have already received my favorite Christmas present this season – a bright red baseball cap with sequins and a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Not that I would have known it was Our Lady of Guadalupe, had her name not been scrawled across the hat, right between the sequins and serenely smiling face.
When people see me coming — and oh, they will — “Protestant pastor” will not be their first thought. But I cherish the cap because it was a gift from one of my longtime parishioners at Triune Mercy Center. A man who spent the last nine Christmases homeless.
When I arrived at Triune in 2005, Lee was among the surliest of my new congregants. He spent every weekend sleeping in our dining hall, his head cradled on his arms. When spoken to, he grunted. When asked to take out trash, he rolled his eyes.
A couple of years in, I asked Lee to help me serve communion one Sunday. To my surprise, he agreed.
Together we made our way along the altar rail. “The body of Christ broken for you, Denise, Sippio, Pete, Robert. The blood of Christ shed for you.”
I uttered the words and handed over the bread. Lee followed with the tray of communion cups.
Three weeks later, he caught me after a service. “Communion is next Sunday,” he mumbled, slouched against a wall. “Do I have to help you again?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Yes, you do.”
When the next Sunday rolled around, he backed out. But then we started noticing that he was helping out in the dining hall. He set up tables and chairs, took out the trash. He served the tea. Then he started making the tea. He brewed the coffee.
We talked about him at staff meetings. What’s up with Lee? What’s gotten into Lee? Nobody knew.
But he was a different person. He wouldn’t sit down and eat until everyone else had been served.
One December morning, I was going to visit Fourth Presbyterian Church for an alternative gift fair. I stopped in our kitchen to see if the coffee was ready. It wasn’t. “Don’t worry,” I told Lee. “I’ll get some at Fourth Pres.”
Ten minutes later there was a knock on my office door. There stood Lee with a steaming cup of hot coffee.
I just stared. “You brought me coffee?”
“You were taking so long the men were going to drink it all up,” he replied. Gruffly.
Lee still had a drinking problem. He still lived outside — in a tent, during good times. But after that day, he brought me coffee every Sunday morning. He and I were unlikely friends, yet friends nonetheless in this ragtag community we call church.
He was the illustration I used when I told proponents of outcome measurement that there is a point to church, to relationship, even when sobriety and housing and employment don’t happen. There is a way someone can be “with us” in the same way Emmanuel is “God with us.”
One day this spring, Lee entered rehab at a Veterans Administration clinic in Asheville. He got a job. He calls every Sunday to let us know how he’s doing. On the first Sunday of Advent, he rode the bus to Greenville and dashed into the middle of our worship service where I sat on the front row, listening to the offertory. He handed me that blazing, garish, flashy, quite lovely paean to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
We Christians will mark this Christmas amid fear of terrorism and cataclysmic climate change and racial strife and domestic shootings. The truth is, most of us aren’t in a position to do much about any of that.
What we can do is be with our brothers and sisters. As Emmanuel promised to be with us.