I love to share a story shared with me about my dear friend and mentor Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. It was Christmas Eve and the pews at New York City’s Riverside Church were packed. The Christmas pageant was underway and had come to the point at which the innkeeper was to turn away Mary and Joseph with the resounding line, “There’s no room at the inn!”
The innkeeper was played by Tim, an earnest youth with Down syndrome. He had only one line to remember: “There’s no room at the inn!” He had practiced it again and again with his parents and the pageant director and seemed to have mastered it.
So Tim stood at the altar, bathrobe costume firmly belted over his broad stomach, as Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle. They approached him, said their lines as rehearsed and waited for his reply. Tim’s parents, the pageant director, and the whole congregation almost leaned forward as if willing him to remember his line.
“There’s no room at the inn!” Tim boomed out, just as rehearsed. But as Mary and Joseph turned on cue to travel further, Tim suddenly yelled, “Wait!” They turned back, startled, along with the congregation, and looked at him in surprise.
“You can stay at my house!” he called.
My friend said Bill Coffin strode to the pulpit, said, “Amen,” and sat down. It was the best sermon he never preached.
Tim’s “sermon” has a special poignancy and urgency this year, as a growing number of children across our country have no place to call home. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2008 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, released in July 2009, showed that after several years of declining rates the number of homeless families rose last year. The National Alliance to End Homelessness points out that because homelessness is a lagging indicator of economic trends, the recent rise may be the canary in the coal mine. In December, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a report based on a survey of 27 cities that found three-fourths of them experienced an increase in family homelessness over the past year. The same report also documented a 26 percent jump in the demand for hunger assistance, and noted that middle-class families are joining the elderly, homeless, working poor, uninsured, children and others who need help finding food.
Parents and children across our nation who may have felt secure this time last year are now finding themselves in crisis. “It’s hard enough going to school and growing up, but these kids also have to worry where they’ll be staying that night and whether they’ll eat,” Bill Murdock, the chief executive of a private charity group in North Carolina, told The New York Times. “We see 8-year-olds telling Mom not to worry, don’t cry.”
When, oh when will we individually and collectively as congregations, as communities, and as a nation resolve to stop saying to our children or anyone in our rich nation that “there is no room at our inn or food enough for all?” How long until we say to poor, hungry, and homeless children whose parents are working hard every day trying to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads, “We will help you escape poverty”, “We’ll catch you in our safety net until your family is able to provide for you again” And when will we ensure that no child is without health coverage?
As Christians celebrate the miracle of the incarnation—the belief that God actually came to live among us as a poor baby and child—I hope we can honor this baby in our lives by raising a mighty voice for justice and protection for all the poor babies and children made in God’s image still left behind in poverty and hopelessness in our land of plenty. As we celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah and enter the time of year of new beginnings, let us repent and reaffirm our commitment to ending child and family poverty and building a nation where all children find room in our hearts and in our deeds.