A friend shared a story I love about our mutual friend and mentor Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. some years ago. 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!”
Never mind that no figure of the innkeeper actually appears in scripture. We’ve all imagined him delivering the message of “no room” to the baby Jesus’s parents. And it seemed the perfect part for Tim, an earnest youth of the congregation who had Down Syndrome. Only one line to remember: “There’s no room at the inn!” He had practiced it again and again with his parents and with the pageant director. He 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 Tim to remember his line.
“There’s no room at the inn!” Tim boomed out, just as rehearsed. But then, 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 Tim in surprise.
“You can stay at my house!” he called.
I am told William Coffin strode to the pulpit, said, “Amen,” and sat down. It was the best sermon he never preached.
For Christians, another holy advent season is upon us. People of all faiths are reflecting on things done and left undone during the past year and making resolutions for change in the new one. I hope that we individually and collectively as communities and as a nation resolve to stop saying to our children, “There’s no room at the inn.” When will we, like Tim, start saying, “You can stay at my house!” When will we say to poor, hungry and homeless children, “Wait! We’ll make a place for you at America’s table of plenty!” I hope Congress will reflect on their deeds in voting to give non-needy millionaires and billionaires and wealthy corporations huge tax breaks to be paid for by cutting basic survival needs of poor children – health care, child care, housing, food, and so much more that we who are privileged take for granted – and whether poor children have a place in America’s inn. It is their inn too.
I don’t know how Senate and House Republicans decided this week to turn their backs on millions of poor children and other poor and low and middle-income families in order to give the wealthiest households and powerful corporations instead $1.5 trillion in tax breaks over the next ten years. I don’t’ know what sacred text they read. Their vote is evil any time, but especially at this time of the year recognized by some faith traditions as a holy season. The only table children will be invited to in 2018 will be an unfriendly budget slashing one with Medicaid and SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) laid out for deep cuts. What kind of leaders vote to balance the budget on the backs of babies and children and what will you and I do to hold them accountable?
Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his last Christmas Eve sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church – “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” He reminded us that one of the things “we must be concerned about if we are to have peace on earth and good will toward men is the nonviolent affirmation of the sacredness of all human life. Every man is somebody because he is a child of God…made in His image, and therefore must be respected as such.” He also reflected on the “I Have A Dream” speech he had given at the March on Washington four years earlier, and how he already had begun seeing his dream turning into a nightmare as current events were unfolding. But Dr. King refused to give up his conviction that our nation could change: “I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I still have a dream today that in all of our state houses and city halls men will be elected to go there who will do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God.”
We must never stop striving to live up to that still unfulfilled dream denied millions of our children. As Christians rejoice in the miracle of the incarnation – the belief that God actually came to live among us as a poor baby and child – I hope we will in the new year raise a mighty sustained voice for justice and protection for all the poor babies and children in our nation and world made in God’s image. As we celebrate this holy season in many faiths and enter a new year, let us repent and reaffirm our commitment to building a nation where all children find room at our nation’s and world’s inn.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to staging.childrensdefense.org.