Don, Linda, Jeff, a child whose name I never knew; their faces haunt me, even as they crystallize my calling.
During 31 years of ordained ministry, I have served in rural, suburban, and inner-city settings. I’ve always joked that the motto of “characters welcome” was perfect for a permanent banner over our doors. You could see evidence every Sunday.
Musicians from a local bar played in our praise band. An ex-homeless woman with intellectual disability was our weekly greeter, passing out bulletins. A man found sleeping in our parking lot became a prominent member of our outreach ministry. Addicts, alcoholics, and the mentally ill discovered that the love of our congregations was a boon to their recovery. A recluse who had served as a tunnel rat in Vietnam came out of hiding and made meaningful relationships in our midst. We embraced all colors, classes, and sexual identities—God’s children!
Given my hard-earned affinity for broken people, I led our members to seek out the poorest in our communities. One place we found them was at impoverished mobile home parks, often tucked out of sight, pockets of American poverty that are more prevalent in our country that we want to admit.
I remember Don and Linda. Don was a Vietnam vet, suffering from the effects of Agent Orange and his long addiction to alcohol. He finally got sober and was living in a shabby Winnebago in Pomona, California, an inner-city community racked by gang violence. We met him while circulating flyers at his park. Someone lovingly offered to drive him to church, where he eventually joined our family.
One day, Don met Linda while she was begging outside a grocery store. He gave her what he had, then invited her to come to his trailer for a meal. Linda was intellectually disabled, a lost soul, and she ended up moving in with Don. It was the only stability she had known for many years. Eventually, as Don’s condition worsened and he was confined to a wheelchair, she became his caregiver. Theirs was surely a match made in heaven.
One Christmas Eve, our church included them in our offkey but joyous caroling tour. I’ll never forget the sight of Linda wheeling Don onto the porch. In the glow from a single string of lights, I watched their tears of gratitude at being included. A pit bull on a chain from the next trailer strained to get at us, its barking a crude counterpoint to our tunes.
I remember Jeff, a young man with aspirations to join a rock band, yet whose marijuana and meth habits drained his meager income and frail health. His lived in a small trailer in the high desert outside Littlerock, California. It was papered with posters from his favorite 80s bands—Depeche Mode, The Cure, New Order—but also classics he had learned to love from his mother, especially The Beatles.
On one of my visits, he asked if he could play Eleanor Rigby during worship. Of course! Backed by our praise band, he offered his gift on a Sunday just before Christmas, and when he sang “Ah, look at all the lonely people” we felt God speaking to us through an unexpected medium.
I remember a woman and her children living in a squalid trailer park in Alice, Texas. Our congregation was passing out food and toys, and when we knocked, the woman sheepishly peered through a crack in the door as an odor of cooking grease and old diapers seeped around her. Were we the police? Immigration officers? In English and Spanish we assured her that we were simply bearing gifts. Her children hovered behind her. I looked past them to see that the ancient trailer was sloping. Her youngest boy was seated on a ratty couch, a hole in the floor at his feet, revealing mud and debris beneath him.
That boy’s face still haunts me.
So, this is my Christmas shout out to all the lonely, struggling, hurting people in our communities who deserve more than FB memes or occasional hit-and-run charity. They long for loving company—the communion of saints—which is the greatest gift any community of faith has to offer.
Have a blessed trailer park Christmas, y’all!