And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. - an excerpt from the Christmas Story in the Gospel of Luke
I came into the coffee shop during a break in my work day. The shop is open 24 hours a day, which serves us shift workers nicely. The shop was a popular place for people to congregate and share stories, catch up or to grab a coffee to go along with a night of exam studying.
But it wasn’t a place for him.
In fact, he seemed downright out of place. With his eyes blankly staring at the empty coffee cup on his table, his oddly numerous layers of dirty clothing, his scraggly beard peppered with greys. No one seemed to mind him. No one really seemed to even notice that he was there to begin with – breathing, existing.
He was a regular. Perhaps the only homeless person I’d seen frequent the shop without staff putting in a police request to remove an unwanted person. He had an odd relationship with the shop. The workers there had come to accept his stoic like presence. He’d come in, quietly buy a coffee with the money he had scrounged up, and sit in the corner, spending his hours avoiding eye contact or conversation with patrons.
I think he knew.
He knew that if he had any hopes of returning to the shop on a nightly basis, he had best be on his best behaviour and that included keeping his mental health issues to himself, not begging for money, not driving business away. Still the staff was good to him as long as he kept his end of the bargain. And kept it he did.
Why did he do it?
No one to steal his bags. No one to assault him while he slept. There are plenty of good reasons. Still, one has to have an appreciation for how difficult it must have been. To come in every evening, to sit at a table, to stare at your coffee for fear of making anyone uncomfortable and to use whatever concentration you have left to make secure the cognitive dam separating the patrons all around you from the flood of socially unacceptable mental health thoughts rushing through your mind. When you combine that with the agoraphobic nature of many homeless people, it’s a miracle that he ever returned.
And yet he did. But perhaps for a more simple reason. Perhaps for however brief a time, a few hours here and there, he could sit with a coffee, and listen to those around him engage in conversation and convince himself, for even a moment that:
I passed by him as I did many a time, but unlike previous instances, he spontaneously looked up from his coffee cup and into my eyes. It was an unexpected moment. At work we’d been part of a machine put in place by tax payers to remove such individuals from public places due to their unsavory appearance and the unease they caused the general populace. As such, we try to shut the door to the inn of our hearts as to avoid any connection that might betray our professional duties. In our tones, in our eye contact, in our body language and diction, we declare,
For you, there is no room at the inn.
And yet I found myself, being looked at with captivating eyes, as Jesus himself were reaching into the very depths of my soul and ripping the door of apathy from its iron hinges, subsequently making available a room where there once was none left. He nodded his head and quickly averted his eyes, as to not draw any unwanted attention to him. He liked the deal he had with the coffee shop. He didn’t want me destroying all that he had come to cultivate; the place where he was free to imagine a life he would never have.
At that moment, something changed in my heart.
I was dragged, kicking and screaming, out and away from the position of master inn keeper of my heart.
A new boss was in town.
Over the following week, I challenged myself to learn his first name, make eye contact with him, say hello and offer him coffee every time I saw him. Occasionally he would sheepishly accept my offer.
After the week had passed, I began to wonder why I was even doing it. Where was this even going? Maybe I had seen Jesus that day. Maybe not. Maybe this was all just a way of fulfilling my own selfish ambitions or a misplaced saviour complex.
We had been slammed with work that day. I was tired and it was getting close to 3am. I wanted to go home. I was in no mood for playing saviour. As I walked by him, I noticed him look up from my peripheral and I pretended not to notice. He didn’t seem surprised, just simply lowered his head began to stare at his coffee once more.
But something was once again changed in my heart and the inn keeper suite was once again vacated under new management. And before I knew it, I was standing in front of the man with a small coffee in my hand. He looked up and smiled. He told me how it was his second time coming back to the coffee shop that night. How he had trekked back throughout town with his newly scrounged coins and had bought a second coffee, waiting patiently for hours in the hope that I would pass by. And when I did eventually pass by, I thought, I wanted to do just that: pass right on by him.
I wanted to cry – something of a faux pas in my business. He had trekked for miles throughout the middle of the night to come back to a place and wait patiently for someone he didn’t know and of whom he had no guarantee would even show up. Why in the world?
Because I knew his first name.
The months passed and I began to look forward to seeing him. Sitting with him. Listening to his story – however difficult it was to understand with his mental health condition. It took energy and patience to sift through the fantastic and be left with the real – but there it was. Real as any of our stories, just covered in the soot of being ignored, passed over, unacknowledged.
To this day, I still enjoy seeing him in those moments. Seeing Him in those moments. Both really.
For a second class baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, born into 1st century Palestine, there was no room in the comforts of an inn that night, because it was full. Full of people going places. People hustling to and fro in the busyness of their own narrative. But there was a much, much bigger story happening just beyond the doors of the local inn. Were they even aware?
This Christmas, may we take a moment out of the season to: Just. Slow. Down.
May we allow for the Christ to grab hold of us, move us – even violently thrust us – towards opening our inn for just one more.
We may never know who we’re about to let in.