Monday, December 13, 2010

The Christmas Eve That Changed Him

Note: Doug Brendel and I have been friends now for nearly forty years. He's one of the smartest, kindest people I know. He might also be the bravest. For years now, he and his wife have been traveling to Belarus to minister to people. His newest book is called, "Why I Quit the Church." I asked him to share a post with us, and I think you'll be impressed by what you read. Doug's honesty comes through, shining like a star atop a Christmas tree. His words will help remind all of us to think beyond the simplicity of making purchases, and to move closer to the real spirit of this amazing season.--Joanna Campbell Slan

By Doug Brendel

The Christmas Eve that changed my life was not a starry night. It was a grim, gray morning.

Some guy named Mike and his pals had been feeding homeless people in the park every Saturday morning. But that year, Christmas Eve fell on Saturday; Mike’s pals were out of town. He asked our pastor if our church could help.

I was the associate pastor. If Pastor said yes, I was stuck.

“Say no!” my heart screamed.

Pastor said yes.

I was afraid.

I had never encountered a homeless person in my life.

They must be dangerous.

I was a skinny nerd with a paunch.

I had suburbia written all over me.

These people weren’t going to take breakfast from me. They were going to eat my lunch.

That frigid morning, we scrambled dozens of eggs, made gallons of coffee, loaded serving tables into a pickup, drove to the park — and here they came.
Homeless people began stalking toward our vehicles. My internal radar was beeping madly.

“Morning, Mike!” “Merry Christmas!” “Kim! How ya doin’?”

They were coming to help.

Mike’s group had been showing up in the park every Saturday morning for months. These were friends. They looked forward all week to this.

The breakfast line formed. There were 50 or so.

A good-looking young man — could have been a movie star — blond hair, chiseled features.

A round-faced Native American, pockmarked and bloated.

Small red-haired woman, no more than 30, but shriveled and bent.

Guy with one eye.

Jolly fellow, Arkansas twang, face encircled by red curls.

Young guy wearing far too little in such cold. Old guy wearing so many layers, he could hardly move.

Smiley, tousled-haired boy, three fingers missing.

Cackling, greasy-bearded hobo.

Babbling, shiny-faced girl: mental case.

Tall guy, cross-eyed, in an outback safari hat.

Sleepy gray-haired woman wrapped in a blanket.

And I was not afraid.

Even today, years later, I can’t explain what happened to me that day.
I moved among these people, and my heart moved in with them. This lovely mixed bag of miscreants and sad sacks. It felt like a family reunion. I shook hands, grabbed wrists, gave Christmas greetings. I slipped an arm around people’s shoulders, joked and laughed.

You can tell when someone wants to talk, and sometimes that’s when you can move in close, close enough to smell the days-old perspiration permeating their clothing, look them in the eye, put your hand on their elbow, maybe even reach up behind their neck and pull them into a hug. The fabric they’re wearing can be slick with grime. They can reek with the sweet salt stench of sweat. But when you touch them, something happens. It’s not that they come to life; they’re already alive. But they brighten. Or they animate. You might be the only person to touch them that day — or that year.

I kept going back, every Saturday.

They taught me to love.

I became their pastor.

Christmas Eve has never been the same for me.


Doug Brendel’s new book is available at


Linda O. Johnston said...

What a moving post, Doug. Thanks for sharing it with Killer Hobbies!

Anonymous said...

It's an honor to be included. Thank you for the kind words, Linda.

Betty Hechtman said...

Welcome to Killer Hobbies, Doug. Thank you for the heartfelt post. It's a great Christmas story.

Monica Ferris said...

Moved me to tears.

Anonymous said...

Learning to love has taken me a lot of years, and I'm still learning.