"I'll bring you another blanket," I said. With that, I left the church and went to my parsonage nearby. One more blanket would do it.
"Greg, when you leave in the morning, make sure you turn out the lights. I've been finding them on when I come over here in the morning. I'm trying to save on electricity. The church folk aren't rich, you know."
Greg smiled, understanding that he did have a habit of forgetting to turn out the lights in his one-room shelter at the church. He also had a habit of leaving dirty dishes in the sink downstairs in the church kitchen. Furthermore, he forgot to turn down the thermostat when going off to work each morning.
I guess it is part of being in your early 20s, I mused as I left this fellow.
How could parents put their child out at Christmas? That was one question that had been eating away at my heart ever since he knocked on the parsonage door.
The next day I twisted my master key into the lock, opened the door into his room, and found that he had done just as I had asked — lights off, eat turned down. But those crusty dishes were still in the sink.
I'd better clean up this mess before the women of the church come in here to complain, I thought.
Then I scolded myself for expecting that of the women. When they understood his situation, I knew down deep inside that there would be no complaining. They, too, had sons.
"How is it that they told you to leave?" I had asked him when he wandered into my living room that desperately cold night.
"They said they had had it with my being a Christian. At first I thought they were taking to this new life of mine. But then, they flipped it all over the other way," he had looked down at the carpet, hardly able to take it in, that his own mother and father had sent him packing.
Where else could he go? There were no relatives nearby. It was the church — which was where he would have to end up. And so there he was on my front doorstep, with his suitcase pressed against his side.
"You can use the rest rooms — shave, bathe. You can use the church kitchen to make your meals.
Sometimes we'll invite you over for supper. How's that? And there's your own thermostat. It heats up just this room off the sanctuary."
I pointed out all the conveniences of being sent out in the cold at Christmas. "Of course, the sanctuary is a good place for you to go in quiet, getting your thoughts together," I suggested. Greg was a student of the Word. Since becoming a believer, he could not get enough of Scripture.
"There are some of my study books in the shelves around the corner. Take your pick. Enjoy!" I tried to be cheery, though it was not all that easy talking to a young man who was bunking out in a side room in the church. Yes, it was the house of God. But on cold, wintry nights it was also a lonely place to walk into all by oneself. Creaks sounded in the night. Radiators croaked at odd hours.
"Just don't get caught in the rest room taking a sponge bath when someone with a key decides to case the place," I said, chuckling.
He was game. What else was left? He had finished college and had come back home to make some money to pay off some bills. And now this.
"How can parents put their own son out like that?" he asked me one especially empty evening.
"It's hard to answer that one." I shrugged, not wanting to appear too serious. I figured that if we moved on to another subject, the pain just might go away.
On the following Sunday I gently told the congregation of Greg's plight. After the worship service, people needed no prodding to get heads and hearts together. In short order, whisperings on behalf of goodwill toward the young man were filling the halls.
The Sunday before Christmas was fast approaching. We were going to enjoy our fellowship meal after the morning service.
"Do you have the box decorated?" someone asked. I assured her that Marie had everything in place — mostly hidden from Greg's view.
"Where do we put the presents?"
"Over there, behind the table. I'll get them later and put them in the box so that everything will be put together."
What fun it was to poke about, doing things in secret when it all added up to warm a heart!
"Good morning, Greg," I called out to him as he left his one-room abode to join the rest of us for Bible class.
"Good morning to you, Pastor," he replied cheerily.
Reg had been invited to his parents' for Christmas Day. He would go, he said, "to show them that I love them in spite of what they've done to me." Fine. Then go. And what would they have wrapped up under the tree for their son-put-out-of-their-home-because-of-his-faith?
The meal was eaten with relish. Such delicious tastes!
"Now?" Sally asked as she tugged at my coat.
"Now," I whispered back.
The huge box was brought out into the center of the fellowship hall.
It was not easy to get Greg's attention when he was eating!
"Greg, we have something special for you today.
Here are some presents we have wrapped up just for you. May this be a blessed Christmas after all."
The young man — not all that tall — rose to extra height with gladness as he sauntered over to the gifts that bore his name. One by one he lifted them, putting his ear tip to their sides, feeling their shapes, looking at each of us in wonder and thanksgiving.
"How can I say what's in my heart?" he asked, hardly able to say much more.
"You don't have to say anything," I responded.
"Just your being with us this Christmas has made this season very special for our church family."
Christmas Day came and went.
"Greg?" I knocked on his door late Christmas night. Loud music was blaring out from inside his room. What if someone from the church had come into the building to hear that mash called "music"? I thought.
"Greg?" I knocked again. Presently he came to the door.
"What are you listening to?" I asked whimsically, as if not caring all that much, just making conversation.
Greg turned down the volume, then sat on the sofa made into a bed.
"I guess I was just trying to drown out something inside with that noise," Greg said haltingly.
"That bad, was it?" I ventured.
"And what did your parents get you for Christmas?" I asked.
"Nothing? Nothing at all? Nothing? Just plain nothing?"
Greg nodded. At the other side of the room were all the gifts given by the church folk. They were now unwrapped and neatly stacked in one corner.
"My parents are not very happy people. I feel sorry for them. I'm beginning to understand that they really do need a lot of help."
I didn't know what to say.
"Their not giving me anything was really getting to me tonight. I turned up the radio so that I could drown out some of the hurt inside. I figured that no one would be here on Christmas night this late. So I thought it wouldn't harm anything — the loud music and all that."
"No problem, Greg. No one would have stopped by. I just wanted to see how you were, and that's why I decided to walk over to check things out."
"Yet, Pastor, through this whole mess I've realized one precious gift that stands out more than anything else."
"It's that I do have a family. They are more than I have ever had in my whole life. They are all those people who come into this church. They love me. They gave me those gifts over there."
I left him and walked back home.
"How's he doing?" my wife asked as I walked through the door.
"Not too well. But not too badly either. I mean, I think this is one of the most precious Christmases Greg will ever know. For some very important reasons, this season will no doubt stand out in his memory as one of the most meaningful times in his life."
Time has passed. Greg has grown older with the rest of us. He left the church room for a second shelter and then a third as he moved from one situation to another.
Yet with the passing of the seasons, I have looked back to realize that not only for Greg but also for the entire congregation that will be one Christmastide that will highlight all the others.
It was that year all of us came to understand what it means to have been put out of an inn, only to be sheltered by the hearts of those who care enough to love.
- J. Grant Swank, Jr.