It’s Monday evening, and a small group of us from church are in Hodge Hill Grange nursing home, singing carols to the residents – elderly people, many seriously ill and frail, many living with the acute memory loss of Alzheimer’s
Among the handful of residents in the main living room are a couple of ladies, holding baby dolls, cuddling them, stroking them, rocking them, feeding them from pretend milk bottles. And as we sing ‘Away in a manger’, and as they cuddle and stroke and rock and feed their baby dolls, we can see tears rolling down their cheeks. These ladies, who can barely remember what they did 5 minutes ago, who are able to do so little themselves, are suddenly young mums again, children even – given a precious, precious gift, from an angel called Jenny – something, someone, to look after, to care for, to love – something, someone, who turns them in an instant from ‘nobodies’ into ‘somebodies’.
It’s Tuesday afternoon now, at The Hub on the Bromford. There must be a good 30 or 40 children, with mums or dads or nans, busily munching mince pies, getting their faces painted, and excitedly queuing to meet Santa.
Towards the end of the afternoon, those who want to come and find a costume and dress up and join in our own little ‘Bromford Nativity’. A 7-year-old girl finds the shiny blue dress for Mary, but none of the boys seem particularly keen on playing Joseph. In the end, our ‘Mary’ finds Carl, a teenaged lad who’s spent the afternoon refusing to wear a Santa hat. As if by magic, there stands Joseph, complete with brown robe and tea towel head-dress, all of a sudden with the willingness of a small child.
Wednesday next, and I brave the snow and ice to visit Mariam [not her real name]. A Muslim mum from Pakistan, with four boys, she’s been in Birmingham for 5 years. Her visa expired earlier this year, and since then, she’s not been able to work, or draw benefits, and so hasn’t been able to pay her rent, or buy clothes or food or toys for her sons.
People at church here have been incredibly generous – buying clothes, knitting clothes, rooting around to find books and toys that would make good presents for four boys.
So laden with bags, I ring her doorbell, and there’s no answer. After a few minutes, a next-door neighbour comes along. ‘I think she’s moved,’ he says, and my heart sinks. ‘She might be calling back to the house in the evening.’ So in the evening, I phone, and again, no answer.
It’s Thursday morning now, and it’s early, because our boiler’s broken down. In the midst of trying to fix it, I phone Mariam again, and she answers the phone. She’s moving into a hostel today. I ask her if that’s good news or bad news. She says it’s good news – she and her family will be fed, and they won’t have to worry about the rent they’ve not paid.
So we agree to meet in the afternoon at the house she’s just about to leave, me on my way to Heartlands Hospital. She opens the door with a beaming smile – we exchange greetings, ‘Salaam aleikum’, ‘Peace be with you’. Her children couldn’t have been more excited if I’d had a big red suit and a fluffy white beard. And I find myself, a strange traveller in an unfamiliar place, kneeling down on her bare living room floor, offering precious gifts to a family on the move – on the move because a hostile government has made it that way.
Half an hour later, and barely half a mile down the road, Janey and I watch as a 9cm-long baby, a mere twelve weeks and two days from nothing, but already with eyes, nose and mouth, legs and arms and beating heart, dances in her womb. I wonder at the miracle of it, and ponder the responsibility, entrusted to fallible hands like ours.
The truth of Christmas is right in the middle of the story – that’s where we need to make our home. Who will we find waiting for us there?
(preached on Christmas Morning 2010, St Philip & St James, Hodge Hill – a not-entirely-typical, but true, week in the life of this local parish priest)