At this festive time of year, I can’t help but recall the many Christmases I have spent away from home. I am mindful of so many in our world that can merely dream of being “home” for the holidays. Home, for some, is but a distant cherished memory, as they remain exiled in refugee camps or fleeing from conflict, environmental disaster, persecution, or poverty. For the years I spent serving in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I vividly remember what Christmas was like far away from anything familiar. No Christmas cookies, no Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” and no stockings to hang. But I also remember the freedom from consumerism, the race to beat everyone else to all the sales and the tendency to believe that Christmas is only about what happens to show up under your tree.
In war-torn Sarajevo, I began to understand more deeply that Christmas was about a tiny, vulnerable, helpless baby born to peasant, refugee parents with nowhere to care for their newborn. Christmas was about this little life bursting into the world with such force that the wisest of the wise walked miles and miles to behold this life for themselves. I learned that Christmas was about the Word becoming flesh so that all of us could experience what it means for God to be fully present within and among us. Perhaps for the first time, I sang, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and actually meant every single lyric.
And I remember celebrating Christmas around a meager table offering all that one family had: a shot of homemade pear brandy; their last lamb; “young cheese” made from the milk of their coveted cow; walnut cake; and the obligatory strong Bosnian coffee. Gathered around the table, we sang songs of peace and praise, our voices blending in a cacophonous yet beautiful way as we exclaimed that Christ had come into the world. At that time, there was nothing that was needed more than the peace of Christ in a place ravaged by years of war, ethnic strife and destruction.
I will never forget the Muslim family courageous enough to return to a predominately-Catholic (thus, Croatian) village, making a point to stop by our gathering to wish us a sincere “Sretan Božić!” (Happy Christmas) They, too, were hoping and praying for peace. It reminded me not only of how connected we all are as human beings yearning to live in peace, but also as closely related children of God. In typical Bosnian hospitable fashion, our Muslim neighbors were invited in, asked to join the Christmas celebration and treated as part of the family.
This was Christmas: all our words, all our talk of wanting peace and harmony…and the Word became flesh…when our neighbors showed up at our door…so that all of us could experience in a very real, physical way that God was, indeed, among us, in many different forms and faces and faiths.
O come, o come, Emmanuel. Be-with-us-God.
On January 6 of this past year, I began my new call to service with Church World Service. In barely one year, I have learned of the myriad of ways that God uses our gifts of commitment, courage, care and compassion, in whatever form they may be offered—to help others come home, find a new home, or improve their quality of life. I think about communities still struggling in Haiti, where we have been faithfully accompanying our sisters and brothers since the devastating earthquake (and for years before). Or poverty-stricken communities in Cambodia who now have access to food, sanitation and water. The ongoing horrific situations in the Middle East, and how God has invited us there to be present for a people desperate for peace and the basic necessities of survival and welcome. Ten years ago now, the tsunami ruthlessly struck Indonesia and other parts of southern Asia impacting places as far as Somalia. Japan still faces challenges after the tsunami there—and we are present, as CWS, participating in those recovery efforts. My colleagues working in these areas of the world remind me just how long it takes to recover from a disaster of that magnitude. And of course Superstorm Sandy, so close to home, changed the landscape of the East Coast—and CWS has been right there. Will those still displaced from disasters, long off of most of our radar screens, have a place to call “home” this Christmas? What about in Syria? Ukraine? Those in West Africa confronting Ebola?
However, through all the disasters, both human-created and natural, I have also witnessed Church World Service’s impact on those now healing and rebuilding after a storm, war, injustice, or from abject poverty. I think of small farmers in the Gran Chaco Region of South America once lacking resources who are now able to sustain themselves and their families. I picture Roma women in Serbia who are now learning to read and write, ensuring a different future for them and their children. I smile when I think of the thousands of seeds and tools and hard-working sisters and brothers across Central America and the Caribbean, now providing adequate and nutritious food for their families and communities.
And so I rejoice this sacred season for so many of you: supporters, faith leaders, congregations, CROP Hunger Walkers, partners, member communions, CWS staff and most of all, those across the world whom we accompany and for whom we serve. Because of our collective contributions and a genuine desire for everyone to be “home for the holidays,” we have been able to respond to thousands of displaced, marginalized, vulnerable and homeless neighbors in our midst.
In so doing, we are welcoming the Christ-child home. Into our world. Into this world who needs Hope, Peace, Joy and Love Incarnate more than ever.
May your Christmas be a time of homecoming, peace, communion, joy and of the miracle of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling within and among us. Emmanuel, God-With-Us, in whom we are Home.