The back door to the church fellowship hall swung open. In walked two thin men with backpacks slung over their shoulders. Both men had unshaven faces and deep set eyes under black eyebrows. “Merry Christmas!” said the taller of the two. They moved confidently across the room to cots set up behind a line of tables.
The door swung open again. A ragged line of people entered. An older couple, husband and wife, holding hands; a tall, thin, handsome man with a copper beard and a worn, gentle appearance; a thin blonde man with deep set eyes; a sturdy, young, cocoa-skinned man named Lawson; young James B and his girlfriend Kara with her dark, nervous eyes; thin Veronica; stocky Elvis — their names taking shape on name tags, their cot ownerships lining up, the men behind the line of tables, the women behind screens. The husband wheeled in his wife’s oxygen tank and placed it beside her cot. Twelve guests this night, on Christmas Eve.
From the kitchen hints of turkey and gravy drifted into the hall where guests poured coffee and sifted through toiletries and books. Tables were set for dinner, poinsettias in the center, fruit salad at each place setting. A buffet line formed. “Let’s eat while the food is hot. Lawson, will you please say the blessing.”
From upstairs a brass quintet’s harmonies floated down, waves of crescendoing sound with each opening of sanctuary doors. Church members dressed in suits and dresses drifted in and out. The setting could have been any church meal with the familiar pulse of conversation and forks clicking on plates, but not quite, because the guests at the tables were strangers to one another, thrown together because they were homeless.
Throughout the winter months, on every Thursday night, The Presbyterian Church of Bowling Green hosts a winter shelter program called Room in the Inn. In the church fellowship hall volunteers set up cots with blankets, sheets, and pillows; cook dinner and breakfast; and serve twelve guests. From 6pm to 6am, as many as fifteen volunteers alternate through five shifts; one of those shifts is the innkeeper shift when two church members sleep on cots over night. It’s the least popular shift, beginning at 9pm and ending at 5am, “sleep” a convenient but inaccurate description for the shift.
Because Christmas Eve fell on Thursday this year, while homeless guests settled in downstairs, Presbyterians upstairs carried on with the annual Christmas Eve schedule, two worship services, choir practice, children’s performances, traditional pageantry and music.
Upstairs was Allelujah, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, Oh Little Town of Bethlehem; Downstairs a hot meal, coffee, extra blankets, antacids, fitful rest.
I was there in both places, upstairs and downstairs. I set up cots, served food, ate with the guests. I listened to their stories.
We’ve been married 39 years. My wife has spells. She needs her oxygen.
We met at a laundromat.
He was an Afghanistan. He enlisted after high school. He had nowhere else to go. His mother abandoned him when he was thirteen.
One day she didn’t pick me up from school.
I kept driving without a license. Finally, I was arrested and lost my license. I’m trying to get back my license.
I’ve got some work tomorrow.
We lived behind a bush until Trevor found us.
I’ve got kids in Tennessee.
I’ve got this cough. Acid reflux.
Upstairs I dressed in my choir robe, sang anthems, savored the music, absorbed the pastor’s message about the power of hope and love in a disturbing and swirling world of vicious rhetoric, murder, war, intolerance, and carelessness. As the sanctuary darkened, we lit candles and sang Silent Night. The lights came up. We burst into Joy to the World. The brass quintet played Jingle Bells. We embraced friends.
Downstairs in the fellowship hall, when the lights dimmed, tired guests prepared for sleep.
At eleven o’clock I pulled on a sweatshirt, plumped up my pillows on a cot near the lobby exit and lay down to play online Scrabble on my iPad. The other innkeeper, David, pulled off his shirt and shoes, placed a camp mattress on his cot just outside the hall near the lobby exit, and curled up in a red fleece blanket and drifted off to sleep, his breathing heavy and slow.
The primary lights in the hall and lobby were off, but not the emergency lights and not the Christmas tree lights. The ice maker in the kitchen burbled. One of the men sat on the edge of his cot and tried to squelch his fierce coughing, a garbage can beside him to catch his phlegm. Although a doctor had visited with him the previous week, the man, resigned to his condition, had resisted treatment. “Does he have lung cancer? TB?” I worried. The boyfriend and girlfriend whispered and paced restlessly, in and out from the hall to the lobby and back again, passing where David slept and then where I lay, until her need to sleep overcame his reluctance to leave her. I checked the time. 1:30. A man cried out in a dream. A woman left to use the bathroom. Snoring and labored breathing. Hacking. More outcries.
My brain refused to relax. I covered my head with a shirt, hugged my extra pillow, the one from home, and practiced mindlessness. I added a coat to my blanket. I shivered. At 3am thunder growled, lightening flashed, rain pelted the patio and street and spattered the windows. At 4am I heard the rustling of coffee filters, the pouring of water into the coffee maker, the clink of cups, the rhythmic drip of coffee, a smoker’s morning cough. Two men stood quietly with cups in their hands and watched the coffee maker.
Outside the rain continued, street lights shimmering on dark, wet streets.
I rose and joined David and the early risers. The coffee moistened my throat, its warmth spreading to my belly. I held the warm cup against my cheek.
At 4:15 the breakfast shift volunteers, Cathey and Wes, arrived. Slowly people awakened. Rain flooded the streets. Wes and I stirred scrambled eggs in iron skillets. Cathey flipped pancakes. We warmed the precooked bacon, poured orange juice, set out milk.
“Do you have tongs for the bacon, Ma’am?” asked the young Army veteran.
“It’ll be a hard day with this rain. The library will be closed, and the mall,” lamented one man.
“The buses won’t be running.”
“I’ve been wet before.”
At 6am the guests would be escorted to a morning shelter nearby.
My husband arrived to help clean up. I drove home, took a hot shower, and fell into our bed, with its Sterns and Foster mattress, down comforter and 600 count percale sheets. I slept until noon. When I woke up and looked out our den’s French doors, it was still raining.
It was Christmas Day.