Each year, I learn something new about the Christmas story. It’s not that the story has changed any. It’s just that I’ve changed.
After our loss of Olivia, I saw Christmas through Mary’s eyes. I wondered how celebrating Jesus’s birthday felt the year he was killed and rose to life. Even though he went to heaven, she still must have grieved his absence, and as well as the lasting trauma of watching her son be tortured and murdered.
Then there were the years of grief and infertility in which I had to face that all the pomp around the Christmas spirit was truly not enough to meet the cavernous wanting in my soul. If Christmas offered hope, it had to come packaged differently than all the traditions, presents and general merriment. It had to be something more. And thankfully, it is.
Then, two years ago at Christmas time, I was in the middle of Z’s transition home. He was at an extended visit with his Mom. And I was home, sweeping my floor, fretting about his safety. And fretting about how I would ever say “good-bye” in a few weeks’ time.
“God,” I angry said. “Do you even know what this is like? Do you even know what it is like to give away a son?”
And it instantly hit me that of course God knew. He sent his only son into a world that was bent on killing him, and he sent him there as a fragile and vulnerable baby. Of course he knew what it was like for me to let go of one of my most precious gifts to a people and place that could be unsafe.
It was that year in which I realized Christmas is not just about the gift of a baby. It was the start of God the Father’s bereavement at the separation of his son. It was the start of God with us — not only in the joy and beauty, but also in the hard.
And this Christmas has proven yet again to be rich with meaning.
At noon on Monday, the first day of winter break, all I was thinking about was which crafts, fun traditions and memories I would make with my daughters. I had already set aside work for two weeks (except for one writing assignment) and was looking forward to packing our time full of memory-making activities.
By 7 o’clock that night, I was washing the hair and body of a little girl named K, taking mental note of any marks on her body (wondering what I would need to document) and listening to her astonishment that she would get dinner two nights in a row. She needed an emergency home for 24 hours, but after listening to the frazzled visitation supervisor who dropped her off, I began to wonder if she actually had a place to go for Christmas, and for the days or weeks after that.
She had already been separated from her family. She was already counties away from her bio family, making visits exceptionally hard. Would she be bounced around from home to home? Would she get used to one place, only to immediately pack her things and have to call another place home?
Christmas was no time to be homeless. Over the next day, my suspicions were confirmed, and we offered to be her home for the holidays.
I introduced my husband and I to her as Mr. Ryan and Ms. Rachel. But it took all of 2 seconds for her to switch that to mom and dad. I never corrected her.
As I bathed her, brushed her hair, clipped her nails, checked her brushing of teeth, and got her in her jammies, it occurred to me: I almost didn’t know about her.
I almost didn’t know that the train accident in Tacoma that day affected where this vulnerable child would need to sleep that night. I almost didn’t know that there was a little girl who loved Frozen and play doh, and sometimes kicked and cussed, and struggled to understand the concept of “home.” I didn’t know that with as trying as some of her behavior would be, that I’d also find myself melting a bit for her, wrapping her in my arms throughout the day, and whispering in her ear how brave she was — even in the middle of a rage.
And it struck me that Miss K was not the only one who needed a home Christmas Day. Christ himself was rejected from warmth, security, and safety. All because there was no room at the inn.
I thought about the inn that first Christmas night. How likely only the inn keeper, and maybe a stablehand or two, even knew that these “guests” were staying the night in a barn. The rest of the guests inside the inn were likely clueless about the plight of their neighbors — and were instead eating, drinking, being merry. Or maybe they were absorbed in their own problems that evening. They didn’t know there was a mother and child in need right outside.
Like the guests in the inn, I too have been preoccupied with my own world. I was absorbed in the thoughts of comfort for me and my children. I believed that memories were all the holidays were good for making.
And then someone came knocking on my door.
And I have to be honest — Our home is not an inn. It is a barn. Our home is made of love, but it’s the imperfect kind of love where we lose our tempers and yell sometimes. My home is not always neat and tidy, and 6 of us are now sharing our meager 3 rooms. Our carpets are stained, our bedding mismatched, and most of my furniture is secondhand.
I think of what a Hallmark channel might make of this experience, because this is the type of story Hallmark loves. Hurting family in need. Small doey-eyed child needing the love and stability from two comforting parents. Healing that comes in the form of steaming chicken noodle soup, warm baths and bedtime books after hot cocoa.
I almost want to laugh out loud. Sure, there are the doey-eyes, and the hot cocoa and bedtime books. But there is nothing Hallmark Channel-y about temporarily parenting a child from trauma. A child who has lost family and home. There is nothing filmworthy of the daily accidents. Or the screaming tantrums. Of the inability to cope with all of the changes.
No, our home is very much a barn and that barn is not the home this child wishes to have this Christmas.
But a barn is all we have to offer, and it’s all that she really needs, and so we offer it all the same. Because right now, there is literally no more room at the inn.
Washington State has a shortage of 1,500 foster homes. You don’t know it until you’re a part of the system. These kids are the invisible homeless — bouncing from temporary placement to temporary placement, living in group homes when they shouldn’t, being split apart from siblings, sleeping on couches in social workers’ offices, or having to stay supervised in hotel rooms.
Most of us right now are like the guests in the inn in Bethlehem: comfortable, content, focused on our own children and families. We are wholly unaware that by not opening our door, we are like the innkeepers who said to Mary and Joseph, “sorry … there is no room at the inn.”
And we carry on, ignorant that there is a little girl named K who has no place to call home for Christmas.
Friends — I can’t tell you to foster. I can’t. I mean, it’s hard. I know many of you have said, “Have fun making memories with K” … but for the last week, I tell you I’m just content that we’ve all survived up until now. While I’m hoping K does have some fun, amusement is nowhere in the equation for Ryan and I.
I can’t tell you to start caring because once you start it’s hard to stop.
I can’t tell you that your own family will be better off, because maybe your kids will learn something, but then maybe they’ll just have to give up a whole lot and be told they are mean and get punched by the child who has (reasonably) 0 coping skills for the situation they are in.
I can’t tell you to foster because the truth is having the system in your home is no fun.
So I won’t tell you I think you should do it.
Here’s what I can tell you:
My state needs 1,500 people to show up and open the doors to their inn, or their barn, or whatever non-Hallmark-y home they live in. I’m guessing whatever state you are in, the crisis is just about as bad.
I can tell you that for every K that you learn about, there a dozens (or more) cases which are even more heartbreaking and the size of the need can be overwhelming.
I can tell you that kids aren’t numbers. They are very real people with Icelandic blue eyes which pierce straight through you when they tell you how they’ve been hurt.
I can tell you that when Jesus separates those who have pleased him and those who haven’t he starts by saying he was cold, he was hungry, he was homeless … and those who rejected the least of these rejected Christ himself.
I can tell you that for a country full of people dedicated to the idea of Christmas being around a baby born in a barn, few are willing to open their own barns because of the inconvenience, the mess, the uncertainty of it all.
I can tell you that most people assume someone else will step up. I can tell you that it isn’t always someone else’s responsibility. Someone else does not always step up.
So then you might ask — what now? Maybe I can open up my barn? I recommend starting by contacting Olivecrest, or by looking up another agency local to you who handles foster care. I recommend exploring the options and talking with your partner. I recommend calling DCFS and asking about the need, and what it takes to get licensed, and what kind of homes they are looking for.
And if you just can’t open your homes, trust me, I am not judging. There are other ways to serve, and K has been the recipient of so many kindnesses from strangers this week, and she doesn’t even know it. And Ryan and I don’t even have the answers ourselves to what this fostering thing will look like when K goes somewhere more permanent next week.
But here’s one last thing I just have to say. As hard as it is on us who choose to take in a foster child … it is infinitely, infinitely harder to actually be a foster child.
And that my friends is why Ryan and I have opened our home. And why I hope you’ll consider doing the same.