A Christmas Eve
Awakening
I stood before the church listening to the choir sing, ‘Oh, Holy Night.’ The melodic
tune was filling my heart with sadness. I wanted desperately to go inside, but I had
turned away from the church years ago.

Now at twenty-six, it had been ten years since I had entered the huge oaken doors
of the Fifth Street Tabernacle Church. The last time I was there, Reverend
McGowen stood at the altar warning his attentive flock that the end of the
American family was in risk because of the rising number of gay and lesbians who
were coming out. He said they were threatening the moral fiber of our country.

Two years earlier, I had come to the realization that I was gay. I kept it from my
family and friends, and I tried to live so that no one would ever discover my hidden
secret. When I was eighteen, and two years after last entering the church, my
secret was discovered when my family came home early from a night of bowling
and found me in the arms of my boyfriend.

That was eight years ago, and I had still been a stranger to my own home. My
mother begged me to return, but my father was adamant about never seeing me
again. I refused to step foot in my father’s house until I felt welcomed. So I
enjoyed my mother’s company during secret rendezvous at a small secluded cafe
early Wednesday mornings.

It was Christmas Eve, and I had been sitting comfortably at home before the
fireplace in my favorite wingback chair. I am an avid reader, and I had been
engrossed once again in an interesting mystery. Suddenly, the clock struck six,  
and I fondly recalled my childhood when it was a family tradition to go to church
and listen to the beautiful songs of the season sung by the magnificent forty-five
member choir. As  a little boy, I would sit between my mother and father and sing
in a tenor voice my favorite Christmas songs.

I can’t explain why, but I was suddenly overwhelmed with a desire to relive my
past. I arose, put on my overcoat and hat and strolled the six blocks to the church.
Soon, I was embraced once again with remembrances of a happier time.

As I stood below a full moon, I felt a presence at my side. I had not noticed anyone
walk up. I looked over I saw an elderly gentleman with his eyes focused on the
doors of the church.

“Beautiful music.” He startled me when he spoke.

“Yes it is,” I replied. “I used to come here as a boy and listen to them sing.”

He asked, “Why are you out here in the cold, and not inside where it is warm?”

“I’m not welcomed in there,” I replied.

“Everyone is welcomed in church,” he stated emphatically.

“Not everyone,” I responded sadly.

“Nonsense,” he muttered as he grasped my arm and led me towards the large
doors. I wanted to pull away, but there was something about his demeanor that
made me want to go with him.

People turned and looked at us when the old door creaked as we entered. He
motioned for me to take a seat in the back. I looked around and noticed that very
little had changed in the years since I last entered. The moon shone through the
stained glass windows illuminating the religious pictures designed centuries ago.
The aroma of the candles burning on the altar filled me with a soothing calmness.

I had forgotten in my quiet reverie the old man beside me. He touched my arm
and pointed to a man sitting proudly in the front pew.

“That is Mr. Ewing,” he stated. “The church is able to survive because of his
generosity. He has contributed more than three million dollars over the years. He
is a stock broker and has accumulated his wealth by bilking millions out of the
elderly. They give him their entire savings to invest in stocks that usually are
worthless, thus leaving them penniless. He, however, takes a hefty percentage of
it as his fee.”

I sat and watched as the puffy faced man stood and sang the chorus in rousing
animation. I was filled with detest for someone I had never met. I was repulsed
that everyone thought he was a generous benefactor and great humanitarian when
he was no more than a thieving crook who would rob from the poor to make
himself rich.

“See the woman over there.” He pointed to a middle-aged woman in a red dress
and black feathered hat. Her face was heavily painted with makeup, and her hair
was dyed a grotesque orange color. I’m sure that everyone laughed at her behind
her back.

“She comes here every Sunday morning after spending the night before in smoked-
filled bars and sleeping in filthy beds with men whose names she’ll never
remember.

“Yet the people consider her a righteous woman because she cares for her mother
who suffers from Alzheimer’s. To them, she is a martyr of compassion.”

He pointed his narrow finger toward the altar. “That is Reverend Fleming.”  I
looked at the man dressed in a purple robe, raising his hands to the air in worship
to God above. “He spends his evenings chatting on the internet to young girls who
think he is a teenage boy,” he said angrily.

“And the woman beside him, his wife.” I watched the thin, wispy woman with
strawberry blonde hair and gaunt features clapping her hands in tune to the choir’s
singing.

“She is having an affair with Deacon Emerson.” He pointed to an obese man,
dressed in a dark suit, two sizes too small for him. His jacket looked ready to burst
from the buttons that were pulled too tightly. He was standing along the church
wall below a figure of the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus.

“The entire congregation knows about it,” he explained, “but they are too
embarrassed to say anything.”

He grabbed my arm and lifted me up. “We have seen enough.”

We walked outside, and he turned to listen to the beautiful lyrics of ‘Oh, Little Town
of Bethlehem.’

“So you see
, My Son,” he said gently. “It is not the Church that does not accept
you. It is the sinners who dwell within. They can sing of the love of God, but they
do not know it.”

He grabbed my arm and led me down the sidewalk. I should have once again
resisted, but I felt the need to follow him. “Come with me,” he said. “You will
experience God’s love before this night is through.”

“Where are we going?” I asked, but he ignored me and walked briskly in the cold
night air. I almost ran beside him to keep up.

We walked for about ten blocks until we came to a small mission. I had noticed the
building for years, and I always wondered who dwelt there. A few times while
driving home, I had noticed small women sweeping the sidewalk meticulously
clean with their oversized brooms.

“Where are we?” I whispered as he opened a side door and motioned for me to
enter.

“This is the home of the rejected souls.” I shuddered as he uttered the gloomy
words. I could hear muted moaning coming from the cubicles alongside the
desolate hallway. “Here live those whom no one wants. They come here to find
peace in death.”

I wanted to turn away and run out of the ghastly building he was leading me
through. Suddenly, he  stopped and pointed to an old, withered woman dressed in
shabby garb. She had her sleeves pulled up,  and she was struggling to carry a
large bucket.

“This is Maria.” He walked over and took the bucket from her and carried it down
the hall to a cluttered storage closet. She smiled gently and nodded at him as she
scurried off to another destination.

“She left the church forty-two years ago,” he explained. “She found God here.”

I looked around at the shabby walls, unpainted it seemed for decades. Large spots
of plaster had disappeared years earlier, leaving gaping holes in the hall. Most of
the furnishings consisted of rickety chairs and tables, ready to fall at the slightest
weight.

As we walked, I looked into the dim, sparse rooms filled only with beds with
tattered sheets. In each bed lay a thin, frail figure moaning from pain. Tears began
to fall down my face from the utter desolation I was feeling.

“I can’t go on,” I cried. “This is too much for me.”

“You must go on,” he stated firmly as he grabbed my arm and led me further down
the hall. “If you want to find yourself.”

We walked to the end of the hall where he led me into a dark room. I adjusted my
eyes to see a small boy, no more than ten lying on a bed. He was frail and thin
with colorless eyes sunk into deep sockets in his face. He smiled weakly at the old
gentleman.

“You came,” he muttered almost inaudibly. The old man walked up and brushed his
hair back gently.

“Of course I came,” he said softly. “I told you I would. And look, I brought James
with me.”

I looked at the gentleman surprisingly. He knew my name! I had never told him
mine, and I had never asked for his. We had been like two strangers who had
passed in the night.

“Come here.” He held out his hand as I walked cautiously over to him. He took my
hand and locked my fingers with the small boy’s.

“This is Christopher.” I looked down and a huge smile appeared on the young boy’s
face.

“Then I won’t be alone tonight. You know it’s Christmas Eve?” I squeezed his small,
frail hand as tears fell down my cheeks.

Just hours earlier, I had felt remorse for the isolation of my life. Yet here lay a boy
completely unknown to the rest of the world. He had probably lain for years in this
desolate place with no one to talk to except for his elderly caretakers.

“Why are you crying?” he asked weakly.

I turned away and wiped the tears from my face. “I don’t know.”

When I looked back down at him, he said smilingly, “The sisters say I leave
tonight.”

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“To a place where there is no more pain.” He said it so calmly that I realized that
he had been prepared for this night for sometime. Before me was a child who
realized that he was going to die, and he welcomed it.

“What is wrong with him?” I turned to speak to the elderly gentleman who had
brought me to this place, but he was gone. Instead, stood Maria, the woman I had
seen earlier.

“He is dying from AIDS,” she replied mournfully. “His mother was a drug addict. He
came into this world with it.” I felt his frail hand squeeze mine. I looked down as he
smiled up warmly at me.

He asked hopefully, “Can you stay with me tonight?”

“Yes, of course,” I replied as I gently brushed his hair back. “I will stay with you.”

I sat in an old chair beside his bed. I held his hand while he lay sleeping.
Occasionally, he would open his eyes and smile warmly up at me. I must have
fallen asleep, because I was awakened by his hand squeezing mine tightly. He had
a frightened look on his face.

“Sing to me, please,” he begged. I stood before his bed and gently sang, ‘Oh Holy
Night,’ the song I had first heard earlier outside the church. He closed his eyes and
a calm expression appeared on his face. I watched as his chest rose and then he
took his last breath.

I sat by his bed and cried uncontrollably until I sensed a presence standing beside
me.

“I told you that you would feel God’s love tonight,” a voice said reverently.
“Welcome to My church.” I looked up and no one was with me in the room. Only
the small, dead child who had shared his last night on Earth with me.

I have now spent eight Christmas eves in my church. I have not missed a Sunday
or a Christmas eve since that night I first came here and found myself again
through a sick, little boy.

by Ron Mustard