It was Christmas Eve and for the first time in a decade, I wasn’t exhausted. Having left congregational ministry the year before, I was free from the efforts of presiding over the season. But somehow, coming home from Christmas Eve worship to a house full of food and gifts made me anxious and sad. I could see Christ present among the prayerful congregants, but my heart yearned for something closer to that first Christmas; when God broke into the hurting world and all who heard the good news were transformed by it.
“You want to be in the streets, don’t you?” my husband said.
Toronto was under a cold weather emergency alert. I was worried for the homeless who might not know that three emergency warming centres had been set up.
We packed up a thermos of hot chocolate and my 17-year-old grabbed the garbage bag full of winter gear we’d been planning to take to the local shelter. She looked like St. Nick.
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There was someone sleeping on almost every subway grate in the downtown core. We chatted with them and gave out winter gear with the hot cocoa. Some knew the warming centre was open but preferred non-congregant settings. Others thanked us and said they’d be heading there soon.
One young person with bare legs, dressed in a light jacket and running shoes, leapt up when we told them. “I’m so cold! I can barely walk and talk.” We offered to drive them. They stumbled into our van. When the door shut with a thud, I heard a scream.
“You aren’t trying to hurt me, are you?!”
“No…see… I’m opening the door… you want to get out? You’re safe.”
“I want to get warm.”
The reality and risks of being unhoused hit my daughter hard. Hadn’t we told her to never get in a car with strangers?
We drove for seven minutes to the emergency warming centre, only to be told it was full. A knot tightened in my belly.
It was only 10 p.m. Public transit runs until 2 a.m.. The train station is open until 1 a.m. The coffee shops are refuges until closing time. What would people do in the wee hours of the morning, when all those options were shuttered? The regular system was already turning away an average of nearly 170 people every night. In 2017, we had a network of five emergency shelters that stayed open 24/7, but now we have only three that open during extreme weather. It seemed so miserly and cruel.
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Standing at the shelter door asking for room felt vulnerable. Being denied was devastating. We asked the staff where we could take our at-risk friend and were told all the shelters and emergency warming centres were full. You could tell the staff felt terrible. There simply was no room at the inn for Christ on Christmas Eve.
Near tears and hypothermia, my friend pushed their way inside the centre, found a concrete patch of floor, and sat down. “See! There’s room for me here!” Mercifully, they were allowed to stay.
Of course, the city has enough room… except, maybe, in our hearts. As our city celebrated Christmas in sanctuaries and homes, the guest of honour was freezing on our streets.
“Tent City Nativity”
— kellylatimoreicons (@KLICONS) December 30, 2022
A few days later, I wept when I learned that one person froze to death in their tent, their body found on Christmas. Fearing there will be more deaths in the coming weeks if more warming spaces aren’t opened, more than 150 Christian leaders delivered a letter to the mayor last week. We’re not sure if that number of voices is enough to catch the city’s attention, so we’re preparing for a city-wide campaign. The sad, anxious feeling of Christmas Eve has given way to a sombre, powerful call to action. Now I know what all those carols were for. As theologian Howard Thurman put it, when the pageantry is over, the work of Christmas begins. May we work until there is finally room for all.
Rev. Alexa Gilmour is the founder of the Stone Soup Network. She lives in Toronto.
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