In early evening blackness, a winter chill had descended, as we trundled up the street carrying brightly covered gift bags. The front door to the rehabilitation center was locked, and a sign directed our group of five adults and four youngsters to a side entry, where we gained admission to a self contained universe for 90 patients too healthy for the hospital, but not well enough to go home.
We were a small piece of a much larger effort. Since September churchgoers had contributed money to the Emmanuel Project, children offered their Christmas gift money, cards were picked up after Masses and brought home for messages to be written and signed. By the time volunteers began to actually assemble the packages, the storeroom in the parish hall was piled with gift items that had been brought or purchased. For several weeks, helpers (the “elves”) carefully assembled the bags or gift stockings taking care that each had a full contingent of things practical and whimsical.
The Emmanuel Project, I later learned, was a homegrown project, that had been quietly taking place at Shepherd of the Valley Parish for several years. “We picked the elderly, the bed-ridden, the mentally ill,” Joyce Marks, the program’s coordinator, explained. “We contacted over a dozen care facilities and were given the names of persons who lack a support system, poor in spirit, who needed someone to visit them.” Nearly 350 persons had been scheduled for visits this season, and packages with a greeting card in their name had been prepared for each of them.
Although it was only half past six, the facility seemed put to bed for the night. Food tray racks, and linen carts choked the halls, along which was a seemingly endless series of darkened rooms: forbidding spaces, each divided into three curtained cubicles whose only illumination was an unwatched television chittering in the background. Moving into the blackness we called out the person’s name in the hope that someone would stir. Invariably a voice was heard, directing us the proper bedside. “We’re from Shepherd of the Valley Catholic Church in Central Point,” we would explain. It sounded far removed from the narrow confined space in which we found ourselves.
A gift bag, containing warm fuzzy blankets, socks, stationery, snack foods and a good book was readily accepted, but in almost every case the bag or stocking was set aside and its contents left unexamined. For these patients, the opportunity to speak with someone was far more valuable. An unshaven man wearing a 49er baseball cap and tee shirt lay on his unmade bed eating his dinner. He had been an altar boy, and attended a Jesuit high school, but had fallen on hard times, badly broken his leg, and did not know when he would be leaving the care center. We spoke about the future of the 49ers, a team that like him had nowhere to go but up. He beamed thanks for the good words.
Our reason for coming was to light up peoples’ lives, but many of those whom we encountered were beyond enthusiasm. A man sitting shirtless, at the edge of his bed, when asked how long, he had been there replied simply: “Too long.” Then he added: “Everyone here will tell you the same thing.”
The children who accompanied us gave and received along with the adults. Emerging from a room with our granddaughter, we met another couple from the parish, with three of their own grandchildren wearing white glittered antlers. In these encounters we learned that small things often assumed great importance. Afterwards our own nine-year old granddaughter, Margaret, spoke of her visit with Linda who explained that she enjoyed playing Yahtzee. Eleanor was particularly fond of headbands. She felt like she had been in the convalescent center for eight or nine years. Rosa liked to draw. Another patient explained how she enjoyed watching cooking shows, and wondered if Christmas had already gone by. Margaret assured her that Christmas was still a few days away. One patient was not in the room, but her roommate sitting at the window, staring into the dark managed a “Merry Christmas.”
In our mission to the shut-ins we were not alone. Approximately forty parishioners visited shut-ins and passed out gifts this year. The thought of Pope Francis, who speaks so eloquently about the need to care for the sick and elderly, came to mind. “Faith is an encounter with Jesus,” he tells us. “When you meet those most in need, your heart will begin to grow bigger… because reaching out multiplies our capacity to love.”
By 7:30 pm we had distributed the last gift, and found someone to unlock the door to let us leave. Walking back to the car along the empty street, I was struck by how much we had received that night, and how fortunate we were. Of the many, many parishioners who had contributed to this effort, we were among the few blessed to meet with these good, and long-suffering people, and be enriched by the exchange of a few words, a promise of prayers, and the gift of bringing Christ’s light into the dark of night.