Welcome StrangersToday in honor of Christmas  I’m sharing an excerpt from my novel Endless Chain, the second book in my Shenandoah Album series.

Endless Chain explores the many ways that we welcome strangers into our lives. In this scene Sam, a minister of a local church and the woman he loves, Elisa and  her friend Adoncia, are helping the church children, along with children from the Latino immigrant community, practice their reenactment of Las Posadas for Christmas Eve.

Las Posadas has a 400 year history in Mexico. The highlight of the nine day novena–one day for each month of pregnancy–is the procession through town in which the Holy Family asks repeatedly for shelter as Mary is about to give birth. They are turned away until at last an innkeeper welcomes them.

No matter your religious beliefs the story of Mary and Joseph is a powerful one in so many ways, and this pageant, in which Mary and Joseph are rebuffed time and time again is, for me, a reminder of the need to open our hearts and lives to those who need us.

Today, just two days before Christmas, there was no chance Sam and Elisa would spend time relaxing together. They were together, however. In the church social hall. With sixty children ranging from two to fifteen.

Elisa clapped her hands. “Damita, camina más despacito, por favor. Mary would walk a little slower. Of course if we can find a spare donkey you won’t need to walk at all.”

Adoncia, who was standing at the head of the rag tag procession with Fernando and Maria , swung her baby son into her arms. “No, then we will have to keep the donkey from stepping on San Jose. Now, everybody, remember, two by two. Walk very slowly. You are tired and you are trying to find a place to spend the night. Then stand still when you get to the door and sing. This is the door. Pretend.”

Two by two the children of La Casa and the Sunday School began to march around they room. They had banded together to reenact Las Posadas on Christmas Eve instead of the traditional nativity pageant. The Mexican celebration of Mary and Joseph’s struggle to find shelter in Bethlehem had injected new life into the holiday. Instead of vying for the same old spots as shepherds or angels, the Sunday School children were learning Spanish songs. And for once the La Casa kids were teaching their language and performing starring roles, and they were making the most of it.

Sam saw a trouble spot just in front of him and with heavy hands he weighted the shoulders of two particularly rambunctious little boys, one Virginia born, one from El Salvador. “Okay guys, it’s very doubtful Joseph or Mary did any wrestling while they were searching for a place to spend the night. See if you can stay in character here.”

Rory Brogan, the smaller of the two, locked his hands behind his back, a Pavlovian response Sam suspected his mother had engineered out of desperation. “Are we almost done? Angel and me want to play!”

“Do you know the songs?”

“I don’t like to sing.”

“Do you like parties?”

Rory was young, but not too young to know what came next. He chanted his response, as if he’d been called on to make it before. “If I sing and walk in line and co-op-er-ate, I get to hit the piňata.”

“You got it, partner.” Sam squeezed both boys’ shoulders, dropped his hands and waited. The boys looked at each as if to say, “Man, this guy is too much,” but neither went back to the wrestling match. They continued the march.

“Okay, now we’re at the last door. We’re going to sing the song one more time,” Adoncia said. “Then we have cookies and punch before tus padres come and take you home.”

She turned to the boy Sam had once thought least likely to take a starring role in any production. “Miguel, por favor?”

Miguel, who had once been too depressed to speak, began to sing in a high, clear soprano and the children joined him.

En el nombre del cielo,
yo os pido posada,
pues no puede andar,
mi esposa amada.”

The moment they finished a little girl’s hand shot up. She was about eight, and Sam recognized her as a chronic questioner. “What does that mean again?”

“In the name of heaven, I ask you for lodging for my dear wife, who can not walk.” Elisa translated, for the umpteenth time.

“I don’t think Joseph would have to ask,” the girl said, shaking a head thick with blond curls. “Couldn’t the man at the door see she needed a place to lie down? I mean, she’s riding on a donkey and she’s going to have a baby. When my mommy was going to have my little brother, she didn’t even ride a bicycle.”

“Just remember it’s a story about the way we welcome strangers,” Sam said, saving Elisa from trying to explain. “Sometimes we welcome them freely, even if we’re a little frightened. We see they need help, so we help them. Sometimes we see they need help and we turn away because we’re afraid or just selfish and we don’t want to share. The people at the first few houses turned Mary and Joseph away, even though anyone could see they needed a place to stay.”

“But Mr. Meeks would never turn anybody away,” a boy about the same age said. “Once when my little brother skinned his knee in the parking lot, Mr. Meeks carried him back into the church and helped me find my mom.”

Early Meeks, who lived just down the road, had agreed to let the children process to his door first. He had learned his part of the song, which he performed in an off-key baritone. He would refuse to let Mary and Joseph inside and shut the door in their faces so they would have to go to the next house, which belonged to another church member. Some of the children were still having trouble with this notion.

“Mr. Meeks is just pretending,” Sam reminded them. “The same way you are. In real life I promise he wouldn’t shut the door.” Aware he was losing his squirming audience, he took a shortcut. “But if he doesn’t shut the door on Christmas Eve, then you won’t get to come back here and have the party, right?”

That seemed to make enough sense that they were able to finish practicing their part of the songs.

Now, I’m off to count the doors I’ve slammed and the doors I’ve opened in 2014. How about you?

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