This is a true story that grew out of my experiences as an Interim or Transitional Minister in Winnipeg for 11 years. It really did happen just like this.
Robertson Church was an old inner city church in Winnipeg’s North End that was a bit like a mini-cathedral inside, complete with pipe organ and all. The neighbourhood had once been working class Europeans, and now was largely aboriginal. The handful of remaining members of Robertson were neither aboriginal, nor working class. They were older members of historical families, and, to a one they drove to Robertson from some other part of the city.
I’d been sent there by the Presbytery to be their Interim Minister, with a mandate to either generate some new life or recommend shutting it down. I arrived in the Fall, and, fortunately, so did Karen, a long time Christian activist in the city, a young woman of warmth and passion, who had moved into the neighbourhood. Soon after I arrived the organist quit. I worried some. It’s pretty hard to attract an organist to a small church at the best of times, but with only about 7 or 8 worshippers, no money, no choir and a tone deaf Interim minister, it looked bleak indeed. Out of nowhere Annie the organist suddenly showed up like a whirlwind, the way Mary Poppins arrives, Annie started playing the organ and offering new ideas weekly of something we could do. In mid-December, she decided we should have a Christmas pageant.
“Well, Annie, that’s a good idea,” I said, “Real good. But, I can see a few problems. For one thing, Christmas is in 10 days, and for another, we’ve got no kids.”
“That’s true,” she said, “But there’s a school just across the street, they’ve got kids. We’ll just invite them to come to take part in a Christmas pageant.”
“Annie, it’s a public school, they’re not going to advertise for a religious group. . .” But there was no stopping Annie once she had an idea. Eventually I agreed to talk to the principal. Funnily enough, he thought it would be a great idea, as long as the parents’ group agreed. And, funnily enough again, they were meeting that very evening.
Turns out many of them had gone to programs at Robertson when they were children, and they gave their approval to sending a letter out to all the kids.
We sent out the advertising. Interested families were to phone Annie in the next two days. No one phoned. Whew, I thought, that’s that. But Annie figured, rightly I suspect, that the reason they didn’t call was that they were too poor to have phones, So she wanted me to send out another advertisement telling interested folk to show up on Saturday at noon. This was Thursday, the last day of classes. But somehow the school got the letter out to the kids to bring home with them.
And Saturday at noon a group of them showed up. Enough for us to have Joseph and Mary, three shepherds, and at least one Wise Man. Annie organized them. And then went off to make them costumes.
Early on Christmas Eve we gathered. They were quite a group. All aboriginal except one white shepherd whose nose never stopped running. Mary was a big twelve year old girl, at least five foot six. Joseph was about eight years’ old, and four foot two at most. Many of their families had turned up for the service. They sat waiting.
Robertson had an old manger set. The baby Jesus was a doll – with an alabaster white face wrapped up in a baby blue blanket. It wasn’t a complicated pageant – a tableau really. The white shepherd boy was off to one side making some awful nasal noises, but the group looked beautiful. As I read the Luke passage, I noticed that Mary and Joseph were bent over the baby Jesus, touching him, real serious like. And saying something to each other. In the candlelight, the congregation began to sing Away in a Manger. I walked over to Mary and Joseph, crouched beside them, just to see how they were doing. Joseph looked at me, looked me straight in the eye, and, with complete innocence, asked “Why did they paint the face of the baby Jesus white?” Mary looked straight at me too, with the same expression.
I looked at the doll. They were right. Someone had painted it. In that moment I could see the brown faces of their families sitting in the pews, the first brown faces this building had seen for a long time. I saw all the brown faces over the years that never found a home here, never found a welcome. Mary and Joseph still looking at me, Mary and Joseph with their brown skin and black hair, and faces so sincere. I could feel my stomach flipping. What could I say? I muttered something like, “I think it was to make him glow in the dark. This is an old church and they did some weird things back then.” Mary and Joseph kept looking at me, unblinking, with the same clear expression. And they said nothing.
The singing continued. Infant holy, infant lowly. . . Christ the babe is Lord of all. Lord of all? Silent night! Holy night! During the rest of the service, Mary and Joseph were huddled over the baby Jesus. Crouched and busy. So attentive to their infant Lord. The shepherd sniffed and sputtered and made occasional throat noises. The service ended. Our holy family left the front of the church, joined their families. I wished the folk Merry Christmas. Then I returned to the front of the sanctuary to get my Bible and stuff. And looked down to see what Mary and Joseph had been doing. They had scraped the white paint off the face of the baby Jesus.
My eyes filled with tears. I called Karen, who was still in the church, to show her. We’d been visited. Holy visitors had come among us. Even the sniffling shepherd might have been an angel incognito.
Robertson closed the following June. Sometime after Christmas Karen had gone around the neighbourhood, knocking on doors, asking folk if they’d be interested in coming to church. A number said they’d love to attend. She asked what held them back. “Sweatpants” they answered. “That’s the best we’ve got to wear. Would it be okay if we wore sweat pants to church?” We had a meeting the following Sunday, and Karen asked the Robertson folk how they felt: “Would it be okay if they wore sweat pants to church?” The Robertson folk talked it over, and, though a couple disagreed, in the end they decided no: “If they can’t dress properly for church, they ought not to come at all.” I heard the door of the church bang as the Spirit left the building that day. I knew it was over. Robertson died and the remnant scattered. But in its dying, it did leave a lovely gift to the broader church, a Christmas gift. The story of its last Christmas pageant.