For there was no room for them at the inn.
I know how the innkeeper felt.
We have vilified him throughout history. Uncaring, unsympathetic, willing to leave a pregnant mother and an anxious father out in the cold. Whether he was born in the spring or in the winter, nights are always cold when you have no place to go.
But I know how he felt.
It was a few days before I was to fly home for Christmas when my job at a housing facility for families transitioning out of homelessness called to ask if I could cover an emergency shift. It was a Saturday and my finals had wrapped up the day before. I brought my knitting, tuned the radio to Christmas carols, ate Hershey’s peppermint and white chocolate kisses, and awaited the arrival of Christmas. It was a Saturday, nothing ever happened on Saturday. Plus a soft snow had started falling that morning, confirming everyone’s desire to snuggle in bed rather than face the world outside.
I answered a few phone calls about where to drop off Christmas presents for the children and unlocked a few cabinets for people needing an extra skillet or some children’s tylenol, but other than that the morning was quiet.
Until a man walked in.
He asked if they could stay there. His wife was sitting in the car right in front of my window, their newborn daughter wrapped in a large fleece blanket. They had lost their house a week or so before, and had nowhere to go. Neither had family nearby and they had heard we were a homeless shelter for families, could they stay there? They only needed a place to stay for a few days, you see, just until he could find work. It was snowing and their daughter was cold. They had no place to go.
I swallowed. We’re a transitional housing facility, I explained. If you sign up for an orientation session, we can put you on the waiting list. How long would it be? Anywhere from a few months to a year.
That wouldn’t work for them. I knew it wouldn’t.
You can try calling the YWCA or the police station. They can give out vouchers for families to stay at a motel.
He had tried that. It was getting towards the end of the month, and they had passed out their allotment for the month. I knew they would’ve.
You can try calling churches. Some of churches have benevolence funds to help families in emergencies, although I knew that wouldn’t work either. Not only was it the end of the month, but it was very nearly the end of the year. Plus it was a Saturday, none would be open.
I’m sorry. I don’t know where you could go, I told them.
There’s no shelter in town?
The only shelter doesn’t accept children. Adults only.
And we can’t stay here?
No, there is no room for you here.
He said he understood, thanked me for my help, and head hung, turned and walked away. I watched as he got in the car and told his wife the news. She turned her head out the window and stared blankly at me as they drove away.
And that is how a few days before the Christmas, I looked the Holy Family in the eyes and told them there was no room for them.
I know there is nothing I could have done differently, but I always wonder. Could I have called more agencies? Should I have written them a check? Let them stay in our one-bedroom apartment while we were out of town? I know these would have broken all sorts of rules and policies, but nevertheless I can’t shake the feeling that I turned the Christ child away at Christmas.
There was no room for them.
There was no room for them in our entire town. No family shelter, no affordable home, no jobs to be had. We can make all sorts of excuses to justify these actions. There are policies, procedures that must be followed. They should have had a savings account or thought harder before bringing a child into this world, into their poverty. They should sell that car or move back home with family, nevermind there being even fewer jobs in the soon-to-be ghost towns of eastern Montana. It is not our fault, it is their’s and their’s alone.
I wonder what excuses the innkeeper came up with. Now, we sentimentalize the birth in the barn, farm animals keeping the Christ child warm and shepherds gazing peacefully on, a sign of Christ’s humility and simplistic poverty. But I doubt that’s the story that was told 2,000 years ago. They should have planned better, left a few days earlier. What ties had Joseph severed that prevented them from having family to stay with in the town of his birth? How could they have justified breaking and entering? It couldn’t have been long before they were discovered and asked to leave.
There was no room for them.
I do not know what became of that family. I suspect they drove around for a few more hours until they had exhausted all possibilities. Maybe a church door was open and could give them money to have a place to stay, if only for a night. Perhaps they found a friend with an extra couch who was willing to give them a hand. I can imagine these, but I know they probably found a quiet parking lot and slept in their car, turning the engine on briefly every few hours to warm themselves.
I wonder if the old man and his wife with the swollen belly kept the innkeeper up that night. There were no empty rooms, he knew, but it felt like there should have been something he could have done. Cleared a place in the kitchen, or perhaps his wife would not have minded if they had stayed in their small room, at least until the baby was born. He knew by the looks of her it couldn’t been long. Perhaps he laid awake wondering what would become of that family, disappointed but understanding, and unbearably polite. Perhaps if they had offered him a few more coins he could have found the room, but he could see by the state of their well-worn cloaks that was not an option. What would happen to that child, born into such poverty?
I know that logic would have won out and eventually he would have fallen asleep. The next morning he would have scanned the road, searching for the family with the old father and young mother and a tiny babe in their arms. He would have said a prayer or two for their safety, and then went on with his day.
I say this, because I know how the innkeeper felt.