When the Ghost of Jacob Marley appeared to Scrooge on that eerie Christmas Eve, the frightened miser noted that he could see right through him, from his waistcoat to his back – he “had no bowels.” What? The contemporary reader comes to a full stop at that line, but in the nineteenth century the meaning was clear: bowels were the organ associated with compassion and empathy. Much as we would use “heart” today. And in his three spectral journeys, Scrooge travels through the bowels of time to sharpen his vision of Christmas Past, Present and Future, and to grow in love for those in need.
Charles Dickens’ nineteenth century classic A Christmas Carol remains an admonition to stay alert to the plight of fellow travelers on the road of life. It is ever useful because then as now, we tend to wear social blinders or get stuck in our lanes. Depending on our neighborhood or profession, those in need may be nearly invisible to us. We may see right through them – or past them. Just as those original Christmas travelers, Mary and Joseph, were invisible to the innkeepers who had a full house.
In this season when we try to sharpen our vision and fortify our bowels, let’s consider assisting some of the literal travelers on the road of life: Afghan refugees. Since our country’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, thousands have fled the Taliban and sought refuge here and abroad. In my home state of little Rhode Island, we are welcoming 250 Afghanis (mostly families), and though there was no “Afghan community” here to speak of before the August crisis, there is now. That’s thanks to the work of Dorcas International, a nonsectarian outreach group, which has dedicated itself to refugee resettlement, and making a home for the stranger.
Afghani refugees are grateful. Former US interpreter for the armed forces Amin Faqiri, arrived in Providence with his family in October, and says with a big smile, “I am starting over, like a newborn baby.” In many ways, it’s the best time ever to be an immigrant. Restaurants are desperate for staff. Manufacturing plants need workers. Construction sites seek carpenters. Groups like Dorcas International try to position these legally admitted newcomers for success in their new homeland. With both a professional staff and LOTS of volunteers, they arrange for apartments, for English language classes, for vocational training in carpentry and the trades, enrollment of children in schools, and family assistance with grocery shopping, as the newcomers get their feet on the ground. The needs are immense, but the folks from Dorcas and many other non-profit and church groups are there to welcome the “poor, tired, and hungry yearning to breathe free.”
But what about the poor, tired, and hungry who are here on our own shores already? The everyday Americans, who often, because of bad fortune or drug addiction or alcohol or mental illness or domestic abuse have lost their way and are on the streets? We cannot walk through our cities without being aware of the homeless: folks with their carts and their pets, with a pleading sign, and a hand extended. Nearly half a million of our fellow countrymen are homeless. On the Core Virtues site, we’ve featured the slender middle school novel Stay (by Bobby Pyron), which shines a light on those who live in Emergency Shelters and/or public parks. And we feature some moving picture books as well. When addressing the problem of homelessness, there are state and federal initiatives to be sure, but the national tradition of voluntarism and what used to be called “benevolent institutions” is still active and a way to extend a hand. This is the time of year to support the work of non-profit, non-partisan groups like the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Salvation Army. Our personal contributions and turning the attention of our students to those these groups serve is a way to keep the spirit of the holidays. The holidays are a time “when Want is keenly felt and Abundance rejoices,” two bell ringers tell Scrooge. His “bah-humbug” echoes in our ears. But the miser became a changed man following that Christmas Eve journey, and it was always said “that he knew how to keep Christmas well.” May we too know how to keep the spirit of the holidays well even beyond the holidays.