A Christmas Eve Awakening

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I stood before the church listening to the choir sing, 'Oh, Holy Night.' The melodic tune was filling my heart with sadness. I wanted desperately to go inside, but I had turned from the church years ago.

Now at twenty-six, it had been ten years since I had entered the huge oaken doors of the Fifth Street Tabernacle Church. The last time I had been there Reverend McGowen had stood at the altar warning his attentive flock that the end of the American family was in risk because of the rising number of gay and lesbians who were coming out. He said they were threatening the very fabric of our country.

Two years earlier, I had come to the realization that I was gay. I kept it from my family and friends and tried to live so that no one would ever discover my hidden secret. When I was eighteen, and two years after last entering the church, my secret was discovered when my family came home early from a night of bowling and found me in the arms of my boyfriend.

That was eight years ago, and I had still been a stranger to my own home. My mother begged me to return, but my father was adamant about never seeing me again. I refused to step foot in my father's house until I once again felt welcomed. So I enjoyed my mother's company during secret rendezvous at a small secluded cafe early Wednesday mornings.

It was Christmas eve, and I had been sitting comfortably at home before the fireplace in my favorite wingback chair. I was an avid reader, and had been engrossed once again in an interesting mystery. Suddenly, the clock struck six, and I fondly remembered my childhood, when it was a family tradition to go to church and listen to the beautiful songs of the season sung by the magnificent forty-five member choir. I could remember, as a little boy, sitting between my mother and father singing in a tenor voice my favorite Christmas songs.

I can't explain it, but I was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling to relive my past. So, I got up and put on my overcoat and hat and strolled the six blocks to the church. Soon I was embraced once again with remembrances of a happier time.

As I stood below a full moon, I felt a presence at my side. I had not noticed anyone walk up; but as I looked over I saw a man, probably in his sixties, with his eyes focused on the doors of the church.

"Beautiful music." He startled me when he spoke.

"Yes it is." I replied. "I used to come here as a boy and listen to them sing."

"Why are you out here in the cold," he asked, "and not inside where it is warm?"

"I'm not welcomed in there." I said.

"Everyone is welcomed in church." He said emphatically.

"Not everyone." I replied sadly.

"Nonsense." He said, grabbing my arm and leading me towards the large doors. I tried to pull away, but there was something about his demeanor that made me want to follow.

People turned and looked at us when the door creaked as we entered. He motioned for me to take a seat in the back. I looked around and noticed that very little had changed in the years since I last entered. The moon shone through the stained glass windows illuminating the religious pictures designed centuries ago. The smell of the candles burning on the altar filled me with a soothing calmness.

I had forgotten in my quiet reverie the old man who had led me to this back pew. He touched my arm and pointed to a man sitting proudly in the front pew.

"That is Mr. Ewing. The church is able to survive because of his generosity. He has contributed more than three million dollars over the years. He is a stock broker and has accumulated his wealth by bilking millions out of the elderly. They give him their entire savings to invest in stocks that usually are worthless, thus leaving them penniless. He, however, takes a hefty percentage of it as his fee."

I sat and watched as the puffy faced man stood and sang the chorus in rousing animation. I was filled with detest for someone I had never met. I was repulsed that everyone thought he was a generous benefactor and great humanitarian when he was no more than a thieving crook who would rob from the poor to make himself rich.

"See the woman over there." He pointed to a middle-aged woman in a red dress and black feathered hat. Her face was heavily painted with makeup and her hair was dyed a grotesque orange color. I'm sure that everyone laughed at her behind her back.

"She comes here every Sunday morning after spending the night before in smoked-filled bars and sleeping in dirty beds with men whose names she'll never remember.

"Yet the people consider her a righteous woman because she cares for her mother who suffers from Alzheimer's. To them, she is a martyr of compassion."

"The man on the altar, Reverend Fleming." He pointed his narrow finger towards the front. I looked at the man dressed in a purple robe, raising his hands to the air in worship to God above.

"He spends his evenings on the internet talking filth to young girls who think he is a teenage boy." He said angrily.

"And the woman beside him, his wife." I watched the thin, wispy woman with straw blond hair and gaunt features clapping her hands in tune to the choir's singing.

"She's having an affair with Deacon Emerson." He pointed to an obese man, dressed in a dark suit, two sizes too small for him. His jacket looked ready to burst from the buttons that were pulled too tightly. He was standing along the church wall below a figure of the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus.

"The entire congregation knows about it," he explained, "but they are too embarrassed to say anything."

He grabbed my arm and lifted me up. "We have seen enough."

We walked outside and he turned around, once again staring at the outside listening to the beautiful lyrics of "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem."

"So you see my son," he spoke in whisper. "it is not the Church that does not accept you. It is the sinners who dwell within. They can sing of the love of God, but they do not know it."

He grabbed my arm and led me down the sidewalk. I should have resisted, but I felt the need to follow him.

"Come with me." He said. "You will experience God's love before this night is through."

"Where are we going?" I questioned, but he ignored me and walked briskly in the cold night air. I almost ran beside him to keep up.

We walked for about ten blocks until we came to a small mission. I had noticed the building for years, and I always wondered who dwelt there. A few times while driving home, I had noticed small women keeping the sidewalks meticulously clean with their oversized brooms.

"Where are we?" I whispered as he opened a side door and motioned for me to enter.

"This is the home of the rejected souls." I shuddered as he uttered the gloomy words. I could hear muted moaning coming from the cubicles alongside the desolate hallway. "Here lives those that no one wants. They come here to find peace in death."

I wanted to turn away and run out of the ghastly building he was leading me through. Suddenly he stopped and pointed to an old, withered woman dressed in shabby garb. She had her sleeves pulled up and was struggling to carry a large bucket.

"This is Maria. She has been in this place for forty-two years." He walked over and took the bucket from her and carried it down the hall to a cluttered storage closet. She smiled gently and nodded at him as she scurried off to another destination.

"She left the church forty-two years ago." He explained. "She found God here."

I looked around at the shabby walls, unpainted it seemed for decades. Large spots of plaster had disappeared years earlier, leaving gaping holes in the hall. Most of the furnishings were rickety chairs and tables, ready to fall at the slightest weight.

As we walked, I looked in the dim, sparse rooms, filled only with beds with tattered sheets. In each bed was a thin, frail figure moaning from pain. Tears began to fall down my face from the utter desolation I was feeling.

"I can't go on." I cried. "This is too much for me."

"You must go on," he grabbed my arm and led me further down the hall, "if you want to find yourself."

We walked to the end of the hall and he led me into a dark room. I adjusted my eyes and saw a small boy, no more than ten lying on a bed. He was frail and thin with colorless eyes sunk into deep sockets in his face. He smiled weakly at the old gentleman.

"You came." He said almost inaudibly. The old man walked up and brushed his hair back gently.

"Of course I came." He said softly. "I told you I would. And look, I brought James with me."

I looked at the gentleman with shock. He knew my name! I had never told him mine, and I had never asked for his. We had been like two strangers who had passed in the night.

"Come here." He held out his hand as I walked cautiously over to him. He took my hand and locked my fingers with the small boy's.

"This is Christopher." I looked down and a huge smile had appeared on his face.

"Then I won't be alone tonight. You know it's Christmas eve." I squeezed his small, frail hand as tears fell down my cheeks.

Just hours earlier I had felt remorse for the isolation of my life, while here lay a boy completely unknown to the rest of the world. He had probably lain for years in this desolate place with no one to talk to except for his elderly caretakers.

"Why are you crying?" He asked weakly.

"I don't know." I turned away and wiped the tears from my face.

"The sisters say I leave tonight?"

"Where are you going?"

"To a place where there is no more pain." He said it so calmly that I realized that he had been prepared for this night for sometime. Before me was a child who realized that he was going to die, and he welcomed it.

"What is wrong with him?" I turned to speak to the elderly gentleman who had brought me here, but he was gone. Instead, stood Maria, the woman I had seen earlier.

"He is dying from AIDS." She said mournfully. "His mother was a drug addict. He came into this world with it." I felt his frail hand squeeze mine. I looked down as he smiled up warmly at me.

"Can you stay with me tonight?" He asked hopefully.

"Yes, of course." I replied as I gently brushed his hair back. "I will stay with you."

I sat in the old seat provided me by Maria. I took his hand and held it while he lay back as if in sleep. Occasionally, he'd look over at me and smile. I must have fallen asleep, because I was awakened by his hand squeezing mine tightly. He had a frightened look on his face.

"Sing to me, please," he begged. I stood before his bed and gently sang, 'Oh Holy Night,' the song I had first heard earlier outside the church. He closed his eyes and a calm expression came over his face. I watched as his chest rose and then he took his last breath.

I sat by his bed and cried uncontrollably, until I sensed a presence standing beside me.

"I told you that you would feel God's love tonight," he spoke reverently. "Welcome to My church." I looked up and no one was with me in the room. Only the small, dead child who had shared his last night on earth with me.

I have now spent eight Christmas eves in my church. I have not missed a Sunday or a Christmas eve since that night I first came here and found myself again through a sick, little boy.