This past Saturday Renewal House held its annual holiday party, which has been hosted by First Parish Church in Kingston for the past 10 years. First Parish member Mary Ann Barrow is dedicated to working with us to create a lovely party for current and former residents that includes food, holiday crafts for all ages, singing, and of course presents. Our residents and former residents look forward to the gathering every year – and the preparations begin in early November. Having the holiday party each year on the first Saturday in December is a cheerful way to ring in the holiday season. For many of our current and former guests, the holidays are not full of joy and thanksgiving. The onset of the holidays is a reminder of how hard life has been and continues to be. And those who already struggle with depression and anxiety find themselves feeling all the more trapped by their pain and “trapped” in a shelter – with little money or enthusiasm for the “season of cheer.” The Renewal House holiday party provides a little lift to the spirits of those who feel overwhelmed by so much uncertainty and transience.
This year, the holiday party included invitations to approximately 35 families, including more than 60 children. Renewal House staff braced ourselves for a chaotic day. Some years the Holiday party can feel like a whole lot of work – when people do not get along, for example, or when presents go missing or a child gets hurt. All of these things are normal happenings, and yet because it is a Holiday party it just doesn’t seem like this is the way things should be.
Despite the record numbers of guests and fears of the worst, I realized halfway through the party I was feeling calm and genuinely happy. Everyone participated in the crafts. Folks were enjoying mingling with one another and sharing the food. Church members, volunteers, residents and former residents were making connections and simply enjoying being together. It was a lovely afternoon!
The usual schedule involves a cleaning-up effort when the party is winding down, and then everyone forms a circle and we sing Christmas songs together. Then, each of the children is called out by name and they come forward to receive their gift. This year, everyone helped clean up, the tables were quickly set to the side and a circle of chairs formed. The musicians then began leading us in music, compelling many of the children to gather close to the musicians in ecstatic anticipation.
As the music started, two children, each about two years old, began to dance. It was as if their bodies could not resist the joy of the music, the rhythms, and the joined voices raised in song. They danced and danced and danced. And as I watched them dance I reflected on the lives of these two children. Both of them have parents who are new immigrants to our country. The boy’s mother was illegally bought from her family and sold into the United States to an abusive boyfriend who brutally beat her and threatened deportation if she so much as cried out in pain. The girl’s mother is from an African country where there are frequent uprisings among warring groups – and where she, along with many other women, was beaten and raped as a retaliatory gesture between the oppositional factions.
These two children somehow find themselves in the safety of Renewal House – and on December 5, 2009, they can do nothing more than get up and dance. Dance for their freedom, dance for the gift of their mothers, dance for their hope in a world that is full of peace, respect and love. And all anyone could do that watched them in that hall on that day was smile and clap. And I found myself in awe as I watched this grace-filled moment unfold. Through very different paths and life experiences, two young children and their mothers found their way to Renewal House. And despite the pain and difficulty these children and their mothers had endured, they danced and danced and danced – reminding us all that true joy, true hope, true light can never be extinguished.