West Baltimore is a community most commonly known for violent and drug-related crimes. It’s a place many people actively avoid.
Five years ago, I was invited to go Christmas Caroling with a West Baltimore parish, St. Benedicts. I joined a few friends and we sang songs of Christmas joy and gave out cookies.
My heart came alive in a way I never experienced before. I was skipping through the streets, joy beaming from my face, giving hugs and smiles to everyone we passed.
And then caroling was over and I didn’t think about that feeling or that place again…
…Until Christmas came the following year and, again, we had the opportunity to join St. Benedicts for Christmas caroling. And again my heart was filled with joy.
That’s when I realized – I was home.
I suddenly remembered my grandparent’s old home… five blocks away from St. Benedicts. After my parents separated, I spent a lot of time in that neighborhood jumping over rowhome fences to splash in kiddie pools and playing on the broken playgrounds. Years went by and my father moved away and my grandparents moved to Florida. I still had family living in West Baltimore for years after that, but they slowly passed away or were able to move out.
My experiences as a child prepared me to come back as an adult. God gave me a heart for this place and the people who live there. He prepared the way for me before I knew what He was doing. The moment I realized that, my relationship with God drastically changed.
It also cemented in my mind that people are people. Period. We’re called to look beyond what can be seen from the outside and see the beauty and dignity within every person.
When I’m in West Baltimore, I’m not “helping those less fortunate.” I’m hugging and singing to my brothers and sisters. I’m reaching out to my brothers and sisters who happen to need a helping hand, but who are not defined by that need. I’m trying to remind my brothers and sisters how loved they are by God, our father.
This year. This year I almost didn’t make it to caroling. But at the last moment I felt pulled into the city, led by my heart. And I’m so glad I followed.
First, I was so warmly welcomed by friends. This feels superficial to mention, but it was part of my experience. Not only the friends I see every day, but my friends from the church welcomed me with huge hugs and smiles.
There are so many moments from this year I will hold close in my heart…
We happened upon six little boys playing on a dilapidated playground in the middle of a field. We sang a song and offered them cookies with illustrated bibles. They eagerly accepted. And then we sang Jingle Bells with them, per their request.
There were two little boys playing in the back of their house with sticks. I ran up to the fence, asked their names, handed them cookies, and wished them a Merry Christmas. As we walked around the corner, they ran through the house to greet us at their front door.
There were many people who wouldn’t open their doors, but we sang to the children who peeked through their windows.
We walked over to the shopping center to sing and hand out cookies. While two friends were praying with a guy hanging on the corner with friends, the rest of us decided to flash mob the Family Dollar. As we filed in, one of the clerks said out loud, “Um, did I miss something?” We filed through the aisles and, once we were all in place, began singing “Joy to the World.” Once finished, we filed out as all the people in line clapped and shouted, “Merry Christmas!” A woman followed us out and said, “We needed some joy in there.”
We all need some joy. And what a blessing it is to be a vessel God uses to bring His joy to the world.