In the Magazine we’re exploring how the church responds to crisis. In this short story, Kit Carlson shares an experience from a Christmas storm
by Kit Carlson
It was the Longest Day and dark too. And cold, and icy. As the sun came up on the morning of December 22, 2013, it shone through glistening prisms and stalactites of ice. Ice on the wires. Ice on the branches. Ice on the fallen trees and limbs. Ice sealing the doors of cars and trucks. Almost 200,000 people in central and lower Michigan were without power on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, with Christmas just a few days away.
I looked out over the exhausted congregation that had gathered for the 10 a.m. service. Our church – All Saints Episcopal in East Lansing – had power, light, and heat. I asked for people who had no power at home to raise their hands and more than fifty hands went up. On the spur of the moment, I said, “The church is open from now till this is over. Feel free to come here, get warm, enjoy the light, and charge whatever devices you need to charge. It’s open house till the power is back on.”
I didn’t know then that the offer would hold through Christmas and into New Year’s. The temperatures dropped into single digits that night. The ice didn’t melt. The power lines kept falling. Our municipal utility – the Board of Water and Light – couldn’t keep up.
At first, people just dropped by church for a few hours of heat and light, and charged their phones or used the wi-fi. But then the darkness went on, and houses got colder and colder, and motels and hotels filled up for fifty miles around. “Can my family sleep here?” a parishioner asked, and then we really were open house. After all, Christmas was coming, and how can you turn people away on Christmas? Turn them all into Marys and Josephs seeking shelter?
And so on Christmas morning, we had nine people sleeping in the church. The children’s ministry coordinator had her children hunt for their presents under the many Christmas trees arranged around the church. Another group of parishioners coordinated a big Christmas dinner, for those staying at the church and for those who just didn’t want to be in the dark on Christmas night.
By January 2, it was mostly over. The last couple of folks, along with their large and lovely standard poodles, left for their now well-lit house, and the church was quiet again. School started, snow fell, worship continued, and although it was still one of the most brutal winters we had ever had, no one lost power like that again.
What we learned at All Saints was that our long commitment to radical welcome extended to those affected in a local emergency. A banner hangs over our name tag board that says “All are to be welcomed as Christ,” from the rule of St. Benedict, and that message has sunk in to the whole congregation. It was beautiful the way people cared for one another, made space for each other, and even managed to celebrate in the midst of struggle, stress, homelessness and displacement.
It’s hard to predict what sort of emergencies might arise in a given community. All the best disaster plans can’t predict every eventuality. But following the example of Jesus and listening to his words of welcome and inclusion provided the best guidelines for our hospitality during the ice storm. No one abused our space or one another. There was room for everyone. There was food enough to share and to spare. As the word spread, even members of the public dropped in to share the space and a few even asked to sleep over at church.
My biggest learning from the ice storm of 2013 was to open up when it felt easier to withdraw, to say “welcome” and make ourselves vulnerable to people who need our care, and to trust that God was in the mix and it would all work out all right.
There was room in our inn. It would have seemed selfish not to open the doors and say, “Come in. Come in.”
Pastor Katherine (Kit) Carlson is Rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, MI