35 & Counting Sheep—A View from Advent

One of my favorite Godly Play stories is the “Holy Family”. It’s a simple story, really, but is told in such a way that one might reconsider any preconceived notions of the nativity. Hand-carved, wooden nativity figures are set out in classic form and the children are reminded of fragile nativities that they may have seen elsewhere. “Don’t touch it! It might break!”, they may hear when approaching grandma’s special heirloom nativity, however, in Godly Play, they are assured: “This nativity is for you”. The characters of the nativity are introduced—meet Mary, Joseph, the donkey who helped pregnant Mary get to Bethlehem, and the cow who was surprised to find a baby in his feed dish. The story continues with an introduction of the shepherds, who heard angels singing and were afraid, and their sheep.

The Godly Play set only includes 3 sheep, but the story is good to remind us that though our set has one shepherd and three sheep—there were likely a number of shepherds with many, many sheep. The storyteller explains to the children that the one shepherd and three sheep represent the many who may have journeyed to Bethlehem to see the mystery that happened. Some children begin to wonder about the numbers of cows, donkeys, and otherwise in the nativity. Other children don’t skip a beat and want to hear about the wise men. My mind goes to the endless numbers of sheep being lead towards the Christ Child—I can picture the hillsides covered with woolly, bleating animals. Because we don’t have enough room in our houses for all the sheep that may have been at the nativity, we use just a few to represent the many. I wonder how many of the sheep actually found their way to see Jesus?

This past Advent was all about sheltering at St.Tim’s. The shelter story is also a simple story—winter is cold, people need a warm place to rest at night, we have a nice warm building, so we open it up for our guests. People often ask me how many people our shelter will hold. Emergency shelters by code can host 20 guests per night. As of today, we have not had more than 16 guests on any one night at our Overflow Shelter this season. Our numbers are down this year, thankfully, possibly because we have worked endlessly to move some of our long-term guests into permanent supportive housing. Some guests who have stayed with us in years past are now asking how they can help us with volunteering—because they now have keys to their own place and a roof over their heads. Other guests who have stayed with us in years past are still with us—as guests, another season without housing of their own. Our shelter is “home” for them for this moment—because all other notions of “home” have fallen through. Since December 1st, we have sheltered 35 unique women (some have stayed many nights, others have only stayed a night or two.)

The shelter story is a simple story—winter is cold, people need a warm place to rest at night, we have a nice warm building, so we open it up for our guests.

These women haven’t all shown up at one time—like the nativity sheep, they come in smaller groups but represent the many women in Winston-Salem with no place to call “home.” These women are someone’s daughters, someone’s sisters, someone’s mothers, someone’s friends—and they are our guests. We welcome them in each night—as many as show up—and make room for each guest. We get to know their names, their stories, and begin to share our lives together. Our guests become not simply one more number to add to the reports, not simply one more sheep—but very much a part of the story of this mystery that is happening at St.Timothy’s.

God is at work, here and now. Come and see!
Katie Bryant, Minister of Children and Outreach at St.Timothy’s Episcopal Church