For those Christians who follow the liturgical church year, Christmas is not just a day, but a season. It’s a season that continues for a dozen days until Epiphany (Jan. 6). That concept is illustrated in the popular holiday song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
As a result, our family leaves our decorations up when many Christmas trees and wreaths are deposited curbside. Our tree remains lit. Alexa continues to play the carols and our Fontanini nativity figures remain in position at the entrance to our family room.
In our nativity scene, we have the innkeeper and his family next to the holy family in the stable. And this neighboring family bears a striking resemblance to our family. There is a husband and wife and three daughters. Like me, the innkeeper figure is mostly bald. Through the years, we’ve even added a son-in-law and grandchildren.
Truth be told, the account of Christ’s nativity in the Gospel of Luke does not actually make reference to an innkeeper. But it does refer to the fact that Mary’s baby was born in a barn because there was “no room in the inn.” So, it’s fair to infer that there likely was someone who, recognizing their plight, directed Joseph and Mary to the only available shelter on his property.
The other day as I took time to ponder these plastic figures and the story they represent, I had a new insight. The person who offered the stable to the expectant couple was actually practicing a principle that the newborn baby would one day teach as an adult rabbi. In Matthew 25, Jesus acknowledges that when we care for individuals in need (the homeless, the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned) we are showing love for Him. In essence He said, “When you serve the least of these, you are serving me.”
Even before Jesus was born, the innkeeper was serving Him by serving the homeless refugee teenager who was carrying Him. He was figuratively (and literally) doing what Jesus would later call all His followers to do. And he’s not the only “innkeeper” to serve God by serving others.
This Christmas season, I am thinking of a modern-day innkeeper who began a life-changing organization 100 years ago this year. His name was Abraham Vereide. He was a Methodist pastor in Seattle who came from Norway as an immigrant in the early 1900s. Touched by the plight of the poor and disadvantaged in his adopted city, Pastor Vereide sought out local business leaders to find a tangible way to influence their community for good. And so, Goodwill Industries was begun in 1923. With $475 and a dream, Pastor Vereide rallied a group of Seattle businessmen to help provide employment, education and economic opportunities for those struggling to get by.
From the start, Seattle Goodwill collected used clothing and furnishings and hired individuals to repair and sell recycled items. Their initial motto was “Not charity but a chance.” Giving those who struggle a chance and giving used items a chance for a second life remains their mission a century later.
As an immigrant, Pastor Vereide understood the challenges of the refugee. And from the very beginning of this humanitarian organization, Seattle Goodwill has attempted to bridge the gap created by unemployment, discrimination and racial prejudice. Like the Bethlehem innkeeper, Vereide made sure those who worked with him looked out for others for Christ’s sake.
The rest of Pastor Vereide’s life was punctuated by a similar concern for others. During the economic downturn of the 1930s, he regularly met with Seattle’s mayor Arthur Langley and other city leaders. When Langley was elected Governor, he asked Pator Vereide to convene the first ever Governor’s Prayer Breakfast.
Eventually word of what was happening in the Evergreen State reached the White House. President Eisenhower called on the founder of Seattle Goodwill to created goodwill among lawmakers in Washington, D.C. And, thus, the Presidential Prayer Breakfast Movement was born.
Seventy years later this amazing phenomenon, that finds lawmakers from across the aisle meeting for Bible study and prayer, continues. And, oh by the way, I know about Pastor Vereide because he was the minister who performed my Norwegian grandparents’ wedding in 1921.
Guest columnist Greg Asimakoupoulos is a former chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores in Mercer Island.