Last year when I spent a week helping out at the migrant shelter in Tijuana, I met a woman who was very pregnant, within weeks of her due date. She was from Guatemala, from the mountains, she told me in the best Spanish she could put together. She was Mayan, and Spanish was her second or third language, which was all she needed for the task at hand. We were chatting while I helped her look through the piles of clothes. I was on ropa duty that evening, which meant that after the community meal, I unlocked the storage room with all the donated clothing and, one by one, residents would line up for an opportunity pick out new pants, a shirt, a jacket, socks and underwear, shoes—whatever was available, whatever they needed.
She really needed a new pair of shoes, she said. So we walked over to the shelves and rummaged through the stacks to find decent pair in her size. As we poked around at the options, which weren’t ideal, she glanced over at a huge stash of shoes on the floor and giggled to herself. I looked over and laughed, too. The mound in the corner was made up of high heels—stilettos and platform shoes. She asked me if anyone picks from those and I told her that no one ever does, which is why the pile just gets bigger and bigger. Then I tried to explain the phenomenon known as southern California, and how all the donations come from very nice people in wealthy communities in Los Angeles and San Diego, and how I guess they haven’t quite thought through what it’s like to try to walk through the desert, to cross the border, in stilettos. We both shrugged and laughed as I handed her a pair of very reasonable Nikes that looked like they might fit.
Later that evening, a long-term volunteer at the shelter stopped by the cuarto de ropa and asked if I’d pick out some baby outfits for the mother. She had decided that the shelter should throw a baby shower for the soon-to-be mom. So I stayed late, sorting through boxes of clothes, picking out the cutest onesies and newborn outfits, pondering how the world has come to be the way it is, where the best option some people have is to leave their ancestral land, their community, their family, and risk everything at the border.
The next day, as we gathered for morning prayer—the eight of us, our team of volunteers—our cohort decided to pitch in some cash to buy a cake and party supplies for the grandest baby shower celebration the migrant shelter has ever seen. We passed around a basket as the priest led us through the morning liturgy which concluded with a lively rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I’m not sure if I would’ve considered the song appropriate for prayer, but somehow a volunteer had convinced the young priest from Vietnam—who, mind you, hadn’t ever needed to learn English—that Cohen’s song was appropriate to sing as a kind of benediction. So the priest took out his guitar—he had learned the tune at the volunteers’ request—and we had a Leonard Cohen singalong as we held hands and swayed together. The priest offered our broken hallelujahs to God, even though he didn’t know all the words.
That night there was a celebration, with newly arrived migrants gathered to offer gifts to a woman they’ve never met before, as she prepared to welcome a child in the shadow of a civilization, an empire, that could care less about her life or the life of her child. But there, in Tijuana, among strangers, people from everywhere, from Syria to Ghana, from Brazil to Ecuador—there, in that shelter: a party with balloons and streamers, cupcakes and hot chocolate, music and dancing.
A week later, after I had returned to the United States, a friend from the shelter texted me pictures of the newborn. Alexander Isaias. The mother and infant were healthy. The head priest of the shelter had committed to let them stay for as long as they needed to stay, until she was ready to try to cross the border again, this time with a child.
This is the world into which Jesus was born, with Mary and Joseph on their own, far away from their community, in an abandoned corner of society, alone, except for the strangers who show up to celebrate, the shepherds from the fields, who offered the only gifts they had: words, the words from the angels, the promises of God, news of hope.
And “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart,” the Scriptures tell us (Luke 2:19). With the shepherds and animals gathered around her child, she receives their words as treasures and puts them in her heart for safekeeping, to be there for her when she needs them again, when she needs to remember God’s promises.
There is so much to wonder about, so much to ponder—about what has happened to us this year, and what has happened to this world. During this season of Christmas we find ourselves with Mary—bewildered, and exhausted, looking for words to treasure, to hold onto, to keep with us, to reassure us, words as gifts of hope, as reminders of the promises of God.
We bear witness to this Christmas gospel—this word of hope, these promises from God, that we live by miracles as unexpected as the birth of the savior of the world in a desolate corner of this world, with strangers there to celebrate what God has done.
The good news is this: That, despite it all, there is joy, there are celebrations, there are baby showers in shelters, people who look out for each other, strangers who do want they can with what they have, that this world is held in God’s care, that your life is held by God.
Like Mary, these are the words we treasure and ponder in our hearts: that God is among us, that Christ has offered us peace, and that the Holy Spirit is our comfort and our strength.
There are always good reasons to sing a hallelujah, even if we don’t know all the words.