Christmas 2001

I head into Greene's Discount Beer, Wine and Liquor. A Salvation Army guy wearing a camouflage cap and jacket over blue dungarees and ringing a bell holds the door open for me. The multiple incongruities slip into my brain. I check; he has a Salvation Army name badge.

Inside, the cashier asks for my I.D., startling me. It's not my age -- 58 -- she wants, but verification of my credit card. I laugh and thank her for checking.

The camouflage-Salvation-Army guy holds the door for me as I carry out my large bottle of Tangueray in a brown sack. I thank him for doing extra duty as a doorman, then stuff a dollar in his red kettle.

In Belks, unable to find Christmas coffee mugs, I pick up an American flag coffee mug instead. Then at the checkout I add a magnetic American flag to my purchases. The Special Forces are hunting Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora at that moment. The TV tells us what’s happening minute by minute. I will cheer if they get him, dead or alive.

The man behind the cash register says, “This has been the worst Christmas I have ever experienced.”

“What makes it bad,” I ask.

“People,” he says. “I’ve been working here 12 Christmases and I’ve never seen it so bad. We even had a minister’s wife ‘showing out.’ I said to her, ‘After all the things your husband has said, if anybody saw your behavior here, they’d be glad to meet a Muslim.’ If I said her name, you’d know her.”

I don’t tell him I’m a Presbyterian minister wondering about my own incongruous emotions this Christmas.

I weave through the people in the mall, flowing like a stream over rocks. A woman pushes a walker through the traffic. I try not to begrudge her being there among all the stimulation of people at Christmas.

I sit in the food court with my sandwich, watching the people flow by, so many of them, none of us counting for anything in the great population of America and the Earth, but each of us infinitely valuable in God’s love. All of us “enemies” in Osama bin Laden’s sights as he takes aim at the World Trade Center towers, calculating the number of “enemy” who will be casualties. All of us, black and white mostly, with some Hispanic and Asian and Middle Eastern, flowing together through the mall, our usual conflicts melted as together we respond to the horror al-Qaeda has imposed on us.

People are carrying all the things they’ve purchased. A jazzy version of “Away in a Manger” plays on the speaker system. A young blonde woman at a table in front of me holds a baby, fussing over him. She covers him and her left shoulder with a cotton flannel blanket and lifts her blue knit top to give the baby a drink. They’re so vulnerable. Only his legs and little feet show out from under the blanket, completely still. Her face shows no different expression. Mother and child, mother and child, mother and child, repeated in apostolic succession since Mary and Jesus. She watches people walking past, then stands up with the baby and walks over to retrieve friends who are looking for her.

In the men’s room, a cell phone rings loudly somewhere in one of the stalls. A man says “hello” and the phone rings again. It stops ringing, and he says “hello” again. “I’m back behind the food court,” he says loudly, as though talking to someone hard of hearing. “I’ll be there in a minute.” We’re next to each other at the hand dryers. He’s a silver-haired man with a baseball cap and neat denim clothes. “These things don’t work very well, do they,” he says. “I hate them. Give me a piece of paper any day,” I say.

I pass by the woman and baby in the food court. She’s leaning the baby over, putting him down in a carriage, well fed and sleepy.

In traffic, a woman zips her car through an intersection, barely pausing for her stop sign, then dodges as cars come at her. At a light, gridlock, and I’m in the middle, but nobody honks. A passenger plane flies low overhead on approach to the airport. I wonder if they’ve got Osama bin Laden yet.

Posted Dec. 22, 2001


Bill Lancaster of Greenville, S.C., is associate for mission with Foothills Presbytery