Last Friday, Bev Smith-Fendt led our weekly faculty devotion by reading aloud from the last chapter of Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. It took me back to the days when my own children were young and Trinity was too. When it was first published in 1971, I was just old enough not to care about books like this one; by the mid-1990s, I was eager for such stories.
It’s a story of six ragamuffin Herdman children: Imogene, Claude, Ralph, Leroy, Ollie, and Gladys. Infamous in town for their derelict behavior (smoking, drinking jug wine, and shoplifting), this motley family somehow land the main parts in the annual Christmas pageant. A funny, ironic, and heartwarming story, it somehow captures upside-downness of the Gospel in refreshing way. I think of Mary's joyful and subversive song in Luke 1: "He has brought down the rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty." Sometimes we see the good news most clearly through the eyes of the lowly.
I was listening intently to Bev's devotion, not only because I wanted to remember the Herdmans, but because I was wondering how this tale of the reversal of privilege would strike me twenty years later, when the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements made the question of who gets to play Mary seem--well, different. Robinson's story has been turned into a popular theatrical performance, and I did a quick Google Image Search: I probably scrolled through a hundred pictures of the Herdman clan, and they were all white. White trash, scary white, rough white, angry white, redneck white--but all white.
Today, the voice of the self-righteous Alice (who much to her indignation, lost her privileged part as Mary in the town pageant) might be channeled through, say, someone screaming at a Donald Trump rally. And the Herdmans might not look so white or even so American. Imogene the Syrian might be playing Mary, and the three wise men might be refugees from Burma, the shepherds undocumented immigrants from El Salvador. I think I'd like to see that pageant.
You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. Betty Simpson, one of our first grade teachers, sent this email out after Bev's devotion.
Thank you so much for your devotion this morning. It meant a great deal to me, not only because I love that story, but also because I'm helping with our church's Nativity play this coming Sunday. Rehearsals have been hilarious and sweet. It brings tears to my eyes to watch them get so excited about the play. Several are American-born, but we also have children whose parents left Burma because of religious persecution, and the children of visiting Chinese scholars who are becoming Christians and being baptized secretly before they go back to China. Thank you so much for reminding us that the Herdmans of the world often "get" the gospel message better than we do! Your devotion was a blessing.
Into this picture of the Nativity, I can imagine Gladys Herdman, "with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers sticking out from under her robe, yelling at all of us, everywhere: 'Hey! Unto you a child is born!'"
To me, Mary will always look like Imogene Herdman, and Joseph will always look like a refugee. And these unlikely actors in the divine drama unveil the deep meaning of the Incarnation in ways we often miss, Christmas after comfortable Christmas. This Christmas, I am glad to be unsettled by the prospect of people coming into our country and our city from parts unknown, who have experienced deprivation and hardship I cannot imagine.
My daughter resettles refugees through World Relief Durham. Some weeks ago, at the start of the Syrian controversy, she posted this picture on her Facebook page, a Karen refugee who had just arrived at RDU with her sick father and these two bags.
"I'm 23 months into refugee resettlement and every arrival still nearly brings me to tears," wrote my daughter. "It is pure joy to welcome to our country and this city those who have no home. We will never understand the experience of someone who has been persecuted to the point that they give up all they know, including those they love the most, to start a new life in a place where they do not know the language, like the food, know a soul--but at least can live safely. They don't arrive exuberant, as if they've won the lottery or finagled their way in. They arrive weary and haunted--like someone crawling out of a burning house, all they know and love is still inside. They arrive hungry and scared and sad--with hard, hard months ahead of them."
Hey! Unto them a child is born!