As an altar boy raised by devout Catholics, I always served at midnight mass. The Nativity scene usually was displayed on the epistle side of the altar and, as usual, the ceremonial incense caused me to choke and sneeze during our procession around the church. I actually thought of becoming a priest until I started asking questions about the deity of Christ, the wealth of the church and realized what celibacy was.
One year, I was spared from serving midnight mass because my parents decided to attend a day mass on Christmas morning. One of my neighbors asked me to help deliver presents to the poor on Christmas Eve. I thought I was poor, but she meant the poorest of poor: the downtrodden.
It was about 9 p.m. and the air was cold and the sky was clear. We walked down a few blocks to the end of the street facing the Raritan River and passed the usual servicemen, street walkers, bars and red lights shining in the windows of the houses of pleasure lining the street. New Brunswick, N.J., was near Camp Kilmer, which was a port of debarkation during World War II. Needless to say, Burnet Street was a very popular place for the GIs. But at the end of the street, on vacant land close to the river, the hobos, alcoholics, sick, homeless, social outcasts and the downtrodden struggled to live from day to day.
There were 20 or so blazing bonfires surrounding the camp. The hobos were cooking their fresh catch of catfish and boiling potatoes. Everyone else seemed to walk around aimlessly close to the fire. But soon the true spirit of Christmas and the meaning of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount became a reality. We could barley hear the distant Christmas carols being sung, but the faint rhythm of Christian soldiers blowing their horns and beating the drums for humanity were getting louder, closer and, finally, arrived.
It was like a procession without incense, golden robes or an epistle. The choir, the band and a horse-drawn milk wagon entered the camp and parked in the middle of the dregs of society.
Within minutes, servicemen, prostitutes and street pimps made their way toward the singing and the beating of Christianity’s drum of charity. The bars slowly emptied out and the hell-hole of town became the prime example of what Christ died for.
The milk wagon was filled with warm clothes and they were handed out freely. By that time a delivery truck pulled up next to the milk wagon. In no time, tables were set up, coffee was brewing and huge pots of soup were set on the fire of portable burners. At least 150 people formed lines to receive soup and sandwiches. Hot coffee, homemade sweet bread and mimeographed words to Christmas carols were handed out to everyone.
Around midnight the drums started beating again. These angels of mercy, dressed in uniforms, began singing the songs of Christmas. Standing hand in hand, the voices of poverty, sin, vice and social outcasts joined together singing praises to their newborn king.
Instead of cathedrals, we worshiped on a deserted frozen field. Bonfires were our candles and the gifts of food and clothing filled our silver chalice in our communion of despair.
Instead of wearing vestments of woven strands of gold the soldiers of salvation proudly wore their uniforms of faith and charity. And rather than building a Vatican theocracy of gold, they built homeless shelters and ministered to the needy who lived on the streets.
In 1852, William Booth began preaching the gospel to the poor, homeless, hungry and destitute on the streets of London with the intention of leading them to a more conventional church to pursue their own salvation. However, conventional churches wouldn’t accept converted prostitutes, criminals or the ragged poor in their hierarchy of Christianity. Booth then decided to build his own ministry. His “Christian mission” of a volunteer army for Christ became known as the Salvation Army.
Currently, this army still lives by Christ’s words preached in the Sermon on the Mount — words of deliverance for the downtrodden and salvation for all of humanity overlooked by most orthodox Christian religions today.
David Farside is a Sparks resident and political activist. The polemics of his articles can be discussed at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.thefarsidechronicles.com.