Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Give a Clap

On Saturday, December 18th, my daughter and I drove to Maria's Shelter on South Yale in Chicago.  This is part of our Christmas tradition -- the Saturday before Christmas, we go to this shelter for women and children and serve, with many others, a meal for those who live in the shelter and tens of seniors from the area.  Before the event, many people buy gifts for the children and another group of people put together gift bags for the mothers and the seniors.  For these children, these gifts are the only ones they will receive and for the mothers and seniors, this is the only day of the year on which they are served.  For those of us who serve that day, our only objective is to give the mothers, kids, and seniors a few hours during which they can be at ease, can feel less burdened by all that weighs down, all that pulls on them.  They can eat a good meal, receive some small gifts, oh, and experience the one moment that everyone present waits for with great anticipation.  A visit from Santa Claus!

This year was no different from the last seven or eight.  About ten volunteers show up, set up the room with twenty long tables and chairs, cover them with red and green table cloths and centerpieces, and prepare ham, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, collard greens, green beans, cranberry sauce, salad, rolls, macaroni and cheese, broccoli casserole, cakes, cupcakes, cookies, candies, juice, coffee, and soda.  A lovely white Christmas tree sits off to the side of the room.  A green one sits up front next to an empty arm chair surrounded by wrapped presents.  Christmas carols ring out from a small stereo on the floor.

The room is cool, but there is a sense of home and familiar faces work hard to make sure all is ready when our guests arrive.  We volunteers see each other every year and for some of us, only at this place, on this date, every year.  Sometimes, we don't have enough serving utensils, or plates, or gravy, or ham, or aluminum foil, or to-go bags.  Sometimes, someone gets sick and can't bring an essential item.  Every year, Marcus brings the soda.  Every year, we think he's not coming and  start to panic about all the thirsty mouths that we won't be able to quench.  Every year, though, he comes.  And every year, he brings soda from Treasure Island.  And every year, he brings his Santa suit.

Like every other year, around 11:30 a.m., the seniors start to arrive, brushing the snow from their coats and boots.  They sit patiently at tables as the mothers and children also arrive.  Excitement rises and the room begins to warm both in temperature and love.  We pray, eat, talk.  As we finish eating, Marcus stands and casually walks to the restroom.  He will transform his tall, fit, handsome, jeans-and-sweater-clad self into Santa.  He will don a red suit, a pillow tucked beneath a black belt, a white beard, and black boots.  

The meal is good.  The company is good.  The decorations are good.  But, there is nothing that compares to the moment Santa comes through the door: "Ho ho ho!"  He waves, and in his deep, convincing voice, he booms: "You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm tellin' you why: Santa Claus is coming to town. . . ."  The kids are going crazy.  The moms are smiling.  The seniors fold their hands and take it all in.  "He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake; he knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!  Oh . . ."  The excitement reaches epic levels.  The kids are screaming out the song.  The volunteers sing too, and laugh with joy.  We love Marcus.  And we love how devoted he is to this role.  It is my favorite part of the entire event.

Santa takes his seat in the empty chair upfront, the green tree to his right, the presents nearby.  He calls the kids up to sit in front of him.  The kids run at full speed and slide to a sitting position, looking at Santa like they can't believe their eyes.  These kids (and their moms) live in a large room, all together in a cramped space, beds pushed up next to each other.  Their moms have been physically abused.  These are hard lives.  Santa sings Jingle Bells with them.  Then, he quiets them down and says he is going to pass out gifts, but before he does, he asks: "What is the greatest gift we have ever received?"  He asks this every year and each year it takes all I have inside me not to yell out: Jesus!  Or, to raise my hand like I did when I was ten.  The kids yell out: "toys!"  "dolls!"  "video games"  Then, one quiet, bright-eyed kid in back says: "Jesus!"  Santa affirms him: "Yes!  What's your name, young man?"  The boy says: "Charles" or "Marquis" or "James" depending on the year.  And then Santa pauses and says: "Alright, everyone, give Charles a clap!"  And we all clap for Charles.  A smile this young shy boy cannot contain breaks across his face.  The first time I heard Marcus say "give so-and-so a clap," I thought it was such a strange phrase.  Something I hadn't heard before.  I had heard, "give so-and-so a hand" or "let's clap for so-and-so."  Never "give a clap!"  I grew used to it over the years, though, and have come to love the phrase.

Next, Santa passes out gifts to each child.  And for each one, Santa reads the tag on the present and calls out the child's name.  So, it goes like this: "Where's James?"  Little James steps up boldly, hands extended.  "There you go, young man.  Everyone, give James a clap!"  And we all clap wildly for James like he's just finished a marathon, or hit a home run, or given a stirring performance.  We do this for each child.  I can't help but think that when they hear us clap, for a moment, they feel on top of the world, loved like never before.  Those of us clapping feel this somehow too.  Just to be part of this scene makes your soul soar, makes you smile with abandon, makes your heart race.

After the gift-giving, we clean-up, pack-up and all head home.  We say "see you next year!" and hug.

We didn't know this that day, but this year was the last time we would see Marcus.  On that Saturday, he had five days left on this Earth.  On Christmas Eve, he was killed in a car accident.  Our Santa.  Our Marcus.  Gone, just like that.  No next year.  My heart broke when I heard the news.  I flashed through all the years.  I saw him once a year, but I relied on him for the soaring of my soul, broad unstoppable smiles, and a heart racing with excitement for the joy he brought.

One thing kept coming to mind: man of God.  Marcus was a devoted follower of Christ.  And, you needed only to see him at Maria's Shelter in his Santa suit to know that.  The Santa thing is complicated because mostly, this distracts from Christ.  But, Marcus was able to show Christ even through the secular Santa.  He centered his gift-giving on Christ, he loved the kids the way Christ would.  His eyes radiated a calm and peace that comes only to those with Christ at their center.  I prayed earnestly, fervently, for the family he left behind -- his parents and siblings and nieces and nephews.  The loss of him would be great.

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, my soul started to soar, a broad, unstoppable smile spread across my face, and my heart began to race.  My mind turned to the parable of the talents in Matthew and the master's statement to his servant upon the master's return: "Well done, good and faithful servant!"  (Matt. 25:23)  Instead of these words, though, I heard: "Everyone, give Marcus a clap!"  And all of heaven broke into applause because Marcus was faithful with the gifts God gave him.

I have been thinking of Marcus since I heard of his accident.  Each of the words we exchanged, his tall frame walking into the shelter every year, carrying bags of soda, his deep, booming voice singing "You better watch out . . ."  I see his dark eyes, and his shy smile.  I see his calm, steadiness.  I wonder what I'd do differently if I knew I had only five days to live.  I wonder what I'm doing today that I wouldn't be doing if I only had five days to live and why I continue to do it.  Most of all, though, I pray that when it's my time to stand before my Master and King, He will say: "Everyone, give Kellye a clap!"  And all of heaven will break into applause, not because of fame, or money, or success at work, or because I have lots of friends, or possessions, but because I will have been faithful with the gifts God has given me.


  1. Through tears I cannot think of anything but "let's give Marcus a clap!". What a beautiful, bittersweet story.
    Well done,!

  2. Kellye, what a moving tribute to Marcus. You've captured so beautifully the spirit of the annual Christmas gathering, in particular Marcus' special place in it. I too have been heartbroken with the news. So thank you for the reminder of what a blessing it is to serve with joy, sharing the gifts we've been given. Marcus, "Our Santa", will be missed terribly but there's no better way to honor him than to continue to serve as he did.

  3. oh man! my heart sank when i read what happened to marcus. it crept up on me. i didn't see it coming. just like death itself will be. i'm giving kellye a clap for such a beautiful reminder of that important truth.

  4. bsankey says ...
    We will know them by their Fruit -- Woman of great Faith you have just dispensed the most inspired message that I know was not revealed to you by flesh and blood -- I know that because of the obvious anointing and seal that God has placed on it and because of that seal -- oh, the lives that it is touching. Luv you, friend!!!