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Spirit Story

The last pageant

By Bill Millar

Robertson Memorial United was an old mini-cathedral in Winnipeg’s North End, a neighbourhood that was once working-class European and is now largely Aboriginal.

Its few members were neither Aboriginal, nor working class. They were older members of historical families, who drove in on Sundays.

I arrived in the fall of 1996 to be their interim minister. In November, the organist quit. With only seven or eight worshippers, no money, no choir and an uncertain future, the church had little chance of finding an organist. Out of nowhere, Annie showed up like a whirlwind, like Mary Poppins.

In mid-December, Annie decided we should have a Christmas pageant.

“But Christmas is in 10 days,” I pointed out, “and we’ve got no kids.”

“There’s a school across the street,” she said. “They’ve got kids. We’ll invite them.”

“Annie, it’s a public school. They’re not — ” But there was no stopping Annie.

The principal and parents’ group gave permission, and a letter was sent out asking families to phone Annie in the next two days if they wanted to participate. No one called. “Whew, that’s that,” I thought. But Annie figured they were simply too poor to have phones. We sent out another note inviting kids to come on Saturday for practice.

A small group showed up. Enough to have a Joseph, Mary, three shepherds and a wise man — all Aboriginal but one. Annie organized them and went off to sew costumes.

On Christmas Eve, we set up Robertson Memorial’s old manger set. The baby Jesus was a doll with a snow white face, wrapped in a blue blanket. Mary was a tall 12-year-old, and Joseph, four years younger, was a foot shorter. The group looked beautiful.

As I read Luke, I noticed that Mary and Joseph were poking at baby Jesus and whispering. When the congregation sang Away in a Manger, I crouched beside Mary and Joseph to see how they were doing. They both looked me straight in the eye. Joseph asked, “Why did they paint the face of the baby Jesus white?”

I looked. They were right. Someone had painted the doll’s originally pinkish face alabaster white. In that moment, I could see their brown faces looking up at me, and the brown faces of their families sitting in the pews — the first brown faces this building had seen in a long time. My stomach flipped. What could I say? “I think it was to make him glow in the dark,” I offered. “This is an old church, and they did some weird things back then.” They said nothing. During the rest of the service, Mary and Joseph huddled over the baby Jesus, crouched and busy. So attentive to the Holy infant.

The service ended. Our holy family rejoined their real families, and I wished everyone a Merry Christmas. When I turned to get my Bible and notes, I looked down to see what Mary and Joseph had been doing. They’d scraped the white paint off the face of the baby Jesus. My eyes filled with tears. We’d been visited. Holy visitors.

Robertson Memorial died the following June, and its members scattered. But in its dying, it left a gift to the rest of us, a Christmas gift: the story of its last pageant.

Pastor Bill Millar serves Knox United in Winnipeg.

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