Christmas at Harbor Light

by L. Mark Finch

They had met on the bus from Champaign. One was a writer on his way to West Virginia from Illinois, the other a photographer traveling from Missouri to Montreal. As it had turned out, they had known some of the same people in Carbondale! At any rate, the bus had gotten in late and neither had much money. Rather than try to sleep in the dismal atmosphere of the bus station, they elected to go to the top of the parking garage and sleep under the clouds. 

Morning brought a red-faced man in a dark blue suit shouting something to the effect of “ferchrissakes why can’t you sleep downstairs or someplace else this ain’t a hotel it’s over there,” beckoning across a vacant lot.

The photographer and the writer produced their bus tickets (one to Wheeling, one to New York City) and avowed that neither had much money and the bus had gotten in late and they hadn’t wanted to sleep in the bus station and it really wasn’t too cold up there on the roof anyway, so….

The man in the blue suit softened some. “Well all right, I guess you guys are okay — but we’ve had some trouble here at night. You shouldn’t be sleepin’ here — all kinds of nuts come up here, it could be dangerous. You’d be better off over there” he said, again gesturing across the vacant lot.

Over where? the travelers asked.

“Harbor Light Center. Salvation Army.”

Nope, huh-uh, no way, the pair declared. They weren’t transients (although neither was known for living at the same place for long), and they weren’t drifters. Cheap hotels yes, a sermon-and-a-sheet, no.

“Hey, it’s not so bad,” the man in the blue suit said. “Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. When’s the last time you ate?”

Neither of them had eaten anything besides bus station coffee and beef jerky since they had left the previous morning.

“They’re having Christmas dinner over there today,” the man said. “Turkey and all the trimmings.”

Yeah, Christmas — and I’m on top of a bus station in Indianapolis. the writer thought. “What’s it cost?”

“Don’t cost a nickel,” the main said. “You do have to hafta sit through a service though. But what the heck, it is Christmas, right? It wouldn’t hurt you none to go to church.”

Neither the photographer nor the writer had been in a church in 10 years except for weddings, and said so.

“Hey, listen. You don’t have to do nothin’ if you don’t want to. All you gotta do is listen to ’em sing.”

Hmm. Singing could be tolerated, and turkey and dressing didn’t sound too bad — especially in comparison to coffee and beef jerky — and for free … what the hell. Sure, why not.

The travelers shouldered their packs, thanked the man in the blue suit, and walked through the dirty snow in the vacant lot up to the Harbor Light Center. It was an unpretentious building, painted white with a red Salvation Army shield. 

They found the door to the chapel and walked in. An usher gave them both hymn books and pointed toward two empty seats in the fourth pew. They took off their packs and placed them on the floor in front of their feet.

A small, white-haired woman wearing spectacles was playing an organ, to which the writer and photographer listened as they perused their surroundings.

The walls of the chapel were concrete block, painted yellow and pale blue. The altar was void of decoration, save for a large portrait of Jesus Christ behind the pulpit and a couple of small potted plants. A movie screen hung from the ceiling.

Not many people were in the chapel yet, perhaps 40. A variety of odors permeated the air — the smells of unwashed bodies and clothing, vomit, and stale alcohol assaulted the travelers. The man sitting next to the writer periodically alternated between coughing and moaning. A short, balding man in a brown coat blew his nose noisily, and examined his hankerchief. Muttering unintelligibly, the man who had been coughing settled back into his seat.

“Your attention, please” an unseen speaker rasped. “Services will begin in five minutes. In order to eat dinner you must attend the service.”

The white-haired woman played the organ for what must have been five more minutes, then rose and walked across the front of the chapel. The writer, curious to see how many people had come in during the five minutes, turned around. The chapel was full.

The woman who had been playing the organ picked up a Vox six-string electric guitar and walked to the pulpit. “Good morning!” she said cheerily. “Let’s all turn to number 234 in the hymn book.”

Hymn books rustled throughout the chapel. “Let us sing” the woman said, and began.

The tune was unfamiliar to the travelers, but it was simple. Apparently the tune wasn’t familiar to many in the congregation, judging from the halfhearted attempt made to sign it. The chapel was filled with a discordant, rhythmic mumbling that trailed off to a near-silence. 

“Well, that’s a pretty tough tune,” the woman said brightly. “Now why don’t we try whistling it instead?”

As the travelers whistled, they listened to the rest of the congregation. Some whistled very well, even trilling some notes, while others could only manage a “shewp, shewp” sound. Others hummed, or moaned along in a singsong way. The whistled verses were a great improvement over the one they had sung, but were still terrible.

The next tune was Bringing in the Sheaves, and it seemed everyone in the chapel knew the words by heart. The cracked voices of the congregation swelled and filled the chapel, harmonizing, actually sounding pretty good.

After three verses of Bringing in the Sheaves, the Brigadier strode up to the pulpit. “Good morning,” he said. ”Let’s turn to number 129 in the hymn book.”

Number 129 wasn’t quite as good as Bringing in the Sheaves, but it was a lot better than number 234 had been. The congregation was getting warmed up. 

After number 129 the collection plates were passed. “Just give whatever you can, if you can,” the Brigadier said. ”It only takes 50 cents to feed a whole family for a week some places overseas.”

The plates passed quickly. Some of those not contributing averted their eyes, staring stonily ahead. Other fumbled in their pockets, withdrawing their hands when the plate had passed. Many did find change — even dollar bills — and gave freely. 

Several songs later, the Brigadier asked everyone to stand for a prayer. It was a standard prayer, giving thanks for whatever each person had to be thankful for. The photographer and the writer were both thankful that they didn’t really have to eat at the Salvation Army.

After the prayer, the congregation remained standing to sing America the Beautiful and say the Pledge of Allegiance. The writer took the opportunity to to look around, and marveled that nobody in the congregation seemed to be having a lot of trouble standing for so long. The Brigadier said the congregation could sit after the Pledge, and it sat.

“Actually, the flags are switched.” the Brigadier commented. “The American flag should be over there,” he said, pointing, “and our flag should be over here. I used to be a Boy Scout, and I know my flag etiquette!” A ripple of laughter spread through the chapel.

“They probably got switched last night when we cleaned up in here,” he continued. ”We’ll have to switch them back before the next service to avoid confusion. By the way, since we’re having our special services today, there won’t be a service at 5:30 tonight. If you need a place to stay tonight and you haven’t been drinking or stayed your six days already, come knock on our door about six o’clock. Now we’re going to see a little movie here.”

The movie was a Bible education film about Jesus and the lepers. It wasn’t a bad film — a little hokey, maybe — and it was a welcome relief from singing. The lepers were all cured and happily ran off, except for one old man who came back to thank the man who had cured him. The moral was told, the lights were turned up, and the hymn books came out again. After another song or two, word came from the kitchen that the meal was ready.

The congregation filed out pew by pew in the order in which it had been sitting. The line snaked through the hall and into the brightly-lit dining hall — more brightly-lit than usual due to the lights that a television cameraman had set up. Oh great, the travelers thought when they saw the camera. They’re going to put us on TV. Damn.

The writer looked at the men in the room — the only women there were volunteers who had come to help with the meal — as the line shuffled along, and tried to estimate how old they were. Most of them looked as though they were between 30 and 60 years old, but coming anywhere within 15 years of exact age would have been difficult. Their faces all seemed to have aged to the same degree.

Christmas dinner smelled pretty good and didn’t look bad either, even though it was served on a styrofoam plate. It was all there — turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, yams, pumpkin pie, and lots of coffee. The diners sat at the long tables in the same order as they had sat in the pews. The man the writer had been sitting next to became much more animated as he sat down to his meal. He was apparently a regular at the Harbor Light Center, as many others seemed to be.

“Hey man, you been here so much you gonna have to have a ticket to get in here next time!” an employee told him half-jokingly.

“I’m from a TV station,” the cameraman told the regular. ”We’re going to make you famous!” The man didn’t acknowledge the cameraman. Nobody did.

Conversation was limited. Most of the words exchanged had to do with the business of eating. Eye contact was minimal, most requests being made with a pointed finger and a grunted word. The food wasn’t bad — a little institutional perhaps, but far better than nothing. 

The travelers were ready to go. The photographer had taken a few pictures to remember his Christmas by and the writer was itching to get outside. Exit was made via the back door, which opened into an alley. Several of the diners were hanging around the alley, talking and smoking cigarettes. The man the writer had sat next to all morning was rummaging through the dumpster, salvaging what edibles he could. He had already stayed his six days.


*   *   *   *   *

The writer and the photographer walked back through the vacant lot, past the pawn shops and adult bookstores to the bus station. They had not had to use their fabricated stories about who they were or where they were going; no one had cared to ask. But they had gotten their story.

They gazed across the vacant lot from the bus station’s parking garage. The snow had begun to fall again, but the men they had just eaten with were still lingering in the alley and two more were foraging in the dumpster.

The photographer broke the silence. “You eating with your family today?”

“Yeah.” the writer said. “Let’s go.”


-= 30 =-

Originally published December 1977.