Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Very ACLU Christmas

There was a so-called “war on Christmas” long before Bill-O and friends went mainstream with it a few years ago. I should know. I worked in the ACLU’s Philadelphia office in the mid-1990’s, and it was my job to open the hate mail. Most of it arrived during the month of December in the form of Christmas cards. Nice picture of Mary and the Baby Jesus on the cover. Scrawled scathing message encouraging us to burn in hell or die painfully on the inside. Joy to the world, indeed.

It was all because of that pesky First Amendment. Sorry folks, but “separation of church and state” means the courthouse shouldn’t have a crèche on its front lawn. (Unless you go this route.) Our lawyers were much busier fighting incidents of police brutality and all manner of discrimination. Crèche-busting typically required a few phone calls in the middle of a hectic afternoon, then they’d move on. But that’s what gained us the most notoriety.

Our lawyers didn’t mind the hate mail. Some of them thrived on it, in fact. These were people who loved a good fight; being told to burn in hell just meant they were doing their job. I didn’t take it personally either. But it did make me think. I’d just be sitting there at my cluttered desk in my little hippie skirt making my little $20K a year and listening to my little mix tape, reading about how I deserved endless pain just for showing up and doing my job that day.

And what a job it was. Our office of ten people served all of Pennsylvania. There were two or three lawyers in Philly, another one in Pittsburgh. Phones rang all day long. Mail poured in. I did everything from photocopying to event planning to producing a newsletter. There were some exciting days, being in the midst of important cases and press conferences. There were downright degrading days, dealing with big egos and unkind words from our superstar freedom fighters. But there were plenty of slow, peaceful days, too.

That’s how it was right before Christmas Eve that year. My major projects were finished for the time being. No fires to put out. My mom was coming that night to take me out to dinner and give me a lift home for the holidays. I was clearing up some of the months-old clutter on my desk when I heard some bustling in the foyer area.

I saw Frank, our long-time senior citizen volunteer receptionist, sitting at his desk and speaking earnestly with a young man wrapped in a coat while two small children, a boy and a girl, squirmed in our uncomfortable waiting-room chairs. Each child was holding a gorgeous oversized mesh plastic “stocking” stuffed with toys, clearly yearning to open them but showing remarkable restraint.

Except for the children, it was a familiar scene. All sorts of folks dropped in on our office from time to time, seeking help. Frank would listen patiently to every word of their stories before he would purposefully explain, in his Jim-Ignatowski-meets-Grandpa-Simpson manner, that the ACLU does not handle such cases and refer them to an agency that did. Sometimes they’d get angry, but Frank took the verbal abuse stoically, patiently listening again before restating his position. And listening. And restating. Eventually they’d move on.

But this family was different. From what I was overhearing, this was clearly not a situation the ACLU could help with in an official capacity. But Frank didn’t give him the speech. He kept listening. He kept asking questions. The children got antsier and louder as the conversation continued. Some of us came into the waiting area and tried to keep them entertained with whatever random toys we had on our desks. Stress balls. A Marge Simpson doll. Finally, their dad gave them the go-ahead to open the stockings, and merry chaos broke out.

In the midst of all that, our Legal Director and chief crèche-buster came blustering out of his office on some unrelated matter. He asked Frank what was going on, and Frank discreetly explained. This family had nowhere to sleep tonight. They’d been staying with a friend of the dad, but they couldn’t go back there now. The friend had been molesting the little girl. The lawyer’s tone shifted in a way I’d never heard before, from busy and self-important to sincere kindness and concern. He invited the young dad into his office.

Which left the babysitting to the rest of us. But no one seemed to mind. Children rarely made an appearance in our office, and they lightened the mood considerably. They pulled crayons and containers of Play Dough from their stockings, and we all got creative together. We made up games and let them run up and down the long hallway.

The meeting went on for over an hour. Our Legal Director was on and off the phone, networking with his colleagues in social services, tracking down a place for this family to stay. Finally, he was able to line something up. We helped the children gather up their stockings, got them into their coats, and off they went into the Philadelphia winter dusk. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat as I picked the squished Play Dough bits from our waiting-room carpet. Sweet little girl. Who knew what was going to happen to her? It broke my heart just to think about it. But at least she had somewhere safe to go on Christmas Eve.

The “Very Special Christmas Episode” message here is probably pretty obvious, but it bears repeating: The ACLU may have caused the relocation of a few plaster Mary-and-Josephs that year. But an ACLU lawyer also found this real-life unfortunate family some room at the Inn. And with all due respect to Mr. Schulz, I’d like to suggest that that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Maybe the story of Jesus’ birth has become obscured by the shinier holiday trappings. But in a way, it’s also become overexposed. That same holiday hype overshadows Jesus’ life and teachings with the story of his birth. How else could someone send a Baby Jesus card with a “burn in hell” message to show how much they love their public nativity scenes? Clearly they haven’t thought much about that Sermon on the Mount “love thine enemy / judge not” business. Or else, they’ve decided Jesus’ teachings are less important than displaying the scene of his birth. Or maybe they’ve got other issues going on and it’s best not to question it. Okay, judging not. Backing off.

Christmas is a Christian holiday, of course. Can’t get much more Christian than the birth of Jesus. But as the holiday becomes widely celebrated and increasingly secular, I believe it belongs to anyone who wants to partake. Christmas can still be meaningful and secular at the same time. It can be about gathering to be with our families. It can be about peace and love. And it can be about helping our fellow human beings, like that ACLU lawyer helped the family that afternoon. Heck, it can be about Festivus poles and Bob Hope specials if that’s what makes you happy. Mostly I just think it’s remarkable that we’re able to set aside this time of year to show love and appreciation for each other.

I believe John Devner said it best. Muppets, if you please:



“It’s in every one of us
To be wise.
Find your heart,
Open up both your eyes.
We can all know everything
Without ever knowing why.
It’s in every one of us
By and by.”

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