By Harriet P. Gross
In December 1950, when Americans from around the country were summoned to Washington for the Midcentury Conference on Children and Youth, students and young adults were included as fully participating delegates. I was privileged to be one of them.
Four of us represented the state of Pennsylvania. I have, sadly, lost track over these many years with Susan, who was already a college student, and Gigi, a serious young woman who had entered the working world rather than going on to higher education. But Tom and I continue to keep up with each other. I was still a high-schooler that winter, soon to graduate mid-term. He came from his seminary to hear me give the valedictory for my class.
Tom is an Orthodox Presbyterian (yes, that’s a recognized Protestant denomination) minister, now retired, living and continuing with church-related work in Providence, R.I. He is deeply religious, with a true appreciation of my faith as well as his own.
At winter holiday time, he always sends wishes for a “healthy and blessed New Year” and adds — with the same wonderment I feel — “It hardly seems possible that we have been in touch all these years.”
Last year, Tom sent a poem, hoping I’d understand that its message and implications go far beyond its inherent Christianity. Indeed, I did. And after a year, I still do — even more so. Which is why I want to pass it on to all of you who are reading this, and ask you to pass it further on to more Jews, because if we remove the word “Christmas” and the references evoking the nativity, we are left with something that humanity needs to know in its collective heart and needs to practice with its collective strength and inter-denominational good will. So here it is:
When the song of the angel is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
Then the work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost. To heal the broken.
To feed the hungry. To release the prisoner.
To rebuild the nations. To bring peace among brothers.
To make music in the heart.
This poem, “The Work of Christmas,” was written by Howard Thurman (1899-1981), a distinguished African American theologian/philosopher. Graduated from Morehouse College as valedictorian. Ordained a Baptist minister in 1925. Tenured dean of chapel at Howard University until 1944, when he left to help establish San Francisco’s Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, our country’s first racially integrated, intercultural church. Later named by Boston University as the first black in the United States to be tenured dean of chapel at a majority-white institution of higher learning.
A classmate and friend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s father at Morehouse, Thurman later mentored the beloved civil rights leader and deeply influenced his efforts with his 1949 book, “Jesus and the Disinherited.”
Perhaps most important is what Thurman taught his own daughters as he explained to them the Jim Crow laws under which they were growing up: “The measure of a man’s estimate of your strength is the kind of weapons he feels he must use in order to hold you fast in a prescribed place.” What a new insight this gives us into pressure hoses, attack dogs — and the most foul Nazi methods of the Holocaust.
“The Work of Christmas” remained undiscovered for years until Rev. Paul C. Hayes of the Noank, Conn., Baptist Church introduced it to his congregation in 2007. It took off from there and, fittingly, has been set to beautiful music evoking the rhythm of some spirituals; the song has been sung by a wide array of groups ranging from the Ohio All State High School Honors Choir to San Francisco’s Gay Men’s Chorus.
I keep thinking that if we inserted some substitutions in this poem — perhaps mentioning the sad fading of our Chanukah candles after those eight beautiful days of light — we would find in it a universal call to tikkun olam, to our growing Jewish communal efforts in many areas of social action — and make a special kind of music in our own hearts. Somehow, that seems right to me.
Does it seem strange that a Jewish columnist in a Jewish paper should be writing about Christmas in a context other than our sadly abiding “December Dilemma”? Not at all, I hope. I bless my old friend Tom; our first December meeting so long ago has truly been my blessing.