Once again I have trouble believing how fast it’s gone, the holidays all the more disarming in California for the arrant summer that asserts herself into months reserved for the cold. The year draws to a close, swift like winter night. Beneath the din, the festivities heighten the loneliness for many. It’s the dissonance between the merriment in the air and their private song; the expectations of the season that descend on their Christmas, their New Year’s in a great anticlimax. It’s what I grew up with.
The less you have, the greater the pressure you feel. To spend and to have loved ones to spend the holiday with in a special way. But these burdens are a luxury for people who’ll be grateful just to quiet the growling in their stomach. This time of year is especially hard on those bedridden in poverty. In last year’s New York Times article The Invisible Child, we see a bright girl named Dasani (now 12) struggling against forces beyond her control: “parents who cannot provide, agencies that fall short, a metropolis rived by inequality and indifference. Dasani’s circumstances are largely the outcome of parental dysfunction…her mother and father are unemployed, have a history of arrests and are battling drug addiction.
The Auburn Family Residence [is] a decrepit city-run shelter for the homeless. Dasani [the last several years was] among 280 children at the shelter. Beyond its walls, she belong[ed] to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression.“
Sexual predators, spoiled food, filthy communal bathrooms, vermin, and exposure to asbestos and lead were the norm for Dasani and her six siblings. They would wait in line for their prepackaged food in the cafeteria before sliding into another impossible line for access to the two microwaves that hundreds of residents share.
What breaks my heart is that the children “are bystanders in this discourse, no more to blame for their homelessness than for their existence. To be homeless it to be powerless.
Dasani was on the cusp of becoming something more, something she could feel but not yet see, if only the right things happened and the right people came along. In the absence of a stable home or a reliable parent, public institutions have an outsize influence on the destiny of children like Dasani. Whether she can transcend her circumstances rests greatly on the role, however big or small, that society opts to play in her life. School [like hers] can also provide a bridge to the wider world…Few [kids] have both the depth of Dasani’s troubles and the height of her promise. There is not much [her principal] can do about life outside school. She knows this is a child who needs a sponsor, who ‘needs’ to see The Nutcracker, who ‘needs’ her own computer. There are many such children. One in five American children is now living in poverty, giving the United States the highest child poverty rate of any developed nation except for Romania.”
What of these kids caught between the rock of their parents’ failures and the hard place of walls adorned with graffiti and mold? The hand of angels can reach in.
Though we may not be able to rescue everyone from cold, hunger, sickness, or loneliness, we can make a profound difference in so many ways. I name the stories you are about to hear the Candlelight Series after Eleanor Roosevelt who sought “to light candles rather than curse the darkness.” We’ll catch a glimpse of the hands that have lit the way for those frozen in the dark. Of people who chose to see the suffering and meet it with love, who decided they would be the right person to come along. People like the teachers and principal Dasani so desperately needs. We pay homage to those who helped us survive the night by candlelight.