The Church Health Center opened in September of 1987. By December, I had the bright idea to light up the community by caroling for patients. My own singing voice might have made people unplug the tree and hide, but I gathered a few friends for reinforcement and we set off. I chose several patients and looked up their addresses.
One of these was a woman in her mid-60s. Her name was Virgye Shinn.
Virgye had been a bartender for decades, but now she was living off of her Social Security income, which was paltry. She had been exceptionally nice to me when she came to the Church Health Center, and I wanted to return the favor.
On a cold December night, my friends and I hunted for her North Memphis apartment. To begin with, it was in a gloomy neighborhood, and Virgye lived on the third floor, with no elevator, and down a foreboding corridor. Safe is not a word I would use to describe how our band of carolers felt that night. Quite the opposite. But we walked up those shadowy stairs and into the darkness.
I knocked. No one came to the door, but I could tell someone was in the apartment. Light beamed through the window above the transom, so I knocked again. Finally Virgye came to the door and opened it about two inches. The chain was still on.
“What do you want?” Her tone was nothing like the nice lady I had met in my office.
“It’s Dr. Morris,” I said. “I’m here to sing carols for you.”
I was stunned. We hadn’t even sung a single off-key note yet!
“I’m here with my friends. We want to sing for you.”
Virgye unlatched the door and opened it a couple more inches. That was all the holiday cheer we were going to get from her.
We sang one carol and ran down the stairs and out of the building.
The next week, Virgye showed up in the clinic and was back to being incredibly nice. She was falling all over herself to apologize. We finally figured out that she and another unrelated patient, an elderly man, had paired up to share an apartment and split living expenses. On the night we showed up to carol, she was helping him bathe.
It seemed to me that he got a better deal out of the roommate agreement than she did.
Before too long, Virgye began making a monthly donation to the Church Health Center. She was the first person ever to do that, although now monthly gifts are what keep our ministries afloat. I knew her income was less than $500 a month, but every month she would send $5 or $10 to the Church Health Center. I tried to tell her she did not need to do that.
“Yes, I do,” she said. “I know the money will help other people like me.”
What could I say?
When Virgye Shinn died, I looked back over her history and saw that she had faithfully given more than 200 gifts of $5 or $10.
All these years later, I still think of Virgye Shinn at Christmas time. I thought I was bringing light by taking my friends to brave her shadowy neighborhood. Instead, she showed me a lesson in incarnational care for people in need, and that’s a good reminder every Christmas.
The Gospel writer Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph left Nazareth for Bethlehem because of a census. How would they get there except by walking? Thousands of other people would have been walking on Roman roads at the same time to meet the census requirements.
Cheery holiday travelers they were not.
Luke also tells us an angel told Mary she would bear the Son of God. Matthew tells us an angel told Joseph to name the child Jesus, because he would “save his people from their sins.” I find it interesting that this same root word for save appears in gospel stories of miraculous healing. Jesus, the Son of God, consistently linked faith and healing. He came to heal not only physical maladies, but lives.
December is a month full of walking through malls, down the aisles of groceries stores, to parties, and caroling around the neighborhood—and perhaps even down scary dark hallways toward the light of incarnation. As we walk, let’s also remember the walk Mary and Joseph took toward welcoming the Savior, the healer, into the world. The Gospel writer John said, “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”
Virgye Shinn understood what it meant to live among and serve those whom Jesus came to save. I hope my own steps through Advent and Christmas this year will shine with God’s glory the way Virgye’s did.