The following is a first-person witness given by two deacons who assist the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Sedalia.
“And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
We must walk the walk and not only use words.
Catholics have a history of being in the forefront of helping and inviting others to join in.
Walking the walk is demonstrated at this time of year by a wonderful Latino tradition known as Las Posadas.
Deacon Nestor Montenegro explains this wonderful tradition, which Anglos and Latinos working together got to carry out into the world this Christmas in a very real way.
How often do we get to reenact the night of Jesus’s birth? St. Vincent de Paul Parish of Pettis County does this every year with Las Posadas — nine nights from just after the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Christmas Eve.
Las Posadas (Spanish for “The Inns”) is a religious festival celebrated in Mexico and some parts of the United States between Dec. 16 and 24.
It commemorates the journey that Joseph and Mary made from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of a safe refuge for Mary to give birth to the baby Jesus.
Some may say Las Posadas is similar to caroling. A group goes house-to-house, singing Christmas carols or religious songs. At one point, the singing group is invited in for holiday treats and festivities.
This festive ritual has a deeper religious meaning.
The tradition was brought to Latin America by the Spanish and adopted in both Mexico and Guatemala.
Starting Dec. 16 at dusk, families, friends and neighbors dress up as angels or shepherds, and two people are dressed as Mary and Joseph.
At each home, the group stops and sings a song in the hope of having a place to stay.
They are turned down at each home until the end of the event, when the group is invited into the last home for food and festivities.
The journey symbolizes how Mary and Joseph were turned down the night of Christ’s birth until one innkeeper made room for them in a manger.
Las Posadas repeats for eight nights, with the residents of different homes accepting the group in for an evening festival.
On Dec. 24, the ninth and final night of Las Posadas, everyone traditionally attends Midnight Mass, followed by a big meal.
From ritual to life
2022 was the year we had the most accompaniment in the inns.
Given the frigid weather, we had to cancel the last two nights of Las Posadas.
At the same time, approximately 50 to 80 brothers and sisters were on our doorstep, asking if there was any room in the inn for them.
Las Posadas became a real-life experience for us.
At least three lives were saved by the parish providing the only warming shelter in Pettis County during the frigid dip in temperatures.
One gentleman had collapsed in the snow and could not get up. Fortunately, good Samaritans found him before it was too late and brought him to the warming shelter.
It was -28 degrees with a strong wind and blowing snow. We were able to warm him up and prevent a trip to the hospital.
Two other older male patrons already in the shelter became severely ill and were transported by ambulance to the hospital, where they received lifesaving treatment.
At least one was having a recurrent heart attack. The other was having severe pulmonary issues.
Normally, we are open for 12 hours at night. But due to the extreme cold during the days leading up to Christmas, we were open around the clock until Dec. 27.
This meant providing meals, personal hygiene, laundry, things to keep our guests from becoming too bored, and lots and lots of coffee.
What is Las Posadas?
As stated earlier, it is a time to meditate and share things such as song and food.
There are two choirs with a closed door in between them. The group outside of the door asks for shelter, and the other group responds.
Finally, the people inside agree to open the door, and the pilgrims pass through a place where prayers, Christmas carols and food are shared.
We usually start and finish at St. Vincent de Paul’s St. Patrick Chapel — which happens also to be the location of the warming shelter.
What a wonderful way to share our Christianity with other denominations and cultures and save lives!
Deacon Turf Martin represents the parish for the warming shelter and is responsible for gathering volunteers and providing help for the many needs.
Father Joseph Corel, pastor, is a strong supporter and not afraid to help.
St. Vincent de Paul Parish and the Jefferson City diocese are willing to offer the facility — the undercroft of St. Patrick Chapel — as a warming shelter.
Four other congregations have joined in helping to staff the shelter: Methodist, Lutheran and two nondenominational.
It is an ecumenical effort.
Other churches that cannot field a full team help by filling shifts when we are shorthanded.
Our breakdown of organized religions in Pettis County are: Baptists first, Catholics second, Methodists third, nondenominational fourth, and Lutheran fifth. The list goes on to many other, smaller communities of faith.
Closely related to our warming shelter are the local food pantry, soup kitchen, thrift store and social concerns organization called Open Door, which Precious Blood Father Mark Miller helped establish many years ago and which at one time was headquartered at what is now St. Patrick Chapel.
The Pettis County Health Center is also a big help.
Had this ecumenical effort not been in place, even more lives would have been lost, including the three mentioned above.
There would have been no room at the inn!
We are trying to build a permanent center to help people who are poor and homeless, covering all aspects of their short-term needs.
Called Mercy Rest Stop, it will be run by the same group that helps the warming shelter. It will be a nicer, more comprehensive, year-round facility for our ecumenical community to staff and celebrate the Lord’s hand in helping us to be better disciples.
“A gift to our Father”
Currently and for the past several years, we thank the Lord that St. Patrick Chapel has an undercroft with no direct interior access to the worship area upstairs. That is what prevents other churches in the city from being able to operate a shelter.
Providing a roof and a heat source was not the only issue when it came to operating all day during in the time leading up to and including Christmas.
We also had to organize food and meals to be brought in, coffee and water, sleeping cots with sheets, pillows and blankets, restrooms and cooperation with the hospital and police.
We designated two isolation rooms, which are used if someone arrives showing symptoms of illness.
For for the first time this year, we had two persons who arrived with service dogs.
Our capacity is approximately 25 people. The maximum we had during this spell was 15.
In the past, several homeless people in Sedalia have died from exposure, which is why this is so important.
If we believe in Christ and His message, we should be able to take care of people who aren’t as fortunate as we are.
Yes, many of these people are mentally ill or have other problems. But for a short time, we can intervene to ensure that they live.
For every life that we save and every person that we truly help, we can celebrate! What a gift to our Father on Jesus’s birthday!
We wish it could be available full-time, but with lack of a dedicated facility and volunteers, our operating conditions are 15 degrees or colder (including wind chill) or 30 degrees or colder when there’s precipitation.
If it had been -28° and snowing when Christ was born, would Mary and Joseph been able to find a warm place?
What about today?
Everyone deserves to find warm accommodations when we have severe weather.
Don’t close your eyes and say, “that’s too bad,” and hope they find some place!