She had blond hair, a beautiful smile and a pretty red dress. She was a little tentative at first, but eventually took my hand and let me lead her to the table where the crafts were being put together.
He was a teenager, not really sure if he belonged at a party with all these children. Headphones in place, listening to his music, his eyes looked at little haunted if you looked deeply.
Another woman walked in the door, 4 small children in tow and expecting another one soon. She looked at little tired, as all moms of young children do, but there was a tentativeness to her smile. It was as if she was trying hard to capture some holiday spirit for herself and her children.
These faces and about 50 more had all gathered at a Pigeon Forge restaurant for a Christmas Party. They also are in the midst of rebuilding their lives after the devastating wildfire that hit Gatlinburg on November 28. The 15 families are employees of Johnson Family Restaurants and they represent a small fraction of the people who literally lost their homes and possessions the night of the fires.
The gathering started a bit subdued. It was hard to know exactly what to say or what to do, both for the hosts and the attendees. It didn’t take long, though, to discover a simple marshmallow game could reduce a few girls to genuine giggles. (Especially when they convinced Jonathan to put a marshmallow in his mouth that had been on the floor!) Who knew green crepe streamers and bows could be wrapped around each other to make a Christmas “tree”! Quickly, the room erupted with the voices of children, eager to participate in a craft or decorate a cookie. Slowly, you could see parents start to relax just a little bit and the time quickly flew by with the party festivities.
The little girl in the red dress found a handmade bow in her stocking to exactly match her dress.
The teenager who wasn’t sure if he belonged, opened a gift that was carefully sought after just for him and those haunted eyes twinkled for just a moment when he watched a special video.
The young mom still looked a bit tired at the end of the evening, but her smile was no longer tentative. It was genuine and she took great satisfaction in the happiness of her children.
These families have lost so much, but they are constantly looking out for each other. As I approached another woman with a crate of homemade goodies and gift cards in my hand, she proceeded to take one small bag of goodies out and thank me. I told her the whole crate was for her and her family. She shook her head no and said, “Please share with everyone else, this is too much.” As I explained there was a crate for each family, tears streamed down her face and she put down the crate and hugged me. She kept saying over and over that we had done way too much.
An evening Christmas celebration won’t go far in replacing the needs of these people. Most will have a lifetime scar long after the mountains have healed. They will remember fleeing their homes. They will be haunted by memories and images most of us will never see. They will have uncertainty in their lives for a long time to come. Hopefully, though, for just a brief little while, we gave them joy instead of sadness and light in the midst of darkness. Hopefully, they heard the good news that God’s love never fails and hope was born on Christmas night.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? When was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? When was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” The king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:37-41.