It was five days before Christmas. I had recently relocated to Los Angeles from New York and was having trouble engaging the Holiday spirit. There was no Rockefeller Center with it's giant tree to marvel at. No fifth avenue crush of shoppers and revelers to knock up against. No bourbon on the rocks at the Oak Room watching the horse drawn carriages glide into Central Park. LA was trying. There were some lights on Wilshire Boulevard and Santa Claus had been dutifully installed in all of the shopping malls. There were Salvation Army elves ringing bells outside of Kmart and most folks had dutifully strung lights on their houses and inflated rubber reindeer for their lawns, but it just did not feel like Christmas. I had set about grumbling in the tradition of so many who had made the trek across the country before me armed with Woody Allen quotes and Big Apple big headedness.
In spite of this and in spite of temperatures that threatened to give old Saint Nick a heatstroke, I agreed to venture forth into the the shopping fray with my friend Lorraine and we headed to a nearby Music Plus store to pick up some Holiday tunes for her family. The store was located on a fairly crowded and decidedly unglamorous stretch of Fairfax Avenue. This was over 20 years ago, long before the glittering Grove with it's valet parking and concierge service, when there was still such a thing as a Music Plus store. We were out of the car and headed in to the store when something caught our eye. There was a van parked in the farthest space of the lot and something seemed off about it. It had an aura of abandonment and yet there was clearly movement inside. We watched for several minutes to see if the occupants would emerge.
It was one of those moments -- of which I have had far too many -- when instinct overcomes caution. Something was just not right in that van. We approached the old VW and tapped on the window. The woman in the driver's seat hesitated before slowly cranking the handle, her eyes haunted and wide with fear. There were three young children in the van as well, all bunched up together in the back seat. The woman had a large bruise on the left side of her face. She did not have to explain... it was clear that she had been abused and was on the run. This parking lot her only refuge. We asked if she had enough fuel to drive a few blocks to Lorraine's home and she nodded yes. We pulled out of the lot slowly hoping that she would have the courage to follow and breathed a sigh of relief when she pulled up behind us.
Once home Lorraine set about feeding the kids and I gathered laundry so that we could give them clean clothes to wear. The woman had a severe limp, but said it was nothing and set about bathing them. Lorraine and I pondered our next move. I began to make calls to City services and shelters. The news was not good. To this day there are almost no facilities in Los Angeles that can house a woman with her children. Many families in this situation are split up with the mother housed in one place and the children in another. This mother was willing to reside in a Music Plus parking lot in order to be with her kids. She would never agree to that.
After placing at least a dozen calls I was beginning to worry that the family would be consigned to the the van for the foreseeable future. I was running out of options when I placed a call to the Good Shepherd Center and Sister Joan Mary answered, her warm voice accented with an irish lilt. "Oh no," she said "we are over capacity and so is everyone else. There is just no place to put them... a terrible shame so many with no where to go." I begged, I cajoled, I pleaded with Sister Joan to help me place them. "I'm yours for life," I said. "I will volunteer raise money anything you need... just please do what you can!" "All right," she said with a heavy sigh. "I'll see what I can do."
The woman refused the medical attention she clearly needed, but accepted our offering of blankets and flashlights and the use of Lorraine's driveway. The family was invited to eat and bathe in the house, but there was just no place to bed them all. Two days passed. I was still making calls and working every angle to no avail. Tomorrow would be Christmas eve and I had to abandon the effort while my friends and I scrambled to find gifts for the kids. Around nine PM we settled the family in their van and poured a big glass of wine preparing to wrap gifts into the night, when the phone rang and Sister Joan's unmistakable Irish accent came over the line. "I've got them a place," she said. "They can come tomorrow to this address. We will give them a good Christmas." "God bless you, Sister," I said through tears, "I will not forget my promise." "Oh, I'll count on that," she said and that was good night.
The nuns at the Good Shepherd homes have rescued countless women and their children over the years. I kept my word and my friends and family provide Christmas gifts for their families every year. I used to give Sister Joan candy but she begged me to stop. "I 'll be fat as a house if you keep this up," she'd say with a ready smile. She retired a few years back, but the work goes on.
These have been tough times for the shelter and the nuns had to close one of their facilities due to lack of funds. Ever resourceful they doubled up their living quarters and turned their office space into housing, so that they would not have to turn desperate families away. These women have experienced abuses that most of us cannot contemplate. I am so grateful to Good Shepherd for answering their need and for taking my call on that dark night so long ago. Amidst the palm trees and under the blazing California sun, the spirit of Christmas shines brightly in their hearts all year round and has opened mine forever.