Legendary Chicago newspaper reporter Mike Royko had a column that he reran in the Daily News every Christmas Eve for about a quarter of a century. It was called “Mary and Joe, Chicago Style,” and told the story of the birth of Jesus as if the titular couple had come to Chicago instead of Bethlehem. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say that things don’t go smoothly for them as they run into one bureaucratic roadblock after another. The City That Works, you know.
Anyway, re-reading Royko’s column got me thinking. So you could say that what’s below is “inspired by” “Mary and Joe, Chicago Style,” and also by events in my city today. Oh, and also by what happened in Bethlehem all those years ago.
The bus they put Maria and José on didn’t actually go all the way to Chicago. It was supposed to, but after 25 hours it stopped in Aurora for gas just off the interstate, and the driver told them they were at the end of the line and made them get off. Their clothes weren’t heavy enough for the windy, cloudy, 40-degree day, so they huddled together while they tried to catch a ride to the city, where they figured they could maybe find a place to spend the night.
They were luckier than their fellow passengers; because Maria was so obviously pregnant, a truck driver heading toward the city offered them a lift. They crowded into the cab with him, Maria trying to rest in the sleeper after what she’d just endured. It was warm, at least, and before they pulled out the driver bought them sandwiches and water at the gas station.
Bouncing along in the semi, they were the most comfortable they’d been for a long time. And the most comfortable they’d be for a long time.
By the time they got to the city, it was getting dark. Colder, too. The driver gave them some money and dropped them off at the cheapest motel he could find: unfortunately it cost more than they had. When José asked if they could just stay for a couple of hours, the desk clerk turned up his nose at them and sent them away. After walking around for a couple of hours, Maria’s water broke. A man living in a tent at a nearby park said they could have the tent for the night in exchange for the money the truck driver had given them.
Maria’s baby was born in the cold, dirty tent, with José trying to keep things as warm and comfortable. They named him Jesús. None of them slept much, huddled under dirty blankets and trying to keep the cold, hungry, crying newborn warm.
The next morning, a jogger found the little family and brought them breakfast and diapers. He helped them get to a police station, where they were told that they weren’t in the system because the bus driver hadn’t taken them to an official drop-off location in the city at the designated times. They were told they could sleep in the lobby of the station temporarily with other migrants. Someone gave them blankets, sleeping bags, pillows, and other necessities. Volunteers stopped by during the day with food and medication, and Maria got pain reliever for the first time since the birth. They could use the restroom to clean up, and after a day or two a volunteer drove them to a place where they could have showers.
They had been there about a week when all the migrants were told they would have to clear out, that the city policies had changed and they couldn’t stay in the police station anymore. Because of Jesús, they were prioritized and driven to an emergency shelter, an empty brick building with boarded-up windows and paint slapped over graffiti. They were thankful for the shelter, but it was far from adequate. There was food, but much of it seemed to be old and spoiled. The peeling paint, dust, and dirt made Maria and José fear for Jesús’ health. The bathrooms weren’t cleaned regularly, and the rooms were crowded with cots, over two thousand people crammed into the shelter. There was no privacy, and noise and activity was constant. The place was always cold.
Even more problematic was the constant coughing. Maria and José worried about the eye infections and respiratory illnesses that seemed to be constantly going around. They hadn’t been there but a couple of days when Jesús developed a runny nose, started to cough, and developed a fever. Having heard stories about kids dying in the shelters, they begged for medical attention, only to be told that they had just missed the pop-up clinic, and that it would be another four days before anyone could see them.
Every day, José went out with some of the other migrants to try to find work to pay for medicine and other needs that the shelter didn’t provide. Some days he’d get hired for a few dollars an hour. Other times he’d only be able to beg for spare change. One day he met one of his countrymen, who had managed to get some boxes of apples (somewhere, José didn’t ask where) and told him he could sell some at an intersection and they’d split the profits. At the end of the day, he demanded all the money that José had made selling his apples.
There was a church near the shelter, so one day Maria took Jesús and walked down there. It was a big, comfortable building; not luxurious, but warm and inviting. There were some volunteers there getting ready for their weekly food giveaway, but they seemed too busy to strike up a conversation with Maria. She asked to speak to the pastor, and they were able to track him down.
He was a nice enough guy and spoke enough Spanish that they could communicate. She told him their story, and he seemed sympathetic. Then she told him who Jesús’ Father was, and she could see that she’d lost him. It was that same look in the eyes that her parents had when she told them about the dream, or whatever it was, and tried to explain her pregnancy. A mixture of concern, fear, and judgment. When she asked if they could stay, just for a little while, in exchange for some work around the church building, he just smiled sadly and shook his head no. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We’re just not equipped for that.” They had looked into it, he explained, and the city required that they be able to house 20 migrants, or they couldn’t house any. Go figure. He offered her food from their pantry, but of course they had nowhere to store or prepare anything. She noticed the nice kitchen and how much room there was in the church, but she didn’t say anything more about it, accepted the little bit of money the pastor offered, and went back to the crowded shelter.
The pastor would think back on that young woman and her baby a few days later, when three well-dressed guys that smelled like incense showed up asking about them. But he honestly couldn’t recall enough about her story to be helpful. And he didn’t even know about the shelter just down the street.
That night, José pulled his cot next to Maria’s, as he did every night. They held Jesús between them and snuggled together under the blanket as best they could. And Maria sang her song, the one José loved so much, that had taken shape in her heart just a few months ago:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
He listened to her sing, hoping he still believed it. And when they got to the last line he found that, amazingly, he did. He sang the lines with her, looking at Jesús in his mother’s arms:
He has…lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things….