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Starting Point

The night the drummer boy visited


I can’t forget my first stage production. I was in the fourth grade and decided to take the bold step of signing up for the Christmas chorus. Each day we would practice after school under the direction of our music teacher, Mr. Stanley.

I never missed a practice, until one day when Mr. Stanley came asking if I’d like to play the drummer boy. I was elated and immediately said, “Yes! What will I have to do?”

“Nothing,” came the response. “Just stand there and hold the drum.”

“Will I still be in the chorus?”

“No,” Mr. Stanley said. “We just need you to stand on stage.”

A few years later, I found out that I was selected because I couldn’t carry a tune! Nonetheless, I have fond memories of the moment and -- as the years have passed -- I consider myself rather fortunate to play someone who had nothing more to bring to Jesus than his drum.

A few nights before this past Christmas, I sang with a different chorus. It was a Thursday night, and we had just finished a meal with our guests at the ministry (some would call it a soup kitchen) where I work. A few guests, as is their custom, stayed behind. We talked a bit, then before we knew it, we were belting out “Amazing Grace,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Holy Night” and other familiar tunes as we sat around a Christmas tree our guests had decorated.

Then one of the fellas, Derrick, asked if we could sing “The Little Drummer Boy.” In a few moments, we were “pa-rumpa-pa-pumming.” As we sang the last note, a new chorus began: “That’s what it’s all about,” said one. Then another, “Yeah, he had no gift but himself.” And, “Just like us,” was heard around the room.

At that moment, I felt as if I was at a Christmas liturgy. Before we began another song, there was a meditation, some quiet, then an expression of faith.

“You know,” said Calvin, “the rich people don’t have it this good tonight. They’re probably out there finishing up their shopping, wrapping presents and wondering about who’s gonna get what. But us, we don’t have to worry about that. We’ve got each other, and that’s enough.”

Living in the ’hood, as we sometimes call it, offers a rare glimpse of life. If I never walk into another department store, I’ll be happy. I used to love to do so before Christmas when I lived in New York. There was fun in the adventure, but it saddens me to think that the spirit of Christmas has so often been reduced to window-dressings.

Anyone who looked in our window the night “The Little Drummer Boy” visited would not have seen much by way of merchandise. The only displays were our songs and smiles. The laughter that came from story after story filled the night with joy -- a redeeming joy, echoing God’s love.

As what I had come to see as our liturgy concluded, we stood and offered each other an embrace. It’s a sign we often call peace in the church. We hugged and laughed, and that was enough.

I’ll never forget that night. A “Holy Night,” indeed, where the stars -- our guests -- were brightly shining.

Redemptorist Fr. Kevin Murray writes from Philadelphia, where he helps at Sarnelli House, the base for Redemptorist Volunteer Ministries. Guests from the streets are invited each Thursday to share food and company.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000