I knew it was going to be a long day when I took my number from the dispenser. The immigration office was jammed with people holding little numbered slips, the kind you get at some meat markets. I remembered all the stories about being treated like a number. Mine was 52. They were serving number 24.
There was no place to sit because there were too many other people who had business to do. Mexicans, Hmongs, Laotians, East Indians, Egyptians, Lebanese, and a few Americans.
Mothers and fathers and uncles and grandmothers waited, clutching little numbers in one hand, and a swatch of documents in the other. Toddlers crawled on the gritty floor. Infants whimpered, old men coughed, noses dripped. Pores oozed sweat as the day wore on. We were here to do business in this place of power. This place of red tape, runarounds, and, as it turned out, rudeness.
An Indian couple’s number was called. The clerk greeted them with curled lip. Apparently their rope of red tape was not quite long enough; they needed yet another document.
“But this is all you gave us yesterday,” they tried to plead in mangled English. It didn’t matter; the machine would have to expectorate more tape. The clerk’s abusive words stabbed like icicles. She seemed to enjoy her power. These weren’t people to her. They were, truly, just numbers. Their personal plights meant nothing to this soured worker, who had forgotten how to serve.
The couple struggled to contain their rage, as did the rest of us who still had numbers in our fists, who still had to face the dragon lady. The couple left, humiliated and powerless against this hostile, immovable machine. Tomorrow, for the nth day in a row, they would traipse back, their gait a little slower, their heads and shoulders drooping a little lower. They would take another number, and then they would wait.
Outside, jolly carols filled the streets. What a contrast! Or was it? Would Jesus have come to this hostile place? He had, in a manner of speaking, been here before. He came, after all, during a census. A bureaucracy had flexed its muscle and thrown all the world into turmoil.
Joseph and Mary could tell us a few things about runarounds, about painful treks from inn to inn with birth pangs coming on. They may have resembled the Indian couple, their hopes shucked into disarray.
They knew frustration, helplessness, alienation. They knew the slam of the door. “Not tonight. Come tomorrow, and bring more tape.” They would have recognized the dragon lady’s time-less snarl.
Such was the world that greeted Jesus, no less grimy and angry than the office where people take numbers and await abuse. He had come to this unfriendly place to rescue all these people – the stooped Mexican patriarch, the student from Iran, the bewildered Hmong couple, the Lebanese executive, the furtive refugee from Central America – all victims of spiritual as well as political indifference. These were the people with whom Jesus identified when he came among us to bring deliverance from the grip of bondage and oppression. He brought that to them. And he is bringing that to all of us.
Even, I grudgingly conceded, to the dragon lady behind the counter.
I fondled my little number 52. They were now up to 25.
Christmas was coming to this dingy office.
—Wally Kroeker has worked in journalism since 1967, primarily in the areas of business and religion. He currently edits The Marketplace, a magazine for Christians in business, published by Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA).
Originally published under the title “A parable of rude awakening” in God’s Week Has Seven Days by Wally Kroeker. Copyright 1998 by Herald Press, Scottdale, PA 15683. Used by permission.