One of my favorite television dramas is the presidential drama, The West Wing. Though not a recent series – it aired its first episode in the fall of 1999 – it came on at a time in the life of the United States (and the world) that feels remarkably familiar. For me and a number of my classmates at that time, we needed a presidential drama that made some sense and helped give us hope amidst the reality of it all – chaos, natural disasters, partisan politics, war, famine, and more were happening all around us. Sounds familiar, right?
Well, in the first season’s Christmas episode, “In Excelsis Deo,” there’s a lot happening. They’re getting the White House ready for the holidays. We learn that the president’s assistant, Mrs. Landingham, lost her two twin boys on Christmas Eve in the Vietnam War thirty years ago. The chief of staff is being targeted for a prescription addiction from six years prior. The president steps out to shop at a rare book store. And then, later, as the president greets a group of children, he learns that a young teen, who had been beaten earlier that day as part of a hate crime, had died. That story was based on the true story of the hate crime and subsequent murder of Matthew Shepherd, who was targeted, beaten, and murdered because of his sexuality. You may have seen that he was recently laid to rest at the National Cathedral in Washington DC.
But the central storyline that runs throughout the entire episode has White House Communications Director, Toby Zieglar, called away from the White House by the DC police because his coat was found on a bench draped over a homeless man, Walter Huffnegler, who had died in the cold the night before. Toby had donated the coat and left his business card in the pocket. It was the only connection the DC police had for Walter, who as Toby helped them notice the tattoo on his arm, was a veteran of the Korean War.
Toby spends the rest of the episode tracking down Walter’s sole relative, his brother, George, who is also homeless and lives in the streets. There’s an awkward and touching scene when Toby finds George under an overpass sitting by a fire with a group of other folks living on the streets. He lets him know that his brother died but also that fought in Korea and was given the Purple Heart for being wounded in battle. He tells George that his brother’s entitled to a proper funeral with mourners and an honor guard, and he sets off to arrange it. He also arranges for George to be picked up to be present at the funeral. Toby arranges all of this without consulting the president or his assistant, Mrs. Landingham, which, she reminds him, is something he shouldn’t have done.
But he arranges it anyway and at the end of the episode has a one-on-one encounter with the president about it. At one point the president asks him that if they do this for one homeless veteran, wouldn’t every other homeless veteran come out of the woodwork. “I can only hope, Mr. President,” Toby replies. And as the scene shifts and the episode concludes, Toby leaves, joined by Mrs. Landingham, and they pick up Walter’s brother and travel to Arlington National Cemetery for a full honor guard funeral. All the while The Little Drummer Boy plays in the background.
For those of us who celebrate it, the Christian season is a holy one that offers us time for deep reflection. It’s a season when we celebrate that God is with us. An example was set forth for us in Jesus and it started with his birth. And the little drummer boy sings a simple but profound message – that we are to bring whatever gift we have no matter our state or status. For all of us, as we look ahead to the New Year, it’s a time of reflection. A time to consider our gifts and how they are and aren’t being used in our communities. Bringing our gifts to the table and then honoring each other’s gifts will build stronger communities.
May this season and the turn of the year afford you an opportunity to ponder all of these things.
The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University.