A little boy wrapped in a blue wool scarf that itched the sides of his cheeks walked up the front driveway of a house he had never seen. It was wintery cold, and young Liam thought the house seemed familiar—like a house that only existed in the daydreams that clouded his realities. As this older man and his wife ushered him through the front door, the warmth soothed his frostbitten cheeks sending a chill through his body.
What a strange place, Liam thought to himself. He looked around studying every inch of his surroundings.
There had been a few other places for Liam to adjust to. He’d known the tender embrace of his mother, and had been cuddled and cared for by her, but had no idea her first home for them was just temporary. Shelters are just that, temporary, and Liam and his mother were at risk. His father was absent, muddled with drugs and unemployable, a record of violence on a police file, and Liam’s mom argued with him for support. Her monthly welfare cheque could be stretched for a good home if, and when, she shared living space, but her roommates had made some choices that put young Liam and his mom under the eye of the police.
Desperation trickled in, risky choices to cover living expenses compounded, regret, isolation, and bad choices seemed insurmountable. Child and Family Services intervened before Liam was one year old. From foster care to mother care, to foster care again in repeated cycles, Liam now two, would soon become one of 45,000 children in Canada who needed a forever family.
Across the ocean on this chilly night, another two-year-old was adjusting. Ifunanya’s parents had died of AIDS and she is now one of 12 million children in Nigeria who face a life without parents. The world churned on…
In Pakistan, Ahmed was a two year who old became one of his country’s 4.2 million orphans – with incomes averaging $255 a year, parents reluctantly abandoned children they could not feed.
In Indonesia, Krisna wished for her mother – one of 4.8 million orphans, many which became orphaned after one single event – the 2005 Tsunami.
In Congo, armed conflict killed Pierre’s parents, and left him in desperate conditions looking for a place to live – 11% of all children in Congo are orphans, Pierre was counted as no one special.
Over 150 million street children in the world might wish for the home Liam was being ushered into, but to this little boy in Canada, it all felt strange.
Never once had Liam seen a fire in a fireplace nor had he smelled the sweet smell of gingerbread baking in the oven. Quietly, he stood there, soaking up the scene of what was a normal family. These new foster parents for Liam were Rev John and Liana Niles. Before they turned 50 years of age, John and Liana had opened their home to 1200 children needing crisis care like Liam, so I guess they were anything but normal.
Yet the Niles’s own six children had never known home to be other than an open door, and they thought it normal that newcomers came and went. Dinners were shared, toothpaste passed around, bedrooms expanded, Liam soaked it all in.
Fed, and still curious at this odd family, something caught Liam’s attention from the corner of his eye. A little house? A little house on the front window sill. It must have been an old house—it had no front door. A little house with wood and straw in tiny pieces on its floor. But what seemed odd to Liam was the people—though they were dressed in funny robes, that isn’t what confused him. What confused him was that they were all facing something in the middle. As he crept closer to the little house, he saw that the object was a baby. Now, he was even more puzzled, for in his short life, he had never encountered such a scene—a scene where the child was the sole focus of attention. What made this baby special?
On your knees was exactly the best way to see what fascinated little Liam about the house that had no door. 14-year-old Emily, the Niles’s second daughter, got on her knees and explained to Liam that this was a Creche. Emily had appointed herself as the guide and guard to the family creche. She loved decorating, she kept the little figurines under her watch, and helped Liam learn how to play with this family treasure. Together they would move the cows, bounce the sheep, adjust the hay, and tip the star so it sat just right. And Emily was sure to pick the baby out from the manger and teach Liam how to hold it. As Liam’s days stretched into a week, he would go back to the manger often to play. He was getting comfortable now in the Niles’s home, he’d pick up little baby Jesus, and one time Emily even saw Liam put the baby in his pocket.
This is a true story about the remarkable Niles family and little Liam. Maybe I remember them so well because I also have a treasured family crèche with removable figurines. I also was a two-year-old child, born into a shelter in Hamilton, Ontario for unwed mothers. I too became a ward of Child and Family Services, a two-year-old needing a home.
The love from the baby in the manger found me one.
By the time I was three, I was in a pretty little Christmas dress as part of a Sunday school class being led onto a stage blinking my way through Christmas carols I would gradually come to know by heart. I have had so many Christmas’ wearing pretty dresses on public stages, it is easy to forget that there are over 48,000 children in Canada still moving through the foster system in desperate need of discovering that Jesus loves them.
There are 17,000 Canadian homes today taking in those children…. which brings me back to the Niles family.
Christmas scheduling was not easy for the Niles clan. There was church to attend to, expectations for many, concerts at school, baking and cleaning, gifts to find on a budget but somehow the chaos all worked its way out. Emily’s daily chore was to keep the decorations fresh, Liam became her little friend, and the baby in the manger a familiar part of his routine. Perhaps he liked it that a baby was special, he certainly seemed to treat it that way, and Emily had reluctantly agreed to let Liam have a night with baby Jesus in his pajama pocket.
Christmas scheduling is also chaotic at Child and Family services. There are so many hopes, so many broken people who want to be reunited and repaired. The phone buzzed around planning for little Liam. Yes, no, maybe, a young mother’s hopes went up and down. As Christmas week approached, the decision was made that Liam would leave the Niles family. This is how it was for them, they would get Liam ready to go, practice their brave faces, and trust their newly found friend to God and his angels.
So it was that Emily watched Liam go and watched her home slide back into routine.
The next day she fluffed the decorations and checked the family crèche for tidying. Oh no, thought Emily and then …. “Daddy” she screeched – “I think Liam took baby Jesus” – Emily was on her knees looking everywhere for the missing figurine. John Niles was looking out the window, and Emily was now in front of him, “Daddy, Liam took our baby Jesus!”
John looked at his daughter, “I hope so Emily, I certainly hope he did.”