Growing up in a family of 7 children was never without its excitement. With the constant running in and out of the house, one of us would surely run out and leave the door wide open. Inevitably, that was to be followed with my father bellowing, “Where do you think you live, in a barn or something?” I’d like you to hold that thought, because I’ll get back to it in a minute.
In addition to having a passion for the welfare of the hungry and the homeless, I am an avid animal rescue advocate. I volunteer for an organization called Animal Aid USA. Each month without fail, since 2009, a rescue caravan from New Jersey heads south to rural counties in Georgia to rescue dogs from high-kill shelters and deplorable conditions which include fighting ring abandoned dogs and litters of puppies left at landfills or simply tossed out on the side of the road. These dogs are rescued, fostered, given veterinary care, spayed or neutered, and then brought north to adopters and rescuers in the New Jersey tristate area who give them loving, forever homes. I make this trip several times a year. Last month, 314 lives were saved.
On the return trip home from my latest trip, we left Georgia late Saturday afternoon and drove through the night, stopping only for gas. Each van has 3 or 4 drivers in it along with its cargo of animal refugees traveling 800 miles to the Promised Land. One person drives, one person keeps the driver awake and alert, and the other rests on a make-shift bed on the floor of the van’s rear.
After driving for a few hours, somewhere in North Carolina, it was my turn to curl up in the back of the van and try to get some rest. There, I was lulled by the gentle sound of the engine and the wheels on the highway, the hushed whispers of the driver and her “spotter” in the front, and the gentle breathing sounds of 22 dogs comfortably resting or sleeping in the back of the van with me. Surprising enough, the dogs didn’t make a single bark the entire trip. It is almost as if they knew they were safe and were on the way to a wonderful life. I took a few moments to just soak it all in.
There was a certain sacredness about it. It was a holy experience. I was overwhelmed thinking about these 22 dogs—the few hundred that we were saving in this one caravan—who were in this van with me breathing the same air. They were the “unwanteds”, the “wanderers”, yes; refugees indeed; with no home to call their own and no place to rest their head.
In my spiritual reverie, at 2 am in the back of that cargo van heading north on Interstate 95, I imagined that this must have been what the stable at Bethlehem must have been like—a dark, quiet place—nothing luxurious by any means, but a much-appreciated haven for a couple of weary travelers who had nothing to call their own and no place to call their own. Peaceful. The gentle slumber sounds of the stable’s permanent residents in the still of the night, sharing their home with the weary travelers.
I continued to imagine that stable in Bethlehem. In the silence, I imagined a quiet that would be pierced by the cries of the newborn child and soon followed with the gentle melody of a mother singing her lullaby to her newborn son and cradling him to her breast. I’m sure the animal residents of that stable were probably curious, but would not have found a birth in the stable necessarily out of the ordinary. After all, cows, mules and other animals give birth in stables with regularity. They would have shown their interest but continued with their gentle, nocturnal feeding and rest.
How wondrous that the witnesses to the birth of Our Lord and the first worshippers of the Christ child would have been the animals! But it does make perfect sense, doesn’t it? Recall the story of creation! The animals were created before humankind. All of God’s creatures are precious to Him and the animals, especially those in need, are special in His sight.
The paintings of the artists and the illustrations on our Christmas cards romanticize the stable at Bethlehem. They don’t make it out to be a four- or even a two-star hotel, but rather a not unpleasant experience of “roughing it.” Nonetheless, however rough, that stable of Bethlehem was a place of refuge from the night providing rudimentary shelter from the elements. It was a quiet place in the dark, a place with the sounds and smells of a stable, a place of peace. It was the place where heaven embraced earth and kissed humankind more passionately than could be described in any romance novel. It was the birthplace of our salvation.
Yes, the culmination of God’s love affair with his people was witnessed by God’s precious animals in their own stable home, and the Holy Spirit allowed me a glimpse of that in the back of a van on Interstate 95 with 22 dogs.
As my thoughts drifted back to reality, remembering the words of my Dad—“Where do you live, in a barn or something?”—I prayed that my heart would be like that stable at Bethlehem. Quiet, filled with concern for the homeless, the hungry, animals in need—but most importantly, a place where Christ would be born, become Incarnate and consume my life. I smiled and chuckled with a warm memory of my Dad and silently thought, “Yeah Pop, I hope so.”
This Adventide and Christmas season let’s remember the homeless, the hungry and the lonely. Let’s give glory to God in the highest and fervently pray for peace on earth. But let’s not forget the message that God sent us by sending His Son to be born in the stable with the animals to witness to the Incarnation. Consider good works for animals also in this holy season. Perhaps for the days of Advent you could take a box or a basket and put something for an animal in it each day—a toy, a can of pet food, a brush, a leash, a collar. Then, at Christmas, bring that box to your local animal rescue shelter. Isn’t that a great way to remember and honor that Christ was born in a stable, not the delivery room of Cedars Sinai?
Also, this winter, if you see animals in danger, abandoned, or left outside in the snow and bitter cold please don’t be afraid to call animal control, your local police department or the humane society. Their lives depend on it.
If you would like to know more about the group that I work with, just click on this link: Animal Aid USA. To date, the organization’s volunteers have saved over 20,000 dogs from euthanasia and life in deplorable conditions, and continue to advocate for animal rights and to run spay and neuter programs to reduce the population of unwanted dogs and cats.
Jesus, our brother, kind and good,
was humbly born in a stable rude,
and the friendly beasts around him stood,
Jesus, our brother, kind and good.
Father Paul Gulya is a priest of the American National Catholic Church. In addition to doing supply work at various parishes, he runs charitable drives for homeless shelters and soup kitchens and does animal rescue as part of his ministry in the ANCC. He was chairperson of the ANCC Convocation in 2016 and has been asked to serve as chairperson again for Convocation 2018.