by Rev. Matthew Best

On Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, the Memorial Blanket Project came to fruition.

It’s been a week now and I’m still struggling with the words to express.

What words does one use to talk about what it means to have 1179 handmade blankets and quilts laid out on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol to raise awareness about homelessness in the United States? These blankets came from 47 states and were all made with love by countless artisans. Volunteers from across the country showed up to help out and have been working on this project throughout the year. We received amazing news coverage, including a story in the Washington Post, along with other sources. We talked with numerous elected officials, public servants, non-profit folks, service agency servants, scores of church clergy and members, dedicated advocates, and countless people passing by. There are many who can offer their take on the day. So what can I offer and add to it? A few images and a theological reflection. First the images:

From the Blessing of the Blankets at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on 12/20/2022

Volunteers beginning to lay down the blankets on the West Lawn – 12/21/2022

A sea of blankets – 12/21/2022

Blankets on the lawn of the Capitol and blanketing the Capitol – 12/21/2022

And my final picture, which is also my favorite picture.

Evening blankets in front of the Capitol – 12/21/2022

Theological reflection:

The Christmas Narrative tells the story of Mary and Joseph traveling far from home to participate in the Roman census. Luke’s Gospel goes to great length to detail who the reigning authorities are. The census served two purposes – to collect taxes and to determine what able-bodied men were available for the military. Empires are about money and power, after all. Rome was no different than any other empire in history.

The Gospel narrative tells us that Mary and Joseph found no room at the inn. There’s debate about what that means. Regardless, they didn’t have somewhere to stay. They were homeless and Mary was about to give birth. There was no hospital in those days, no urgent care centers. Birth was a dangerous process which resulted in a high mortality for both mother and child. There were no guarantees.

And this is what Jesus was born into – homelessness, poverty, born among animals and laid in a food trough in less than desirable circumstances, unsure if mother and child would even survive the night. All under the eye of an empire who didn’t care about them – only cared that the tax was collected and that there were enough soldiers to carry out its war plans. Empires exist to serve the emperor, after all.

On Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, we laid down over 1000 blankets on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. The blankets looking up at a Roman-inspired architectural governmental building. The U.S. isn’t Rome in many ways. But then again, it is an empire in many other ways – there’s no denying that. The American culture has conquered the planet. English is the lingua franca of the world. The American dollar is the world currency of choice. And who can deny the military might of America? See, in many ways, America is an empire. The question is … what kind?

And on this night as we stood in the cold with blankets and quilts, raising our voices about homelessness, I was struck by the contrast between Rome and Bethlehem. Inside the Rome-inspired building there was debate about funding for a war, while we were outside in the cold. The blankets and the quilts stood vigil in the night, soon to be distributed to individuals and families. They would go to people like Mary and Joseph and their baby Jesus (who they wrapped in a makeshift blanket on that first night).

Inside the building, the census continued – empires have to collect taxes and determine war needs, after all. And outside, the blankets did what they have always been doing. There will always be plenty of people to fight over taxes and wars. History texts are full of stories about this. But blankets and quilts show up in fewer official stories. Beyond the birth narrative, I don’t know of too many official stories. But there are plenty of family stories that involve blankets and quilts – cherished heirlooms that have been passed down through families, well-used in many cases. Blankets and quilts that tell stories about family members and struggles, about love and loss, about homes and jobs, about moves and births. While official national stories often focus on war and destruction, it is family stories that frequently center on more positive things like births, marriages, graduations, and new homes and jobs. These stories contain losses too but as part of bigger stories. And it’s usually captured in squares and threads that tie those special blankets and quilts together. People who hold onto these blankets point to them and say, “I received this when I was going through …” and the blanket becomes a foundation for something greater.

On that cold Wednesday evening in Washington, D.C., a group of volunteers stood among 1179 blankets and quilts looking out over the U.S. Capitol. We contemplated the difficult job of the lawmakers who worked just up the hill, debating taxes and war. We looked at the beauty of our surroundings. We celebrated a year’s worth of work in pulling together the Memorial Blanket Project. And we gazed in amazement at the assembled blankets and quilts that would soon be wrapped around a person or family.

I have said numerous times before – this is the richest nation in human history. We never seem to have a problem finding what we need for implements of war and weapons of destruction, yet we find excuses to care for people living in poverty. We can do better. The most ironic thing about this Wednesday on the Capitol Lawn was the Capitol building itself. The building was wrapped in what looked like a blanket. It’s as if the building itself was trying to speak to the legislators inside, telling them to do what they needed for war efforts but to also pay attention to blankets and quilts right outside on the lawn. To pay attention to the people in the nation who, like Mary and Joseph, who have no place to call home this night. To pay attention to what the blankets and the quilts were really about – loving our neighbors and caring for one another.

That’s the difference between Rome and Bethlehem, between empire and Jesus.

Rev. Matthew Best is a rostered leader in the ELCA. Read more on his blog at pastormatthewbest.com. A version of this piece was first posted there.