Opinion Extra

McAlister: The real meaning of Christmas

Rabbi Marc Wilson, whose elegant words grace this page occasionally, wrote of his "pure delight" in the beauty of Christmas traditions, but emphasized that the holiday has never tempted him to become a Christian.

He has that in common with most gentiles, including a whole lot of church people.

Like public schools, the culture has pretty much expelled Christ from Christmas. During a recent day of shopping, 13 "Happy holidays" came my way while "Merry Christmas" was more silent than "Silent Night".

The way Western civilization celebrates Christmas has little in common with the birth of the Messiah, who is history's biggest scandal and dividing line.

To believe in the biblical Christ is to believe that Deity became human or, as C. S. Lewis wrote, "The Son of God became man to enable men to become sons of God." (Our modern way of putting it would of course include women.)

Oscar Gadsden has a good perspective on the real meaning of Christmas.

Mr. Gadsden, educated and 54 years old, is homeless, not because he has no other choices, but because he has chosen the lifestyle. The streets of Columbia are his church and homeless people are his parishioners.

I met him at Finlay Park last Sunday as he and a group of volunteers fed scores of homeless men and women hot dinners and distributed clothing, as they do every Sunday.

I tracked him down after my granddaughter told me about this unusual, intriguing minister she met last summer while working with the homeless.

Two things about him: One learns to talk in short sentences around him because people with problems constantly are interrupting him, either on his cell phone or in person; and it is best to be prepared to have one's white middle class value system challenged by his devotion to God and the downtrodden.

Mr. Gadsden, an African-American, returned from Operation Desert Storm disoriented and depressed by war. The son of a preacher and college professor turned to drugs, which led to the streets and homelessness.

He was on and off the streets of Columbia for years until he became a Christian. At that point, Mr. Gadsden says that God called him to minister to the homeless. Part of the calling, he insists, is to live as a homeless man because "That gives me credibility with the homeless. I walk in their shoes. They know they can trust me but they can't fool me."

A young, pregnant woman excited about finding an apartment interrupted our conversation. Her problem: She needed money to turn on the power. Mr. Gadsden promised to meet her the following morning to give the money to the power company, even though he didn't have it. "God will provide," he said.

The next day I asked about the money. "God provided," he said with a smile.

His ministry, Keeping It Real Ministry, does not pay him a salary. Donated food, clothing and furniture go to the needy. Donated money does not go to the needy directly, but to pay bills and buy what they need.

The owner of a building in downtown Columbia allows four friends and Mr. Gadsden to sleep under an abandoned carport in the back. "God provides everything I need, and I'll stay on the streets until He takes me off," he said.

So how does he handle sub-freezing weather? "I pray a lot," he jokes.

He challenges the stereotype of the homeless as addicts who choose street life. He estimates about 10 percent fit that category. He has seen a change in homelessness during the recession. "Most homeless people want jobs but can't find them," he asserts. "Columbia has a homeless crisis and not many people are doing anything about it."

He says he deals with both the physical and spiritual problems of people. "You got to address both," he said. "If you don't, you wind up with an unbalanced person and it ain't gonna work. That's why we feed them and give them clothes every Sunday. We also give them the word of God."

And his take on modern-day Christmas celebrations? Pagan, he says. "It's all about the money and gifts. It has nothing to do with the Savior of the world coming to give us a chance at salvation. Our ministry is giving Christmas gifts to poor children as a way to get into their houses and minister to them."

His message? "Jesus came to save the world, not condemn it."

Oscar Gadsden is unorthodox, odd and controversial, and he hangs out with society's rejects.

Just like the Messiah whose birth he celebrates without tinsel and Bing Crosby.