Journey into Darkness

It is the Holiday Season, lighting even the darkest heart. Homes and businesses sparkle, wishing the merriest of seasons. Lights jump and blink, dancing past car windows beaming hope into December nights. Window panes glow, and dark streets are transformed.

The Carolina backcountry was the end of civilization. Still, the pioneers came with pockets filled with dreams.

Sometimes, we forget that these are the darkest nights of the year. This is when nature rests and Demeter grieves for her lost daughter. In the time before history, this was the season of the Winter Solstice when nights were as indelible as black ink and where shadows live unseen. Only the Druid Priests commanded the night sky, to the farmers the night sky was a dark mystery ruled by the moon.

Legend and lore tells us of the Pagan Mid-Winter festivals during the middle ages and before. But, within this darkest December night, deep within the earth, spring is waking from a winter’s slumber.

My story is of another time, when the Carolina backcountry was America’s first frontier. This backcountry was so wild and wooly that the pioneer settlers slept in fits and jerks. They knew that danger was only a shadow, an arm’s length away.

My story is a sacred tale written for the brave and the faithful who came to North Carolina when it was a wilderness. The Piedmont, the Carolina backcountry, was unknown and uncharted. The Catawba River was home to the bear and jaguar and the homes of the Tuscarora, the Cherokee, and the Catawba Indian tribes. The Carolina backcountry was the end of civilization. Still, the pioneers came with pockets filled with dreams.

In the fall of 1752, Brother Joseph Spangenburg set out with several other Moravian Brethren leaving Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to search for a place in North Carolina to build a Moravian settlement.

Almost fifty, Brother Joseph was portly with a kind face, and a bald head, but he wise in wilderness ways and held to unswerving faith that God would guide his journey. Brother Joseph had several opportunities to misplace his faith when they became lost and spent the winter in the mountains around Blowing Rock.

It was spring when the men entered the area known today as Winston-Salem, here Brother Joseph found his Promised Land. He named the area Wachovia in honor of a place in Germany where the Moravian Church, a Protestant sect called the United Brethren, had first found refuge. Here, they would build a village and name it Bethabara, House of Passage. They first arrived in groups of fifteen or twenty, they came as guardians.

Bethabara, a village in the wilderness became shelter to refugees from the French and Indian Wars. War raged outside the small settlement built on a palisade, but Bethabara was never attacked. Instead, the village became the guardian of night. They ministered to the homeless and the lost without fear.

Years later the answer to the riddle as to why the Moravians were never attacked appeared in a lady’s diary. Anna Catherina Chamberlain, the wife of the town’s doctor, wrote that an old Cherokee warrior told her that his tribe and others had planned many attacks against Bethabara, but they all failed. Every time they were to attack, someone inside the village would blow a horn or call out a warning with loud bells.

It was the night watchman, the Moravians’ guardian of the night going about his duties in a lowly task that held the Indians at bay. There are angels in the darkness and sometimes, it is as simple as a job well done, a smile, a kindness.

As the inventory of the unemployed continues to rise and the ranks of the poor and homeless grow, there are many shelters and charities to turn to at this time. And there are friends and neighbors. Those who care for the unfortunate have many faces. In Belmont, there is a guardian for women and children who are homeless. Catherine’s House is a place of “a hundred thousand welcomes.”

As we go somberly into this most difficult of economic times, protracted wars, declining health, and tired spirits; as we approach the time of the darkest nights, consider the journey of Brother Joseph as he led the Moravians into the frontier.

Catherine’s House Inc. is a ministry sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy that provides transitional housing to women and women with children who are homeless. Like the night watchman, they are guardians of those who have lost their way.

The Mission is located on the grounds of the former Sacred Heart College in Belmont, N.C. It was established in November 1992, and it is named for Catherine McAuley who was born in Ireland and founded the Sisters of Mercy, she devoted her life to helping those in need, particularly women and children.

In 1991, Hester Tribble, a social worker and graduate of the former Sacred Heart College, approached the Sisters of Mercy with the desire to help the homeless. Tribble was granted one of the empty grounds of Sacred Heart College. The Sisters of Mercy assisted Ms. Tribble in establishing her mission. When Ms. Tribble retired, the Sisters of Mercy adopted the ministry and renamed the facility “Catherine’s House.” The women and children arrive at Catherine’s House by recommendation of other ministries.

In the regions of my mind, the ministries of Brother Joseph and Catherine’s House are living proof of America’s spirit of enduring compassion. America is built on many things, but its most enduring persona is one of kindness and liberty. To look backward on acts of kindness sustains us, but it is in the living of a gentle life that we find peace. Goodness is found in the ability to be humble in the face of other folk’s troubles and courage when we face our own troubles. We are the guardians.

As we approach the unwritten days of 2009, charities and missions will be stretched to depletion. In this time of the unknown, recall the lonely night watchman who saved a wilderness village from destruction; the Guardian Angel of Bethabara. It is to become aware of how important it is to live life kindly.

The stories of Brother Joseph and Catherine’s House are proof that there is still shelter in the darkness. Just as the Moravians settlement was safe haven for the defeated and the homeless, Catherine’s House is safe haven for those today, in the now, those who are less fortunate. For by the grace of God, it is not I.

Sister Mary Carmelita Hagan oversees the day-to-day business of Catherine’s House. Sister Carmelita was born in County Donegal, Ireland. She was a young woman when she joined the Order of the Sisters of Mercy. Sister Carmelita also volunteers her time at the Mission of Mercy, also on the grounds of the former college. I suspect she rarely sleeps.

Since 1992, Catherine’s House has provided transitional homes for more than 1500 women and children. Many of them return to Catherine’s House as volunteers.

I found a note of thanks at the web site for Catherine’s House, It is a simple note, yet, it expresses eloquently a depth of gratitude that is known only to those who were lost and have been found. The note burns with hope and light. It shines with the beauty of a life restored.

“My thanks to all the staff at Catherine’s House. As the door was opened to me, I was warmly welcomed, loved, helped to achieve my dream, to reach my goals. Your help made it all happen. I will never forget the programs, services, gifts, and a beautiful Christmas for all of us. Homeless does not mean you have to be hopeless. My dreams will continue because of my faith and will to seek what lies ahead.”

Light up the night with holiday lights; take heart in the spirit of America. It is easy to spread light. Begin at Catherine’s House, a donation of ten dollars will purchase a light that will brighten another life. Each light purchased in honor of someone will benefit Catherine’s House and the future.

Become an angel, a guardian, the night watchman for another. As we gather about our hearths, let us bless this New Year and may God be with us. May the journey light our way.

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