When I arrived at Mission Dolores, the neoclassical facade of the basilica was bathed in floodlights, the dome and towers gleaming against the post-midnight sky. The street was choked with double-parked vehicles, and from within I heard voices raised in a joyous chorus. Beside the newer early twentieth-century structure, the small adobe church built in the late 1700s seemed dwarfed and enveloped in deep silence. I hurried up the wide steps to the arching wooden doors of the basilica, then took a moment to compose myself before entering.
Like many of my generation, it had been years since I’d been even nominally a Catholic, but the old habit of reverence had never left me. I couldn’t just blunder in there and creep about, peering into every worshipper’s face, no matter how great my urgency. I waited until I felt relatively calm before pulling open the heavy door and stepping over the threshold.
The mass was candlelit; the robed figures of the priest and altar boys moved slowly in the flickering, shifting light. The stained glass window behind the altar and those on the side walls gleamed richly. In contrast, the massive pillars reached upward to vaulted arches that were deeply shadowed. As I moved slowly along one of the side aisles, the voices of the choir swelled to a majestic finale.
The congregants began to go forward to receive Communion. As they did, I was able to move less obtrusively, scanning the faces of the young people in the pews. Each time I spotted a teenaged boy, my heart quickened. Each time I felt a sharp stab of disappointment .
I passed behind the waiting communicants, then moved unhurriedly up the nave and crossed to the far aisle. The church was darker and sparsely populated toward the rear; momentarily a pillar blocked my view of the altar. I moved around it.
He was there in the pew next to the pillar, leaning wearily against it. Even in the shadowy light, I could see that his face was dirty and tired, his jacket and jeans rumpled and stained. His eyes were half-closed, his mouth slack; his hands were shoved between his thighs, as if for warmth.
Mike–no, Michael–had come to the only safe place he knew in the city, the church where on two Christmas Eves he’d attended mass with his family and their friends, the Shribers, who had lived across the street.
I slipped into the pew and sat down next to him. He jerked his head toward me, stared in openmouthed surprise. What little color he had drained from his face; his eyes grew wide and alarmed.
“Hi, Michael.” I put my hand on his arm.
He looked as if he wanted to shake it off. “How did you…?”
“Doesn’t matter. Not now. Let’s just sit quietly till mass is over. “
He continued to stare at me. After a few seconds he said, “I bet Mom and Dad are really mad at me.”
“More worried than anything else.”
“Did they hire you to find me?”
“No, I volunteered.”
“Huh.” He looked away at the line of communicants.
“You still go to church?” I asked.
“Not much. None of us do anymore. I kind of miss it.”
“Do you want to take Communion?”
He was silent. Then, “No. I don’t think that’s something I can do right now. Maybe never.”
“Well, that’s okay. Everybody expresses his feelings for… God, or whatever, in different ways.” I thought of the group of homeless worshippers in the vacant lot. “What’s important is that you believe in something.”
He nodded, and then we sat silently, watching people file up and down the aisle. After a while he said, “I guess I do believe in something. Otherwise I couldn’t have gotten through this week. I learned a lot, you know.”
“I’m sure you did.”
“About me, I mean.”
“What’re you going to do now? Send me home?”
“Do you want to go home?”
“Maybe. Yes. But I don’t want to be sent there. I want to go on my own.”
“Well, nobody should spend Christmas Day on a plane or a bus anyway. Besides, I’m having ten people to dinner at four this afternoon. I’m counting on you to help me stuff the turkey.”
Michael hesitated, then smiled shyly. He took one hand from between his thighs and slipped it into mine. After a moment he leaned his tired head on my shoulder, and we celebrated the dawn of Christmas together.