The first ones stirred about 4:30. They wanted a cigarette break and a cup of coffee, which was strong and peppered with wayward grounds. About 18 shapeless figures slept on pads in the church basement, a lattice divider sectioning off an area for women.

In the kitchen, one volunteer commented on the age of the stove and range as he piled chopped potatoes, onion and margarine into a skillet. The second volunteer arranged two pounds of bacon on baking sheets wrapped with aluminum foil, not realizing the bacon strips would bake together in the oven. They would make eggs to order (most seemed to like them over-easy) and let the "guests" arrange their plates with bacon, potatoes and toast.

This church is part of a network of area churches that take turns hosting homeless men, women and children throughout the winter months. The guests get dinner, a place to sleep, a place to shower (in some locations) and breakfast. They need to be out the door by 7 a.m. with a sack lunch in hand.

The volunteers are broken into three shifts a night, and most only work one night a month. But the general rhythm of repetition held the schedule together. (That, and the typed instructions hanging, laminated, on the cupboard door.)

A regular guest popped into the kitchen, announced he'd help out this morning, took inventory of the sack lunches, set out some cream and sugar for the coffee and popped out as quickly as he popped in. The first volunteer set the steaming potatoes on a table outside the kitchen pass-through and took his first egg orders from still-groggy guests. The second volunteer tackled some dishes left in the sink and dug around for stuff to put on toast: real salted butter, grape jelly and - upon one guest's request - Miracle Whip.

The bits of conversation that wafted from the dining area into the kitchen seemed akin to what you'd expect at a church lock-in, a train station waiting room before the morning rush, or perhaps a campground picnic area. Some were groggy. Some were joking. One asked another to rinse out an empty orange juice jug and fill it with water he could take with him that day. Some wished others Merry Christmas.

It wasn't obvious if any suffered from mental illness. It wasn't obvious if they had been homeless for a day or for years. It wasn't obvious if any had criminal records. It wasn't obvious how many exemplified or disproved the stereotypes of the homeless, but I'd be willing to bet money both sides of that coin were represented.

But I can tell you, this volunteer (the one who baked the bacon into a crumbly mass, the one who wouldn't have been confident cooking eggs for 18) was kinda sad she was distracted when they passed out the Christmas bags -- lunch bags decorated by school kids and filled with candy, microwave popcorn, toothbrushes and other goodies.

Sometimes there's no need to ask questions when the details are fuzzy. The gifts - breakfast and candy - seemed small in light of what I assume is a daily struggle to get by. But sometimes, it's enough to give when there's a need.

It was a good way to start Christmas Eve.

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