(Gary DeMar: Since graduating from high school in 1968, I’ve reconnected with a number of classmates, many of whom I had not seen in 40 years until I attended our school’s class reunion in 2008. It’s amazing to find that many of them are Christians. John Ryce is one of them. His story is very similar to mine. I know you’ll enjoy “‘The Patch’ and Christmas.”)
By John Ryce
The house was a wood frame, two-story structure in need of repair. It sat on a road of dirt and gravel, and was part of a two or three block area in the South Hills of Pittsburgh known as “The Patch.” All of the houses on our street in The Patch were similar in construction and condition, and this is where I, along with my father, mother, “Busha” (Polish for “grandmother”), older brother, and sister, spent the first five years of my life.
The Patch was an old and decaying “Company Town.” A company town is where much or all the real estate, buildings (both residential and commercial), small businesses such as grocery stores and other necessities of life within its borders were owned by a single company. The Patch was once owned by a coal mining company. Many of the homes were built on abandoned coal mines. In some areas of the country, up to 80% of coal miners lived in company towns – in Pennsylvania, about 50% lived in these towns constructed and controlled by the companies they worked for.
Like many company towns in the United States, The Patch had reverted to private ownership once most of the coal had been extracted from the mines, and by 1950 (the year of my birth), the area had become a “less than ideal” place to live.
Many of my memories of life in The Patch are actually “borrowed memories” – the recollections of my siblings shared with me over the years. Even though I was very young, some of the memories are my own. I remember that it was very dirty, we had a chicken coop in our back yard, and there seemed to be a lot of dogs wandering around. I have a very vivid memory of two brothers who lived in The Patch who were the neighborhood bullies. I can’t recall their names, but they would mysteriously appear “out of nowhere” when my older brother and I would use the alley that ran behind our home. For those of you who have seen the movie A Christmas Story (Ralphie and the Red Ryder BB gun), these guys were like the bullies in that movie – only bigger.
Our father was a very hard working man. He worked the night shift at what was then Duquesne Brewery, and he usually had at least one other part-time job. Thanks to his efforts, he rescued us from The Patch in 1955 when we moved into a new three-bedroom ranch home. Although the new house was located just a couple of miles away, it seemed like a different world – a cleaner, brighter, safer world. I have no way of knowing how life would have turned out had we remained in The Patch, but I do know that in retrospect, I am very thankful for what our father did for us.
As much as I appreciate what my earthly father did for our family, I realize that his sacrifice pales in comparison to what my Heavenly Father has done for me. He has rescued me from “The Patch of Spiritual Darkness” and brought me into the kingdom of the Son He loves. (Col. 1:13) He has prepared for me a room in the Father’s house (John 14:2), and He did this through Emmanuel – “God with us.” This is what we are to be remembering during this holiday that the world calls “Christmas” – the arrival of God himself, in the form of a human being, in the body of a child.
Occasionally I need to remind myself that Christ was not born so that we would have a reason to establish a holiday. He was born as the fulfillment of God’s divine plan to redeem sinful man. He was born for me – to pay the penalty for my sin – to rescue me from my Patch of Spiritual Darkness.
My earthly father died at age 40, December 16, 1964 – long before I came to appreciate his sacrifice for my mother, my siblings, and for me. In light of the perspective I now have about what he did for my family through his hard work and effort, I imagine that a celebration of his birthday would be a bit different from the traditional. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be about the gifts and the decorations. It would be a day to celebrate and honor his arrival into this world – the day his sacrifice began.