Grinnell nativity display supports homeless Iowans

Lynn Cavanagh of St. Mary Parish, Mary Smith of UCC Congregational, Al Ricks of First Presbyterian and Doris Hotchkin of St. Mary, all in Grinnell, show off some of the nativity scenes that will be on display at the ecumenical “No Room at the Inn” event Dec. 1 at St. Mary Parish.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

GRINNELL — Nativity scenes highlight the joy of Jesus’ birth, but they also depict a sobering reality: the Holy Family did not have a home on Christmas.

Each year, a coalition of churches in Grinnell help central Iowans struggling with homelessness and poverty by hosting a “No Room at the Inn” crèche display at St. Mary Parish. Organizers anticipate that more than 100 nativity scenes will be on display Dec. 1 from 3-7 p.m. The ecumenical event includes refreshments and music.

The event is free, with free-will donations accepted for local housing and food support. “We gave away $900 last year,” said Doris Hotchkin, a longtime member of St. Mary. “I think that’s just great from our little town; people are always so generous.”


Hotchkin got the idea to host the nativity fundraiser from a newspaper article she read about 15 years ago. She contacted leaders from other churches in the area and they were eager to get involved. “There are so many Santa events but nothing else that talked about the real meaning of Christmas, so we decided to do it,” she recalls. St. Mary Parish usually serves as host.

The need

Half of this year’s donations will go to Catholic Charities’ Emergency Family Shelter in Des Moines, which provides temporary housing and other services to homeless families. “This biblical reference of Mary and Joseph being turned away from the inn because there was no room aligns so well with what we do,” said Kendall Begnoche, marketing manager for Catholic Charities of the Des Moines Diocese. Since the program’s inception in 1990, 8,800 individuals have received shelter; 60% were under the age of 18.

According to the Iowa Institute for Community Alliances, in 2022, more than 2,600 Iowans were homeless on a single given night; 23% were in Polk County. “Homelessness is prevalent in our community and we know homelessness is not a simple issue,” said shelter program manager Randy Jansen. “There is a clear need for strong programs and services to support homeless and hurting people in our communities.”

The remaining 50% of donations from “No Room at the Inn” will go to Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) and area ministerial associations for emergency food support. “Many of our friends and neighbors are struggling with hunger, but we also are blessed to live in a community where people care deeply about helping those in need,” said Jaimie Adkins, MICA’s resource development and communications director. She has observed an increase in need at MICA’s food pantry locations, including Grinnell. “We are seeing more people come in for emergency food assistance than in recent history. Many days we are giving out 25 food boxes or more to families who need them. Over half of the families we see have young children.” One dollar can buy up to seven pounds of food, so even a small donation can make a difference, she said.

The nativities

Christians from Grinnell-area churches and the Central Iowa Christian School bring their nativity scenes to St. Mary’s the day of the event. Most will return home with their owners, but some are given to guests. This year’s display will feature angel figurines for guests to view and kid-friendly crèches for children to play with.

Hotchkin has seen a variety of crèches over the years. Some of her favorites include one in which Joseph is holding Jesus and another in which the animals are kneeling. “There was one where Mary was on the donkey and looked so tired, like, ‘I’ve been on this donkey forever!’” Some demonstrate how different cultures interpret the nativity.

Display cards provide details about each crèche and may include a brief history. Sometimes, the story behind the crèche is more impactful than the design, Hotchkin said. One crèche came from a family who could not afford a full set, so they purchased one figure a year from the dime store until it was complete. “That was the most beautiful (crèche) in the whole place, then!”

A team effort

Hotchkin said she enjoys collaborating and praying with people from other churches to aid those in need. “I have met so many neat people I wouldn’t have met any other way! Things happen when people work together for good!”

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