By Devin Rose
Dean Lueking's 12 years of traveling the world has taught him a lot about Christmas.
Lueking, a pastor emeritus at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, retired from the church in 1998. Since then, he's been to Africa, South America and Eastern Europe teaching staff with Habitat for Humanity. In the process, he said, he's come to understand more clearly how important it is to have a sense of belonging. He said a shared story, like the Christmas story, can help create that among a group of strangers — even when they don't hold the same beliefs.
In cultures where Christmas has no long-term roots or practices, Lueking said he is always met with amazement when people learn about the Christmas story. But the celebration aspect is always what brings people together no matter what they believe. Since his travels, Lueking, 84, and his wife have welcomed overseas guests they've met to celebrate the holiday, since hospitality is an aspect in the story.
They enjoy sharing a meal with people who are far from home. After dinner, the family and guests will gather around the piano and sing, which seems to take away the homesickness and loneliness that some of the guests feel. The singing becomes a bonding experience, Lueking said, which leads to everyone sharing stories and making connections.
"Living out the Christmas story makes a difference in how we see people," Lueking said. "We open ourselves to them, and vice versa."
The Luekings have opened their River Forest home to several dozen foreign students. They recently sent off a couple from Slovakia, and will soon welcome guests from Japan. They still keep in touch with friends they've made from Syria, Argentina and Hong Kong, and usually hear from them around this time of year.
One Christmas Eve a few years ago, the Luekings were surprised to find a former foster son of theirs at the door who they had lost touch with for about 20 years. The man, who had lived with them for three years of his childhood, appeared at the door in an Air Force uniform and the couple has kept in touch with him ever since.
This year, the Luekings have invited a pastor who was recently released from prison to join their family of four children and six grandchildren. A close friend of Lueking, who he's known for 65 years, will also spend Christmas with the family. He and Lueking have spent every Christmas together for 50 years. A friendship extending that long is something not many people get to experience, Lueking said.
"We need friendships that can bridge misunderstandings and hostilities," he said. "It makes me so glad that we can keep on opening our doors here as a family."