A Chicago Tribune reporter investigates claims to determine facts from fiction.
By LEE STROBEL
The Chicago Tribune newsroom was eerily quiet on the day before Christmas. As I sat at my desk with little to do, my mind kept wandering back to a family I had encountered a month earlier while I was working on a series of articles about Chicago’s neediest people.
The Delgados — 60-year-old Perfecta, and her granddaughters, Lydia and Jenny, — had been burned out of their roach-infested tenement and were now living in a tiny two-room apartment on the west side. As I walked in, I couldn’t believe how empty it was. There was no furniture, no rugs, nothing on the walls — only a small kitchen table and one handful of rice. That’s it. They were virtually devoid of possessions.
In fact, 11-year-old Lydia and 13-year-old Jenny owned only one short-sleeved dress each, plus one thin, gray sweater between them. When they walked the half mile to school through the biting cold, Lydia would wear the sweater for part of the distance and then hand it to her shivering sister, who would wear it the rest of the way.
But despite their poverty and the painful arthritis that kept Perfecta from working, she still talked confidently about her faith in Jesus. She was convinced He hadn’t abandoned them. I never sensed despair or self-pity in her home; instead, there was a gentle feeling of hope and peace.
I wrote an article about the Delgados and then quickly moved on to more “exciting assignments.” But as I sat at my desk on Christmas Eve, I continued to wrestle with the irony of the situation: here was a family that had nothing but faith and yet seemed happy, while I had everything I needed materially but lacked faith — and inside I felt as empty and barren as their apartment.
I decided to drive over to West Homer Street and check on how the Delgados were doing.
A Giving World
When Jenny opened the door, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Tribune readers had responded to my article by showering the Delgados with a treasure trove of gifts — roomfuls of furniture, appliances, and rugs; a lavish Christmas tree with piles of wrapped presents underneath; carton upon bulging carton of food; and a dazzling selection of clothing, including dozens of warm winter coats, scarves, and gloves. On top of that, they donated thousands of dollars in cash.
But as surprised as I was by this outpouring, I was even more astonished by what my visit was interrupting: Perfecta and her granddaughters were getting ready to give away much of their newfound wealth. When I asked Perfecta why, she replied in halting English: “Our neighbors are still in need. We can’t have plenty while they have nothing. This is what Jesus would want us to do.”
That blew me away. If I had been in their position at that time in my life, I would’ve been hoarding everything. I asked Perfecta what she thought about the generosity of the people who had sent all of these goodies, and again her response amazed me.
“This is wonderful; this is very good,” she said, gesturing toward the gifts. “We did nothing to deserve this — it’s a gift from God. But,” she added, “it isn’t His greatest gift. No, we celebrate that tomorrow. That is Jesus.”
To her, this Child in the manger was the undeserved gift that meant everything — more than material possessions, more than comfort, more than security. And at that moment, something inside of me wanted desperately to know this Jesus — because, in a sense, I saw Him in Perfecta and her granddaughters.
They had peace despite poverty, while I had anxiety despite plenty; they knew the joy of generosity, while I only knew the loneliness of ambition; they looked heavenward for hope, while I only looked out for myself; they experienced the wonder of the spiritual while I was shackled to the shallowness of the material — and something made me long for what they had.
Or, more accurately, for the One they knew.
I was pondering this as I drove back toward Tribune Tower a short time later. Suddenly, though, my thoughts were interrupted by the crackle of the car’s two-way radio. It was my boss, sending me out on another assignment. Jarred back to reality, I let the emotions I felt in the Delgado apartment dissipate. And that, I figured at the time, was probably a good thing for me.
As I would caution myself whenever the Delgados would come to mind from time to time over the ensuing years, I’m not the sort of person who’s driven by feelings.
Sure, believing in Jesus could provide solace to sincere but simple folks like the Delgados; yes, it could spark feelings of hope and faith for people who prefer fantasy over reality. But as a law-trained newspaperman, I dealt in the currency of facts — and I was convinced they supported my atheism rather than Christianity.
Facts, Not Fiction
All of that changed several years later, however, when I took a cue from one of the most famous Bible passages about Christmas. The story describes how an angel announced to a ragtag group of sheepherders that “a Savior … who is the Messiah” (Luke 2:11) had been born in David’s town. Was this a hoax? A hallucination? Or could it actually be the pivotal event of human history — the incarnation of the living God?
The sheepherders were determined to get to the bottom of the matter. Like first-century investigative reporters being dispatched to the scene of an earth-shattering story, they declared: “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15). They left, running I might add, to check out the evidence for themselves.
Essentially, that’s what I did for a living as a Tribune reporter: investigate claims to see if they’re true, separate rumors from reality, and determine facts from fiction. So, prompted by my agnostic wife’s conversion to Christianity, and still intrigued by memories of the Delgados, I decided to get to the bottom of what I now consider to be the most crucial issue of history: Who was in the manger on that first Christmas morning?
Even after two millennia, controversy continues to swirl around that issue. “Scholarly debate is intensifying over who Jesus actually was: divine, human, or both?” said a recent Tribune article. “Jesus has been portrayed in a burst of books as, among other things, a cynic philosopher, an apocalyptic prophet, a zealot, a rabbi, a Pharisee, a feminist, a radical egalitarian, and a postmodern social critic.”
After spending nearly two years investigating the identity of the Christmas child, I was ready to reach a verdict. For me, the evidence was clear and compelling. Yes, Christmas is a holiday overlaid with all sorts of fanciful beliefs, from flying reindeer to Santa Claus sliding down chimneys. But I became convinced that if you drill down to its core, Christmas is based on a historical reality — the incarnation: God becoming man, Spirit taking on flesh, the infinite entering the finite, the eternal becoming time-bound. It’s a mystery backed up by facts that I now believed were simply too strong to ignore.
I had come to the point where I was ready for the Christmas gift that Perfecta Delgado had told me about years earlier: the Christ child, whose love and grace are offered freely to everyone who receives Him in repentance and faith. Even someone like me.
Lee Strobel, former award-winning legal editor of The Chicago Tribune, is a New York Times best-selling author whose books have sold millions of copies worldwide, including The Case for Christ and The Case for Christmas. A former atheist, he served as a teaching pastor at two of America’s largest churches. Lee and his wife, Leslie, have been married for 38 years and live in Colorado. Learn more about Lee at leestrobel.com.
This article originally appeared in HomeLife magazine (December 2017). For more articles like this, subscribe to HomeLife.