For many residents of Ventura County, Calif., the Christmas season starts when Nora Howells, 70, and Judy Crenshaw, 58, host “No Room at the Inn,” an annual December display of more than 600 Nativity scenes that raises money to help the homeless.
“People see it as a place of peace at a hectic time of year, and it helps them focus on what Christmas is all about,” Howells says. “And we’re energized by hearing new people express their awe at the variety and beauty of the display.”
In the late 1980s, schoolteachers Howells and Crenshaw realized they were both avid Nativity collectors, and dreamt of someday displaying their collections to raise money for charity. Howells’ husband, Huw, came up with the name “No Room at the Inn” and an appropriate cause—to help the homeless in honor of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, who were in need of shelter that first Christmas. When Huw died of colon cancer in July 1993, Nora decided to honor his memory by putting the idea into action. She took a sabbatical from her teaching job and devoted her time, with help from Crenshaw and other friends, to creating the first event, held in December 1993 in a vacant Camarillo storefront.
“That first year, as we overcame so many obstacles to make it happen, we could feel Huw guiding us,” Howells says. “Every year, we still feel Huw’s presence, and we know that in some way, he is praying for us.”
Today, the three-day event alternates annually among churches in Howells’ hometown of Thousand Oaks and Crenshaw’s hometown of Camarillo (pop. 57,077). A Friday night gala opens the festivities with music, food and a silent auction. On Saturday and Sunday, thousands of people come to view the Nativities, which range from crystal and porcelain figurines to cornhusk dolls and teddy bears. Admission costs $3 per person or $5 per family.
“It’s amazing that with 600 Nativities, we have no duplicates,” says Crenshaw, who owns 238 Nativity sets.
Dr. Jim Decker-Mahin, pastor of Camarillo United Methodist Church, which hosted last year’s No Room at the Inn, sees an important message in the women’s efforts. “They have found a way to combine the spiritual and artistic with the practical and tangible—sharing the Nativity story in order to help the homeless,” Decker-Mahin says.
Howells, Crenshaw and a 37-member committee begin working in September to organize the fund-raiser and its large display. “You’d think we’d be tired, but we have so much fun doing this that you never hear a word of complaint,” says Howells, who has 175 sets in her collection. “We’re truly blessed by the spirit of Christmas.”
In 2005, No Room at the Inn donated $18,500 to 16 Ventura County homeless programs, including the Turning Point Foundation and the Winter Warming Shelter. Since its inception, the event has raised more than $135,000.
“No Room at the Inn performs a great service for the community,” says Cathy Brudnicki, board president of the Ventura County Homeless and Housing Coalition. “Most agencies use the money they get from No Room at the Inn for matching funds. They have to prove community support, and this money certainly shows that.”
In recent years, the No Room at the Inn concept has been adopted by communities in Dallas, Pa. (pop. 2,557); Port Clinton, Ohio (pop. 288); Des Moines, Iowa; Billings, Mont.; and Lincoln, Neb.
Crenshaw is amazed at how the idea has grown, both through their California display and in other towns across the country.
“It thrills my heart how one person’s little idea can take on a life of its own,” she says. “Not even in a dream could we have imagined it turning into this.”
No Room at the Inn is scheduled Dec. 1-3 at St. Paschal Baylon Catholic Church in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Visit www.noroom.org for more information.