I just returned from one of the richest places on the planet. Guatemala. Their abundance in relationships and hospitality rival even the wealthiest of nations. It’s this richness that draws me to return time and time again.
For sure, Guatemala has many material needs. Amidst this poverty, however, I continually find a spirit of generosity. With little thought of personal need, people graciously give of their time and home. And when personal space is one of the few things you own, I recognize it’s sharing as a treasured expression.
“Buenos Dias!” The friendly greeting and warm touch opened doors in the impoverished village. We listened. We prayed. The local pastor brought an encouraging word.
The Ministry of Presence
Several decades ago Henri Nouwen wrote,
“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems.
“My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress.
“But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simple like them, but truly love them” (Gracias: A Latin American Journal, 1983).
Yes indeed…I wanted to “be useful.” I wanted to fix things, build something, or make an injustice just. For most of our days in this week of mission, however, we came to be present. The pastor told the families in the village “The Lord has brought this team. They will be with us for a few days. Tonight they will lead the worship service. Come if you are able.”
Later in the day, with my broken Spanish plus the gift of roving translators, I had lots of simple conversations. I got to know people better. Not as an a box to check or an object to confirm, but as most precious brothers and sisters in Christ. I learned about the hardships the families faced. We prayed together. I saw the compassion of the local Christ-followers as they came alongside those who are hurting and suffering.
During our time in the community, the sorrows did not change. A son remains addicted to drugs. A husband’s life is still lost to violence. Limited options for work cause desperate choices for income, including prostitution. A daughter is still claimed by gangs.
Our conversations during the week did not bring the social progress to which my soul cried out.
Coffee and laughter shared, however, fortified foundations of friendships. The simple touch of handshakes and hugs spoke volumes into the worth of every soul. More women and men came to be with us. The local pastor continues his conversation with them. We have no photo to document the work of presence. Instead my heart treasures the memories of the smiles and the tears, both built through the willingness to risk the investment of presence.
How Jesus Did Presence
I am in awe of those who do the ministry of presence well. Their attentiveness and non-anxious presence share the life-giving nature of our Lord Jesus. Pastor Rami and Shirley serve their fellow Guatemalans in this way, as do our longtime mission partners, the Erickson family.
Resting in a listening and humble posture, we create space for people to experience the presence of God. In this space of warmth and welcome, they discover the path to faithful living. In his book Faithful Presence, David Fitch points out Jesus’ training for his disciples…
“The disciples are instructed to enter the villages humbly (as lambs among wolves [Luke 10:3]) with no accoutrements of power (carry no purse, no bag, no sandals [v. 4]) and be present in the homes around the tables of the people they are sent to (v.7), as guests devoid of power. And yet they bring the announcement that “the kingdom of God has come to you” (v. 9). In their humility, and in their submission to what God is doing in this place, they clear space for the kingdom, for Jesus to become present. And by being humbly present, they can discern his presence and point to its breaking in.” (Fitch, p. 203)
And so it goes.
Sometimes, the only photos from a mission project are those captured by the heartbeat of my memory.
Posted by Sharon R Hoover