Last night I woke to the sound of my 5-year-old whimpering in the next room. I ran in to check on her. “Mama, mama, I had the baddest dream,” came her trembling voice. I climbed into the top bunk bed next to her and laid down. “Mama’s here,” I assured her. She put her little hand in mine. Immediately, I felt her body relax. She drifted back to sleep. In that moment, I realized what my baby-girl needed was my presence.
That little scenario made me pause. I couldn’t help thinking about the emotions I have felt in the weeks following the election and the Inauguration in January. This season has been harrowing to say the least. I have voted in six presidential elections in my lifetime, and I never remember it being this bad. The divisiveness, the name calling, the character bashing, the violence, the fear, the dismissiveness of those in my community grieves me.
Immediately following the election, I read a lot of posts on social media that people should stop being crybabies about the outcome. I read more of the same after the Inauguration and the Women’s March. These were painful to read because there is so much more at stake here. It’s not a simple, “Your team won; mine lost” scenario. Meanwhile, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have also been teeming with posts about hate crimes and sexual assaults committed, about friends with families and local businesses who fear being deported, about school children expressing uncertainty about their future.
My heart aches for my people and our country.
I have been searching for my place in all this. I have been asking myself, “How can I use my voice as a woman, as a multi-ethnic American, and as a Christian in this climate? How can I leverage my privileges to lift up the most vulnerable? How can I offer grace and love to my neighbor in tense times like these?” The answer I keep hearing is related to what my 5-year-old taught me when she was fighting her nightmare. I need to offer up the “ministry of presence.”
In this context, a “ministry of presence” means moving in close to listen, laying down our defensiveness and agendas, and offering up empathy instead. I have been reading Ann Voskamp’s latest book, The Broken Way, and she reminds me anew that Jesus always moves into the places of grief and offers up the ministry of presence. She writes, “In a broken world, isn’t the call always to koinonia, to communion with community that bears our burdens with us? Wasn’t suffering then actually a call for us to be a community, to stand together and bear under, trusting that arms of love are always under us?”
I have been offered the gift of presence several times in my life, and it has been important to my healing. When I was in college, I was walking to class one day and two men grabbed me from behind. In the days that followed that sexual assault, fear rose up inside me like an all-consuming monster. Thankfully, I escaped rape but the damage to my mind had already been done. I could not walk down the street or a hallway without feeling anxiety or going into a panic attack.
During that season, a dear friend and her boyfriend (who later in life became a police officer) decided to be present with me. They woke up early every morning and walked me to my classes. They waited around to see me home in the evenings. It was a simple gesture but their presence made all the difference in the world. Little by little – through counseling and mountains of prayers over many years – I regained confidence. I found the tools to combat my fear. Of course, it was unrealistic for them to be my bodyguards for life but their willingness to be present with me in that initial season was a powerful gift.
More than 15 years later, I faced a devastating stage four cancer diagnosis for my beloved husband. This was a different kind of trauma. During that journey, I had hundreds of people who offered to help us in tangible ways but it was the ones who offered the “ministry of presence” whom I needed the most. Friends came to play worship music for my husband in his final days. Friends came to sit with us through the long hours of the night when he faced the most pain, and I was the most exhausted. My community stood with me by the graveside, and they offered my young daughters and me a safe space to grieve in the months to follow.
One family offered us the gift of their presence just a few months after his death when it was time to buy a Christmas tree. Our family’s tradition was to go to a local Christmas tree lot and pick out a tree with Daddy. As the time drew closer to Christmas, dread heightened in my heart. Our friends asked me this question, “How can we be present for you this season? What’s something we can do to support you?” They agreed to accompany us to the Christmas tree lot.
The girls ran down the aisles of the tree lot in search of the perfect tree with their friends. The husband helped secure it to my car. My dear friend hugged me tight as we put it up in our home. The tears pooled in my eyes when a gathering of friends came to decorate our tree. We shared ornaments with all of them as reminders of my husband and his quirky personality.