A Ministry of Presence: The Power, Privilege, and Practice
By Rev. Glenn Merritt
The Power of Presence— Story reprinted with permission
from the Summer 2009 issue
of Caring Connections.
In the midst of terrible devastation, hope dawns new at Peace Lutheran Church in Greensburg, Kansas. As the pastor recovers church records from a bent and battered file cabinet, one of the elders sifts through shattered stain glass and splintered pews for anything salvageable. Nearby the elder’s wife finds photo albums and sits down to remember yesterdays at Peace. Another elder joins her and together they reflect on memories of days gone by.
The power of presence was evident on May 7, 2007, as I stood in the massive debris field that was once the small town of Greensburg, Kansas. The presence of God was evident in the character and courage of the residents as they returned to survey the incredible destruction of their homes and hometown. At the same time, the presence of emergency services personnel, the National Guard, and of state and local officials brought a sense of order and calm to chaotic circumstances. Later on, the presence of the President of the United States was unmistakable as he held hands, prayed, and lifted the spirits of those affected by this terrible tragedy.
Being there, holding hands, and lifting up spirits are important, to be sure, but a ‘ministry of presence’ must bring more than a mere pat on the back or a well-meaning prayer. A ministry of presence embraces the presence of Christ by meeting the emotional, spiritual, and physical needs of the helpless and hurting.
The power of our presence at disaster scenes finds its source in Christ’s enduring presence in our own lives. It is an awesome responsibility to stand in the stead of Christ offering whole-person, Christian care.
Christ’s presence after his resurrection demonstrates the power that his presence has to console and comfort the needy. Christ’s powerful presence is the preeminent paradigm for our ministry of mercy which can dispel the darkness of fear and uncertainty about the future.
Jesus’ disciples were lost in the tragedy of his death when he came to them with calming words, comforting them his presence. According to John, when they saw him they were glad.
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. (John 20:19-20 ESV)
It was the power of Christ’s presence that moved his disciples from the tragedy of death to the triumph of life. That same power is realized today in the ministry of the church through those who stand in his stead to transcend the critical events that affect the lives of people.
The Privilege of Presence—
It is a privilege to be present in the name of Christ. A ministry of presence is a ministry with the gospel as its matrix. A ministry of presence helps transform victims into survivors, a necessary step on the road to recovery and renewal.
I stood in the ash of a home consumed by wildfire in Southern California. The pastor and his wife spoke through tear-stained eyes as they shared their incredible story of survival and surprise. In a flash of fire, they were left with no place to live, no furniture, no clothing, and personal effects. It was all gone. There was nothing left to salvage or save.
While it is a privilege to be with people and listen to their story, empathy without action is not ministry. A ministry of presence does more than listen.
We are reminded—
17If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)
The desolation and despondency often felt by victims of disaster or tragedy is not easily broken. There is more to the ministry of presence than just being present with the brokenhearted.
A ministry of presence replaces moments of misery with moments of mercy. Moments of mercy are delivered by those privileged to stand in the stead of Christ at the crossroads of tragedy and triumph. The privilege of presence includes service in tangible ways.
Not everyone agrees as seen in the following statement—
"The purpose of a ‘ministry of presence’ or the ‘art of hanging out’ is to provide a ‘non-anxious presence,’ to potentially be an ‘active listener’ while holding an outreached hand, offering a cup of coffee, or mucking out a home. To engage a person impacted by disaster is to ask them to tell their story."1
But, there is always a story behind the story. Often the burden is too heavy for families to carry alone. Active listening may not be enough if it is followed by inaction. Many people are already living beyond the edge personally and financially before a disaster strikes. While the destructive nature of disasters emphasizes the crucial importance of faith, family, and friends, the "art of hanging out" may not be enough. It is true that few victims want to be alone emotionally, spiritually, or physically in the aftermath of a disaster or tragedy. A holistic approach to ministry acts to address every aspect of need during critical events.
It is worth mentioning here that professional church workers are often overlooked and overwhelmed and when a disaster affects their community. They too can fall between the cracks with catastrophic career results, a topic worth exploring in future articles.
To summarize, the privilege of presence is an awesome responsibility as well as a call to action. In his insightful book, Christ Have Mercy, Rev. Matthew Harrison writes,
"Disasters are not a time for "bait and switch" or "hidden agendas." They are a time to be charitable, considerate, and a time to realize the people affected are very vulnerable and must be treated with the utmost love and respect. This does not mean refusing to give "a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15).
And St. Peter continues, "yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame." (I Peter 3:16).
And there is nothing hidden! Lutherans are about faith in Christ and deeds to show Christ’s love and mercy. We openly confess that word and deed go together, as they did for Jesus Christ (Luke 5:17-26) and his apostles (Luke 9:2ff.) when they assisted those in need."2
This is where the power, privilege, and practice of presence converge to meet needs.
The Practice of Presence—
The privilege of presence naturally leads to the practice of presence. This occurs precisely at this intersection of greatest need when emotional, spiritual, or physical needs must be addressed not with word only but also with deed.
"In disaster, first and foremost, Christian care sees to the basic needs of those affected: food, water, clothing, and shelter. This first line of care reflects the First Article of the creed, where God is the giver of "clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home," family, property, and "all that I have." Because every person, regardless of race, color, creed, or confession, is a precious creation of God, for whom He cares, Christian care provides disaster victims with what they need "to support this body and life."3
To practice presence means to provide food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, shelter to the needy, healing to the sick, and comfort to the lonely. (Matthew 25) It is a comprehensive approach to ministry that meets people at the point of their greatest need with caring, comfort, and concern.
The practice of presence assures the needy that they are not alone as they walk through what could otherwise be a lonesome valley. It is one thing to care about the needs of others; it is quite another thing to actually meet the needs of others.
"15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 18But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do." (James 2:15-18)
In both of the personal examples shared above, the needs of these families were addressed without delay with assistance for transitional housing, gift cards for food and clothing, dollars for urgent personal and medical needs as well as pastoral care and counsel.
The call of the Church is a call to action. The Church does not refer the needy to others for assistance. Faith in action attaches momentous words to courageous deeds. God supplies the need when the Church practices the presence of Christ in the midst of disaster and tragedy.
Finally, as a closing thought, Luther comments on the importance of the sacrament in our ministry of presence—
"There your heart must go out in love and devotion and learn that this sacrament is a sacrament of love, and that love and service are given you and you again must render love and service to Christ and His needy ones. You must feel with sorrow all the dishonor done to Christ in His holy Word, all the misery of Christendom, all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing: You must fight, work, pray and, if you cannot do more, have heartfelt sympathy. That is bearing in your turn the misfortune and adversity of Christ and His saints.4
Fight, work, pray is a good way to summarize what a ministry of presence is all about. Then, when you can’t do anymore, have heartfelt sympathy for those in need. The power, privilege, and practice of presence always bring hope and help to the hurting.
1 Long-Term Recovery Manual, (Arlington, VA: National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, Rev. 2004) 60.
2 Matthew Harrison, Christ Have Mercy, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2008) 142.
3 "Christian Care in Times of Disaster," A Training Manual for District Disaster Response Coordinators and Teams, (St. Louis, MO: LCMS World Relief and Human Care, 2008) 23.
4 Martin Luther, "The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, against the Brotherhoods," Luther’s Works, Vol. 35, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1960) 54.
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Printed on: 9/21/2009 9:46:09 AM CDT