THE MOMENT I STEPPED out of the Barranquilla airport, I could feel my excitement slowly drip away like the sweat on my skin. How am I going to make it in this oppressive heat and humidity?!
Before coming to Colombia I thought I knew what ministry of presence entailed: show up to places, sit and listen to people, participate and defer leadership opportunities to local community members, surrender the need to produce. And I have been doing all of this.
What I didn’t expect was how hard it would be. If you know me, you’re probably scoffing because you know me as a workaholic. But it hasn’t been hard because I feel unproductive or aimless. It’s been hard because of immediate, physical reasons. I feel hot, sweaty … or I feel cold because somebody thought it’d be fine to turn the AC down to 16ºC.
Physical discomfort. How quickly it can weaken my resolve! It magnifies hunger and fatigue and distracts me from the present moment, especially when it already takes so much energy for me to concentrate on what’s being said around me. In those moments, I fluctuate between frustration and shame as my physical needs battle my desire to stay engaged.
I’m getting a small sense of what many people in the world must face every day. I wonder if some of the folks I see each week experience the same tension. It’s showing me how truly important holistic service is. You can send the best teacher to a school, but how can a kid concentrate in class when their stomach is growling and they’re wondering if it’ll be filled when they get home?
One thing I love about going to El Pueblo is that the leader almost always provides snacks and juice at the end of each Bible study. I don’t know if she pays out-of-pocket or receives a stipend from her church. But somehow she makes sure everyone who comes is fed. Most people are elderly and likely on a pension, which I’m guessing is not a lot of money. By opening her home and offering food, she’s meeting needs on a spiritual, social and physical level.
I’m still learning the ministry of presence. Sometimes I do it well; sometimes I suck at it. But I’m learning that the way to do it is not to ignore or vilify my physical discomfort. It is not eliminating all distractions or fake-smiling through heat-induced drowsiness.
Being present means staying even when you want to go. It means sitting next to a 90-year-old and feeling each drop of sweat on my body and drinking pineapple juice together after Bible study.
It means choosing to be there, to be nowhere, to be here.