i went to a funeral today

IT IS A GREAT mystery that each of us is both unique and not at the same time.

Not a day goes by that I don’t come across an aspect of life in Colombia that stands in stark contrast to my experiences in the US. Communication styles. Jokes. Notions of personal space and autonomy.

Then there are moments that shake up my comparison game and remind me that, at our core, we share similar desires and sentiments. I had such a moment today.

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This afternoon I attended the funeral of a beloved member of our presbytery. Dr. Ángel Quintana recently passed away at the strong age of 89. I never had the chance to talk with him, but I saw him at church a few times. From getting to know his son’s family (they are super nice), I could guess that Dr. Quintana was a noble man.

That he was, and more. Upon arrival, my host aunt and I had to weave our way through the crowd to find a seat. (There were just a few couches lined against the walls. Everyone else stood.) There must have been at least 100 people.

I couldn’t grasp every word that was shared during the service, but grief doesn’t need words.

The mild, subdued atmosphere. The faces of those who loved Dr. Quintana. The way his daughter-in-law asked me, “¿Cómo te ha ido?” as if it was just another day. The emotion that shook the speakers’ voices and the shoulders of his children and grandchildren.

It is true that followers of Christ who lose a loved one can find comfort and hope in the promise of eternal life with God. Jesus’ solidarity with humans in their suffering is really good news. But until the promise of heaven is fully fulfilled, the hole left by that loved one remains. The desire to see them again remains. The pain of living without them remains.

This afternoon I was glad I couldn’t express myself well in Spanish. I gave hugs and squeezed hands, offered silent tears and prayers. Because although I didn’t know Dr. Quintana, I have grieved the deaths of my aunt, my last piano teacher, and my friend in DC.

Losing someone makes you cry regardless of the language you speak or the country you live in. 

Of course, it’s entirely possible that one can witness a sad event and walk away unaffected. It is only when we choose to enter into our shared experience of sorrow that empathy abounds.

when being meets doing

NO PUEDES SALIR hoy.

This was not the greeting I was expecting as I strolled through the door after a great workout. I searched my host brother’s face. What did he mean that I couldn’t leave today?

My host mom stepped into the conversation: My host dad’s cousin had passed away. She and my host aunt were heading to this cousin’s mom’s house for the rest of the day. The reason I needed to stay was that we were also hosting another cousin, the energetic 8-year-old Dayana*. There was no way my host brother and Dayana could be left together unsupervised.

Sure, I said, getting myself into babysitter mode.

It was the longest day of my life. It went something like this:

lunch
tag
kids get tired
freeze tag
kids get tired
hide-and-seek
kids bicker
UNO (to ease tensions)
kids start cat-fighting, leaving Dayana in tears and my host brother in exasperation
freeze tag (Sophia gets so competitive she falls off couch)
sardines (because Sophia is now limping)
kids get bored
go to the park
ADULTS COME HOME *praise hands*

And yet I was sad to hug Dayana goodbye the next day.

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Sometimes being present means getting really excited about my host brother’s school supplies.

Spending time with Dayana reminded me of why I came to Colombia: the ministry of presenceIn a brief moment of clarity during that chaotic day, it occurred to me that I was exactly where I needed to be.

If I hadn’t been living with this family, they would’ve had to work out a different arrangement: my host mom would’ve had to stay with the kids instead of accompanying her grieving sister-in-law, or they would’ve had to drag the kids along. My availability provided support to my host family.

A few weeks ago my host dad’s older sister María* suffered a heart attack. Everyone’s schedules were disrupted with hospital visits and heavy hearts. Thankfully, her bypass surgery went well, and she is recovering.

Watching my host family care for María has convinced me of the ministry of presence. They can’t do anything to make her better, but they’re doing all they can to make her feel better. They’ve spent hours by her side, visiting her after a long day at work, staying overnight at the hospital. They attend to her needs, give her massages, pray for her… They spend time with her.

And she feels the love.

And once again I’m seeing God use my availability to help my host family.

This week my host aunt is spending a lot of time with María, who is her sister. My host aunt is in charge of sweeping & mopping (morning chores) and washing pots & pans (evening chore). Because she spends basically the whole day with María, it’s hard for her to do her daily chores.

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Sometimes being present means not being part of a conversation and just enjoying the company.

That’s where I come in.

In this case, I’m doing rather than simply being. But the chores take on new significance. I sweep because I care about María and my host aunt. I wash the dishes so that my host aunt can be with her sister. Contrary to my nature, I don’t try to beat the clock when I do these chores. I let myself be present to each movement. I’m being even as I’m doing.

The ministry of presence is not limited to a particular space. It is not merely a model for working with children or for listening to the stories of displaced people. It is certainly not an excuse to get out of chores. It is a way of life.

 

* names changed to protect individuals’ privacy

to be here

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.

At El Tamarindo in December a few weeks before their unlawful eviction. This was an example of a time when I was really happy to be there but struggled to stay present because of the heat.

At El Tamarindo in December a few weeks before their unlawful eviction. An example of when I was really happy to be there but struggled to stay awake because of the heat.

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?

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At El Tamarindo. Even as her eviction was being confirmed that very moment, Marisol gave me this.

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.