Growing up, I rarely missed a day of school. I attribute this to my mother, who made a firm rule of “unless you are throwing up or have a fever, you go to school.” And since I hardly ever threw up or had a fever, I was always awarded one of those sweet ribbons for perfect attendance at the end of every year.
As a college student, my attendance habits switched to another outlet. I took more liberties in my class attendance, but I had perfect attendance at every InterVarsity meeting for my chapter until my senior year of college. I also participated in two Urbana Conferences and was part of many Global Urban Treks.
People began to tell me that I had the ministry of presence. At first, I viewed the comments as simply another type of perfect attendance award—basically useless except for pinning on my bulletin board. People with the ministry of presence were, in my mind, people who couldn’t do anything else useful. So they would just sit. And be present. And do nothing.
Now, however, as an intern for Servant Partners in Bangkok, Thailand, living and working in a poor community, my job description could be boiled down to “be present with your neighbors.”
And I’ve realized, a year in to my two-year internship, that I expect my presence to actually make a difference. That I, a White woman from America, will, at minimum, be able to bestow dignity and honor by deigning to sit with those less fortunate than myself.
Writing it out like that makes me feel a bit sick to my stomach. The truth, however, is that this is one of my hopes. I want my neighbors to know more about the value and worth God has inherently bestowed upon each of them. I know that I can be present and hope my presence shows them this. I don’t think this hope in and of itself is wrong; what is wrong (and arrogant!) is thinking of myself as being the all-important White woman who hands dignity out like precious candy.
In reality, I really have no idea if my presence over the years has positively affected the various groups of people I have been with. The startling truth I’ve come to realize, however, is that God has powerfully used my attendance to change my own heart. For me, being present has not been about transmitting my own wisdom, power, or knowledge. Rather, being present has been about my own personal growth and development into a person who desires to fight for justice and pray for God’s kingdom to come more fully into this world.
Being present at InterVarsity meetings taught me about a God who cares for the world and who values our time spent in prayer interacting with him on behalf of others.
Being present in Cairo, Egypt, taught me that I, like some Egyptian people, tend to be really racist toward Black people from West Africa.
Being present at a Black women’s group taught me a sliver of what life was like for Black women at my college.
Being present in Kolkata, India (four times—I’ve needed to learn a ton about this!) taught me that our God is a powerful God who can change even my stubborn heart and view toward an entire city of people.
Being present at an outreach with women in the sex trade in Seattle taught me that I cannot judge anyone by what they do—and that I certainly know very little about what keeps people in systems of oppression.
Being present with friends of different cultures has taught me how to truly and genuinely respect other people.
Being present in my community in Bangkok has taught me that my neighborhood kids love to laugh and enjoy the world around them.
Being present in social media has taught me how far the United States still has to go to create systems and communities that are truly equal and free of racism.
I am so grateful to anyone who has ever allowed me to sit and be present with them.
As we move into the New Year and continue celebrating the miraculous birth and life of Jesus, what ways is God calling us to be more present with him and our neighbors? We won’t get a prize or a sweet “perfect attendance” ribbon for our efforts, but I’m sure that, before long, we’ll grow more into Jesus who is the head and see more of God’s kingdom come to this earth—and we’ll get to be a part of it.
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Matt Kirk. Chart by twentyonehundred productions Laura Li-Barbour.