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The ministry of presence

Guest column by Rev. Vincent Lachina

 Erik Söderström/Flickr

Erik Söderström/Flickr

I read a story recently about an automobile accident in which a woman was trapped in her overturned vehicle along a seldom travelled road.  A passerby stopped, saw the wrecked vehicle and called 911 for help. He was told it would be a while before help would arrive. He crawled under the car and began to talk to the woman inside, assuring her that help was on the way. Her plea was made in loud sobs, “Please don’t leave me!”

“What can I do? He asked.”

“Nothing” she said.  “Just stay with me.”

He clasped her hand and promised that he would stay right with her until help came.  And for two hours he lay there under the car, holding her hand, and gently talking to her.  When the paramedics and firefighters finally arrived, they had to cut her out of the car to free her.

The man stayed, holding her hand, until she was loaded in the ambulance and driven away.

When someone asked him about it, all he had to say is, “I didn’t do anything.  I was just present.”

The Bible tells a story of others who were simply present.  A small group of women stood near the cross of Christ — watching and waiting.  They didn’t ‘do’ anything, really. They were just present.  Can you imagine their helplessness at seeing what was unfolding before them?  Mary, the mother of Jesus, could only watch as the life bled out of his life hanging there in front of her. There in the company of the other Mary’s, there was nothing to do, yet these women did what is, I think, the ultimate act of ministry. They were present.   There are many stories in the Bible about people like these who simply engaged in what I call the “ministry of presence. “

Over and over people tell me, “Oh, I admire what you do and what you stand for, but I don’t know what I could do to help anybody else.” Their message is simple — I don’t know what to say or what to do.  We have all been there. In a place where we  didn’t know exactly what to say or what to do. Why is it that we feel we always have to have the right word or the right act before we can fix something or make it right or make someone feel better?

As a minister of over 50 years, I used to think I had to have the exact words for every situation. After all, I was an ordained minister. Didn’t they teach me that in seminary? Hadn’t I gained that ability in my many years of work?  For crying out loud, what do ministers think the church pays them for!? It’s my job, for heaven’s sake.

But I have learned the hard way that there are plenty of times when throwing out a Biblical platitude just doesn’t work. My old standby was that quote from Paul, “For we know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called to God’s purpose.” Take my word for it, as warm as those words are, they don’t mean very much in some instances.

My co-worker was preparing for the birth of her second child. They knew it was a boy and they were excited to have him join his brother to make a bigger family. Sadly, she had an ectopic pregnancy and was forced to end the pregnancy in order to save her own life. When I went to visit her, the only thing I could think to do was embrace her in a hug and hold her for awhile as she wept. There weren’t any words. Just the hug. We just sat in her hospital room in silence for a long time.  I didn’t try to comfort her with a Bible verse or words of wisdom. They didn’t seem appropriate. And when I left, all she said was, “Thanks for being here.”

The ministry of presence. It’s a ministry each of us can share. You don’t need a divine calling, seminary training or a job on a church staff.  It’s a personal ministry each of us has done is our own lives. Sometimes it’s with our own families, sometimes friends, sometimes strangers. We are simply present — we’re just there.

The passage in Matthew has some exceptionally good news for the women who were simply present at the crucifixion. Do you remember how they were rewarded? They were the ones to whom the good news of the Resurrection was announced by the angel. It wasn’t to the disciples who were hidden away fearing for their own lives. They weren’t present at the end of Jesus’ life or at the proclamation of his risen life.  Isn’t that ironic?

Almost 14 years ago, my mother had a double aneurysm while on vacation in Illinois visiting her aunt.  Though she had a DNR directive, the EMT’s who were called connected her to life support. The doctors diagnosed her as brain dead, but because she was connected to a respirator, she wasn’t really technically dead.  Our family had a long and painful struggle to finally have the respirator removed. We knew that was her wish, but it was painful to make such a difficult decision.

On a sunny Sunday in May, actually Mother’s Day morning, I sat beside my mother and held her hand as her spirit began to leave her body. There wasn’t anything to say and nothing I could do to “fix” things, but I was present.  And when my mother stopped breathing, I realized I had been giving her what Christ calls each of us to give – the ministry of presence.  Just be there.

Like Mary at the foot of the cross, like the man with the wrecked car, and like me at my mother’s bedside, we all engage in this blessed reaching out in the name of Christ.  It is the ministry of presence.

About Vincent Lachina

Rev. Vincent Lachina has served as Planned Parenthood Regional Chaplain for the last 13 years, providing support to patients and community members in Washington, Alaska, Idaho and Hawaii. Additionally, Lachina works to create an active network of progressive congregations in the Northwest who support reproductive justice for women. He is an adjunct member of Planned Parenthood's Clergy Advocacy Board, which provides guidance and advocacy on reproductive health and justice issues nationwide, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

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5 comments

  1. Vincent, very, very good message. Dan learned that lesson and taught it to me after a teenager in our church in DeSoto was in a very serious accident. Is asked him what he said to Mark’s parents. He said, “Nothing. I just sat and cried with them.” Mother Mickey told me later how much that meant to them.

    If you’ve not read “Pastrix” by Nadia Bohls Weber, you would enjoy it. She has a lot to say about the ministry of presence!

    I love you for being a caring, loving person (and minister)!

  2. So, while women allowed their unborn infants to be murdered by abortion doctors, you were present?

  3. Mark, all you saw was his bio. That’s not at all what this column was about.

  4. I am touched by the compassion your message communicates. I feel quite sad for those who cannot move into a place of loving kindness because their tendency to judge others obstructs love and understanding.

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