Bishop Duracin once said, “If you have $2,000 to give us, use $1,000 to come and see us and donate the other half to our works.” Out of that came the idea of “a ministry of presence.”
Over the years many have asked us exactly what that means. It is not always easy to explain, but if you ever decide to follow the bishop’s advice and go to Haiti you can come away knowing two things: that he was right and that you understand what it means.
Just back from a week on La Gonave I am struck by how much of what we do is “show up.” I see it in the eyes of the folks who travel with us. They comment on how many people know us and how we know them. The Haitians there speak to us on the street. They come up and hug us when we arrive. They call us by name…and we call them by name as well. I realized, once again this week, this is not common mission work as we have come to know it over the years. And, yet, as I sit down to write, it is still hard to convey what a ministry of presence is exactly. It can be something very simple, or it can be life-saving.
At a very fun level it is the on-going, 3 year old basketball tournament (really just a pick up game) that happens when Travis and Cole Honeycutt show up each year. Father and son split up and play against each other, the teams made up of local friends who ask upon their arrival, “Basketball?” They have learned to have a multi-lingual, trash talk of a game with all the back pats and high fives that you would see at any congenial pick up game. It is a game among friends, not a cautious, awkward game between two cultures.
In the spectator section (that means sitting on the school steps) there are friends who come to watch and talk about how their kids are doing in school, politics, reports about mutual friends who may be sick, working at a new job, or have moved elsewhere to try to find a job.
Or, it can be the dear couple (maybe in their mid-twenties) who shows up at the clinic with an 11-day old baby boy who is wheezing, skin looking very burned and red, who is in very critical condition. They made the long trip from Pikmy, a very remote area way up in the mountains, because they heard we were there and they were desperate for care for their child. Diagnosed with bronchiolitis and staph-scalded skin he was rushed to Wesleyan Hospital for further treatment. Crying out in the hall of the Bill Rice Clinic the father admitted that he only had 250 gourdes (the equivalent of less than $4 US) and when we gave him what he needed to be able to take his son to the hospital (about $50) he hugged us until we had to remind him that he needed to be on his way. After getting his son and wife settled at the hospital in Anse-a-Galet he walked over to St. Francis to give us the update and thank us again (more hugs) for helping them.
Of course, we are not there all the time to help, but there was a sense that they knew the partnership had an ongoing presence on the island and that in times of emergencies we helped when we could, whether it was medical emergencies or natural disasters, not just with money, but with genuine concern.
When the noise of the day quieted and I had a few minutes alone I tried to reflect on what had been the overarching tone of the day. It was very clear to me that our presence makes a difference. We are not there to “do for” in the old sense of mission work…but, rather, we are there to “be with” the people in an honest and kind way that any of us would want if we were living in the most marginal of circumstances. And, more importantly, it was clear to me that our friends on La Gonave experience our partnership that way as well.
Maybe it is the word “ministry” that throws me a bit, because it is not being done to anyone, but it does feel sacred on a very deep level.
They show genuine appreciation for basketball games, talk of friends here or other places, family (theirs and ours), help with sick children or family members, a swim in the ocean, or a shared meal. And, while the word “ministry” still implies a function that does not seem quite right, ministry of presence serves to explain a deep and abiding sacred space that we fill with shared times, whether in pain or in fun, and a promise to return and be with them, hopefully for another 30 years.
For the Partnership