I entered Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest in the fall of 2005, having just graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Anthropology and Peace Studies. I was not sure exactly where life was going to take me, but I had a vague notion of going to Africa with Jesuit Volunteer Corps International and returning after a few decades with a PhD in anthropology. Marriage and motherhood were not really on my radar at the time — I had never been one to dream of my future family as a child, despite growing up with wonderful parents and a very happy childhood. I had, however, always dreamed of going off and getting lost somewhere. JVI was not placing volunteers that year, and so as a (very close) second choice I opted for the Pacific Northwest, which can lay claim to many wilds of its own.
I was placed in Tacoma, Washington at Nativity House, which was a drop-in center for the homeless in downtown. I lived with my four other housemates in an old house just up the hill with a thrilling view of Mt. Rainier, the jail, and a funeral home. While at Nativity House I learned to cook for up to 400 people at a time, monitor the smoking room for fights and drug deals, de-escalate conflicts between people much older and larger than myself, help people find resources for housing and job placement in our area, tell the difference between truth and lies, navigate an $80/month personal budget, and a myriad of other things. However, the skill I developed which has stood me in the largest stead was the ability to simply be with people wherever they are.
At Nativity House we referred to this skill as a Ministry of Presence. As an undergraduate at Notre Dame I was well grounded in Gustavo Gutierez’s Liberation Theology, and my application to JVC Northwest was in response to Gutierez’s call to walk with the poor. Even so, I remember that during our first days of training at Nativity House I was most eager to serve by cooking in the kitchen or signing people up for storage cubicles. As an introvert, socializing with guests out on the main floor was my least favorite role at the beginning, and one to which I seemed an ill fit.
Whenever it was my turn on the floor—and I was unable to trade jobs with another volunteer—I would seek out one of the quieter areas. Often I would gravitate toward Nativity House’s oldest or youngest guests; those who preferred to answer fewer questions or who had no need of someone to respond to their many stories and to whom I could offer my less talkative presence.
Over time, though, my housemates and I also realized that the calling to a Ministry of Presence was not just in our service with guests at Nativity House and our other volunteer placements. Rather, it was a call to the way we could more deeply interact with each other as fellow volunteers, housemates, and friends, a way to deepen the relationships in all aspects of our lives by allowing ourselves to be changed by our relationships and experiences, by—as we were taught in our JV Orientation—allowing ourselves to be “broken open” and remade. Out on the floor of Nativity House, I began to develop deeper exchanges with some of the guests, risking being hurt by the pain and experiences of their lives in exchange for a more authentic relationship.
In my FJV life I have come to see the ministry of presence work its power in a myriad of ways and under many different names. When my husband and I had our first child in 2010 I discovered that often I was unable to solve the problems that an upset infant or toddler presented. Sometimes a child just needs to vent their feelings, and the most I could do for them was to just be with them—to let them know that they were seen, heard, and not alone. Often our instinct as a parent is to solve a problem for our child without stopping to fully appreciate the situation or let them demonstrate their own abilities. When I am able to recall my training as a JV, I can slow down enough to let my daughters find their own solutions.
As an adult, I have found this skill to be useful in my role as a daughter as well. My mother was diagnosed this summer with a brain tumor that remains relatively innocuous, but inoperable. I recently flew home to CA for a week with my youngest daughter (16 months) for what my father called Non-Specific Proximity Therapy—I sat in the backyard with her and had coffee, watched old movies on TCM, went out for meals at our old favorite restaurants, and just spent time with her at her pace. I was simply present (barring nap times and bedtimes), and able to meet my mom where she was at the time. Often on other visits with my older children I would be unable to spend as much time going at my mother’s pace, instead having to manage the more energetic needs of older kids. Three hours going through the Sunday paper on the back patio would have been unthinkable.
At the time I was a JV, my husband was working with a Holy Cross priest in Leogane, Haiti, and I was able to visit him during my JV year. Our passion for the country and its people have only grown since that time, and it is a relationship that has challenged and demanded a full commitment to a Ministry of Presence. So often aide groups and well-meaning volunteers enter into the country hoping to give of themselves in a way that will be transformational to the Haitian community they are visiting, while not acknowledging or opening themselves to the possibility of a true relationship with the people. They go to build a school, or dig a well, or play with some children, or save some souls, but are not prepared to be marked or changed by the experience. “Phew, back to the real world!” the unaffected exclaim on the flight back to Miami, and forget about their experience until prompted at the next cocktail party or church revival meeting.
A true commitment to a Ministry of Presence is a messy affair. It requires that you engage with people, by sitting alongside them quietly and talking even when you feel uncomfortable. It demands that you sometimes watch while people you love struggle and stumble and fall, and that sometimes you walk with them in those struggles instead of whisking them away. And it entails that very often you are broken open when those with whom you are walking cannot get back up again, with or without your help.
In short, and in the best possible way, opening yourself up to a Ministry of Presence will often ruin you for life. The plans I made right after college were laid to waste, and in their stead I have a marriage and a family life whose love and richness I could not have begun to imagine in my twenties. My heart has been broken open and healed anew time and again, and I know that I am able to survive and grow stronger. My image of myself has been remade with every new relationship I form, growing stronger and more nuanced every time I see myself through the eyes of a new friend.