Monday, June 20, 2011

The Power of Presence

I know that you’re waiting for more of an explanation about my decision to stay, but I’d rather post some old stuff first. Sorry. Kind of.

I remember early in my second year I was teaching some of the older girls to make pancakes and they were telling me stories about past volunteers. One of the oldest girls, who I had recently had some pretty intense talks with, looked at me with her eyes full of some unspoken meaning and said “lots of people have come. You’re the only one who stayed.” It was then that I realized that, yes, my work was becoming more meaningful and more effective, the longer I stayed and the more I learned, but the act of staying in itself was its own message. It was a way of saying to the girls, “I’ve seen you at your best and at your worst, I’ve witnessed the good and the bad. Despite the bad, and because of the good, I want to keep walking with you.”

I taught, I scolded, I celebrated, I danced, I learned, but, more than anything, I was simply here. Here to teach five year olds to tie their shoes, here to light candles when the power was shut off for weeks, here to listen as a girl whispered to me about her nightly flashbacks of being raped by her cousin. Here to hold a nine year old in my arms after she tried to take her own life. Here to teach second graders to turn cartwheels, here to accompany a teenager to court to face her abusive stepfather, here to say to them after they danced in the church for the first time “I’m so proud of you!” and here to tell our little girls “I remember when you were this big.” I’ve done a lot of different things here over the last two years, drawn upon a lot of experiences, and learned a lot of new skills, but I don’t think any task has been as important as the simple act of being here.

It shouldn’t be any surprise, really, that simply being present with someone can be such a profound, though challenging, act of love. God’s greatest act of love was to die for us, but I’d argue we undervalue His showing up on this earth to begin with. We know we are loved by God because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:11 ). Though his miracles and teachings were essential, sometimes when I read the gospel I feel it was his ordinary presence, walking amongst the poor, kneeling beside the sick, eating with the rejected, that shocked and confused and comforted the most. In fact, it was in the ordinary act of sitting down to share a meal with his disciples, not the hours of teaching and interpreting of prophecy beforehand, that Jesus was recognized on the way to Emmaus.

When we come to teach, to plan, to heal, to develop new projects, we are making a statement about the worth of others; they deserve a better life and future. But a lot of our girls, in addition to these things, desperately need to simply know that they are worth the love and attention of others, just as they are. That message isn’t conveyed by all the work we do to shape them, though yes, that is important. It is revealed by simply being here with them. It’s a way of saying, goals and dreams and "development" aside, I´m happy to be with you, just as you are.

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