WHEN I ARRIVED at the retirement community for my first day as a chaplain intern, what I’d learned through months of study and preparation ran through my head—especially the oft-prescribed, but rarely defined, “ministry of presence.” As I moved from room to room, introducing myself to residents, I felt woefully inadequate. Was I too present? Was I not present enough? Was I present in the right ways?
When I reached Miriam’s* second-floor room in the late afternoon, I was overwhelmed. Bedbound and unable to speak or move without assistance, Miriam had entered hospice care several months before I arrived. She spent her days in this room with her aide, Charlotte*, always by her side.
As Charlotte greeted me, I noticed the family photos surrounding Miriam. I said “Hello,” and Miriam briefly opened her eyes, then sank back into sleep.
“You just made her day, and mine,” Charlotte said. I sat down beside the bed. Charlotte paused, then motioned to the photo nearest me. “That’s Miri’s son, Jeff,” she said. “He’s been out of town the past few weeks. It’s been a little tough with him, but it’s all on the mend now.” She followed suit for every photo around the bed, introducing me to Miriam’s family through her stories.
Am I doing enough?
The three of us—a 23-year-old chaplain intern, a seasoned middle-aged medical professional, and a great-grandmother in her upper 90s—sat together for nearly an hour. I learned that Charlotte had accompanied Miriam for more than 16 years, through every stage of her decline. “Sometimes I feel like I’m not doing enough, just sitting here with Miri all day,” Charlotte said, tears filling her eyes.
“But then I remember Jesus. And he did a whole lot of stuff, sure, walking from town to town, but he also spent time with people. I’m called to that now.”
Charlotte understood that to be truly present with someone—with no agenda and no conditions— is anything but simple and passive. Rather, ‘ministry of presence’ is actively rooted in the profound mundanity of human experience. Charlotte’s ministry was to watch NCIS reruns 10 times over, spoon-feed, bathe, medicate, change linens, mop and sweep, coordinate schedules, water the plants, and sing Miri’s favorite songs when Miri’s own voice failed her. The work wasn’t glamorous or momentous; it was the foot-washing, bread-breaking ministry of the Messiah.
Like that of Jesus, Charlotte’s ministry is, first and foremost, one of compassionately, sincerely journeying with people where they are, as they are. Hospitality, constancy, companionship—these comprise a ministry of presence. It isn’t rocket science; it’s simply about being there.
This blog first ran as a Give Us This Day column by Hannah J. Hawkinson in the May 2019 issue of Gather magazine. Find free, downloadable Women of the ELCA resources on hospitality. *Miriam and Charlotte’s names were changed for anonymity.