Giving the Gift of Presence

“I have never felt more safe in my life.” These strong words were uttered through a tearful smile to a dear friend of mine a few years back, coming from the mouth of a South African villager. The villager then explained what he meant: “I would wake up in the middle of the night and see that two white men were sleeping on either side of me.” These words hit me; stuck to me—his expression still resonates, even years later.

The group my friend was a part of spent the whole month of their mission trip with the people of Molweni, a small South African village. That might seem par for the course, but in fact it never happens.

You see, the vast majority of service groups that travel to third world villages will sleep in neighboring towns; towns that are big enough to have a police force and hotels all throughout them. Rarely does anyone feel comfortable enough to stay in a secluded village, in huts with dirt floors, with people they do not know. Which is why this villager had such a heartfelt experience.

This experience serves as a harrowing reminder that the greatest act of service we can give someone is presence—being physically present with people. In a world that is run by commercialism and industry and schedules and social media, this idea is quite counter-cultural. Instead of spending money, getting ahead, and being too busy to breathe, what if we go to someone’s house for game night? Or we could take them to coffee, or beer, or dinner, or a concert. What if we actually followed through with just a fraction of the empty let’s-catch-up-sometimes that we offer to so many? The real gift is you, not what you can offer. What is wanted is relationship, not commodity.

This concept rightly applies to everyone, but viewing it specifically through the lens of our Christian faith, the Gospel calls us to be present. All throughout Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, we have never been called to minister to a place or a problem. Never. We have always been called to a people. Always. The Canaanites, Ninevites, Amorites, Gentiles, Romans, Pagans, the Israelites themselves, and our American neighbors. God, as seen in the incarnation of his Son, is in the business of making himself known to his people. The Christian God, unlike any other, desired so much to be with us physically that he literally joined us. The Message translation of the Bible says the Gospel, “put on flesh and moved into the neighborhood.”

Recently, I have moved into the hollers of southeastern Kentucky, into the heart of Appalachia, to teach at a small Christian school. My students have stories and backgrounds that not even the edges of your imagination could create and, frankly, would not even believe until witnessing them firsthand.

Initially, I felt overwhelmed. I presumed this was how Samson must have felt when the Lord gave him the jawbone of a donkey to slay a whole Philistine army—unprepared, ill-equipped, outmatched, yet present, standing my ground.

I keep showing up, and each day I see my students, and I hear them. Respect is starting to be planted, and students are starting to bloom in my classroom. Trust is being earned, not only because I am here today, but because I’ll be back tomorrow. For some of these kids, that is more than anybody has ever given them.

This desolate area, mostly forgotten by the rest of the country, does not see many “Yankees” moving here—not by choice anyway. And yet, wading through knee-deep baggage and suffering from third-degree culture shock, I find myself still standing—gaining speed, really. Because the truth is, my daily warm welcome and consistent smell of coffee each morning does more for the hearts of these kids than any monthly, tax-deductible check sent in the mail, government program, or your “thoughts and prayers.”

Jesus has called his followers to be the salt and light of the world. This demands faithful presence to those around us, where we carve out spheres in the world for the Gospel to be communicated and known. We cannot settle for pleasantries that do not demand actual time. They are cheap. After all, if the Devil cannot make you evil, he’ll make you busy—too busy to see the needs around you; too busy to find margins in your schedule to communicate grace and exercise it in the work you find so important; too busy to be with the people around you.

Take the step towards relationship. Something magical happens when texts are traded for actual face time; when street-crossing waves turn into neighborhood cookouts; when T-ball games are witnessed from the bleachers and not summarized over tomorrow’s cereal; when emailed condolences become warm, elongated, tear-stained-shoulder hugs; when hotel suites are substituted for floor-mats on either side of a South African villager. This is when the Gospel puts on flesh.

Radical love will never go unnoticed. Try giving yourself, not just your resources. We are called to be present.