The new ministry strategy: show up

August 10th, 2016

Loneliness is a large and growing problem. God said in Genesis 2 that it’s not good to be alone, and that truth remains unchanged. Data continues to pile up that proves God’s point. Go figure.

Good news: Every church has the solution. But do they know?  

Although we’re hardwired to connect, our society has gone wireless. Why? Look no further than busyness. It’s like a firewall that prevents one person from noticing what’s happening with another person. 

Yet, when given the chance and a calorie of forward motion, compassion knows how to outmaneuver complexity. I had to take a trip to Haiti to figure this out.

While there, our missions team assisted local tradesmen rebuilding homes an earthquake tore down, ignored the chemical-warfare-like odor emanating from burning trash, and prayed for wind. We also visited an orphanage for several hours.

A week later, we returned home—but a part of me stayed in Haiti after someone ambushed my heart. No, I didn’t meet God in anything to do with the earthquake’s damage. No, he didn’t seem to appear in any smelly fires. And he certainly had no presence in the wind, or lack thereof. Instead, an unexpected sacred moment came in unusually quiet and unspectacular fashion. It took place at the orphanage when I met a Haitian boy no older than three.   

Without a doubt, the American team brought joy to the orphanage. Partially from the beachballs and bottles of bubbles, partially from the small candy packs, and mostly from our group’s high spirits, the result of a day spent away from the construction site. Despite the appeal of revelry, one little boy drifted off to sit alone, under a tree and against a wall. The truth is that people who most need someone to show up for them very often appear a step or two away from all the action.

I barely noticed him as I chased a ball kicked out of a lively scrum that bopped and booted anything inflated and brightly colored. A shallow drainage ditch separated the quiet plot of shade he occupied and the rest of the compound. Maybe it was curiosity caused by his tears; maybe it was a divine nudge. Who knows—but I rolled the ball toward the crowd, turned away from them, and made a long stride across the trench to sit down next to the little guy.

The only Haitian-Creole words I know include my name, age, and how to ask for the nearest bathroom. He was only three and rightfully knew no English. Good news: to show up for someone doesn’t require clever words. Or sometimes, any words at all. Silence is so under-appreciated and under-utilized.

Show Up: Step out of your story and into someone else's (Dust Jacket Press, 2016)

With all the fun going on all around him, why did he feel so sad? No easy answer came to mind. So I thought about his life. This beautiful little fella arrived in the world like everybody else, but his life took a very different turn. To live in an orphanage means he spends every day with a lot of people but doesn’t have parents. He has to compete for attention, and the competition looks stiff. Real young, real small—he’s probably overlooked a lot. From watching how the kids interact with one another, he definitely experiences a lot of injustice within these walls; in games, in meals, and in life overall. With nothing to call his own, he finally has a fun-looking beachball kicked his way, only to have someone take it right away. Countless scrapes, putdowns, and pushes out of the way. This is not the way life is supposed to work. No mom to hold him. No dad to defend him. No one to rely on. No wonder he was sad.

His life brought tears to my eyes, too, so I scooched closer. There we sat, under a tree and against a wall next to a ditch full of stagnant grey water, tears streaming down our faces. Unable to communicate but clearly able to connect at a level deeper than any conversation could ever flow.

With eyes fixed on the drainage swill, his hand grabbed hold of my little finger and squeezed. Not the grip of someone trying to inflict pain. Rather, the clutch of someone sharing pain and not wanting to let go of the one person who noticed. Eventually, maybe four of five minutes later, he popped up and before I could even shift my weight to stand, he let go of my finger and wrapped both arms around my neck. Definitely the best hug I’ve ever received.

He took a half step back, and as we both wiped tears off our cheeks, a grin appeared and his eyes went bright—as if a window shade abruptly rolled open to reveal full sunshine. As quick as a bullet, he ran toward the crowd and the chaos, reloaded for fun.

It’s easy to watch people from a safe distance. It’s easy to fear speaking the wrong words or feel too busy. It’s easy to do little or nothing, or to stay safely within the walls of what’s familiar and comfortable. The people held down by loneliness rarely lift up their voices to ask for help. If we wait until asked to show up for someone, the wait will run long. In most cases, such a request will never happen. It’s hard to make a personal difference from a distance—even when the separation measures only a few steps.

Money will not fill the gap. The orphanage receives strong financial support. They possess plenty of toys, food, and a sturdy structure. But all that made no difference in the moment with my little friend. His was a more basic need, felt by more people than you and I can comprehend. What he needed most is something everyone can do: anyone can care enough to sit down and stay a moment. Even me.

Was the direction of his life altered that day? Nope. That’s not the point of this story. In the process of an act as ridiculously simple as a shared moment of time and attention and reaction to his life, my little friend opened my eyes to what the world needs most—people willing to show up for one another. No process to follow. No expectations. Not even effort to fix the situation. Meet him where he’s at regardless of where I’ve come from. 

Loneliness is a hole people find themselves in, for whatever the reason. I’ve been that person enough to know the only solution: someone willing to show up and extend a hand—or even just a pinky.

This article is an excerpt from the book Show Up: Step out of your story and into someone else’s (Dust Jacket Press, 2016) by David Staal.

comments powered by Disqus