By Whitney Hetzel
When each of our nine children become 17 or 18, I have taken them on a week-long mission trip to visit the Missionaries of the Poor in Kingston, Jamaica. There we follow the daily routine of the Brothers of the MOP (there are over 200 who live in Jamaica at the varies monasteries there) which involves morning prayer, Mass, Adoration, their work at the centers where residents live (most of whom are mentally impaired), daily rosary, and evening and night prayer.
During my first visit to the MOP my daughter and I were sent to one of the centers where many of the elderly women residents lived. As soon as we entered the open air building the slight smell of urine mixed with a strong smell of ammonia became overpowering.
There were four volunteers sent there, including myself and my daughter and we were told that the brothers who were assigned to this center would tell us where help was needed.
I could sense that the other volunteers felt the way I did; they wanted to jump in and help right away. But when we first arrived no one came to tell us what to do. Two of the brothers were brushing the teeth of some of the residents while another was cleaning what appeared to be breakfast dishes in a large industrial sink. The other brother had a mop that was in shreds and he wiped the cement floor.
We stood there for a bit – not knowing exactly what we should do – but eventually (and maybe without realizing it) – we all gravitated towards where the brothers were working so we could assist them. The brother in charge asked my daughter and another volunteer to help him wash the rest of the dishes, but instead of giving me a task, he motioned to the women who lived there and asked me to sit and “just spend time with them”.
Im not sure why this took me by surprise, but I guess it wasn’t what I expected. Looking around I saw an old women sitting on the edge of one of the picnic benches and I sat down across from her at the table. She was rocking back and forth as she stared at the ground. I said hello and she glanced up, smiling slightly as she kept rocking.
I asked her how she was doing. She didn’t respond. A few long minutes ensued as I desperately attempted to think of something to say to this woman. Finally I began to tell her a little about my family. As I was talking I noticed that she still didn’t seem to be listening at all – and I wondered if she could hear me.
After a while I asked her if she had a family. Immediately, she said yes and told me she had a daughter and a grand-daughter. She then said in a small voice that she didn’t know where they were because they never came to visit her.
Wondering how to respond, I simply reached out my hand and put it in hers. Her fingers were thin and her elderly hand full of veins, but it was soft to the touch. She held my hand as she continued to rock back and forth.
After a few moments one of the brothers walked by and saw the two of us holding hands. He smiled and whispered to me as he walked by, “thank you”. I continued to hold her hand without saying anything for the next 20 minutes or so before a bell was rung for the angelus prayer. We held hands throughout the prayer and then she asked if we were staying for lunch.
This brief encounter with the elderly woman in Jamaica was profound and I will always remember it. I learned the importance that day of the ministry of presence.
At the end of that first mission trip and with every trip I took after that, I returned home with a renewed desire to be more attentive to those around me. So often in my busy life as a mother and a wife I focus too much on the daily tasks and not enough on taking time to simply be with the members of my family. To simply spend time with another person is a kind of mission work that we are all called to no matter what our vocation is.
Perhaps it is like the Mary and Martha story in the Bible. I tend to be more like Martha – I’m concerned about many things – and I don’t recognize that sometimes the better part that God is calling me to is to simply be present in the moment with another soul.
Although I have experienced it often, the first time I heard the term ministry of presence was last summer during a conversation with Christopher, one of our St. Isidore Corps missionaries. He alluded to the importance of being present to another and said “we have to practice a ministry of presence”. I knew immediately what he was referring to!
In our work with Father Paul Dumais, who is pastor of two rural parishes in Maine, we have learned the value of what it means to have this ministry of presence. The missionaries have spent much of their time this summer visiting the homes of parishioners and just getting to know them. Many of those they visit offer treats from their kitchens, fresh fruits and veggies from their gardens, coffee and tea, or just good conversation.
We live in an age of technology where Zoom meetings, remote work, and digital conferences are the norm. And yet for this reason and more, being present to others is essential now more than ever. In fact it has become a primary “charism”of Saint Isidore Corps itself!
Our homepage on our website explains: “This central ministry understands the needs of the human person as being not merely physical, but social, psychological, and spiritual…Interestingly it is in this role primarily that the missionaries find themselves being served spiritually and personally as they witness first hand the richness of rural life and enjoy the slower pace that St. Isiodore himself enjoyed.”
To be fully present to another we must be rooted in the True Presence of God. Leaning on the grace of God that we receive at Mass and in the other sacraments is something we should consider essential if we want to give ourselves in any genuine way to others.
The ministry of presence is something we all desire, isn’t it? The caring and full attention of another person. Let us pray that we might be able and willing to give it to others so that we too can experience it ourselves.
St. Isidore, pray for us!