The challenge of presence

Dear colleagues,

Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day. To the best of my knowledge, it’s not marked on the calendars of any of the churches represented at the college but it is a day I nonetheless pause on each year.

Before ordination, I worked for a couple of years for a church ministry that served a shantytown community built on a garbage dump outside the small city of Mthatha in South Africa. Part of the ministry was a medical clinic and it was there that I was introduced to the reality of HIV/AIDS in Africa. A significant percentage of the patients we saw in the clinic were HIV-positive and a fair amount of my work involved accompanying these patients through the South African health care system. It was a time when life-saving anti-retroviral drugs were just beginning to be made available in South Africa (nearly a decade after they had first become available in much of the wealthy, western world) so there was real hope for these patients, but it was a hope that often was not realized due to bureaucratic inefficiencies, logistical snafus, and the stigma that surrounds a positive test result.

There are many things I learned from my time working in this community—about myself, about how change happens in the world, about what counts as accomplishment—but what I find myself dwelling on in this season is the nature of ministry. Before I moved to South Africa I had heard the phrase “ministry of presence,” that is a ministry that is characterized chiefly by a willingness to show up. There’s good Biblical precedent for this. The Gospel of Mark tell us that Jesus “appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him…” (3:14) Apostolic ministry begins with being with Jesus and, since we can find Jesus through others (Matthew 25:45), it begins with being with others as well.

As I accompanied residents of this shantytown through the South African healthcare system, I learned how important being with people is. I also learned just how astonishingly, profoundly difficult it can be. On so many occasions I wanted to be able to snap my fingers and make everything right, to cut through whatever bureaucratic tangle we were in, to instantly locate lost test results, to prescribe the anti-retrovirals then and there. I wanted to offer something more than simply my companionship. It helped me realize how strong the temptation is in me to problem-solve, fix, improve, and make better. A ministry of presence begins in a different place: in the face of the world’s injustices, we are called first to be—with Jesus, and with those in need. I saw lives transformed in South Africa and people made whole but it all began with a decision to be alongside.

There are as many models of ministry as there are people called to ministry. On this World AIDS Day, a day that comes in this season of anticipation of the Incarnation, I am reminded of the importance of choosing to show up, be present, and walk alongside those among whom we are called to minister.

Faithfully yours,

This message was written by Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.