How to offer a ministry of presence while social distancing

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By Patrick Lyons, Captain–

I believe one of the most difficult aspects for all those affected by this viral outbreak is the lack of contact with others. This is true for those who serve. 

While emergencies and disasters are horrific events, I have some cherished memories of service. One of those was in the days after a hurricane and I was with a canteen crew in Galveston, Texas. A man brought his mother who was in her late 80s and asked for coffee. She loved coffee and hadn’t had any for days. It just happens that I didn’t only have coffee, I had brought some Hawaii Kona coffee just for the canteen crew. I told her that we were going to serve her an amazing cup of coffee. A member of our team handed me the cup of special brew through the window. This woman, who had seemed frail and held on to her son’s arm as if she would fall at any moment, broke free from his grasp, shuffled toward me in short, measured steps and took the cup. She drank and smiled. I smiled. She hugged me and I hugged her in return.

I don’t remember how many meals I served that day, but I remember her and the very social, non-distanced moment where two of God’s children were able to connect. The Salvation Army’s Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) training programs call this the ministry of presence. I have many memories like that from different disaster deployments, but those types of connections are not common right now.

A wave and a thumbs-up are replacing close contact and compassionate conversation. We have to protect those we serve and those who are serving. Our daily report requires us to detail how we are utilizing social distancing in our service. Our county emergency services and health departments were sure to communicate the necessity to us. In fact, as I walked up the stairs at the Department of Health, I passed by a gentleman closer than six feet and I began to nod hello. He must have thought I wanted to speak because he responded with a quick shake of the head, a sharp “no” and he moved past me very quickly. He was not being rude; he was being safe. It is the necessity of the moment.

So how do we experience the ministry of presence in these circumstances? Start with being present in the moment. If you have a spouse or children, be present with them. Call them throughout the day and check in. Before you leave the house, do your best to put off the cares of the day until after you shut the door behind you. Be with your family and cherish the moment. 

When you get to your deployment site, whether it is the corps, a shelter or somewhere else, be present with the people you work with. Be emotionally present. Look them in the eyes, listen to their words and hear what each person is saying. Reinforce that you are present with them by how you engage with them. Encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thess. 5:11). 

Your ministry might just help a relief worker go from a human doing into a human being.

As people drive through our distribution centers, look them in the eyes and make an emotional connection. Wave, give thumbs up, salute—whatever it takes. It is not the same as a hug and handshake but it will do under our circumstances. When we have the chance to encounter people, lock eyes ask how they are doing. Then listen.

Finally, a note to my fellow introverts. This will not be easy, but it is what emotional ministry looks like right now. You will likely drain yourself every day. Please take special care of yourself and get alone time when you can throughout the day. Don’t wait until your tank is empty.

Here is a prayer for today: Father, here we are again—you and me. Thank you for Emmanuel, God with us. Thank you for the presence of the Holy Spirit, my ever-present comforter. I thank you for my family, my fellow-workers and those whom I will serve. Remind me to be present with them, and I ask you to continually draw me to yourself. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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