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The Power of Presence

—Larissa Peters

I like to be independent. I don’t like seeming weak. I don’t like asking for help. But over the last couple months, I’ve had to. I’m currently facing a health issues. It’s nothing too serious, but it’s something that has been bewildering and, at times, left me feeling completely helpless and alone.

But what has stood out the most to me is what a powerful thing presence can be. I have been so grateful for people simply being present with me in these difficult days, and the power of presence has been reinforced for me over and over again.

Being on the receiving end of help has started a stream of thought for me about what presence means and why it’s spoken so strongly to me.

Presence is more than just being there.

Presence is being open, not necessarily available 24/7. That’s an impossible expectation to put on anyone. But I can’t describe the relief I’ve found in those who are present with me, not simply in proximity, but in spirit by letting me know I can call at any time and say, “I can’t. I can’t tackle this anymore.

Presence is listening. People know when the person they’re talking to is distracted. Sometimes you can’t help it, but a listening ear that is all there can be like fresh water to a thirsty person. Unvirtuous Abby once posted: “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference” (David Augsburger, Mennonite Teacher).

Presence is forgiving. It can be tiring. And sometimes the person in need doesn’t have room in his or her life to return the favor or even the mental space to remember to say thank you. Sometimes there can be hurt. But being present is being compassionate, overlooking wrongs.

Presence is active. It’s one thing to be available, but if someone is hurting, sometimes they have no idea or any capacity to state a need they may have. It’s recognizing, it’s noticing. At times my need was taken care of even before I felt it.

And most importantly, presence gives hope. The words or help of a friend has helped me face another day, it’s helped me stay positive, it’s given me courage—for no reason at all but the fact that I don’t feel alone in this.

As Advent is coming up, I find more and more richness in the name of Jesus: “Emmanuel,” “God with us.” His gift to us is His presence. He is someone who is wanting us to draw near.

“God with us” means that someone has an interest. Someone is nearby. Someone gives us the courage to face the next day. I’ve heard people say, “You shouldn’t go to God with a list.” And while that is valid, I honestly don’t think He cares if we end up going to Him in weariness with a request. I don’t think He tires of it. Knowing He is with me in unanswered health issues gives me peace. His presence gives me hope.

And it is through the presence of people that I’ve felt God’s presence as I walk through this.

fall nature

Photo by Hania Luna

Learning About BUILD, Listening to Our Community

build-one-baltimore-city-that-300x199

After the riots shook Baltimore, we at Old St. Paul’s, like many faith groups around the city, decided to reassess our methods of outreach and community engagement in order to better serve our neighbor Baltimoreans. Since this past June, various members of Old St. Paul’s have been serving on different discernment committees dedicated to doing just this. Today, we’ll focus on the discernment committee dedicated to researching the church’s possible partnership with the local nonprofit organization BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

As discernment committee leader Amber Herzer explains, “BUILD organizes congregations, listens to the needs of the community, and then works with the political and civic leadership to address those needs.” BUILD is thus, at its heart, a relationship-based outreach model rather than project-based. It uses “a true servant-leader model,” and is dedicated to “empowering, listening to, and supporting community leaders.”

When was the last time that you felt truly listened to? Amber asks. When was the last time you felt someone paying you sincere attention, someone seeking to understand your perspective and experience? —Think back to those rare times, and remember how empowering that can feel. How it can help restore a person’s sense of worth, power, and wholeness.

“Sometimes it can take more courage to stop and listen, than to charge forward,” Amber explains. “It’s the courage of humility. We at Old St. Paul’s do not have a solution for the city of Baltimore. We do have a collection of people well-versed in volunteering and social justice, however. Social workers, teachers, lawyers, city government employees, artists, activists—people who understand that our first reaction shouldn’t be Let’s Go Do Something, but Let’s Listen First.”

Eileen Brittain, also a discernment committee member, recalls the book of Jeremiah when she thinks of BUILD:

“But seek the welfare of the city…, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” 

—Jeremiah 29:7

According to Eileen, “Their strategy to put pressure on those who make the decisions and control the funding can cause situations to be changed. BUILD asks support of faith communities to appear at various meetings to show solidarity and be an ally to those who do not have a voice in the halls of power.”

Tom Andrews, another of the committee’s members, is particularly “excited about the possibility of Old St. Paul’s joining BUILD” for the way it seeks to bring “together people of various faith traditions, to get to know each other, to work together on the needs of the city, and to work with political leaders to address these needs.”

Committee member Bob Zdenek seconds this sentiment, saying, “BUILD’s significance is that it brings together diverse congregations, both clergy and lay leaders from throughout Baltimore City…. Baltimore is one of the most segregated cities in the U.S. …and that speaks to the importance of organizations like BUILD that can cut across racial, income, class, and geographic barriers.”

“BUILD is the long term,” Amber says, “because it is focused on changing the system and building relationships with people in other parts of the city.”

And while this may mean that BUILD engages the political system, it is important to note that BUILD itself is not political. “This element may feel uncomfortable to some,” Amber concedes, “but BUILD is not about picking sides. It’s about changing the current system. If the change we’re creating isn’t uncomfortable, then we’re not digging deep enough.”

Of course, there are still questions and challenges that the discernment committee are considering. “I don’t see a lot of new leadership development with IAF affiliates [which includes BUILD] other than clergy,” Bob explains. “There is usually a small group of lay leaders, but how do you build the leadership beyond a few people? …I think this is vital for Old St. Paul’s in particular, since we appear to be new to social justice and change initiatives beyond a few small services.”

 

For more information on BUILD, please join us for The Forum on November 1st:

Faith Based Organizing in Baltimore City

9:30-10:20 a.m. at The Grand, next door to the church

The Industrial Areas Foundation affiliate BUILD (Baltimoreons United in Leadership Development) is a 35+ year organization committed to organizing communities around their own self-interests.  BUILD is comprised of 35 congregations and 15 city schools. The Rev. Glenna Huber, priest in the Diocese of Maryland is clergy co-chair of BUILD.

—Katherine Mead-Brewer