The Ministry of Proximity

I sit between two tables covered with butcher paper. On my left are my own girls, laughing and playing hangman with a family of 4. The kids are little and they are delightful; well-behaved and contentedly eating dinner. Their mom is shy and preoccupied, but their dad is friendly. He wants to talk. He just ended a long day.

On my right is another family: a mom with older kids. They are also delightful. The girls sweetly talk about classes they enjoy while scooping chocolate ice cream onto cones. Mom proudly lists their achievements, dismayed though she is that they refuse to learn Spanish. She tells me how much they like this church and the people here; how welcomed they feel, how comfortable.

My girls and I are new volunteers in this city-wide hospitality ministry our church participates in quarterly. We show up and hang out with the kids one night out of the 7 that the families sleep in our building. It is a tiny part in a large, complicated organization serving the homeless, but one I relish. Proximity is not a ministry I often get to have.

I know far more about poverty, than I know people experiencing it. And these two dear families give me such a precious window into the season of life they find themselves. I can read all about the grind of navigating services, travelling from night shelter to day program and back, or the challenge to secure jobs that pay more than the cost of day care while studying for the GED or dealing with a record. But to witness weary eyes in the telling is not achievable from a book.

Months ago, when we first volunteered, the participating families were weary in a messy, visible way. The kids had absorbed the long season of chaos and disruption and were quite literally, bouncing off of walls. Siblings ran in circles, the guise of playing swords masking the frenzy their souls bore. The toddler bounced from toy to toy, wandering while throwing, unable to quiet himself for more than a moment.

This time it is obvious, and later confirmed, that these families have newly entered the program. Perhaps they are newly unsheltered as well. The kids have either not been displaced long enough to absorb chaos, or their parents are containing it remarkably, noticeably well. All of the children seem emotionally grounded. Smiles abound and there are no vacant, overly stimulated eyes.

But weary is present. It creeps in as dad tells me about working on their goals. His sigh betrays the chipper engagement he has with his wife and kids. He is trying hard. Weary is present when I hear the next day that the mom and her teens found housing in another city and abruptly left the program, left our church. We are asked to pray for the kids’ disappointment in leaving their school. And I wonder, how many times will this happen? Is their season of insecurity ending or just beginning?

I too, have known seasons of abundance and ones of great strain. I have celebrated the luxury of buying new toilet bowl brushes without a second thought or ordering the team photo instead of offering to take them myself. I have sold possessions to pay for things and avoided doctor visits because of copays. And while my budgetary constraints have made me weary, my soul has never known the fear that a truly impoverished season must bring.

I have had education, reputation, family support, white privilege, and a savings account as my protective cushion.

And my girls. Well, they have had me.

Two days later, there is an evening service and my oldest daughter is leading worship. After rehearsal, she grabs some water and the family with whom she played hangman is finishing their dinner. She invites them to join us for the service and they thank her. From my vantage point, I try to worship, distracted by my own emotion and pride in having her up there. And then I see her eyes pause on the back row, cloud over with tears, and hear her wrestle emotion out of her harmonies. Upon her invitation, they have come and she is struggling to not weep.

It seems proximity has ministered to us all.

 


Beth Bruno is passionate about issues of injustice and a global sisterhood. Often, this looks like curating the stories and work of incredible women and calling her two teen daughters at least once a day to “come watch this.” Married for 23 years, she and her husband share a love for dark chocolate, dark coffee, and bold wine, among other passions. Their son is headed to college so Beth is not thinking about it by nursing an obsession with Turkish hot air balloons and European villages on her Instagram feed.