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Two years ago, I visited the Pavilion, a little coffee shop run by Bridge Street Ministries on the west side of Grand Rapids. I remember sitting quietly and observing. I was delighted to see a happy assortment of kids trundle in after school to hang out. Free coffee and bagels, served up by a cheerful college student. I remember asking where they got their food, and the response was, “We never run out of what we need. We’re always provided for.”
I sat in a corner and indulged in people watching. A friendly neighborhood pastor played darts with the kids and invited me into a lively conversation about the Marvel movies. Across the room, middle school kids just out of school pooled in and waited for an afterschool program to start.
I could see this coffee shop really did serve as a safe place for them. The Pavilion is run mostly by the discipleship students at Bridge Street Ministries. They make a commitment to live and serve in the same community for eight months.
One of my closest companions served as a student and an RA at the Pavilion. It was in that little, life filled shop, looking out on a rainy day, that she first taught me the meaning of “food desert.”
Imagine having no access to affordable fresh food in your neighborhood. Everything within walking distance or reasonable busing distance was a liquor store. After that day, I saw these “food deserts” everywhere, and was consistently curious about how to fix it. What other community issues were lying complacently about in local neighborhoods, waiting to be named, addressed, and fought?
I dove into the Christian Community Development program at Calvin University, learning as much as I could. The more I learned about the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) the more I fell in love with the ministry of presence. It just made sense. Displacing myself for overseas ministry just didn’t seem realistic or plausible in my own life.
I was elated to change my mindset to embracing life in a community I want to serve – a kind of ministry that was integrated into daily practice. Witness through presence. Suddenly, ministry work seemed more accessible, and opportunities rested behind every moment. The phrase “work of God” began to come alive more vividly in the streets of Grand Rapids.
What does the ministry of presence provide?
So, I tried to narrow down what the ministry of presence does. What have I observed that makes it so compelling to me?
- Safety. Predictability. These spaces provided an anchor. A home base. I was comforted by the security of routine. I found stability to rest in and a foundation for growth.
- Listening. Seen. Heard. Reflected. Connected. The CCDA, when speaking about their key principle of relocation, writes, “Relocation transforms ‘you, them, and theirs’ to ‘we, us, and ours.’” I felt seen, heard, and connected amid my own inner turmoil.
- Being present gently equips people to be a resource. Stable spaces give you a chance to build bridges between resources and community. Sometimes being present in one place is the best way to
a. Gain resources through fruitful relationships.
b. Become intimate with the issues of your community and therefore curate a keen eye for potential solutions.
One of the most vivid examples of the ministry of presence in my own life was a small place on Calvin University’s campus.
Patsy worked at Johnny’s Café in the heart of Calvin’s campus. I first met her when she offered me a cup of coffee. It was 6:40am, and I had just shuffled through the snow indoors into a booth at Johnny’s. She offered me coffee even though Johnny’s wasn’t open. When she went to show me the flavors available, she frowned because one of her little signs was missing. So I made her one, cutting a piece of paper out of my journal.
There began a wonderful friendship. And I mean one of those rich juicy friendships where you know you are just safe and loved. Breakfast became muffins and coffee, sweetened by conversation with my friend Emily, and Patsy. We were both artists – we drew her pictures. Shared our writing with her. Got her feedback on our projects and creative work. Inhaled life advice from her, thrived on the spunky way she cheered us up and stubbornly believed in us.
Patsy’s joy overflowed to everyone. No matter who she encountered, she was a kind, listening ear, and always had a sassy nugget of advice to boot. On days I studied near her booth, it never failed to move me how many people came by just to tell Patsy about their day, because they knew without a doubt they’d have a listening ear and friendly smile waiting for them. I’d tell people to meet her, the way you tell people to go travel somewhere exciting. I knew she’d bring some joy to their day.
From Patsy, I learned that it truly is a work of God just to be there. Presence doesn’t satisfy the part of me that wants to equate my worth to my productivity. But I combat those negative thoughts by remembering the way the ministry of presence has transformed us. Through people like Patsy, places like the Pavilion.
Writing this, I can feel myself taking mental notes on how I can be that kind of person. I feel compelled to reflect on times when the ministry of presence has done unquantifiable, beautiful work in my life. The best way to convince myself that my presence is deeply effective ministry, is to reflect on the ways it has impacted me. What places have put roots in my life that continue to bring forth new fruit today?