by Jim Wehner
When I was in college, a group of friends and I would visit a senior care facility each year during the holidays. It was always fun. We would bring Christmas cookies and our guitars. We’d sit with the residents, talking, playing board games, and singing carols. This facility is where I learned to play chess.
Then, during my junior year, one of the nurses remarked, “This is really nice, but we could use your help all year, not just during the holidays.” My friends and I accepted her challenge and began visiting every Thursday evening. It wasn’t a formal ministry organization or volunteer commitment. Just a group of friends who wanted to express our faith in this manner. But this decision to commit to these weekly visits forever changed how I perceive ministry.
After about two months of visiting the center every Thursday, we began to form relationships with the residents. Soon they began to expect us and would ask about us when anyone missed a week. We became known and recognized. The staff of the center began to give us some inside information about individual residents. We had somehow earned a level of trust that allowed us to be included as part of the residential community. We even met family members of residents who knew us because their mother or grandfather talked about us.
One Thursday there was a sudden panic when a resident had left the building through a back door. He had dementia, and his independent exit was a very dangerous situation for him. The staff did not hesitate to call on us to help. My friends and I were not prepared for the sudden responsibility that emerged from these relationships. But we jumped in and formed teams to help find the resident.
On another visit, a resident passed away while we were there. Together with the staff and other residents, we all experienced sincere loss and grief. Mourning this loss together was an initiation in adulthood that we had not anticipated.
I once stepped into a resident’s room to say hello, and she invited me to sit down. She wondered why I was in a hurry to leave and asked why I didn’t come to see her more often. The longer I sat, the more irritated she seemed to become. Mercifully, a staff member showed up and excused us, pulled me out of the room. “She thinks you are her son,” she told me.
“What do I do?” I asked.
The nurse just smiled and said, “Go back in.” I spent the next six months sitting in the resident’s room, listening, nodding, laughing, and being scolded. Somewhere along the way I quit saying, “I am not your son.”
The author of the Gospel of John in the New Testament tells the story of Jesus changing water into wine at a wedding. It is his first recorded miracle. Have you ever wondered why Jesus was even at the wedding? The author tells the story this way, “On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine.’”
Jesus was at the wedding because he was part of the community. His mother and his friends were there. He was present because of the relationships he’d built. He wasn’t there to perform a miracle, but when the need arose, he was available because he was present.
That year of weekly visits to the senior care facility transformed me spiritually. The experience became less about me and what I had to give, and it became more about being present in the moment. It was in these hallways, game rooms, and bedsides where I learned the skill of neighboring. The seniors taught me how to care for those around me and with whom I did not have connection. I look back at that time as some of the most formative work God has done in my life. No moment was wasted.
Thirty years later, I find myself leading an organization that has the idea of presence in its core philosophy. We move into neighborhoods of great need and simply practice being a neighbor. We seek to embody the great commandment to love God with all of our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves. By being present, we are available to serve when called upon and we experience transformation in relationship with our neighbors each day.