The Ministry of Accompaniment

Interior of a Farm with Two Figures March-April 1890

Interior of a Farm with Two Figures March-April 1890 by Van Gogh.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the air–especially after the darkness of last week and the week before.  As Americans, we’re used to a high level of predictability in our lives, such as leaving for work each day assuming that we’re safe and will return home without harm.  This is a good thing and one whose value I do not seek to diminish but when certain high profile people call for a ban on Muslim immigration,  we need to take a step back–and by we, I mean Christians–take some deep breaths and remember where our hope lies: not with political parties or agendas, not with the state and its political and military power and not even with security and predictability (even though, again, both of those are good things).

Our hope, especially as we remember it during this Advent season, is with “God with Us,” Emmanuel.  He came to accompany us in our uncertainty and in our fear and suffering.  The problem is that, at least in my life, I have not had a lot of deep fears and suffering.  Sure, I’ve had my fair share of struggles but for the most part my life has been pretty uneventful and so have the times in which I live (except for a few major events, 9/11 being the foremost).  But the dark shadow of terrorism continues to lengthen over us (at home and abroad) and as Christians we must really work to develop the right frame of mind in order to participate in God’s mission in the world.  We’re not used to the uncertainty that terrorism brings with it and the unpredictability it can force upon us.  As a society, we’ve exerted a significant amount of control over our future for a number of generations now, shaping our imaginations and hearts in such deep ways that even being a Christian doesn’t make one immune from such an influence.  But when we’re seeking to be a part of God’s mission in the world, so much of our work is about learning how not to be in control.

This past summer, as a way to help myself prepare for the work I would be doing with refugees, I wanted to continue to explore what it means to develop the imagination needed to work with those who live on the margins of society.  I had once read in Rowan Williams’ wonderful book, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgment, about the “intelligence of the victim,” which is what we develop when we learn to look “at the world from the point of view of those excluded from its systems of power.”  The victim, as Williams points out, is an “abiding challenge” to any system that claims to be the one complete solution to the needs and problems of mankind, and when we stand with and advocate for the victim, we presume a “questioning stance towards such claims” (46). I wanted to explore that world more–of what it means to stand with the victim, or those on the margins, who have little to no voice in society.

One thing that I have been reminded of so far in working with refugees these past few months is that you can’t always “fix” their problems. When we lived in Ethiopia, this was an abundantly clear fact.  The poverty ran too deep, the corruption was too wide spread, and the system often seemed rigged so as to keep those with power in power.  At times, it was easy to be cynical about doing any good for anyone in the face of such overwhelming complexity.  And so often, all my ministry consisted of was being present to those who needed help.  In Ethiopia, that was children.  Now, it’s adult refugees and immigrants.

The only difference with my work now is that I’m doing it in the U.S. and so often, I feel I have a lot more control over what I can do for my Iraqi or Burmese or Eritrean friends. And this is true…most of the time.  Or maybe better put, this is true when it comes to practical matters: filling out paperwork, helping them register their kids for school, or referring them to a lawyer for legal help.

But what proves to be much more challenging–actually, impossible–is to make them feel at home.  When you begin to scratch beneath the surface a little, when you sit with a refugee long enough to really hear them (and often ask the right kinds of questions), you will hear the sorrow in their voices–the ache of having to leave their homes.  I never had to gather my family and run for our lives, but I do know what it feels like to live in a foreign land where I really don’t “get” how things work.  In fact, I know what it’s like to live in another country and know just enough about the place to realize that I don’t really understand the people and they don’t really understand me.  That’s what missionaries and international aid and development workers reckon with all the time (if they’re honest) when living overseas.  My wife, Jana, and I certainly dealt with it living in Ethiopia.

While the loss of one’s home can’t be taken away, what someone working with marginalized people can do is practice what Jean Vanier called “accompaniment,” or what I’ve heard others call the ministry of presence.  I can’t give my students their homes back.  I can’t make the wars in their countries stop.  I can’t remove the trauma that now resides in their bodies.  But I can give them my presence: I can help them bear the weight of loss and grief and the disorientation of living in a foreign land that, while relatively safe, can be very difficult to navigate, and I can do this without having to “fix” those problems (since I can’t really “fix” them anyway).  In doing so, I can help them feel, even though they are not at home, a sense of belonging. And in doing so, I know I follow in the footsteps of the God who, while not giving us answers for our why we suffer, decides instead to suffer with us and bear our grief and sorrow of our brokenness.

The problem for us as Americans, though, is that we like to fix things and it can be very difficult to provide a container, if you will, to hold the difficult experiences and feelings of those on the margins.  We’re too busy trying to find a solution. We want to do good: it’s in our blood.  We’re a nation of problem solvers, organizers, and efficiency experts.  To live out the ministry of accompaniment means we have to submit to doing “nothing” and when that happens, our Protestant-work-ethic-American-“we can do it”-guilt kicks in and Mammon, the god who always demands more of us while giving us fewer resources to make more happen, takes his seat on the throne of our hearts.

But it’s when we allow ourselves to do “nothing,” to be “disarmed” as Christine Pohl and Chris Heurtz call it, that we can allow the Spirit to work.  Pohl and Heurtz’s book, Friendship on the Margins, was one of the resources I turned to this past summer when I wanted to develop further “the intelligence of the victim,”or how to go about better embodying the ministry of presence with those on the margins. In that book, Pohl and Heurtz write:

When we allow ourselves to become disarmed, we become both vulnerable and strong.  The only weapons then at our disposal are those of the Spirit.  We choose the way of Jesus, laying aside all earthly resources that give us power–in order to be present to those we love….

In other words, when we give our presence to those we serve, rather than seeing them only for the problems they present to us for us to fix, we follow the “way of Jesus,” which is the way, as mentioned earlier, of God With Us, Emmanuel.  It is the way of the one who did not provide us with a theodicy, an explanation of how a good God can allow evil, but instead laid aside his power to feel what we feel when we suffer under the weight of brokenness and death.

Just this morning, one of our friends, a sweet lady from Mosul, Iraq, because of a passage of Scripture that had been read during our break time, began telling me about how ISIS killed all the Christians in her hometown or sent them into exile.  As she spoke, she began to weep quietly while saying, “I will never forget what they did. As long as I live.”

What can one do in a moment like that?  Promise that allied forces will soon destroy ISIS and return Mosul back to those to whom it belongs?  Such an answer would feel better–would feel like I’m “doing” something–but could very well be an empty hope given that we’re not called to trust in the power of the chariot or the horse (Psalm 20.7), nor in princes (Psalm 146.3).

We’re called to something different as Christians.  We’re called to suffer with the other–called to the “inaction,” if you will, of accompaniment. Such inaction feels like nothing and makes us feel powerless.  But when we’re in that place of powerlessness, then we can be sure we’re following the way of Jesus, who made himself nothing and, as we remember in this Advent season, came as a defenseless, powerless infant, born in a cattle stall.  When we accept such powerless, we follow in the way of Jesus and make way for the Spirit to work.  Dare we let go and watch what he does?