Open, Loving Presence
By Kayla McClurg
“If you could have anything at all, what would you ask for?”
How might you answer?
Quickly Sr. Roni said, “Two people each morning to come to the Jail, just to be an open, loving presence to the men and women who are being released.”
That’s how it started. And for 5 weeks now, a few of us have gone in pairs Monday through Friday to a defunct inner-city hospital near the D.C. Jail and Correctional Treatment Facility, which is home to 3,700 of our neighbors. Once the coffee is made and the fruit and pastries are arranged on the counter, we have no other task than just to be there, to wait and to welcome any who come. And when someone comes, we simply sit still and listen. We practice open, loving presence. We ‘be.’
Is it making a difference? Is it enough?
Last October Sr. Roni and Dr. Janelle, who provide medical services to the inmates, began to share with a few of us what life is like at the Jail, especially for the most vulnerable ones who are released without a network of support. Most have health problems, no job prospects, no housing, no family or friends, no community. Their hope is that we might help bridge the gap for a few who are teetering between returning to the tomb of their past or taking hold of new life.
What we do is so, so small. We say hello. We sit together over a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. We listen to whatever is said, or whatever is not said. Like the angels described in the Talmud as hovering over each blade of grass, we lean toward each one and our hearts whisper, ‘Grow, grow.’ One of the discharge planners who is with us twice a week says that what we’re doing is bigger than we realize, that we’re creating space for the restoring of dignity, something that was stripped away in Jail. We’re releasing the shame simply by being unafraid to hear the truth of a person’s story. Sometimes I sense it too, that the Seamstress of the universe is in our midst, mending what has been torn apart, humming softly to herself as the ripped places start to take on strangely beautiful, never-before-imagined patterns.
One morning a man very vulnerably opened his life and shared the hurdles that lay ahead if he was going to be able to choose a new path. I practiced, as best I could, being an open, loving presence, listening empathically without revealing the worry and concern that were growing in me. What I was trying to convey was calm assurance, but what I was thinking was something like this:
Your situation sounds impossible! You are facing more barriers than any human being should be asked to face. And you’re so alone! You have no place to live, no job, no family, no friends. You are unbelievably courageous in the face of it all, but this is more than even the strongest person could carry. And here I sit. While you suffer, this sister of yours thinks she’ll try to be an ‘open, loving presence.’ How helpful is that?!
Outwardly I continued to try to convey compassionate detachment, but inwardly I was in turmoil. What happened next had to be a God-thing. He stopped mid-sentence, looked me in the eyes and said, “Now, you do know I’m going to be okay, don’t you?”
He waited to see if I had really heard. Then he added: “You’re doing all you need to do. Listening to me is all you need to do. Now I can do what I need to do.”
You can’t make this stuff up. All you can do is either go back for more or stay away. Listen or keep trying to fix things. Open up or shut down. In a dreary room with paint peeling off the walls in an abandoned hospital near the D.C. Jail isn’t where you’d expect to find Church, but in that neglected place the Body of Christ is being broken and poured out and prayed over. The Spirit is blowing in, Jubilee is breaking out and the ones who had come to listen are being healed.
I didn’t know five weeks ago that Sr. Roni’s answer was my answer too. And now I ask it again: If YOU could have anything at all, what would you ask for?