Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Presence, Patience, Prayer: Cultivating Compassion Among the Marginalized

This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on Missional Spirituality for the month of February. MennoNerds is exploring through this event Spirituality through an Anabaptist lens and what it means concerning participation in the mission of God.

When working with marginalized people, presence, patience and prayer are necessary elements of the ministry of compassion. As a chaplain who visits Spanish-speaking patients in our local hospital, I have listened to stories not only of physical pain, but stories of pain from marginalization and alienation. 

 “My whole life is a lie,” sobbed María in Spanish on her hospital bed. “I came here for a better life and have found nothing but disappointments.” María’s latest setback was an unexpected bout with appendicitis. 

María had told me that she was from Honduras. Her confession came after a telephone call interrupted our conversation. She identified herself as someone else, saying that she was from Puerto Rico. It was obvious that she was working and living with a false identity.

I listened as she poured her heart out to me, detailing all the hardships of being considered illegal in this country, being far away from her own children, not being able to be with her sister who was currently dying of cancer, and having a stack of unpaid bills that was growing higher each day. The American dream had turned into a nightmare.

There was little I could do to change María’s ugly and unjust situation. Nevertheless, being present to her and listening to her in her own language, showed care and compassion. God became manifest “on earth as in heaven.”

Jorge was in the hospital for more than a week when I met him. He was isolated for fear of tuberculosis. He didn’t really want to talk to me, another white man with a tie, a clipboard and an assumed agenda. But I persisted, insisting that I was there to stand alongside him in these moments of pain and suffering. 

After my third visit, he began to open up. Slowly his torturous story began to unfold. He had left his wife and two children more than a year and a half ago to seek a better life in the United States. He started with little money and no legal documents. He had to cross three international borders to get to his still unknown destination.

Hitch-hiking and freight trains were his main means of transportation. Along the way he tried to do odd jobs to sustain himself. He reached my city on a freight train suffering from a high fever and a debilitating cough. He got off the train and checked into our hospital with no friends, no family, no money, no place to call home and no papers. 

Once again, there was little I could do to change his desperate and unjust situation. My persistence eventually showed Jorge compassion; a sense of God’s presence in an oppressive world too often hostile to him. 

As I entered the hospital room and introduced myself, I could feel the tension in the air. The woman lying in the bed had lost a child in birth. I assumed that the man standing by her bedside was her husband. I expressed my sorrow at their loss and tried to be a loving, non-threatening presence. Every attempt at communication failed. I had seldom felt so uncomfortable. 

Hoping to salvage a little of the visit, I asked if I could pray for them. Somehow they agreed. I went over to the woman, laid my hand on her shoulder, and prayed a very simple prayer, hoping to end my ordeal and be on my way. When I lifted my head, the man was sobbing, his shoulders visibly shaking. He proceeded to enumerate a litany of woes that he and his wife had gone through in the past three months, culminating with the death of their newborn. 

The atmosphere in the room changed remarkably after the prayer. The relationship between me and the couple changed. What started out as a forced, awkward encounter, had become a moment of compassion and sensing God’s presence.

Each encounter emphasized one of the concepts more than the other, but they all included presence, patience and prayer. Being patiently present and praying with those who are at the margins of our society demonstrates compassion. Even if the injustice isn’t reversed, the presence of God is experienced by those on the margin.


  1. Very moving, Don. Blessings to you as you listen, wait for the Spirit's guidance, and use your gift of language to be a living presence of compassion.

    1. Thank you for your comment and affirmation, Shirley. I have taken a hiatus from this volunteer work, but writing this made me want to return. Remember our discussion of retirement . . .