As a practice of spiritual formation in the courses I teach, I will sometimes facilitate an exercise with the gospel stories. I invite students to close their eyes and imagine that a story in the book of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John is a silent film (you know, like the old black and white Charlie Chaplain movies). And together, as we envision the story of Jesus and the feeding of the 5,000 without the words, I ask them: “How does Jesus’s life speak without words? What are his actions saying? What is Christ’s presence communicating with those he engages?”
These questions often resonate with those of use who are social workers who find ourselves assessing, engaging and evaluating our interactions within the environment around us. What is the nature of our presence, our best tool as social workers? How can our presence reflect the compassion, peace and grace of Christ? These questions can be valuable not only to our social work practice, but in our daily engagement with the community and world that surrounds us.
Perhaps there are a few clues within Christ’s incarnational gospel story that can deepen our engagement with and our participation in reflecting shalom this season. For Christ’s presence has the capacity to speak volumes to the nature of our presence as we engage the environment around us. I’d like to offer three ways that we can engage the world:
- Present to the Ordinary: From the beginning, we gain an “insider’s perspective” into Christ’s presence. The obscure conditions of his manger birth show us that he was born into an environment where “there was no room at the inn.” Jesus once said, “the son of man has no place to lay his head.” We realize that Christ did not spend much of his time engaging the prominent, mainstream elite of society. The “Caesars” did not know who He was because his ministry was so provincial. In fact, on the third day after He was resurrected, the women at the tomb mistook him for the gardener! As Andy Crouch observes, Jesus was “gloriously ordinary.” Our presence in the world does not need to be announced with pomp and prominence. Consider the simple but never simplistic act of empathy – to choose to be a quiet non-anxious listening presence in the life of another. Such actions are the gifts we can bring and the light we can shed in the most ordinary ways, through every day interactions.
- Present to the Invisible: As Christians we believe in being present to those who are invisible in our society. This is the reason I make every effort to get to know the names of the undocumented who work in the local bodegas (i.e. small corner store). In many ways, the folks who prepare sandwiches and coffee six days/week are often invisible. So I try to be intentional in getting to know them by name because even if in a small way, acknowledging their presence is also affirming the dignity of their humanity. A fellow seminary professor, Dr. Cleotha Robertson, recently reminded me that, “the image of God democratizes human value.” The forgotten and marginalized are often the people that Jesus engaged.
- Present to Generous Gestures: As social workers, we’re commonly known for “doing good in the world.” However, we are not as well known for being gracious recipients of goodness. Admittedly, I have often found myself and many of my colleagues, receiving acts of kindness with an awkward grimace, or some antsy sense of discomfort. Perhaps if we run that silent film on Jesus, we will be reminded of the times when he openly received hospitality. We need to be reminded that part of our discipleship is not only giving, but also receiving. As in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrasing of Matthew 10:41-42: “Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”
Dr. Mayra Lopez-Humphreys is a native New Yorker and professor at Nyack College School of Social Work, with over 15 years of community engagement. Her academic, teaching, and pastoral service have been motivated by a deep desire to participate in reflecting God’s Shalom here on Earth through building bridges of peace and justice across culture, religion, economic, and racial boundaries.