By Russ Lawrence | October 13, 2016

“Presence” versus presents

I’m packing for a trip to Peru. You can picture it: the duffel spread open in the guest room, clothing and other necessities covering the floor and every available horizontal surface, and me, immobilized by the critical decision of how many pairs of socks to take.

I’ve done this trip enough times that I have it pretty well figured out, but the socks still bring me to a full stop every time.

I’ll be leading another group of visitors to the Colca valley next week, and I am hoping to pay a call at Casa Chapi with my clients. The question arose in my mind – once I had settled the critical sock question – of whether we should bring some gifts for the kids.rosario-aniversario-005

My mind drifted back to a trip I made to Nicaragua, some time ago. My sister-in-law is a family practice doctor, who used to go on an annual medical mission to Waslala, a very rural site in Nicaragua. She enlisted my wife and me to come along as translators a couple of times, and on our first visit we were overwhelmed by the need we saw.

I spoke with the local parish priest, Padre Nelson, who helped coordinate our visits, and asked if we might have done more good by sending the hundreds of dollars it had cost us to get there, directly to him. It could buy a LOT of over-the-counter medicine, I pointed out, useful medicine that could be distributed without the need of a physician.

He looked surprised by my question. “Oh, no,” Padre Nelson said. “We can always use the medicine, but medicine only provides temporary relief. The ministry of your presence is much more important than the medicine. Coming here from the United States, making a personal sacrifice of time and money, to spend time listening to the people, touching them, caring for them – that’s worth far more than money or medicine.”

What a lovely phrase, “the ministry of your presence.” I reflected on it often, especially during my time as a Peace Corps volunteer. The first goal of the Peace Corps is to provide technical assistance, but it can be frustrating work when nobody takes your advice, or even particularly wants it. The second goal, however, is simply to represent the U.S. to our host country, and that correlates nicely with a “ministry of your presence” philosophy.

So, I’ll advise my clients not to worry for now about bringing gifts for the kids at Casa Chapi. We’ll bring smiles and hugs, and spend a moment being “present” for them.

Then we’ll return to our hotel in Chivay to ponder who got a present from whom – and to wash out some dirty socks.

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