I helped tutor refugee kids in Clarkston for awhile, one of the largest refugee communities and “the most diverse square mile in America.”
Upstairs in a run-down leasing office is a room filled with picture books, markers, paper, and desk chairs. Kids pour in after school, dropping Transformers backpacks under folding tables, full of whirring after school energy and speaking in dozens of languages, some of which I’d never heard spoken out loud before. They are so excited to be there. They are also so terribly, incredibly behind in every subject. Our job, the “church volunteers” of well-intentioned and barely equipped middle-aged women (and a spare high school boy or two), was to help them with their homework. It wasn’t a big job. It didn’t require a lot of specialization – unless patience, gentleness, and the ability to do New Math are specializations, and now that I say that, I guess that they are.
I was pretty terrible at tutoring. I’m a much better camp counselor than teacher. At camp, all we did was put on funny clothes, get covered in paint, and talk about Jesus. Making kids sit still, enforcing rules, and being “goal oriented,” was never my strong suit with kids.
But that wasn’t what made helping with homework so hard. It was so hard because I never saw results. It was so hard because of how hopeless it felt. These beautiful, cheerful small ones were being thrown homework that they had no context for, being asked to do 4th grade math when they never had 1st grade math. And our job wasn’t to go in and fix the system – our job wasn’t to protest, to write our congressman, to show up at parents teacher meetings, to talk to the teachers. Those things needed to be done. But that wasn’t ours to do on those Wednesday afternoons. Our job was to help these kids – kids who escaped violence that we couldn’t imagine – learn long division.
I have no teaching skills, no math skills, and no language skills. All I have are tenacious laughing skills, and so we would sit and wrestle with numbers, laughing and teasing with these bright-eyed and distracted children in the hopes that we could laugh our way into answers. Some days we would march back and forth through the same page for an hour and then she’d make a lucky guess and I’d give up, exhausted, and we’d read a Dr. Seuss book, while I tried to feel less terrible about my inability to help.
They will never catch up, I thought one afternoon. They will never, ever catch up. The thought hung on my shoulders like a dark cloud of hopelessness, while this bouncy, incorrigible small one threw out wild guesses like casting out fishing lines into a forest.
I am ashamed to say that the reason that I stopped volunteering was because I didn’t know how to sit with the hopelessness.
It was not fixable, and I could not cope with my inability to fix it.
It is a discipline, showing up when we don’t see results. It is a discipline, learning how to laugh, and fail, and then get up again tomorrow to do it all again.
It takes courage to be present to people around us without trying to fix them. But if we don’t know how to show up to problems without understanding how we’ll fix it, we’ll quit quickly. If we focus on success instead of resilience, and problem-solving over simple presence, we will abandon every project – or person – that changes too slowly, that doesn’t show signs of getting “better.”
Certainly, my activists, work smart, not hard. Good activism matters, and for Jesus’s sake let’s work hard to fix these broken, racist, homophobic, sexist systems in this godforsaken country. We certainly need less charity (being nice to poor people) and a lot more justice (fixing the systems that trap people in poverty).
But in all this hard work, and result-oriented struggle – have we learned how to just be present with people?
To be present to a problem, even with the hopelessness of a world that sometimes feels unfixable?
I have stepped away from the places of sorrow because I was afraid that I was not good enough, not talented enough, not able to fix or change the situation. I have walked away from ministries because I was nervous that I wouldn’t be good enough at them.
I wonder what would happen if we learned how to show up, even when it is hopeless, because some days, presence is all we can give. And some days, presence is enough.
When I was a chaplain, I worked with an elderly man with dementia. He was deeply religious and always asked me to take his confession. He confessed to a lot of terrible things – some of which I’m sure he did, and some of which perhaps he thought he did. Either way, his sins – imagined and real – were heavy on him.
I would hold his ancient hand and pray while he cried. I would tell him that in Christ, his sins are forgiven, that he could go in peace. After we prayed, his eyes would look lighter and more clear. He would squeeze my hand and wheel away.
The next day, I would see him weeping in the hallway again. I’d kneel next to him and ask what was wrong. He had already forgotten his absolution. I would take his hand, again, and again say “your sins are forgiven. Go in God’s peace.”
Some days, I would see him weeping in the hallway and the black hopelessness would creep into my bones and I would go sit in the bathroom and cry for him. I’d cry for myself, and my own fear of showing up every day and never seeing tangible results.
But squatting down in my awkward dress slacks next to that wheelchair, and taking his thin, velvet hand, and telling him, every day, that his sins were forgiven – despite the fact that “it changes nothing” – that was sacred.
I don’t know if it changed anything. But I know that it mattered.
Reading Dr. Seuss to those kids and “doing the funny voice” for them in The Cat in the Hat – that mattered too.
Having the courage to be show up, even when we can’t cure or heal or fix – in that hopeless moment, there is sacredness, if we are brave enough to be present to it.