Being Present with People

by Krista Dutt

I have often heard the life of Job upheld as an example. However, my experience as an immigration court watcher has allowed me to enter into the perspective of Job’s friends. These friends heard that Job’s life was in a hard place and so they went to sit with him (Job 2:11-13). Scripture says they didn’t speak, waiting until Job broke seven days of silence, but the power of their presence during that time is clear. Sometimes the most we can do is show up.

As a court watcher on behalf of the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants, I sit in a courtroom in Chicago, Illinois, while immigrants from detention centers around the country are teleconferenced in to have a hearing before the judge.

One detained immigrant was asked a routine question about entering “without inspection” (without legal papers) with the judge expecting him to say “yes.” Instead, he said “no.” He had entered with inspection through Douglas, Arizona, and the government had charged him wrongly. The judge called for an extension on the case due to this mistake, but the detained immigrant said, “No, I can’t handle this place anymore—deport me!”

In another case, a detained immigrant’s family had traveled from three hours away to catch a glimpse of their loved one through a television screen. The awkward and touching monitored conversation they were granted after the hearing was both heart-warming and heart-breaking.

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zopher showed up to be witnesses to the suffering of their friend, Job. I believe the church should do the same.  The church is following Jesus’ interactions and the biblical story when rooted amid the marginalized in our society and communities. 

In our country, brown and black people have experienced trauma, racism, and economic disinvestment based on their skin color.  Poverty, which often is caused by systemic issues, is blamed on individuals who are asked to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  These are some examples of how people can be marginalized today. These are the people the church needs to be with—people who are at the very heart of God and the biblical narrative. 

In my work at Mennonite Central Committee, I have the privilege of walking alongside organizations and churches that are working in the margins such as the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants.  In my work as a pastor at The Dwelling Place, a church plant supported by Brethren in Christ Great Lakes, we are reaching out to the families of those in prison. Dr. Howard Trulear, Howard University Divinity School professor, points out that when a death occurs the church shows up.  The church leads families in a funeral ritual in the church, and  the church brings food and more food to the home. Deacons, elders, or a pastor continue to walk with the family as they grieve. By contrast, when a loved one is lost to the prison system, churches may push these family members away due to the shame around prison, and thus many families suffer alone.  We hope to develop a church model that supports the grief of family members in prison within the very fabric of church.  

One of the more interesting ways that a group of privileged people started to understand the key issues and context of marginalized people in Chicago was through the Chicago Pilgrim Walk.  This walk covered 35 miles through the five police districts in Chicago that had seen the most gun deaths in the previous year.  We walked to visit people who lost sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews to violence. We walked to the places where these murders happened and heard stories of the real people that were killed. We walked to see the communities in which violence is ever-present even in the midst of the daily lives of faithful families. We walked to churches and organizations that work to transform conflict and violence and provide safety to neighborhoods. 

When we arrived at Dawes Park, one of the leaders of the pilgrimage started telling us the story of a nine-year-old who was shot and killed there. I stood with tears rolling down my face. The pain of the little boy was fresh in my mind, but so was the pain of his family that now doesn’t get to see his dreams realized or a life well lived. The trauma of a neighborhood that loses children weekly was real to me as is the pain that guns are the normal way to solve conflicts in too many places.

As I walked and saw the inequality between some of these neighborhoods and other more white, more wealthy neighborhoods, I remembered that Jesus valued those that society did not. Jesus lifted the marginalized to be exalted. I also saw people working to change the inequalities that exist— families who care, blocks that take seriously a commitment to safety for their children and organizations that have become a neighborhood’s safety net.

Walking through these neighborhoods was not a solution to neighborhood violence. Walking, instead, was an important step of remembering that Jesus walked for and with people. Walking was a remembrance of the call to walk with Jesus to create peace through relationships, just laws, and a clear witness of being in community together.

I am grateful that I have seen the power of the church working to create space for marginalized. It may seem difficult to solve the gun violence epidemic, but could you, your small group or church commit to tutoring in an area of your town that is more prone to gun violence? It may seem scary to visit a jail or prison, but could you, your small group or church reach out to a mourning wife of a recently imprisoned man helping with groceries and babysitting as she learns to be a single mother? It might be mind boggling to understand the reasons people are migrating here, but could you, your small group, or your congregation support a family as they adjust to life in your state after a likely trauma-filled journey and welcome them into the safety of your congregation?

As we seek the heart of God, may we find it in the very people that Jesus cared for— people who are marginalized.  May we love with our actions just like Jesus.

Krista Dutt is a church relations associate and Chicago program coordinator for MCC Great Lakes. She is also planting a Brethren in Christ congregation near Chicago. Parts of this article were previously published. This article is reprinted from the Spring 2019 edition of Shalom!