The only reason I believed Father Gerald is because he’s a priest, and for some odd reason I feel like priests don’t lie. I could be wrong and I probably am; there must be priests that lie but I don’t believe Father Gerald is one of them plus his stories seemed too bad to be made up.
We were on a weekend trip to Luweero (a rural village town in Uganda), having tea with Father Gerald as he explained what his ministry involved. He told us about a time he found a woman waiting by the side of the road holding twins in her arms. Both of her babies were sick with malaria and she had been waiting for hours by the roadside hoping that someone would give her a ride to the hospital, so Father Gerald gave her a ride. By the time they arrived at the hospital both babies were dead. Father Gerald gave her a ride back home.
He told us about a young girl named Joy that was very fond of him. I don’t blame her; I had only known Father Gerald for fifteen minutes and I was fond of him – his gentle young voice made his tall strong frame inviting and comforting. (We had lost electricity so maybe the candles helped as well.) Joy had told him before his last trip to the States that she thought she would be dead by the time he returned. He assured her that she would be fine, and she would see him soon. Father Gerald came back to Luweero with a suitcase full of things for Joy only to learn that she had died one day prior to his arrival. He kept one of the stuffed animals intended for Joy to remember her. He said these things hurt him very much.
“At the parish house we eat meat and we take sugar. And I know my parishioners only eat meat or take sugar maybe one time in a year. They are very, very poor. This is very painful for me,” he explained. We didn’t know where he was going with this string of stories, but then he asked, “What can I do? What is there for me to do for them? The best thing I can offer is my presence and my smile – that’s all I can give,” Father Gerald explained as he offered us his smile.
A month or so ago I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate Father Gerald’s offer, because I didn’t understand the value of presence. In The Primal Vision John Taylor explains that, “our presence to one another, eye to eye and face to face, dispels the isolation and lifts our hearts. Africans believe that presence is the dept they owe to one another. The primal vision is of a world of presences, of face-to-face meetings… It is a universe of I and Thou.”
John Taylor and Father Gerald both understand something about presence that neither I, nor many in the “West” have fully taken hold of. Why is presence the dept we owe to one another? How can the other be ‘Thou’? The primal/African view of presence acknowledges the mystical and divine within each of us and restores and elevates the value of our humanity. To Father Gerald, the poor people of Luweero have names and faces and in offering his presence to them he acknowledges and uplifts the divine within them – the image of God. And he offers the presence of the Holy Spirit that dwells in him. It truly is the best thing he can offer.
In the ‘West’ we have not mastered presence, the art of simply being present with people, acknowledging the divine spark in one another. The true and complete nature of our humanity cries out to be acknowledged in known in a culture that reduces people to bodies or a means to an end. What the African worldview asserts is that the presence that dwells among us and in us is the “tremendous Presence in the midst of the world from which our first parent hid themselves… the Presence which Moses knew, eye to eye and face to face… the way of presence is not merely a new missionary method, but God’s own way of drawing Adam into his embrace and lifting the despoiled and threatened Creation up into his peace.” With this understanding of the Divine presence it is no mystery, yet still mysterious, that history moves to a climax with a God choosing to “dwell among us.” It is no mystery, yet still mysterious, that when we gather in His name, He is present. It is no mystery, yet still mysterious, that whatever we do for the “least of these” we do unto Him since He is present. When we become aware of the Presence dwelling within and among us, we too will suddenly offer our presence and a smile, knowing we are taking part in the divine work of redemption.
I was right about Father Gerald, he didn’t lie – the best thing he could offer his community was not money or anything physical but the only divine gift available – his presence; and as a bonus – his smile.