Despite the lowly position that squatting places one in, I felt the power of kinship and presence when I squatted next to my grandmother.
Every summer until I was 8 years old, I visited my grandparents at my mother’s hometown in Seoul, Corea. The most enduring memories of these visits are the quotidian moments of my grandmother and me squatting in the street corner near her yeontan (briquette)-heated house, surrounded by a group of her friends and local neighbors. Despite the lowly position that squatting places one in, I felt the power of kinship and presence when I squatted next to my grandmother. As the elders would shoot the breeze, gossip, and comment on the mundane and significant aspects of their shared lives, I began to experience a deepening connection with my grandmother that transcended language, cultural, and generational barriers.
My grandmother taught me the healing power of presence.
Being around elders was a stark contrast from my life in the United States — which comprised of my isolated nuclear immigrant family — and provided me access to a different pace and approach to daily living. Ineffably, being with my grandmother made me feel known, embraced, and seen in ways that I had no access to in the States. Squatting with my grandmother allowed me to experience profound mind states, as I was being formed in what Judith Butler calls “relations of dependency”. In short, my grandmother taught me the healing power of presence.
From Activism toward Spiritual Care
Presence is what informs my current trajectory of training to be a chaplain, or more broadly, to accompany people during times of crisis, transition, and trauma. In some ways, it feels like something I’ve both stumbled into and been preparing for during my time organizing for immigrant rights in California. While the immigrant rights movement has been one of the most profound and meaningful spaces I’ve been a part of, I also witnessed colleagues and peers face homophobia, transphobia, and racism by institutions and even allies; systems of control, domination, and oppression can still seep into social movements. Though these dynamics are not particular to the immigrant rights movement (nor is the movement defined by these aspects), I felt demoralized, burnt out, and traumatized by dysfunctions and reinscribed power abuses. Movements can only be liberative if they have adequate systems and supports for care, restorative practices, and healing.
While in seminary, I spent my summers training in chaplaincy care. My first training was through a clinical pastoral education (CPE) framework, where I was placed at a reentry organization in Harlem, N.Y., to offer individual and group care for formerly incarcerated individuals. My second training was at a maritime ministry (a seafarers’ center) in the port of Newark, New Jersey, where I visited merchant ships crewed by individuals from various countries such as India, Croatia, the Philippines, and South Africa, among others.
The prevailing principle was that there is something ministerial or potentially healing through being in close proximity with another, especially during times of duress or isolation.
Both sites were faith-based and had diverse and male-dominant populations — the reentry site was led by predominantly Latinx, Afro-Caribbean, and Black individuals impacted by the U.S. crisis of mass incarceration, while the maritime site serviced transnational crewmembers. Despite the different contexts, structures, and leadership of the two sites, a shared ethos of a ministry of presence was prevalent in both contexts. The prevailing principle was that there is something ministerial or potentially healing through being in close proximity with another, especially during times of duress or isolation.
I found one of my main tasks as a chaplain to be that of showing up. While that sounds simple, showing up entailed shoring up different types of internal and relational resources in order to offer “a non-anxious and non-judgmental presence” (a maxim in my CPE training) for individuals and groups undergoing turmoil and trying to survive systemic barriers and traumatic experiences. For me, preparing to show up as a chaplain meant starting my days with contemplative practices, such as centering prayer or the examen, and mindfulness meditations. I needed to first acknowledge the various stirrings, concerns, and feelings within me, so that I could release or suspend them (as possible) in hopes that they would not cloud or disallow me from being fully present to the people I would meet.
Showing up meant waiting for hours in the community room at the reentry site, striking conversation with program participants during lunchtime or during endless wait times, hoping that a seemingly casual conversation could be timely for people on parole, whose lives are tethered to the demands and requirements by the state such that a person is never “free” from the system. Showing up meant making unsolicited visits to merchant vessels in port, going through the daily drill of naming the services offered by the seafarers’ center and asking how the crew members were doing, in hopes that these visits provided a new face and conversation partner for seafarers who are at sea for months and confined to the daily grind of seafaring life.
Showing up meant being present in a given space, being available even if it didn’t seem like my presence mattered. It required patience and a boldness to take up space as a guest — qualities that my upbringing and disposition would usually shy away from.
Limitations of Presence
While showing up is an exercise of faith of sorts, it is also an incredibly frustrating process. In fact, I have found the notion of “a ministry of presence” to be problematic when it cultivates a naive and overly optimistic view of care, as well as when it perpetuates the status quo. Without defining or reflecting on what kind of presence and whose presence is being offered to a particular person or group, presence is a nebulous, generalizing term used to justify a ministry, without critical and evaluative parameters for resonance of care. For example, I encountered multiple instances at the seafarers’ center where white female chaplain staff had overtly culturally insensitive interactions with non-American seafarers — the chaplain staff felt they provided an effective “mothering ministry” to seafarers who were often older and from different cultures. As there were no mechanisms to gauge the implications of the bodily (in this case patronizing) presence of white women in a multicultural, multi-class setting, the organization perceived its work to be relevant and significant.
Another danger of a simplistic focus on presence is the assumption that proximity in and of itself is an act of care.
Another danger of a simplistic focus on presence — without prophetic or resistance-oriented frameworks — is the assumption that proximity in and of itself is an act of care. At both sites, larger political and social systems that impacted the personal lives of participants were rarely mentioned. The reentry organization staff barely mentioned mass incarceration, police brutality, and the crisis our country faces in criminalizing poor people of color, while the seafarers’ center shut me down whenever I raised questions about global capitalism, workers’ rights, and the privatization and militarization of maritime security measures (an aftermath of 9/11).
As a chaplain, the organizations expected me to show up to support people in their “personal” matters, which were identified as depoliticized and divorced from structural forces. I am haunted by a study of maritime chaplaincy by Wendy Cadge and Michael Skaggs that questions whether chaplains “mostly function as a pastoral lubricant that helps keep the economic system running at the micro-level rather than as prophetic change agents whose actions lead to systemic change”. If a ministry of presence serves to “soothe” disenfranchised workers in unjust conditions, it becomes a tool of pastoral power employed by the state to exert and sustain power and control (see Michel Foucault’s “Security, Territory, Population”), in which case, the chaplain serves to uphold the powers and principalities rather than resist those forces in solidarity with the people.
Organizations expected me to show up to support people in their “personal” matters, which were identified as depoliticized and divorced from structural forces.
Moreover, when integrating an activist aim, focusing on being present without trying to address conditions and systems feels not only counterintuitive and passive, but also dangerous and evil. In “Speaking the Truth: Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology”, the late Dr. James Cone wrote that “any talk about God that fails to make God’s liberation of the oppressed its starting point is not Christian”. Accordingly, I believe that any act of spiritual care that fails to have liberation as its aim is neither restorative nor healing. My initially perceived duality of “pastoral care” and “prophetic care” is a false binary, as the two are always interconnected and simultaneously at play.
Prophetic Care and Resistance
According to Winnifred Sullivan in “A Ministry of Presence: Chaplaincy, Spiritual Care, and the Law”, presence works as “a place of resistance to instrumentalist approaches to religion and spirituality ... presence can refuse to be made part of a system — to be measured and quantified and offered as a means to an end”. I find this to be resonant as I continue to unpack and dismantle an output-oriented view on vocation, ministry, and care, which is stimulated from our capitalist and neoliberal society. The very reasons that I find presence to be frustrating at times — e.g. it feels ineffective, inefficient, slow — are crucial countermeasures to dominant (Christian) ideology that projects linear, progressive, and functional values to everything. Thus, being with people, particularly those in atomizing or isolating circumstances and systems, and offering attention and time to their emotional, material, and spiritual health, can be an anti-capitalist action.
Being with another, out of care and love in the midst of unjust conditions, is a prophetic form of care and resistance.
Jeong is a Corean concept of right-relation that encompasses compassion, affection, solidarity, and vulnerability, among others. According to theologian Anne Joh in “Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology”, Jesus lived a life of jeong in his healing ministry and fellowship, and a salvation based on the relational power of jeong can reclaim the cross as a liberative site of compassion, connectedness, and emancipatory praxis. My experience of the sacred has been through jeong, an ineffable yet visceral beingness of connection. Manifested in the dailiness, or what Ada Isasi-Diaz calls lo cotidiano (the everydayness of life), cultivating jeong requires awareness and presence in the present moment. I enact jeong as a way of life that recognizes interdependence, the realities of conditions, and the commitment to be with others and to resist oppressive forces for mutual liberation. For me, being with another, out of care and love in the midst of unjust conditions, is a prophetic form of care and resistance.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes in “Peace is Every Step” that “the practice of the Eucharist is a practice of awareness ... Practicing mindfulness enables us to become a real person. When we are a real person, we see real people around us, and life is present in all its richness.” This encapsulates for me the healing power and potential of presence. For what is the Eucharist if not the being with fellow travelers, breaking bread, and offering presence to one another to nourish stomachs and spirits? Presence is the practice of awareness. Recognition and seeing the realities of another are what my grandmother taught me during our neighborhood squats. Her presence evoked what Ruth King calls in “Mindful of Race: Transforming Racism from the Inside Out”, “moments of unconditioned love and spacious awareness”. My grandmother’s presence, an embodiment of the love-ethic of jeong, informs and guides my aim of spiritual care as a site for healing, liberation, and social change.
Kristine Chong (she/her/hers) is the online editor for Inheritance and recent graduate of Union Theological Seminary. She is currently training to be a chaplain, with an aim of integrating liberation, postcolonial, and feminist theologies and social ethics within spiritual care.