This piece was originally published on BeliefNet.
Being present after a tragedy will show those around you how much you care.
"I want to help, but I'm not sure what to say..."
"I want to help, but I don't know how to help..."
"I want to help, but I don't have anything to offer..."
Can you relate to any of these statements since your first learned of the Orlando mass shooting? If you answered "yes," know that you aren't alone. Most people want to help but don't know how. Or, maybe you have found yourself feeling overwhelmed and relying on spiritual platitudes. Rather than focus on what you’ll say or do – focus on being. The most important thing you can do to help after the Orlando mass shooting is to embody the ministry of presence. Practicing the ministry of presence means being available to those that are hurting and suffering. It means being there for others physical, emotionally, and spiritually. Simply put, it means being there for others when they need you most.
Become an Ambassador for Grace and Mercy
Practicing the ministry of presence makes you an ambassador for God’s grace and mercy to a hurting world. It means you come along side others and journey with them through the pain. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). Sometimes people feel like they need to have all the “right” answers before they can help. This simply isn’t true. People that are hurting need your relationship way more than they need your words. It comes down to sitting with others in their time of struggle. Key ministry of presence characteristics includes tasks like putting the needs of the other person first and conveying hope in difficult times.
Listen with Acceptance
To truly listen to someone else’s story is a lot harder than it sounds. However, to really be open and to receive another person’s story can be challenging, especially when you’re listening about a tragedy. “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Proverbs 18:2). Here are some tips on how to listen in a way that demonstrates the ministry of presence.
Listen without judging what the other person may be feeling or thinking. Don’t try arguing or debating the person’s experience you are helping. Avoid platitudes, especially spiritual hallow sayings. Show patience and let the persons share their story in their own time. Be humble, set your opinions on the shelf, and try and see things from the perspective of the person you are helping.
Be Present in Your Helping
Focus on being in the here and now. “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Don’t worry about what you’ll say or ask next. Turn “off” that part of your brain that’s paying more attention to what you are thinking than to what is being said. Be authentic and genuine. Show warmth and concern. Know it’s okay if you cry with the other person. Allow yourself to express your emotions. These steps will let the person you are helping know that you hear and grasp the gravity of what they’ve been through. The person you are helping is way more likely to remember your presence long after any words you might have shared.
One cavet, part of being present also means knowing when, where, and how to refer others for professional services. Examples of when you might want to refer include observing signs of threat to self or others. If you aren’t sure, the safe bet is to always refer. Check out other referral guidelines at apa.org or counseling.org.
Give the Gift of Connection
Remind the person you are helping that they are not alone. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). Picking up the pieces of one’s life after a mass shooting can feel lonely. Disaster survivors often feel unsafe and forgotten. Right after a large mass trauma the spotlight shines bright on the disaster. After a few weeks or months the spotlight starts to go away. The media often leave as quickly as they arrive. Yet, the pain for those affected lingers long after the lights and cameras fade. Don’t just try to express connection through your words. Instead foster connection through your actions. Commit for the long haul in your helping.
Pray for the Person You are Helping
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray…”(James 5:13). Don’t force prayer on the person you are helping. Rather, start by praying silently. Pray silently for God’s guidance over the situation, that you’d be guided in your thoughts and actions. You can also pray that God would bring relief, hope, and healing for the other person and for all affected by the tragic event. Without pressuring the other person, you might also ask them if they would like you to pray for them. If they say yes, pray what comes naturally and from your heart. It’s okay if you muddle your way through your prayer. God will still listen. Don’t be tempted to turn your prayer into some mini sermon. If the person declines, don’t force it or push it, respect their wishes.
Ministry of Presence
Supporting a loved one as a friend after the Orlando mass shooting doesn’t require a doctorate or even years of training. All that it requires of you is you. Ultimately, one of the best ways you can help as a person of faith is through the ministry of presence. By putting these tips on the ministry of presence into practice you can help make a real difference in the lives of others.
Dr. Jamie D. Aten is the founder and co-director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, in Illinois. He is also the co-author of the new “Disaster Ministry Handbook.” Follow him on Twitter @drjamieaten and jamieaten.com.