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Editor’s Note: As part of our “Comfort and Joy” Advent/Christmas blog series, Communications Associate Maria Beben shares some of her experiences from her time volunteering at a nursing home in Washington, DC. 

My year as a communications associate with Franciscan Mission Service (FMS) includes a weekly volunteer component of direct service. As someone who experiences anxiety trying to choose between gum flavors at the grocery store, I thought I’d have a really hard time picking the right service site. To my surprise, I felt immediately pulled towards Little Sisters of the Poor, a nursing home near the FMS office.

However, after the first few weeks of helping the residents with arts and crafts activities, I thought I’d made a mistake. Since I didn’t know the residents well, I could only make small talk, and this made for a lot of awkward pauses and uncomfortable silences. I felt awkward and in the way. I didn’t feel like I was making a difference at all. And the longer this went on, the more seriously I considered trying to find another service site.

Beautiful fall foliage on the property at Little Sisters of the Poor

Fall foliage on the property at Little Sisters of the Poor

Until I met John.

John is one of the few men who comes to arts and crafts—and he did not seem to enjoy it. While a lot of the residents seem to have their “person” and come in pairs, John always comes by himself. He sits by himself. He leaves by himself. He mutters to himself a lot. To put it frankly, he embodies the grumpy old man stereotype.

I wanted to talk to him, but I didn’t know what to say.

One day, the residents were rolling and cutting dough to make Christmas ornaments. Since John sometimes has trouble with motor functions, the sister in charge suggested I help him.

At first, other than asking him which cookie cutter he wanted to use, we didn’t talk much. However, the longer I sat there, the more he talked, offering story after story—sometimes the same story multiple times—without segues or context. He talked and I listened, and in the occasional silences, we comfortably kept each other company.

The more John talked, I noticed a pattern to his stories—one of loss. I pieced together that he’d never married and most of the people who he knew growing up had since died. With this understanding of his loneliness, his apparent grumpiness was justified, and I felt compassion.

At one point, John’s face broke into a giant smile and he started laughing, remembering a funny scene from a show he was telling me about. Out of everything, that smile touched my heart the most.

In that moment of witnessing his previously unseen joy, I also experienced a joy that hadn’t been there before. On the outside it may have looked like I was there for John, but really, whatever comfort I gave him in being present, he gave right back to me. In that short time I spent with him that day, I felt freer than I had in a long time. I felt renewed and affirmed in my decision to choose Little Sisters as my service site.

As John and I sat there and made ornament after ornament, the other residents started leaving. Finally, it was just me and John sitting at the table chatting, the ornaments lying forgotten on the table. For a few minutes I started thinking of how to make a graceful exit so I could go back to work. But as I was thinking about this I realized I was exactly where I needed to be.

Through ministry of presence, I found a comfort that I hadn’t known before. And this newfound comfort has brought me so much joy.

Question for reflection: Do you feel called to something but are hesitant to commit because of uncertainty or fear? Remember, it is often the experiences which lie outside our comfort zones that end up being the most impactive. 

Featured image: adaptation of photo from Wikimedia Commons – labeled for reuse

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