(From the October 13, 2011 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)
Earlier this fall a retired campus minister told me that, in looking back on his long career of working with the campus community, the most important thing he ever did was simply to “be available.”
However, as is often the case with wise people of faith, what seems simple can actually be profound. Maybe it was coincidental, or maybe it was a case of having that conversation on my mind, but my wife and I recently experienced the realities of ‘being available’ in multiple ways. Being available has had us involved with neighbors, co-workers and total strangers. We have interacted with people from the Tri-Cities and West Michigan to Temecula, California and Vestavia Hills, Alabama. We’ve even encountered people from locations as exotic as India and Kalamazoo. They have ranged in age from toddlers to senior citizens.
Near the end of the summer, we were available for some long-time neighbors and good friends who were in the final preparations for a move to Temecula, California. We spent a good part of the day with their young daughters, Marian and Carol, while their parents and brothers finished packing. They played with our cats, and we played with them. We fed them lunch. And we talked more in a few hours than we had in years. It was sad to see them move across the country after we felt like a friendship had been tightened. We already miss talking with them, and hearing Carol “cheer” for us as we are going for a run.
Another neighbor recently returned for a visit from Vestavia Hills, Alabama. She had moved there several years ago after her friend she was caring for in our neighborhood died. We were available for her back then, as my wife took our snow blower to clear the driveway for her. She said thank you in her sweet Alabama accent. We were hooked. We were available to her in many ways after that, listening to her struggles in dealing with the passing of a friend. We chatted at our houses and went out to dinner. I joked I would buy the Rosetta Stone for “southern” so we could communicate even better. When she returned recently and we learned she had never been to Mackinac Island in her 70-plus years, we got an extra room at a hotel and took her with us for our annual trip there.
We’ve also been available to co-workers and old college friends. We know two couples going through a divorce. We’ve had several meals with one to listen and encourage her. Another friend from Virginia stayed with us for a few days this past summer, a time during which we did a lot of listening.
Another co-worker of mine was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s not in a job description to hug a crying co-worker, but it happened. My wife, a medical social worker, was helpful in being available with information and encouragement. Another co-worker suffered the sudden death of her brother, in India. This is her second brother to die in a few years, and she had to travel there unexpectedly to deal with this situation and return with her father who has no one there anymore to care for him.
We were also available to a complete stranger. We were talking with a clerk we know in Barnes and Noble when a young woman with two young children came in and approached us. We paused to let the clerk answer her question. But it was not about books—she asked if there were any shelters in the area. This perked us up. Again, my wife the social worker went to work with active listening to learn the details of the situation and try to direct her to resources. It turned out she was from Kalamazoo, and her father in Muskegon had a heart attack. But by the time she got to Muskegon he had been moved to a hospital in Grand Rapids. She had little money for a hotel and no gas to get to Grand Rapids. Shelters in Muskegon and north Ottawa were full. In the end there was a shelter in Grand Rapids near the hospital with room for her, so we bought her gas, gave her a hug and our encouragement, and led her to find the way to Grand Rapids.
Being available seems simple because we can’t really do anything to heal or fix situations of the people we meet. Just being available means listening, or doing small things. But that has turned out to be profound. Being available isn’t just about helping others. It’s about being open to new relationships, or deeper connections with people you already know. That’s the part that has been profound, because even in difficult situations we have felt enriched by the fact that these other people were ‘available’ to us. As the Bible notes in the Book of Acts: “it is more blessed to give than to receive.”