When we first came to Colfax, people asked, “What are you going to do?” With needs galore, people wondered about our focus. I said, “I don’t know. Jesus sent us here and we are trying to acclimate.” Folks seemed ok with that.As Jesus’ call became clear—go be pastors to motel-dwellers and street people—the question came again, more insistent. If that is your flock, “What are you going to do?” Their real question was “What kind of a program are you going to run?” Your flock has needs—work, housing, mental health, addiction, prostitution. Which will you tackle? What program will you build to make a dent? Define the problem, build the program, run the program, see results. That was the message.

Again I said, “I don’t know.” But now I felt tentative, even insecure. Surely, to make a difference we needed a focused program. If we aren’t fixing something, why be here?Worse, that question was asked by veterans of urban ministry, people smarter and more experienced than me. Several pointed out that without measurable programs, foundations would never give us money. They care about results.It was intimidating.  Yet something seemed off, like we were missing the point. I wasn’t opposed to programs, but nothing I envisioned seemed to fit what we were seeing—motels filled with poor, semi-homeless people, with so many problems it was hard to know where to start. I was bewildered.

At that same time, Jesus was moving deeply in my heart. I met many people, standing at motel doors, walking Colfax. Nearly all genuinely poor and deeply broken. I looked into their eyes, learned their names, heard their stories. Jesus helped me see beyond battered exteriors and endless problems to see them simply as people, each beautiful, each created in God’s image. Not problems to be fixed, but people to be loved.The question, “what are you going to do?” hung in my soul, alongside the faces of people I was coming to love. Bewildered, I prayed: “What are we supposed to do?” Jesus answered quickly, before I finished my question, like He was waiting for me to ask. In my heart I heard, “Show up. Love people.” Say what? No plan to fix things? No program for others to emulate, no splashy but measurable work that looks good on grant proposals? Nothing? Surely, Jesus, you jest!“Show up. Love people. Show up. Love people.” Persistent, relentless, thunderous, the voice of Jesus. No wavering, no dialogue, no checking in with me to see what I wanted or thought.  Just this: “Do as I say. Show up. Love people.”

So we did. We showed up and we loved our people, this odd, broken and beautiful flock that Jesus was increasingly entrusting to our care. Oh, we came with a bit of food—burritos, fresh-baked cookies, bananas—but that wasn’t aimed at solving hunger. It was a door opener and conversation starter. We learned what it was like to feel helpless, even stupid, standing at a motel door asking if we could bless them with a bit of food and maybe a prayer. As they let us, we would talk, ask about their life, love them in that moment. Then come back the next week, the same doors, the same people, showing up again, learning more, loving more deeply. Beauty descended.

We discovered that what folks most needed was a friend. Someone who would learn their name and story, someone who would laugh and cry with them, someone who saw them as valuable, willing to both receive and give. They needed someone to show up and love them! How like God. Only when we showed up and loved people did He reveal to us that their deepest need was for someone to show up and love them. Duh! Not their only need. True. But their deepest one. On Colfax, loneliness rules; many live in isolation, nearly friendless. Diane and I and our team quickly became the best and often only friends of people.A light dawned. We were doing a ministry needed in a way that a thousand programs would never touch. We were treating people like people, moving into their circle of life, letting them move into ours.Programs are needed; we may even build some. We send people to programs often, partnering with others who also serve.  But mostly, we just show up and love people.

Some call this “Ministry of Presence,” the idea that our presence is our real ministry. I like that. Show up. Be present. Love. Minister. Pray. Hang out. Wash, rinse, repeat.Hmm…now that I think of it, it seems to me that Jesus pretty much operated the same way. Show up. Love people. Do you think He might want us all to do the same?