Evangelism can come in many different forms. There’s a tendency to assume evangelism is ultimately about words that we say. But whilst words can be very important, we shouldn’t forget about other forms or models of evangelism – for example, the evangelism of presence.
As part of my ministerial formation, I spent 6 months working as a student chaplain at Westmead Hospital. On the first weekend I was the designated chaplain on call, I was called in to visit a man named, John, who was nearing the end of his life, and I was told that he was struggling with his impending death. So, on a Friday night, I went to the hospital to visit John.
One of the things that we are taught in our Clinical Pastoral Education course is to let the patient do the talking, so after I entered the room and introduced myself to John, and his partner Gino, a Filipino man, I sat down and waited to hear what he wanted to talk about. And waited. And waited. And waited. Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and asked John “Is there anything you wanted to talk about?” He considered the question for a moment, and then he said simply “Not right now – I will let you know though.” So I returned to my waiting. I spent about 90 mins sitting with John before it was clear that he was falling asleep, at which point I said my goodbyes and left.
My initial impression of this encounter could be summed up as – “… well, that was weird”. I didn’t think much more of it until a bit over a week later when I received a call from the Uniting Church chaplain at Westmead Hospital. John had passed away exactly a week after I had sat with him. What came next was a huge shock, because the family of the man had requested that I take the funeral. So that’s the story of how I came to conduct my first funeral. I have spent much time dealing with the question “Why me? What did I do?”
What I have grown to understand is that at that time, in that moment, John didn’t need words, he didn’t need conversation, he didn’t need a sermon or altar call. He needed acceptance. John came from a Catholic background, but, in the sad reality that has hurt so many, had been shunned by the Church because of his sexuality. But by my simply spending time with him, I had accepted him for who he was. I wasn’t there to decide if he was good or bad, right or wrong, saved or damned, but simply to recognise that lying there in a hospital bed was a beloved child of God. Sometimes the way to show the love of God through Jesus Christ is just to be with people as they are.
When I told this story to my college tutor, he remarked “You probably just preached the best sermon you ever had, and you did it without words.”
Rev. Adrian Sukumar-White